On a Short Fuse

I am frequently astonished by the chutzpah some people possess: the willingness brazenly to ask someone else essentially to do their own work so that they, the asker, can make cash. An email that smacked of this landed in my inbox recently. It told me that the sender, DH, was ‘a writer (self-development + business) and contents planner’. He was intending to write a book

‘aiming to collect and provide wisdom, motivation and inspiration for readers, giving them an opportunity to reflect on their lives. It would be my honor to have you in my book.’

But by inclusion in his book what he actually meant was something along the lines of

‘please will you write a chapter for me, and if I can get enough egotistical folk to want to be incorporated in a book in this way then I can write an introduction and a conclusion, palm it off on a publisher and raise some cash.’

Vanity publishing indeed. I was not tempted. Indeed it just made me angry that someone thinks this is a respectable way to make a living. Since the guy told me he had already published 10 books – in South Korea – I assume it works.

It is perhaps the case that I am on a short fuse at the moment. I realised this when, a day or two later I had an altercation with a taxi driver. I had cycled back to my home – the Master’s Lodge at Churchill College – sadly pondering on the shocking way the trolls were after my friend and colleague Mary Beard again. Trying to stick up for some academic rigour she has been attacked by a posse of internet trolls for holding firm to the idea – and giving chapter and verse of evidence – that there were men of colour in Roman Britain.

Whilst constantly challenging Mary to produce her credentials they, the opposition, seem content to argue along the lines of, fairly literally, ‘my citation count is bigger than yours’, as if citations proved much. Or that remark didn’t smack of the school playground bully. As scientists know only too well, you can get plenty of citations for being wrong. Being wrong, is after all, sometimes more interesting than being right. But it doesn’t mean that you’re either an expert or correct after all. I’m not going to jab my finger at the twitterstorm’s main protagonist Nicholas Taleb. I admit I’d never heard of him before though I was vaguely aware of his best-selling book Black Swan. Interesting topic, made a great deal of; academic worth – no idea personally. I’m not interested in his citation count. I am interested in, or rather I am utterly appalled by, his ability to be totally vicious and simultaneously vacuous within 140 characters on Twitter. I am concerned by why he thinks this is the mark of a good academic. Why he thinks it advances the debate on whether or not the Roman army was anything other than pure white. Mary on her own blog has provided some concrete evidence, but I haven’t seen a sensible response from her detractors. But then I might have missed something.

It makes me very angry to watch her being attacked by many – although supported I suspect by many more – in ways that seem quite gratuitously unpleasant and misogynistic. No one calls a man an old bat, or tw@ or much much worse; the insults all seemed strongly gendered. So, having been pondering over the wanton insults and name-calling, I probably wasn’t at my best when I got back to Churchill that day. Finding a taxi outside my home, knowing that it was not for me or for my husband, knowing that frequently the taxi companies get confused between the Master’s Lodge (where only my husband and I live) and the Porter’s Lodge, which is essentially the College’s Reception and where students will expect to wait for taxis, I asked him who he was waiting for. His screen showed clearly that he had been sent to the Master’s Lodge but for a person whose name was completely unfamiliar to me so I knew he had been sent to the wrong place.

I tried to explain that to him, explained I was the Master and I certainly hadn’t ordered that taxi. At which point he got shirty – although why he thought it was unhelpful of me to point him in the direction of where he’d find his customer I don’t know. His angry sentence ended up with the word ‘darling’. Red rag to a bull, I’m afraid. On that particular day, having been pondering Mary’s plight, I threw back at him (not politely I admit) ‘don’t call me darling’. Things escalated from there with choice phrases from him along the lines of ‘you’re certainly not my darling’ (so why did he call me one in the first place?) and further abuse. It ended up with another shout of ‘darling’ as he drove off. I have complained to his employer.

It is utterly trivial yet also symptomatic of the way some men seem to think there is no need to treat women with respect. Darling in itself is merely demeaning. It’s not threatening so perhaps I shouldn’t care. But if he treats me like that, how might he treat a young female student who flagged his taxi down late at night? What respect does he show others? Tolerating such contempt strikes me as too close to giving him permission to attack the more vulnerable to a greater degree than his mere inappropriate language to me. (Was I supposed to be flattered to be called darling in the first place? What does go through their heads when they say things like that?)

It’s the second trivial incident recently that has got me fired up. The first was once more over Twitter in the wake of the BBC gender pay gap revelations. Philip Hampton, as some people may recall, appeared to blame the women for their lower pay because they ‘never asked’ for a rise. I tweeted ‘Philip Hampton clearly doesn’t understand you need to fix the system not the women’ linking to this story. Some smart guy responded

‘Sir Philip Hampton to you my dear’

Like Mary I attempted to be polite in my fury saying

‘As a Dame myself I think I can skip the formality but you might want to reconsider calling me ‘dear’’.

To which this joker simply replied ‘no’. Clearly, a woman with an Honour is not worthy of being treated with respect although he expects that same woman to bow and scrape about others’ knighthoods. I couldn’t care less about people using my title, I’d far rather be introduced as Professor than Dame. But I do hate being called ‘dear’, ‘darling’ or other random if meaningless terms of endearment by total strangers. Maybe I should have called this twitter joker ‘laddie’ and seen how he liked it, or the taxi driver ‘boyo’ or ‘sunshine’ –  but one never thinks of such responses in time. I must find some suitable terms to have to hand the next time some idiot tries this on me again.

Any suggestions of choice phrases?





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10 Responses to On a Short Fuse

  1. Eli Rabett says:

    Taxidriver works

  2. Gordon says:

    I think the problem is that effective phrases are generally derogatory about some aspect of someone’s make up, and I suspect you would feel demeaned to use them:

    * Thicko
    * Little man
    * Racist descriptor

  3. Alice Bondi says:

    Excellent piece. The ridiculous levels of contempt manifested by some men towards women would be laughable if not so utterly infuriating, intractable, impossible to counter. When no rational debate is possible, it’s hard to go anywhere but rage.

  4. I think “Honeylamb” would be a nice warm endearment for them.

  5. Paul Matthews says:

    You have indeed missed something. The issue was not whether “there were men of colour in Roman Britain.”

    The original complaint was that the BBC showed a family with a black father and a white mother and claimed that this was a “typical family”. Mary Beard set up a straw man to attack, and you are doing the same here.

    Please try to lengthen your fuse!

  6. Jane Bernal says:

    Down here in Cornwall people say, “my ansum” (handsome) or “my lover”, the second of which can be addressed to total strangers of any gender, a bit like “mate”. The terms are often used to be friendly rather than to demean, but can sometimes be intentionally hostile. A patients mother once said to me, “Oh no my darling, you’ve got it all wrong. Dr X never used to do that, my lover.” Most of the Engish male terms I could think of feel so insulting and dated that one could not use them, “My good man/chap” , “Dear boy”, “Young man” .

  7. Helen Czerski says:

    Explain politely that you’d mistaken them for an adult, and apologise for not having any sweeties to give them to put in their toy truck.

  8. Richard Powell says:

    “Laddie” is spot on.

  9. Laurence Cox says:

    If you want a put-down for the Nicholas Talebs of this world, I can think of nothing better than what Richard Dawkins wrote in the endnotes to “The Selfish Gene” (in my 30th Anniversary edition it is at the top of page 278). It reads:

    “Publishers should correct the misapprehension that a scholar’s distinction in one field implies authority in another. And as long as that misapprehension exists, distinguished scholars should resist the temptation to abuse it.”

    Here he was criticising Hoyle & Wickramamsinghe for misrepresenting Darwinism, but it has a much wider relevance.

  10. Catherine Tilley says:

    A colleague once addressed me as ‘Darling’. I ignored it.
    He did it again. I ignored it.
    He did it a third time. I called him ‘Grandad’.
    He didn’t do it again.

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