Helen Lewis: Why I'm getting less liberal about sex work
The journalist and author talks about how she came to question her previous beliefs in the latest episode of Changed My Mind.
Helen Lewis, a journalist at The Atlantic and author of 'Difficult Women: the History of Feminism in 11 Fights' talks about how she came to question her previous liberal beliefs on sex work. She also remembers a former Labour MP who cried after receiving an apology for being deselected when she came out in the 1970s, the limits of unconscious bias training and more.
Changed My Mind is a podcast from The Depolarization Project. Each week, we talk to someone who has undergone a serious shift of opinion about something that matters deeply to them. It's hosted by chief executive Ali Goldsworthy together with behavioural insight expert Alex Chesterfield and director of campaigns and communications at London First, Laura Osborne.
'Designing a Bias-Free Organization' by Gardiner Morse (first line: "Iris Bohnet thinks firms are wasting their money on diversity training.")
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Helen [00:00:00] In my 20s, my position was the kind of default liberal position, which is other people's sex lives are their own business. The way other people spend their money is their own business. Prostitution should be legal. And it shouldn't be something in which the state has a role at all. And actually, as I've kind of got older, I worked for a while as the chair of the Violence Against Women Charity, which dealt with a lot of what they would have referred to as women exploited into prostitution, particularly from Eastern Europe. But I've also become less liberal and more, I guess, socialist.
Ali [00:00:33] Welcome to Change My Mind. The podcast where we ask leaders what they've changed their mind on and why. I'm Ali Goldsworthy. Chief Executive of the Depolarization Project. You've just heard from our guest today, Helen Lewis, an author and journalist at The Atlantic. She'll be talking to us about how it is essential we discuss difficult parts of people's history and why she's changed her mind about the legalization of prostitution.
[00:00:59] But before we get to that, I'd like to invite you to sign up for our e-mail newsletter at depolarizationproject.com. We promote the show with Open Democracy to the eight million regular monthly visitors. You can find the back catalog to our shows and more information on this episode at opendemocracy.net/depolarizationproject. As always, I'm joined today by two fabulous co-hosts, communicator and business thinker Laura Osborne:.
Laura [00:01:25] Hello, Ali.
Ali [00:01:26] And our behavioural insight expert Alex Chesterfield. Hi, Alex.
Alex [00:01:30] Hi. Good evening.
Ali [00:01:31] So Helen's a formidable journalist whose book Difficult Women: A History of Feminism in Eleven Fights hit the shelves earlier this year. Laura, as an occasionally beautifully difficult woman. What really stood out to you from this interview?
Laura [00:01:44] I guess well firstly I love that description. But secondly, it was so refreshing to come across someone who wanted to really search for shades of gray in a story and deliberately seek to become comfortable with uncertainty. You know, our stories and lives are really simple. And I hope the way Helen approached her interview and indeed the way she approaches her broader journalism really does encourage other people to recognize that while it's really hard to consider difficult things in this way, it's tremendously rewarding at the end of it.
Ali [00:02:14] And what about you, Alex? Who I shouldn't let you down either. I've got to say, you're not averse to being endearingly difficult at points too and have a beautifully, endearingly difficult daughter who does occasionally interrupt our interviews. But what should listeners look out for?
Alex [00:02:28] Well, I think Helen is a brilliant interviewee. She's clearly exceptionally curious in a wide range of topics, almost intimidatingly so. And listeners will definitely learn a lot, I think, from this interview, and in particular I think listeners should keep an ear out for her critique of unconscious bias training and the work of Iris Bohnet. I'll come on to that later. And she's right. So many of us are really wasting money on diversity training, unconscious bias training without taking a more experimental and curious approach. So similar to Helen that would actually we make much more of a difference.
Ali [00:03:02] So with all of that in mind, let's give Helen a call.
[00:03:14] Welcome to the show, Helen.
Helen [00:03:15] Hello.
Ali [00:03:15] So one of the central premises of your book, Difficult Women: A History of Feminism in 11 Fights, is that we should tell more complex histories of people and not just airbrush the difficult history of campaigners such as Marie Stopes. How did you set about telling these stories in a way that our brains, which generally prefer to engage on simple goodie and baddie narratives, how did you do that so that they could process it and retain them?
Helen [00:03:40] Well, I think before I start, I should probably outline quite how hashtag problematic Marie Stopes was. So as well as being a brilliant campaigner for contraceptive access at the start of the 20th century, a time in which she had people who wrote her letters saying, I've got nine children and I've got a prolapsed uterus, and if I have another baby, I'm gonna die. But my doctor won't tell me how to stop that happening. You know, she helped incredibly desperate women like that. But at the same time, she became drawn into a very fashionable ideology at the time, which was eugenics. And, you know, sort of wrote about feeble minded people and the underclass. And she sent Hitler a volume of her poetry, which never reflects well on anyone. But that was exactly the kind of story that I wanted to tell in Difficult Women in order to kind of say we owe Marie Stopes an enormous amount. But how do you feel about owing that much to someone you presume from the point of view as a progressive person at the start of the 21st century buying a book about feminism, someone that you kind of a bore? And the way that I did that was two things. First of all, is trying to put the little details in, because I think there's what personalized people and what humanize them and what make them feel like someone that you could have met and talked to rather than a kind of very distant figure in a history book. So, for example, in the case of Marie Stopes, she only had one child, a son born in her 40s, and she tried to forbid him getting married because his fiancee wore glasses. And she said this was a symbol of a kind of degeneracy, that she was bad breeding stock. And I thought, this is awful. I thought, wow, that's really taking eugenics to the, you know, turning it up to 11. But the researchers said to me, well, actually, the thing about that is that she had a Jocasta complex, sort of version of an Oedipal complex where a woman. She was very wrapped up in her son and actually no one would have been good for him. And I thought that was interesting to me because it reflected the fact that what can so often look like political choices are actually personal choices about, you know, people we don't like, people we don't want to work on the same side as, you know, extending bad faith to people that we've already decided we hate. So I thought that those kind of personal details really bring the story to life. And the second thing is also just trying to tell people what the official story is and then unpack it. So I don't know about you, but my way of thinking about the suffragettes was always, you know, the mum in Mary Poppins. Right. That was the kind of impression I had of them posh women protesting in bonnets. And then you get to this incredible story of essentially terrorists. That is really interesting, important to me because it's your deconstructing the story, the simplified story we've been told in school and trying to actually restore the complexity to it.
Ali [00:06:07] And what's been the reaction of readers? Have they picked up on some of those nuances that you've really gone for?
Helen [00:06:13] This is really interesting. So I've just published a piece about Harry Potter fandom and the reaction to J.K. Rowling's publication of her views on sex and gender. I mean, I'm sure there'll be some fairly aggressive reaction too. But there is also a kind of great sense of relief by people. Right? I think social media particularly pushes us into feeling that you have to have a very strong stand and very strong opinions on everything. Someone has to be terrible or good and everything happens at maximum volume. And if you're not angry enough about it, that means you don't care. And actually, very few people want to live their lives like that. And it's one of the things that campaigners have to come up against is that kind of twin problem of apathy, which is what almost everybody else feels. And then the small minority people who are politically engaged feeling very, very up on the causes that they particularly care about. And they don't have time for anything else. So I think there is a huge desire from people just to not feel shouted at. So actually, the main emotion I get as feedback from the book is a kind of relief and the gratitude for someone taking them by the hand through some quite difficult material.
Alex [00:07:15] That's so interesting. So I'd like to loop back to the suffragettes and your point on terrorism, that word you just use. So that you highlight in the book the role that violence is often played in bringing about change and that some difficult women have used it to great effect, such as in parts of the suffragette movement. Do you think it can help in changing people's minds? And if so, in what circumstances?
Helen [00:07:37] Well, there was a very lively debate among contemporaries about the use of violence, you know. And at the time Millicent Fawcett walked out of the NWSS, split definitively from the suffragettes saying we can't stand for this. And actually, lots of other supporters did the same as they became more and more militant. The research that we have, I was weirdly reading a story about someone who'd studied the 1968 civil rights campaign in the US, saying that large scale civil disturbances were more effective than violence. And I think that's I want that to be true. Christobel Pankhurst wrote in an article for the Votes for Women newspaper saying, yes, we'd love to have civil arguments, but we can't have them on equal terms because we're not allowed in parliament, we're not allowed to vote, we're not allowed to be magistrates. And I think that's the bit where I think you have to apply a kind of, you have to say, actually, we've got access in this country to democratic tools of protest. I'm more hesitant to make a moral judgment upon people who don't have those tools.
Laura [00:08:43] So we've done quite a lot of thinking about apologies and particularly thinking about the evidence that suggests that, you know, you tend to lose out either way because either the people in your own group thinks it makes them look weak or feel abandoned. And those who disagreed with you in the past may still regard you with suspicion. And I wanted to pick up the incredibly touching story in your book, which highlights the case of Maureen Colquhoun, who came out as a lesbian while still a Labour MP in the 1970s, and she was deselected by her local party, something overturned by the NEC. And 40 years later, they wrote her a letter of apology. You asked her how it made her feel and she said it made her cry. And I wondered, what could we learn from her about processing apologies and bringing about change?
Helen [00:09:25] I think my main takeaway from that story was that she deserved that. And that what was really interesting was that although it was about events that had happened 40 years previously, it still meant an enormous amount to her to know that she wasn't a pariah in the party, that she wasn't going to die an outcast from a movement to which she had dedicated an enormous amount of her time. I've been thinking a lot about this recently about one of the problems of modern life being that because of the contest over what's true, it can often happen that someone has an injury done to them. And then the injury is compounded by the refusal to acknowledge that there was an injury. And I think that process is incredibly painful. I mean, we often use that word gaslighting, perhaps a bit too much. A couple of years ago, I wrote on the New Statesman website about an issue in which you changed your mind. And I wrote about, you know, growing up with that casual narrative about what happened at Hillsborough in 1989. Right. You know, the unquestioned well, the police. You believe the police. They wouldn't lie. They tell you they tell the truth, which was very much what I had heard during my childhood. And then that realization about what it must have been like to be the family of one of those people who died to have the loss of your loved one. And, you know, I suppose I hestitate to use the word accident because obviously there was police incompetence, malpractice, whenever you want to call it up to malice and then have that compounded by being told that it was their own fault because they were drunk and the fans were rowdy and all about that blaming that they went on. I think that that's an insanely psychologically distressing thing to happen to you. And so that apology can't heal what you've done, but it restores that sense that, you know, that the world knows what really happened. And I think about why it's really important. I think that's why it's really important in in Maureen's case. Right. That she she was vindicated from the fact that she wasn't thrown out because she was a racist or whatever the other charges against her were. It was down to the fact that she was seen to be not, you know, not a family man, not a family woman because she was in a lesbian relationship. She was seen as being too feminist, too aggressive, too pushy. And I agree with you. I think there is a massive problem that if people feel that they followed somebody I've seen it in the last couple of weeks, actually with you know, with Rebecca Long-Bailey, the shadow education secretary, was tweeted an interview with Maxine Peake, which had his anti-Semitic conspiracy theory in it. And Maxine Peake apologized for it. And you still saw people who didn't think that Rebecca Long-Bailey needed to apologize. And I thought was kind of fascinating. Right. If the person that, you know, you're doing this on behalf of has said, oh, actually, no, you are. I've got this I got this wrong. I shouldn't have said that. I just ask, why are you still fighting the corner that no one did anything wrong. And it's about their reluctance to admit error because it's seen as a concession to the other side. And whether that's internal Labour politics or Labour versus Tory politics, then there's always a sense that why are you conceding? Why are you showing weakness? And I think that's a real shame.
Ali [00:12:21] When I read Maureen's story in your book it left me with two questions that I really had, which was did you know what prompted her former local party to write that letter to her?
Helen [00:12:33] No, I didn't. It's a really interesting question. I would love to find out. I wonder if it was just one person in the local party who had read about her story because there had been some small pieces about her and a researcher went up to interview her. So I wonder if they had heard about it. You know, I've been talking to her daughter in law who is very keen for her to get an honour. And that's kind of interesting for me because I don't really believe in the honours system, but I can kind of see why that's important for the family. You know, that she was a pioneer and that they do want to feel that she's been recognized for the courage that she showed. And I felt very strongly about writing a history is what you're trying to do is keep people alive, you know, within the pages of your book, because there's a Navajo saying about the idea that people live as long as there's someone alive who remembers them. And I feel that quite strongly about what the point of doing women's history is, is to make sure that, you know, we keep these people alive for the memories of people who remember.
Ali [00:13:30] Like you, I'd always thought that Chris Smith was the first out MP. He was Labour MP in a London borough for our American listeners. Do you know why? I don't know if he let that narrative develop, but, you know, that would have been something I would have not wanted if that was me. I wouldn't have wanted it to all go. How did that narrative even become something that developed? And you know what his view is on it?
Helen [00:13:53] I don't know his views on it. I would be really interested to ask him. I think that the difference is that he was championed by his own side. Right. He the wheels had turned enough that by the time that New Labour appointed him a minister, it was like, this is who we are. We're a party that will give gay people a chance to serve. It's really interesting to me in politics that there's a kind of availability bias that people need to kind of shout about things or they haven't really happened. I was just writing last week about the fact that we've finally got no fault divorce coming next year in this country passed, you know, without a division in its third reading and its second reading there hardly anybody voted against. So this campaign that's been 30 years in the making. You know, basically everybody in the law was on board with relationship counselling, opposed by few social conservatives. But increasingly new, softer and softer feelings about that. I mean, in the past and there was absolutely no coverage of it. And it was astonishing to me. And it was because it wasn't a culture war. It was because there was no one against it. And precisely for the fact that the wheel had turned long enough that actually now everyone kind of came on board and just seen this as a thing that course you'd have no fault divorce. Why would you make people go through all that aggression with each other and then try and split up their assets and access to their children? But that's what's happened. That's what happens in politics. If no one can claim a victory, then real achievements can go completely unnoticed. I think that's what happened to Maureen. The party didn't treat her very well and therefore it wasn't something that they wanted to shout about. And who else would do?
Ali [00:15:16] The other thing that really struck me. From her story, after the Labour Party treated her that badly, she went back and worked for Labour MPs in the House of Commons and stayed a Labour Party member. And I just I wonder if that, you know, like, how hard is it to leave your political tribe? How badly do you need to be treated before you do it? And is that something that really, I suppose, contributes to polarization? I don't know if that had come up at all from your conversations with her.
Helen [00:15:44] I think she had hoped to get back in as an MP. I think she loved being an MP. She really felt that it was a place where you could make speeches that would, you know, change people's minds, where you could try and pass legislation that would change people's daily lives. It was an important job and I think it was kind of a vocation. The party divisions in the late 70s were much more clear cut. So I don't see that she would have ever thought about joining another political party. Labour in the late 70s believed in the whole kind of suite of things that were very solidly left wing in economic terms that she also believed. So she wasn't going to go off and when it was formed joined the SDP and she certainly wasn't going to cross the floor and become a Conservative. And I mean, I have to say, I don't have a problem with that. Right. I think there should be difficult political parties for different fundamentally different approaches to the economy. What's more difficult now is the way that politics is very much structured about much more nebulous beliefs. And I think identity and nationalism are two things that are much more likely to polarize than on economic terms, because, you know, I'm a social democrat, but there are a range of things that I can kind of live with, whereas, you know, things are so much more binary in identity terms. Do you think Scotland to be part of the United Kingdom? Yes. No, it's not. If you're on one side, you can't really live with the other.
Ali [00:16:58] No and you're right that people tend to actually agree much more on issues than they used to. Even though they dislike each other much more in a party basis.
Helen [00:17:05] There was fascinating research that just came out this week about, you know, people who hold one left-wing view, and there was a range of them, also hold this extremely right wing view. So people who want, you know, much more redistributive taxation also want, you know, the death penalty back or more spending on police. And actually, what's kind of fascinating is that the groupings kind of don't make sense. So we do end up picking a couple of signature issues like Brexit. And then a whole chain of other stuff kind of gets associated with it. And I find that actually fascinating. I wrote a piece about culture wars in the FT a while ago in which I said, you know, remain leave, you know, political labels about a political project. And yet if I said to you a whole series of things like, you know, all these remain leave, like quinoa, quinoa is remain. Right. Isn't it?
Ali [00:17:56] Oh, I would say coastal elite translated to American.
Helen [00:18:01] Liberal elite latte liberals, whatever you want to say. But like, you know, you can go the flag of St George, you know, and that's that's. Or should you be allowed to sell golliwogs in shops or, you know, should you tear down statues. All of these things that seem to have absolutely nothing to do with these cultural issues, get assigned to one side or the other, and they become woven into a story about who you are. There is a you know, that is a whole list of things that don't necessarily make sense when taken together.
Laura [00:18:28] Absolutely. What those labels stand for becomes quite obscure, as you say, doesn't it is like everything is wrapped up underneath it and then trying to pick apart what actually is going on becomes harder and harder because it's kind of obscure, hated by everything being lumped in together. And I wanted to ask you a bit about business and purpose, something I'm personally quite interested in. And I read your Bluestocking piece. I was very struck, you said brands will gravitate towards the low cost, high noise signals if these are accepted as a substitute for genuine reform. And I guess firstly, I want to ask whether you think business should be driving social change and then what your take is on how much their motivations matter. If there is at least sometimes a positive outcome.
Helen [00:19:12] Well, the first one is a very simple answer, which is no, of course not. You know, you have to look at what the purpose of a business is, and it's to either maximize shareholder value or to survive within a capitalist system. I'm not upset about that. But, you know, in the same way that the point of a church is to attract and retain believers, you know, these are just the vehicles they've developed for a particular purpose. And that's what businesses are now. So there's some fuzziness for that with social enterprises. And there are some incredibly praiseworthy businesses like Timpson's the shoe menders, which makes a real point of hiring ex offenders. And it's absolutely woven into its purpose. But by and large, it's not gonna come as a massive shock to people that Coca-Cola isn't left wing. Coca-Cola is the point of it existing is for the perpetuation of people buying Coca-Cola, and that's fine. But don't expect that it's on your side if you're a left wing activist. And that's what that piece was kind of about, is getting seduced into thinking, oh, isn't it great that, you know, all of these brands are posting solemn Instagram messages about, you know, Black Lives Matter. They're doing that because that's the thing to do to survive as a brand in the current moment. And where it crosses into being objectionable to me is when they use that to wallpaper over their own practices. Whether or not it's a business like Amazon, for example, which has shall we say interesting tax arrangements and a poor record on valuing workers concerns about their workplaces. Those are American employers. There's a brilliant story in Bloomberg this week about how unbelievably aggressive they are about union busting, for example. So I don't want to kind of see your thing about how you value all the, you know, the people who contribute to your work if you know, fire people who try and organize to get better wages. And I think people get really sort of seduced by the fact they see they see a lot of stuff happening because people are changing the name of something. And like all, we've really achieved something with this. And you think, well, what what have you achieved? And this is why I go back to the fact that the question I always ask is, do you have a creche? And the second question I probably ask after that is, and what do you pay your office cleaners? Because I don't care what you're saying in order for your upper middle class employees to make to feel good about themselves, if you still got people cleaning the office on below minimum wage, you're not a good progressive employer.
Laura [00:21:31] And so what about the cases where even if they've done it for entirely selfish reasons, there is a good that comes out of it in the end? Do you think that has a place or do you think fundamentally government should be taking the lead on all this stuff and there just isn't a role for business and we as consumers should stop expecting them to have one.
Helen [00:21:54] I mean, I'm not gonna be mealy mouthed about the fact that, you know, you sometimes get good outcomes because people respond to activist pressure. And I think in general, there's a lot of activist pressure that is really good, campaigns against the use of palm oil, for example. It's been really good, anti sweatshop movements, all of that, really good. What I think with this crucial distinction I was making in that piece is the difference between what I call social liberalism, which is we stand with X on their social media feed, and economic radicalism, which is here is how we're going to bring in, you know, restructure our board or here is how we're going to make sure that everybody who works for us, you know, is paid a living wage or we do has proper maternity and paternity leave entitlements like the stuff that costs you money. That's the stuff activists will should fight for, because that's something that companies will be most reluctant to give you.
Alex [00:22:45] So it's the practices rather than the rhetoric.
Helen [00:22:48] Totally.
Ali [00:22:49] And do you think things that cost money or that involve giving up power?
Helen [00:22:52] Both. Because I think I mean, money is power in large respects, but it's also control. And I think that's the point, isn't it? If I wrote about diversity training in the piece. Meta analysis says it has short term effects of raising people's awareness, but they don't really tend to last very well. They don't tend to change. They can't predict on a stable basis how prejudiced someone is. And they don't really seem to change long term people's behavior. But what they do is provide something that people kind of point to as like here's a thing that we have done. And my problem with that is I mean Keir Starmer's just announced that he's going to send himself on diversity training. And it does feel like that the equivalent having a public inquiry, right, it's the thing you do when you have to show that you're doing something.
Laura [00:23:31] You included an absolutely eye watering stat. I can't remember off the top my head about how much.
Helen [00:23:37] Eight billion a year. Iris Bohnet, who's a professor at Harvard, I think John F. Kennedy School government. Yeah, eight billion a year. What's so fascinating to me is that White Fragility by Robin D'Angelo. This book by a white woman about white people is now at the top with the New York Times bestseller list. And I sort of one those things where you kind of go, okay, you can either buy a book to unpack your defensiveness about racism or you could, you know, if you're in America, for example, contribute to your voting rights defense, because one of the massive problems in America is huge gerrymandering of electoral districts and the provision of very poor amounts of polling stations in minority black and brown areas. Right. So people again, it goes back. So point literally being deprived of power because I let you be deprived of a vote and a voice. And that's probably more helpful to let other people have that speech in your country than it is to navel gaze about, you know, whether or not you're too defensive about being called a racist.
Alex [00:24:34] It's so frustrating. It's so frustrating. I see that a lot in terms of organizations, appearing to solve a problem rather than actually solving a problem, I think is linked to that need for certainty as well, that, you know, doing unconscious bias training, as I said, makes you seem like you are doing something. Actually figuring out what will work is much harder and much more uncertain.
Helen [00:24:56] Yeah. I think you're right. Also you can say we sent seventy two thousand staff on this training, we delivered this, it cost this much, and it looks, it looks like numbers which therefore looks like science which that looks real.
Laura [00:25:09] It looks measurable.
[00:25:11] And I think it does. I think that is a real problem. And again, I don't think this is coming out of malice or grift or anything that. I think it's come out of genuinely well-intentioned people who want to do something good but find it too easy to be diverted into the stream of an easy win.
Alex [00:25:25] Exactly. And it's that, again, as I focus on inputs, yes, we are doing something rather than outcomes actionable. What is it that we're actually changing rather than just thinking we're changing. We ask all our guests about a time they have changed their mind. You've told us, Helen, that you've changed your mind about the role of prostitution. What was that shift and why?
Helen [00:25:45] With the proviso that one of the things I've changed my mind about is my is that I've come to accustom myself to an enormous amount of uncertainty around the subject. So apologies if I sound vague or waffling on this. But, you know, in my 20s, my position was the kind of default liberal position, which is other people's sex lives are their own business, you know, the way other people spend their money as their own business. You know, if it's legal, you know, prostitution should be legal and it shouldn't be something in which that the state has a role in it at all. And actually, as I've kind of got older, I worked for a while as the chair of a violence against women charity, which dealt with a lot of what would they have referred to as women exploited into prostitution, particularly from Eastern Europe, that I've also become less liberal and more, I guess, socialist. And one of things that I find really fascinating is that student feminists particularly are very what they would call pro sex worker and into the decriminalization and legalization agenda that is, I think, kind of fundamentally neoliberal, which is again, another other words, it gets massively overused, but it is about, you know, the market's lack of, you know, the market regulates stuff and that actually, you know, there's no such thing as society. And I think that now I think a couple of things, which is first our policy on this should be based around minimizing harm. Now, it might very well be that you need to decriminalization is the way to do that. Certainly, I would say the regime we've got at the moment doesn't seem to be working people, you know, very scared, particularly to report violence if they're working on the street because they're worried about, you know, visa transgressions or about not being believed. All of that stuff. So we're definitely not getting it right at the moment. But what I do also think is it's one thing that everyone else is allowed to have an opinion on, too, which I think is quite a challenging thing now in in progressive politics, because we all live in a society which is shaped by, you know, the fact that quite a lot of men buy sex, almost no women buy sex, and almost all of the men who buy sex, buy it from women. And what does that do when you have women's sexual availability commoditization? You know, I feel the same about porn. We all live in a world that is deeply, deeply shaped by porn. So whether or not you're appearing in porn yourself isn't the only criteria for having an opinion on it. And that's where I've really moved from, the kind of it's none of my business what other people get up to actually there is such a thing as society. And it is it is my business. Obviously, I do not know as much as people who are directly involved, but I am still allowed to have an opinion as a member of society.
Alex [00:28:11] Was there a particular moment or experience that that led to that shift, Helen?
Helen [00:28:16] One of the things that I remember quite distinctly as I wrote a piece about Punternet I don't know whether or not it still exists.
Ali [00:28:21] You might need to say what it is.
[00:28:26] Punternet is, or was as I said, I haven't looked at it for years, is a TripAdvisor for sex workers. And that is exactly as soul destroying as it kind of sounds. Right. So the idea is that if you're a punter, then what you want to do is obviously write down reviews of particular establishments, particular women at those establishments and stop other men getting ripped off. And I went and I read like an enormous amount of it. And there was a there was a project to try and circulate some of the more distressing ones. And they were only a small minority of them. Actually, a lot more of them were kind of sad in the vein of, you know, she's a lovely girl. She shouldn't be doing this kind of I treated her exceptionally well. I left it in all the tip that this sort of weird faux sort of chivalry about this business. And I thought, actually, you know what? I just don't I don't think this is a way that men and women should relate to each other. I don't think this is particularly healthy, that you get to bypass all of consent and what it means to have a human relationship with someone in this fundamentally intimate level by just injecting cash into it. It's obviously going to result in exploitation and it's obviously going to result in the more economically powerful partner, you know, wielding a huge amount of power over the less economically powerful partner. Yeah. And I think it's one of those things where people don't want to look at it because they don't want to feel that they're being prudish, I guess, or that they hate sex. I had this line for my book, which I nearly put in, which was, you know, I like sex so much, I have it for free. And I felt that this is have been this constant attack on feminists who have raised questions about the sex industry is the idea that you hate sex itself. Right. And it's like saying because I have questions about the working practices at McDonald's, I don't hate burgers or meat or the concept of food. What I question is the environment in which all of that is happening. And I think there's been a huge reluctance on the part of the feminist movement to seem uncool or prudish and therefore to interrogate what the economic transaction does in that situation. But like I say, this one, these opinions, because the gender issue is so much more to the fore in feminism. It doesn't. It talked about so much, but it is very much the same kind of split between the old left and feminism and the new student feminists that there is. You know, that the attitudes to prosecution or sex work, which are how you describe it, and both sides kind of say, well, look, you know, listen. Particularly younger activists say you listen to sex workers. And the problem is you kind of go, well, which ones? Because there are people who are obviously very happy with the job. You know, it puts food on the table, whatever it is. You know, they will point out that there are other jobs that are dirty and dangerous and very badly paid and there isn't a kind of moral outrage about them. And then the anti prostitution side will bring forward women who have worked in it who feel that they were raped repeatedly for money. So it's not one of those ones that can be solved in the way that people try to appeal to authority of lived experience because people have very different experiences within exactly the same job and industry.
Ali [00:31:32] And I'm just curious, Helen, were there, given your focus on difficult women and how they can help change minds, was there any difficult women that you spoke to were difficult conversations that helped trigger the change you just talked about?
Helen [00:31:45] That's a very good question. I mean, I have to say that and it's interesting to me and I still don't know where my thoughts are on it. And I have been categorized very much as a kind of anti sex feminist or a SWERF if you want to call it that, which is the new terminology for it. And I'm not entirely sure about that in terms of what I believe about the regime. But I have to say that I did notice that most of the feminists that I respected who had spent a long time working in the violence against women sector, were of that opinion that there was no way of saving the sex industry or creating a better, safer one. In countries like Germany, where, you know, it's legal, there are kind of just giant mega brothels with kind of you can pay one entry fee and have sex with several different women in the same night. You know that they can essentially become kind of warehouses for Eastern European women. And I do think, well, actually, almost everybody I respect on this is on a different page. But then Maureen Colquhoun who we talked about earlier, she was pro legalization of prostitution, not even decriminalization, full legalization, and brought sex workers into the House of Commons. Right. And and so there's somebody I completely respect who I think is probably a different view to me. So I try now and keep my mind open on what the policy prescription is, even if my, I guess, moral or intellectual feeling about it has changed.
Ali [00:33:05] What do you do to try and keep your mind open? Is that something that's conscious as well as unconscious?
Helen [00:33:10] Yeah, totally. And I think it has to be because I mentioned that heuristic earlier know the idea that you make your mind up very quickly based on snap judgments. And one of the most powerful of those is, are what do people like me think? What do my lot think? And it's really, really hard. And one of the things that's quite useful is to try and read stuff without a byline on, if you see what I mean, try and read mentioning that it's by someone you agree with when it's an argument, you know, made by someone that you hate and how much good faith would you extend to them? And also just trying to pick holes in your own side's opinions. But it's one of things I think it causes me most problems as a journalist. But also I think is is the thing that I most feel I need to do, which is not to pander to people who feel I'm on their side, but to constantly disturb and disrupt that. And it makes it really hard because you just don't you know, I see journalists who write this say, you know, the same old crowd pleasing for their little section of society, and they do very well out of it. And their lives are probably much less stressful as a result.
Ali [00:34:19] Well, and they probably are better paid with more hits and all of that kind of stuff.
Helen [00:34:23] It is economic because actually I speak to huge amounts people all the time, concerns of the subjects I write about. People say you're so incredibly brave to write about them. And I couldn't say that because I'm worried about losing my job. And actually, that is a huge, huge but I think people are really have lied to themselves about the fact that there are sectors of society which are so in one ideological place, that actually it's very lonely even to dissent slightly from that, let alone be completely the opposite pole. You know, I write a lot about theater and I wrote a piece about the National Theatre just before Christmas, and I was like, you know, is that anyone who supported Brexit writing plays now? Like, what plays have you got on that speak from that perspective. And it's really hard because actually this is in the Jonathan Haidt book. A lot, you know. What's happened is you've ended up with some jobs becoming the preserve of liberals and some jobs. I mean, the preserve of authoritarians.
Alex [00:35:20] And he writes about it in academia. Yeah.
Ali [00:35:22] I've not seen and you might have done any studies that look at that byline point. I think that's really intriguing. Or even I've seen lots people look at framing, but less at the you know, like the blind studies. Were you aware of any or would the Atlantic ever do any thing?
Alex [00:35:38] Sort of blind CVs?
Ali [00:35:40] Yes, it me hugely of recruitment.
Helen [00:35:46] Oh totally. If people see, you know, Hamesh Patel or a stereotypically black name on a CV, they will market down a comparative to a, you know, an Anglophone British name like Helen Lewis. And that's you know, that's just that is where bias does definitely exist. And you can very easily take that away by, as you say, a blind submission process. So I'm just pitching my second book at the moment. And I have gone through a phase of thinking. I actually because it's a subject this is so male I want to write about would I be better off publishing it as Hal Lewis and I have always wondered. I wanted to do an A B testing experiment about writing a piece and having one version of it published under a male byline and another female byline.
Ali [00:36:29] Yeah. I think I think you could. And just on your point, about like blind. There's a study out here which actually shows that discrimination is much more on the grounds of politics than on race when it comes to employment. So if somebody puts on their CV that they were involved in the Republican Party. Even, you know, not a controversial end of either Republicans or the Democrats that they are discriminated against is an outrage.
Helen [00:36:54] Well, that's of a piece with that really interesting Pew Research about the fact that Americans are now much more relaxed about the child marrying someone of a different race than they were 50 years ago, but much less relaxed about them marrying someone from a different political party. So the question this is the upsetting question, which I'm not I don't want to I think I worry that I know the answer to and I don't want it to be this is will there always be an out group? And if we reduce racism and sexism and homophobia, then we'll find different outlets for that. Like, do we as humans just have a deep desire for that to be a good team and a bad team? And the actual mechanism we use for sorting it changes depending on the historical context. And this is gonna be our one now.
Ali [00:37:34] I think Alex might have the answer for that for you.
Alex [00:37:38] I am optimistic, but there are ways around it that's not entirely deterministic and we're not stuck with this forever. And actually, it's not just in a blind CVs or bylines, but it's also, I think, policy. It you put policies in front of people and you remove the parties that are associated with, again, that massively swings people's support or aversion to it just based on the actual policy, but just on the party that is associated with so really difficult.
Helen [00:38:02] I remember this happening a lot during the Ed Miliband years of Labour here in Britain between 2010 and 2015 about the fact that, you know, individually, something like nationalizing the, you know, the utilities companies, water and gas. Just really nationalizing the train service. Actually has got majority support. And there was. So why aren't people electing a Labour government? And you're right. It's because it came packaged under a leader that they didn't like. Well, I'm pleased that you're optimistic about it.
Alex [00:38:26] I might be very naively optimistic. What about you, Laura, Ali?
Ali [00:38:31] I think it's an inevitable trend. And then you get some shocks to the system that reset people. So it's interesting, you know, I feel like it's a vortex that our brains naturally pull us into and occasionally you get a reset. So we've talked before about superordinate goals and whether the pandemic would be one. I think it probably will prove not to be. But actually things like a massive electoral loss can help reset where people are. There's a guy called Sartori who writes on it, which I will do some links in the show notes for our particularly more academic listeners, those who enjoy reading very precise and slightly dry books about party political structures.
Helen [00:39:06] Well, that makes sense that then it becomes much more like, you know, a multi faith country, right. Where you can't really move from one religion to another. Actually, it becomes such a big deal that you're crossing a hard border instead of being like as I say, if you're looking at a system like the German system. Right. Then there's a sort of spectrum of parties that you can count and you can see how you edge from one to another. But in the US, moving from Republican to Democrat it is like losing your religion, right? It's like going from being a Christian to being an atheist. It's just that big a change.
Laura [00:39:44] And I hope that those exit still exist when you're in the spiral of it can feel so bleak that you don't necessarily know that a little bit ahead, there might be an opportunity to get out of it. And I think that's an interesting thing, looking at it from the perspective of history. I'm like you. I'm slightly hopeful still.
Ali [00:40:03] But Helen, you have tapped on exactly why we set up this forecast is that if you start to get more people talking about how and why they changed their minds, then actually it begins to normalize it a bit and hopefully you can begin to build some bridges and make a group of people who have decided to walk different path is a large part of the reason we do what we do.
Helen [00:40:21] No, I mean, I always think of the Cass Sunstein research in that phrase in a very nerdy phrase about being a normal entrepreneur. Right. That there are some people who just set the norms and the signals that they give off are sufficiently important. My friend Ian Leslie wrote a profile of Malcolm Gladwell. Malcolm Gladwell had the 10000 hours theory in Outliers, which then another writer called David Epstein came along kind of debunked. And he writes in the profile of Gladwell, you know, he knew he was the more famous person. So he knew he had to set the tone of their exchange. And so he welcomed him and the critique. And I think that that's what politics and journalism kind of lacking is a sense that thank you for the correction. Now we both know more. We've come closer to our sort of perfect vision of knowledge instead of like, no, you've done your status injury because you've questioned my authority.
Alex [00:41:10] It's much more like a zero sum game, isn't it? And the frame is about winning rather than what's the you know, what's the what's the real was the evidence, which is which sounds much less much less sexy.
Helen [00:41:20] Right. And I of course, I'm totally fine with being criticized and never, ever get defensive. So that's really helpful.
Alex [00:41:29] And the last question is who would you like to hear from about the time that they've changed their mind on an issue?
Helen [00:41:35] I would really like to hear from somebody who has left religion. I remember once talking to Richard Dawkins when he guest edited the New Statesman, the magazine I used to work at about the fact that he knew about a forum for former vicars who had lost their faith. And I think that's extraordinary. There was a bishop who went through this process a couple of years ago, quite notoriously, and lost his faith. And he said, well, the hard thing about them is it's not just about losing your ideological frame for the world, but it's about losing your job, maybe losing your family, losing your community. And what does it require for you to say that out loud? So I would love to hear from somebody who has had that courage to stand up and say, I don't feel it anymore. I'm sorry, you know, and blown the entire life apart, really. Because I think that is incredibly, incredibly courageous thing to do. But also one that will cause an enormous amount of hurt to the people around you. I'm sure there's a bishop who quit over it. And I think that's the thing is I see so much of bad ideas and people's attachments to bad ideas are about both the fact of status, you know, and the people losing their status and their community place and also feeling that it will be humbling to them. And it is hard to admit that you're wrong and won't react to that particularly well. There are a lot of reasons to kind of keep going with something to lie to yourself actually as much as anything else.
Ali [00:42:57] It's extremely costly, personally and professionally.
Helen [00:43:01] You lose your vicarage. Your wife or husband, you know, might still be remaining in the church. How on earth do you deal with that complication? It's absolutely blowing your life apart in an incredibly hard way. So I'm fascinated that anybody ever does it. I would have thought humans, psychologically, have such mental barriers to causing yourself that level of unhappiness rather than confront it. So I'm amazed. But people do do it.
Alex [00:43:30] So if we have got listeners who have changed their minds on that. Please get in touch with us. That would be fascinating.
Ali [00:43:35] Helen, thank you so much for joining us today.
Helen [00:43:38] Thank you so much for having me.
Ali [00:43:47] Before we discuss, let's have a quick word from our sponsors.
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Ali [00:44:16] So now we've heard the full interview. Was there anything that you wanted to reflect on, Laura?
Laura [00:44:21] Thanks, Ali. Helen made the point really clearly that businesses focused on shareholder value and surviving in a capitalist system will focus on doing just that, on surviving. And we'll be driven to maintain the status quo, something she also writes brilliantly on for The Atlantic. It was good to dig into the exceptions to that rule. And conversely, at the same time, the risk, though, that there are others where virtue signaling is actually slowing down genuine change. And it was good to explore with her some of the short term costs of taking positions that can create a more purposeful, longer term business.
Ali [00:44:55] Yeah, I really agree with that, though. I've got to say, sometimes it can feel a bit performative. Helen touched on this with the recent examples around people suspending advertising on Facebook because they were concerned that it was a platform on which hate can be generated and they they weren't taking enough action, Facebook. So a bunch of brands pulled their advertising. But, you know, the former mobilizer and activist in me sort of smells a bit of a rat because if you're selling to consumers, then the prime time that you're doing now is over Christmas. It's not over summer. So I suspect if people went digging into some of those brands' advertising history in the ad library, you's find that really they pulled very little at all. And that really does feel performative and insincere and inauthentic. Alex, what did you make of the interview with Helen?
Alex [00:45:42] So I wanted to pick up on what we highlighted at the start around unconscious bias training and meta analysis done fairly recently that showed not only does unconscious bias training not only work, it doesn't have any downstream effects on actual behaviors, but in some cases it can backfire, meaning that people become more biased after having the training, which is the opposite of what you want. But the challenge is that organizations rely heavily on unconscious bias training to show that they're doing something. So it's often seen as a tick box exercise without it actually fundamentally changing or leveling the playing field. So I guess I'm just then preempting the next question or what will what actually can be done. And there's it there's a couple of things that that can be done more practically. I think one of the first lessons is change processes and systems, not people by unconscious bias training tries to change the person rather than the process or the system. So a couple of examples of changing processes or systems would be using blind CVs, unstructured interviews, removing language from job adverts which might discourage certain applicants, and also using really good quality data rather than relying on gut feel, which is often done. That's right. That's the first lesson. Second lesson is this is from Jon Haidt, actually, and from the classic findings in social psychology. It does feel quite counterintuitive, but rather than calling out specific identities, so whether it's racial or ethnic differences make them less relevant by actually calling out what we all have in common and what we have that's similar between us, not what is different. And then I think the third recommendation or insight would be to go and read Iris Bohnet. That's the researcher at Harvard that Helen mentioned, she wrote the book, What Works: Gender Equality By Design. She is brilliant. And then also, I think a really good practitioner who blogs and writes really well on the subject, who bridges between a lot of academic research and what actually works practically in organizations is a guy called James Elfer. He runs a company called More Than now. So James Elfer, I highly recommend him as well on this topic.
Laura [00:47:53] Alex, at the top of the interview we also talked a bit about uncertainty and how Helen's deliberately sought to become more comfortable with it. What can we all do to help create that environment?
Alex [00:48:05] I think admitting it right upfront, so admitting that you don't have all the answers. But there are people out there that do, or there are ways and processes or means that you can try and find the answers. And I think being in the field of behavioral science and using experiments, you often do an experiment. You don't know the answer to start with and you'll run an experiment and then you still don't know what works. But I think my one of my favorite phrases to use is that actually experiments never fail because you always do learn something, even if you find a particular intervention doesn't work, you at least know that and then you get back to the drawing board and start again to find something that does work to solve whatever problem. So I think I think in. And that's how you get knowledge into it. And then finding a way or means to lean in and find out what gets what might reduce that uncertainty.
Ali [00:48:50] Thank you, Alex and Laura. Just before we wrap up, I did want to highlight one particular phrase from Helen's book, which would certainly make me chuckle, which was despite Helen's attempts to tell really more complex stories of people and why that was. She acknowledges that some people are simply, as she calls them, spherical bastards. So that's a bastard whichever way you look at them. And that did make me laugh. So I wanted to share it.
[00:49:12] Has Helen inspired you to think of a time you changed your mind and why? At the end of the series, we'll be doing a special listeners edition of the show. Email [email protected] and tell us about what you have changed your mind on. The best response will get a copy of Helen's book, 'Difficult Women: A History of Feminism in Eleven Fights', whizzed out to them in the post.
[00:49:34] That's all from us today. Thank you very much for listening to this episode of Changed My Mind. If you liked what you heard, don't forget we have a full back catalog of fascinating interviews with leaders, you can find them by searching Changed My Mind in your podcast app. We'll be back next week with a new episode featuring Peter Geoghagan, an award winning Irish investigative journalist who often works with our partners openDemocracy. We'd like to thank openDemocracy for their support at the show. Caroline Crampton for editing. And Kevin McCloud, whose dreams become real, is our theme music.
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