Democracy Café: March 2022

Just over 20 people attended the café in Brown Street with a handful on line via Zoom. Better microphoning improved matters but there were still a few technical hitches. The meeting took place about two weeks after the Russian invasion of Ukraine and this issue popped up several times during our debate.

The first topic was about gender balance and should there be more balance in our national institutions? A common theme emerged in the discussion was that of culture. For example, the first point to be made is that two of our cabinet ministers at present are Priti Patel and Liz Truss, neither of who inspire much in the way of confidence. Indeed, Patel is under fire at present because of her dilatory approach to Ukrainian refugees, few of whom are able to make it to the UK. Do we want more women like this? The riposte was immediate: we are quick to criticise poorly performing female cabinet ministers but what about failing or inadequate male cabinet ministers? One thinks of the dismal performance of the past education secretary who has recently been knighted and what about ‘failing Grayling?’ Secondly, who appointed them but, a man, namely Boris Johnson. The culture point however was that men created a system which leads to people like Truss and Patel. This was not developed but it was implied that women who succeed in these roles have to assume male characteristics and behaviours to do so. The overall (poor) quality of our politicians was noted.

It was argued that one of the key differences was the differing life experiences between men and women. It meant those in power – predominantly men – simply do not have the experience or personal knowledge of what it is like to be female in our male dominated society. Issues of safety in our streets, being out at night, the attitudes of police towards women and so forth were unknown to them. It applied to those with disabilities and people of colour it was noted. However, what about Margaret Thatcher? When she was made prime minister, it was widely thought she would bring a female perspective to the role but the opposite was the case. No woman was appointed to her cabinet and she took little interest in social issues although she never quite said ‘there is no such thing as society’. The issue of better involvement and decision making was part of SDA’s desire to have a Citizen’s Assembly in Salisbury and the Maltings development, Fisherton Street and the Library were cases in point.

Back to Priti Patel and co, the point was made that women had to work a lot harder to get anywhere. The discussion moved onto women’s role in childcare which was generally different although the point was made that more men were giving up careers if their wives or partners were doing well. It meant that when they (women) re-entered the workforce after their children had grown up they had had less experience of outside activities (and thus were disadvantaged I think was the point). The need for more, and more affordable, childcare was emphasised the absence of which was a real impediment to women (mostly) being able to integrate into the workforce.

Someone with a background in education said that men were largely missing from primary school teaching. This led onto a discussion about women being more about nurturing, but, it was counter argued, wasn’t this more about culture than some intrinsic gender difference? It was assumed to be so therefore it came to be. The younger generation have different attitudes and are generally more flexible about these supposed roles. Another view was that it all went back to hunter-gatherer days when men were the ‘protectors’ and although it wasn’t quite clear protection from what: one assumes it was wild beasts. Some women might feel that now wolves and bears have gone it’s men they need protecting from …

Baboon behaviour was put forward to challenge our views of gender stereotypes. Apparently, male baboons establish positions around the outside of the flange whereas the females cluster in the centre. But, when real danger appears, the male baboons run away whereas the females fight to the death. As if by chance, a new book has just been published entitled: Bitch: A Revolutionary Guide to Sex, Evolution and the Female Animal by Lucy Cooke published by Doubleday. The Guardian review ended by quoting the author saying ‘Much of the distorted science [we] have been taught was shaped by the values of a certain kind of man. To change that … we need more diverse scientists: “a mixture of sexes, sexualities, genders, skin colours, classes, cultures, abilities and ages”. ‘Only then, it seems, will we be able to see the female experience in nature for what it is: “variable, highly plastic”, and “refusing to conform to archaic classifications”. Issue 24, 12 March 2022.

There were many during the course of the discussion who doubted whether there were great differences between males and females. A lot of it was a kind of cultural overlay: women’s roles were set out for them, how they should behave, what they should wear and what they should do: ‘a woman’s place is in the home’ for example. Women then had to conform to these norms and stereotypes which had then become self-fulfilling. Women should stay at home and look after the children which meant that they were suited to nurturing: basically a circular argument. Meanwhile men were off fighting those pesky wolves and bears. I hope this is a fair summary of what people felt.

Part two was a discussion around Ukraine and the effects on nationalism. Parallels with the World Wars was obvious. Powerful anti-German feelings were evident in both wars with German homes and businesses attacked as if all Germans were complicit. It was noted that all Germans (in Germany) had to tread carefully once the Nazis came to power – it was more or less obligatory to join the Hitler Youth for example.

It did seem though that so far at least, people were distinguishing between ordinary Russians and President Putin. Russians were not all being tarred with the same brush. The attacks on Germans during the wars was not being repeated. It was recognised that Russians were largely being kept in the dark because of the tight media and internet control exercised by the regime. The wildly improbable narrative that Ukraine is being led by a Nazi regime was nevertheless believed by many Russians apparently.

The interesting point was made that sanctions will be hurting ordinary Russians whereas the effects on the elite will not occur for some time.

Back to the question: isn’t the Ukraine war making us more international in our outlook? It had stiffened NATO, Finland and Sweden were both considering joining and the UK was aligning itself closely with Europe. Whatever happened to Brexit?

The point was powerfully made about what exactly is a ‘Nation’? Just considering that part of the world, borders have changed over the past 100 years. Poland has moved east and then west, the Austro-Hungarian Empire had gone altogether and whatever happened to Prussia? Czechoslovakia had been created and was no more. Millions lived in countries who spoke languages other than the national language: Polish was spoken in west Ukraine for example. The idea of a nation as some kind of fixed immutable entity was a nonsense. They were like lines drawn on a beach, when the tide of history came in, they were no more.

It was noted that Russia had never (in recent times) been successfully invaded although they had suffered terrible privations, as in the siege of Leningrad. Ukraine on the other hand, still had memories of the German invasion. Ukraine also suffered a terrible famine purposely engineered by Stalin. Russia also think it was they who won the second World War which they call the great patriotic war. Someone said we need to do more to understand Putin’s standpoint.

The discussion moved onto refugees which in an eerie way took us back to Priti Patel. Other European nations were welcoming refugees with open arms whereas the UK is … not. There were some who doubted whether they were still proud to be British. Even the Daily Mail is criticising the government although we do have to note that the paper has spent years and thousands of column inches reviling refugees and immigrants.

A three stage response was suggested 1. fight or flight 2. us and them and 3. thinking about ethical values.

Finally, and certainly hopefully, was the question, are young people less nationalistic? The answer seemed to be an emphatic ‘yes’ and instances were quoted of various offspring who had married people from other countries and that this was not seen as exceptional.

Two interesting discussions and a recurrent theme was the differing attitudes between the generations which should give us hope for the future.

Peter Curbishley