This week I thought I would offer advice on the sort of things one can and cannot say in public without fear of censure. I realise that I may not be the most obvious person, at this moment in time, to offer such a service. Maybe even the last person. But one has to plough away, give help where it might be needed. And in this particular case, to our Justice Secretary, Kenneth Harry Clarke.
So Ken — here’s the last thing you should ever say in public. You should never, ever, as a suffix to a statement, make the claim: ‘And most women agree with me.’ We’ve got to be clear about this: you should never say it even if the statement to which it relates is anodyne and blankly factual, as in, ‘Chives are a bulb-forming herbaceous perennial — and most women agree with me.’ Or, ‘It is a little over 120 miles from Norwich to Towcester — and most women agree with me.’ You should not do this because they will see it as a challenge, the league of women, and will immediately disagree with you on a point of principle, via the pages of the Guardian and other such conduits for outrage. They will become incandescent with fury; they will assume that what you are saying is slighting, presumptuous, that it is no business of yours how far women think it is from Norwich to Towcester and that, in any case, only a man would be so phallocentric as to drive directly from Norwich to Towcester, without stopping on the way or allowing for deviations to take in interesting scenery, visit a friend in Diss or take lunch at a nice restaurant in Cambridge. The paucity of the male approach is summed up in that oblivious claim: ‘It is a little over 120 miles.’ Mechanistic, unyielding, life-denying.
So you shouldn’t say it in those circumstances. But you particularly shouldn’t say it if you are dealing with a subject over which women believe themselves to have sole dominion. Then the shit really will hit the fan. These subjects include, but are certainly not confined to: abortion, child-rearing, menses, pregnancy, the novels of Gabriel García Márquez, shopping and rape. On none of those subjects are you permitted to have a view; or at least you are permitted a view, but only if you make it clear that it is a view of no real value. As in ‘I disagree with abortion on ethical grounds, but as a man it is not really my place to decide.’
Of all these subjects, rape is the most problematic because it happens to women far more than it happens to men and men do most, almost all, of the perpetrating. Further, because the issue is charged with a sort of political ideology, there are certain things you cannot say about rape even if they are every bit as true as saying that it is a little over 120 miles from Norwich to Towcester. It is self-evident, and simply factual, that some rapes are more serious than others. This does not mean that the other rapes are fun for everyone concerned, or rather laudable. It simply means that a rape where a woman is not otherwise physically harmed, or is not subjected to terror, may not be quite so serious as a rape in which the woman is physically harmed or terrorised.
Still very serious, then, but not as serious. But you would be a mug to say this, if you were a man. And an incalculable mug to say it followed by the observation, ‘and most women agree with me’. Even if you have personally canvassed the view of every woman in the country, I still wouldn’t say it, frankly. The argument is not about facts, it is challenging an article of faith. Rape is rape, a crime of the abuse of power; there are never, ever, mitigating factors, and all rapes are exactly the same in their seriousness.
So, you shouldn’t say ‘and most women agree with me’ then, especially. But there are times and places, contexts to consider. It would be unwise of you to say ‘some rapes are more serious than others — and most women agree with me’ if you are doing an after-dinner speech to the all-male audience of the Rushcliffe Rotary Club; unwise, but you might just get away with it. Similarly if, after a long day campaigning, you are sharing a shower stall with Eric Pickles, it might be just about OK if you mutter it quickly.
Where, then, is the most damaging place on earth that you could deliver yourself of a supposedly contentious opinion about rape and add that little suffix? At lunch, perhaps, with Valerie Solanas, Andrea Dworkin and Polly Toynbee? That wouldn’t be good. But worse, far worse, would be to say it on BBC Radio 4’s magazine programme Woman’s Hour. That is the equivalent of blacking up, attending the Ku Klux Klan Annual Dinner Dance and repeatedly asking fellow guests ‘Where is de white women at?’. You are really asking for it if you do that.
And so Ken ‘reignites the rape row’, as the newspapers cheerfully put it. Right now, the various women’s internet message boards are howling abuse at him, even Mumsnet, that smug redoubt of the mimsy middle class. It doesn’t matter that he is patently correct. It doesn’t even matter that he is probably correct when he says ‘and most women agree with me’, because the women who agree with him are women only in gender, not in the more important derogation of politics. Best just never to say it, Ken. Leave well alone.