on learning to knit a new public discourse

Yesterday I attended two of the three talks hosted by Bella Caledonia, Scottish PEN and the Saltire Society, as part of their event A Public Press: Reclaiming the Media. The line-up included: Power and Print. Misrepresenting Women in the Media, Onslaught and Fightback with Margie Orford (President of PEN South Africa, Patron of Rape Crisis & the Little Hands Trust) and Caroline Criado Perez (freelance journalist, broadcaster, feminist campaigner and Co-founder of The Women’s Room) and New Democracy New Media? with Mike Small (Bella Caledonia,) Lesley Riddoch (author, broadcaster, podcaster,) Peter Geoghegan (freelance journalist,) Robin McAlpine (Commonweal,) and Michael Greenwell (Scottish Independence Podcast.)

I brought along my new project: knitting. I taught myself to knit a mere 3 days ago. I know only one stitch (which I’ve dropped frequently) and the result is a slightly mangled but still coherent stretch of what will eventually become a ratty-looking, mustard-coloured scarf. But it will be my ratty-looking, mustard-coloured scarf – and to me it will be an emblem of our infinite capacity to learn. I’m not being facetious: this is what it will mean to me, and serve to remind me. We all have the lifelong ability to learn new skills, new mindsets, new behaviours and new dynamics of relating with others.

I brought along my project and discovered how soothing it is to knit while listening to people speaking at events of this kind. Both talks were disturbing in their own ways. In Power and Print, we learned of how viciously women can be treated when they exercise a public voice. Nasty, graphic rape and death threats, for daring to expose the systems of discrimination that silence and demean women, for daring to express ideas which challenge the status quo – really, for daring to demonstrate that they have minds and views of their own.

Then in New Democracy New Media? we learned about the aspirations for a publicly-owned press in Scotland. The aspiration goes far beyond the Scottish Government’s plans for a Scottish version of the BBC (which is essentially an instrument of the state) and looks instead to a cooperatively-owned public service with a staff of journalists covering public policy. The purpose of professional journalism, Robin McAlpine reminded us, is to scrutinise power and hold check over it. (Is it?? I’m reminded of Andrew Marr’s interview with Noam Chomsky, well worth watching, in which the patient Chomsky explains the thesis of Manufacturing Consent to a bewildered Marr, and gives multiple examples of how the propoganda model operates in the modern press.) It was a great talk, about an important subject – yet as ever, the goodwill was hamstrung by habit: an all-white panel of four men and one woman, and a discussion with primarily men speaking. Lesley Riddoch was acknowledged as the sole female on the panel, and accorded respect for her right to “rant” about gender imbalance. The guys on the panel were all good men, radical thinkers, and I doubt they would any of them deliberately discriminate against anyone. But the habitual paradigm was there, and it was easy to dismiss and accept as ‘just the way it is’. So who exactly will be the voice of this publicly-owned cooperative press? How are we going to change the paradigm?

At the end of the talk, I fell to chatting with a young man who studied journalism and works as a freelancer. He is at the start of his career, still full of idealism and hope that his future work will help to change the world for the better. He’s only 24 but he’s already worried by the spectre of compromise he must face, ‘in order to survive.’ This is, ironically, precisely the point made by Caroline and Margie in the first talk. Challenging the status quo is dangerous work. You can only go so far before it’s too far, and then the backlash will kick in from all those who are afraid of change. For this young man, the backlash would entail a stalled career as a journalist, leaving him unable to practice the profession for which he trained. For Caroline and Margie, the backlash entails rape and death threats.

Caroline’s voice and hands shook as she described the fear and anxiety produced by the onslaught of violent verbal retribution she received for daring to campaign for women’s greater representation in public life. She admitted that she has recently declined invitations to appear on television, unable to currently muster the stamina to endure the reprisals she knows will follow. She conceded, quite frankly and openly, to being silenced in this regard, and wondered how many men find they must choose their personal safety and mental wellbeing over the opportunity to participate in a publicly-broadcast discussion.

I sympathise enormously with Caroline. My voice and hands shake too, whenever I speak up in public space – particularly when I am presenting a perspective which challenges the received wisdom of those to whom I speak. I’ve also been on the receiving end of challenge (almost constantly these days by my teenaged daughter!) and I understand the defense mechanism that kicks in, the mental and emotional resistance I feel toward the demand to reconsider my position on whatever issue is at stake. What I’ve learned through experience is that if I accept the emotional charge as inevitable and legitimate, and then allow myself the time and space to take on the new information, together this then leads to internal change. The challenge and the resistance and the fallout and the resulting adjustments all contribute to learning and growing.

I’ve written recently about creating a holding space. We need a space where we might express the anxiety and fear and stress and frustration and anger we all (men and women both) feel at the injustices we suffer in our patriarchal society, where this can be acknowledged and allowed without being shut down, or denied, or silenced by ourselves or by others. When forbidden and denied, these ugly and negative aspects of our experience fester deep inside and exacerbate ill will. We need a space where we can explore our unique and diverse perspectives – all of us – without blame or shame. I’m not sure what I mean by space…. help me out here.

Perhaps we could knit a holding space within our mutual discourse. Stitch by stitch, choice by choice, in the public press and in personal conversations and in online discussions and in workplace meetings and in queues at the shops.

That’s what I mean when I call my scarf an emblem of our capacity to learn. It’s full of mistakes, my scarf: gaps of dropped stitch and wonky edges where I’ve somehow created shorter and longer rows; but all the same, it is holding together, and the mistakes are fewer and further between the longer I work at it. A compassionate public discourse can be created the same way.

At the event yesterday evening, the woman beside me admired my knitting. I responded with a self-deprecating response that rolled off my tongue without thinking: “I don’t really know what I’m doing.” She replied instantly: “Yes, you do!!” And she’s right.

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