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Carol Craig is the Centre's Chief Executive. She is author of The Scots' Crisis of Confidence, Creating Confidence: A Handbook for Professionals Working with Young People, The Tears that Made the Clyde: Well-being in Glasgow and The Great Takeover: How materialism, the media and markets now dominate our lives. Her latest book is Hiding in Plain Sight: Exploring Scotland's ill health. She is Commissioning editor for the Postcards from Scotland series. Carol blogs on confidence, well-being, inequality, every day life and some of the great challenges of our time. The views she expresses are her own unless she specifically states that they reflect the Centre's thinking.

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Posted 17/11/2011 | 2 Comments

A few years ago I met Tari Lang who has worked throughout the world, particularly in the middle east  with corporations and individuals as a consultant, coach and mentor. Over lunch Tari revealed that what shocks her most about Scotland is the lack of visibility of women in public life. Indeed she maintained that there are more women prominently involved in public life in the United Arab Emirates, Jordan and Qatar than there are in Scotland. What she found particularly puzzling is that the figures for women in management and leadership positions in Scotland are superficially reasonable, at least in comparison with other parts in the UK; what she found most troublesome is that very few women's voices are being heard in the media, at events and on public platforms. This is a complaint I have heard from various women moving to Scotland from other countries or even the south of England. What these outsiders say is that they find Scottish culture excessively macho and  male dominated.

In the past couple of weeks I have been mulling this over yet again as there has been a row in the Scottish Review which may help to shed some light on why we hear so few women's voices.

On October 28 Sophie Cooke, a young Scottish novelist, short story writer and poet,  wrote an article headed "What does it mean to be a 'Scottish' writer?' In the opening paragraph she asserts 'Contemporary literary critics like Stuart Kelly of the Scotland on Sunday newspaper are keen to denationalise Scottish writing and present is as being "writing", not "Scottish writing"'.  She then sets out her argument which need not concern us here.

A week or so later Stuart Kelly (who was only mentioned in the introduction to Sophie Cooke's essay) replied with a full length article in which he critiques her analysis claiming it is 'essentialist'.  However, what is remarkable about this piece is its tone: Kelly isn't just critical of what Sophie Cooke writes, advancing contrary arguments – he is sneering and contemptuous.

This then led to two women entering the fray on Sophie Cooke's behalf:  the writer Tessa Ransford who founded the Scottish Poetry Library and Catherine Czerkawska, a playwright and poet.

The latter writes:

There are literary critics who wear their learning lightly. But there are those who use it like a verbal club, and rejoice in beating their erstwhile opponents round the head with it. I may not agree with everything Sophie Cooke wrote, but I found the debate her piece provoked interesting, and am shocked and saddened by the personal animus displayed in Kelly's response.

She goes on to accuse Stuart Kelly of misogyny – a remark which she later regretted and withdrew.

I do not know Stuart Kelly and I have little reason to believe that he is a misogynist. This was not the right term but I think that Catherine was right to suspect that gender played some part. So what might it be?

Part of the explanation may be that there are considerable unconscious biases operating against women not just in Scotland but across societies. In higher education it can take the form of women's essays being judged much more critically than men's. Indeed there was a famous study undertaken in 1968 and repeated in 1983 which showed that college students in the USA gave fewer marks to an essay when they thought it had been written by a woman and were more generous when they thought it the work of a man. Bias against women has also been demonstrated in hiring decisions in universities based on identical CVs. Even in supposedly woman-friendly Sweden, the peer review process in science discriminated hugely against the publication of women scientists' papers. In classical music there was once a great deal of prejudice against women (hence very few women were members of orchestras) and this was eradicated in part by auditions being held behind screens thus making the candidates' gender invisible to the selection panel.

It is important to realise that this is not about men having unconscious prejudices against women as women too often exhibit a similar bias in favour of men. In other words, this is not about misogyny or conscious discrimination against women; it is much more about deeply held beliefs that men are more capable than women.

In everyday life this implicit assumption can take the form of women's weaknesses, lack of experience or errors of judgement being seized on and exaggerated. Indeed I would go so far as to say, that women's failings  and short comings are anticipated. In organisations there are always lots of men who have been promoted beyond their competence but the harshest judgements are usually reserved for women in senior positions.

Women who have ever tried to get on, or express themselves,  in an essentially male-dominated world know this instinctively as they have experienced it first hand. That's why women reading Stuart Kelly's article, were likely to feel that his belittling tone was something to do with gender while the men involved in the row think this is irrelevant. 

But there is another more important point here that might help us account for the scarcity of women's voices in Scottish public life.  In a special edition of the Scottish Review its editor Kenneth Roy writes with reference to 'the row over Scottish literature':

Not much has been heard recently of flyting – a word Scots in origin meaning a slanging match in which insults are traded, often in verse. It seems to be back with a bang in the pages of the Scottish Review, though without the poetry, as the magazine finds itself at the centre of the most bitter rows in Scottish cultural life for many years.

Flyting in Scotland is traditionally associated with the literary establishment and for a long time was inspired and led by Christopher Murray Grieve (Hugh MacDiarmid), whose mastery of the art of vituperation was unrivalled.

The novelist James Robertson, whose work I greatly admire, then wrote a piece for the Scottish Review in which he says:

My own view is that, however much some may deplore or dislike some of Stuart Kelly's barbed, possibly ill-judged, comments, it is far preferable for Scotland to have literary critics with his depth of knowledge and acuity of opinion prepared to sound off than it would be if we had nobody to challenge arguments that don't hold water. 

I am not for a second suggesting that Mr Kelly is a figure of MacDiarmid-like proportions, since his comments read like soft-soaping flattery compared with the kind of critical attacks MacDiarmid launched over a period of some 50 years – but how badly Scotland and Scottish literature needed MacDiarmid's vituperation in the 20th century. Without MacDiarmid's war on complacency, parochialism and unexamined received opinion, we wouldn't be where we are today … .

But should we celebrate vituperation, or flyting?

Surely it is not good for us to live in a culture where a simple disagreement on facts or personal opinions can escalate  into abuse and an attack on the opponent's worth? What does it say about our cultural values when the thinkers in our midst argue that this is not only perfectly acceptable but to be encouraged?

What is all too evident in our intellectual life is that it is controlled by a small group of men, often academics, who act as if they are 'the keepers of the truth'. If people say things these thinkers disagree with they are roundly told off even when they are expressing views that are essentially subjective or pronouncing on topics which are more about interpretation than truth.

It is not difficult to see how this approach unwittingly fosters elitism. The Scots intelligentsia may like to nod in the direction of generalism and talk about the democratic intellect but if anyone who is not an expert dares to express a view which is not in line with established thinking they will be quickly cut down to size and instructed to study for years before they have the right to say anything.  The simply shores up the position of a small elite and deters ordinary mortals whose contributions are of value because they bring in different perspectives. The net result is that the very debate and discussion such Scottish elites often say they want is discouraged.

The editors of magazines and journals may rub their hands in glee at the energy flyting can engender but the price is likely to be even  fewer women willing to put their heads above the parapet to express their views. You see, I take the decidedly 'essentialist' view  that this vituperative atmosphere is particularly toxic for women. I suspect that few men thrive in such conditions but that women find it so distressing and off-putting that they would rather shut up than risk being shirracked and personally abused. (On second thoughts, perhaps this can be traced back to Scottish history and not women's psychology – the ingrained folk memory of all those witches Scots patriarchs burned at the stake.)

As I have been given serious abuse for my views in a Scottish intellectual journal I know what it feels like to be on the wrong side of vituperation and I am willing to admit that it was damaging for both my physical and emotional health.  My resilience comes from the extensive intellectual and personal support I have found over the past years and I seriously hope that Sophie Cooke is in this fortunate  position.

Nonetheless, I'm still apprehensive  of what might be coming my way given that I've had the temerity to speak out.  Could this be why women fare better in public life in some middle east countries than they do in Scotland?


I've just realised that the day I wrote this blog Ken Roy had a great piece in the Scottish Review on 'the poison at the heart of Scotland'. In it he makes clear how much he dislikes this aspect of Scottish life.

Other links

Original essay by Sophie Cooke, Scottish Review

Stuart Kelly's reply, Scottish Review

Response by Catherine Czerawska  and Tessa Ransford, Scottish Review

Kenneth Roy on Flyting, Scottish Review

James Robertson's comments

Comment By Comment
Kasia Kossak
Joined: 19/11/2011

Comment Posted: 19/11/2011 15:11
I think you make some extremely strong points here. Why should we need vituperation - the act of abusing or rebuking harshly - to keep us on our toes, in 21st century Scotland? I have been truly alarmed, when serving on various committees and attending meetings over the past few years, at just how many supposedly professional and intelligent men lose it when their certainties are challenged, however mildly. I've seen it happen in school board and community meetings. I've had my head bitten off in public more times than I care to remember when some man - and sadly it almost always is a man -throws what can only be described as a tantrum and 'chucks all his toys out of the pram.' It doesn't encourage healthy debate. It is, in fact, just another form of bullying, because as with any primate, when a bigger, stronger animal shows his teeth and beats his chest, opponents tend to back down.
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