We hear from the Outspoken series editor Neda Tehrani about why we need books that dissent.
Check out the Outspoken homepage for my blogs here. Buy Mask Off by JJ Bola here and Behind Closed Doors by Natalie Fiennes here.
‘Most young people lack interest in politics’ was the BBC’s conclusion of an official ONS survey conducted in 2014.[i] Fast forward a few years and 2017 saw widespread coverage of the youth vote[ii] at the UK general election, which was at its highest in 25 years. In 2018, the US mid-terms saw young canvassers door-knocking and supporting electoral campaigns, their votes recorded at the highest level in a century for a mid-term election[iii]. Setting the activism agenda is a priority, where young people are playing a pivotal role in paving the way for new campaigns and breathing life into older ones. From teenagers in the US starting the March for our Lives protest – the youth-led gun control movement that organised days after the Parkland mass shooting which led to more than a million students walking out of schools across the country on March 14th 2018, to 2019 youth climate strikes leading to hundreds of thousands of students walking out of schools in across more than 100 countries – including the US, the UK, India, Uganda, Nepal and Australia – following the movement inspired by Greta Thunberg to demand action on our alarming and accelerating climate crisis. There is of course division as well as consensus, and not all youth political sentiments are neatly aligned. But in recent years, we have been witnessing a collective confrontation of the establishment, where the status quo is no longer good enough and radical politics appears to be a source of real change – where the ‘r word’ was once off-putting and taboo, it now represents alternatives.
Austerity, white supremacy, rampant misogyny, mental health crises and ecological destruction undoubtedly affect marginalised groups across all ages, dependent on the interconnected factors of class, race, gender, sexuality and ability. But there is something in the resounding statement young people are worse off than their parents’ generation that is uniting people in their discontentment. Promised and sold false ideas around job security and success, young people are more likely to be in precarious work[iv]. While reproductive justice has never been fully achieved, we are experiencing the regression of rights already in place; young people who have limited independence and access to support are bearing the brunt of this and are often the butt of moralising talking points of old men claiming that they can’t be trusted with their own bodies. The impending doom of climate crisis continues to weigh heavy – a recent update in the barrage of bad news being that we have just 18 months to save the planet. Continuous cuts to welfare budgets and resources mean that in some places around the world we are seeing the worst mental health crises of any generation – worryingly but unsurprisingly, stress levels are being reported as linked to political turmoil for many young people.[v] ‘Future prospects’ no longer feels realistic as a phrase or goal. However, the unity that has been driving this political activity does spark hope; the younger and older generations have much to gain from joining forces and tackling collective injustice and exploitation.
The importance of allowing people to define their politics on their own terms cannot be underestimated. All the talk about ‘millenials’ and ‘gen z’ can often ignore the following glaring omission that a focus group participant pointed out during our research for Pluto’s new Outspoken series for young people: people often talk about young people’s relationship to politics, but it’s not always grounded in a concrete understanding of what it actually consists of. Political content is often prescribed, rather than collaborated on through open dialogue.
Outspoken is a series of punchy political books, intervening in some of the most pressing issues facing us today. The books blend lively and engaging narrative with contemporary debates, a sharp dissenting discourse running throughout the books. There is a real appetite to deal with some of the more popular debates in a way that actively politicises them and refuses to shy away from the big questions. The authors are young – when it comes to which voices dominate the landscape of political non-fiction books, we know that these voices are underrepresented. We have been helpfully guided by our audience on which topics to publish on, while our authors have also spoken to a diverse range of people during the research phase of their writing. Outspoken draws on compelling testimonies from people with experience and stories to tell, and the voices of trailblazing activists and organisers including Sisters Uncut, Manchester Male Survivors Network, English Collective of Prostitutes, and many more.
Our launch books are Behind Closed Doors: Sex Education Transformed by Natalie Fiennes and Mask Off: Masculinity Redefined by JJ Bola. Both are patently relevant in our #MeToo era but share the belief that popular debates must go further to make this moment matter. Natalie Fiennes makes the passionate case for a life-long sex education – one that puts political histories right at its beating heart. Turning traditional sex ed as we know it on its head, the book explores hot-button issues such as consent, pornography and gender identity from radical angles, while exploring lesser known histories, from missionary presses and the early seeds of formal sex to virginity testing during the Egyptian revolution. It’s hard to imagine these politics being viewed as legitimate aspects of sex ed alongside ‘birds and the bees’ chat unless we push for a major shift towards inclusive, nuanced and politicised understandings of sex and power dynamics that we can all benefit from at any point in our lives. JJ Bola immerses himself in the realm of masculinity, exploring mental health, sport, sex, the digital world, and more. Delving into the minefield of statistics on men and mental health, treading the digital ground of InCels and political violence, and showing how feminism cares about men more than any men’s rights movement ever could, Bola unravels masculinity as tied to the patriarchy as a system that is destructive to both women and men.
Forthcoming books released in Spring 2020 include Feminism, Interrupted: Disrupting Power; a bold call to reclaim feminism from the clutches of the liberal consumerist model. ‘Boss feminism’ has taken centre stage in recent years, setting its sights on putting women on a par with men and essentially bolstering state power. Exposing how feminism is constantly co-opted for insidious aims, Lola Olufemi knows that now is the time to blow away the smokescreen and return feminism to its radical roots, centring the vital role grassroots organising plays in this. In Split: Class Divides Uncovered, Ben Tippet takes on the myth that class is no longer a ‘useful’ concept or that it can be reduced merely to the cultural. Foregrounding the economic nature of class, he tackles questions such as ‘who really are the working class?’ and ‘can you ever really earn a billion pounds?’ The book is a powerful reminder that Marxism is indeed well and truly alive and shows how a diverse and eclectic unified working-class can fight back against capitalism. Further books in the pipeline for Autumn 2020 include a book on migrant rights by Leah Cowan, exploring how and why borders were created in the first place, and a book on the world of work by Amelia Horgan dealing with themes of unemployment, capitalist alienation and ‘burnout’.
At this point I should note that while the books highlight much of what is wrong and gloomy in the world, they do end on a hopeful note and point us towards steps we can take in transforming society together. The books also include helpful resources (click here and here), ranging from organisations, crisis centres and call lines, to further reading. We have lots in the pipeline, including book launches, events and talks, and educational visits to schools, colleges and universities. Future initiatives we are currently working on include a blog prize, a crowdfunder, and social media call outs for book topics. We also look forward to working with a range of brilliant organisations with transformative approaches to education.
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[ii] The 18-24 voting demographic