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Labour MP Chuka Amunna recently commented during BBC’s Question Time that when it comes to politics, people want only black and white answers. As disconcerting as it is to find yourself agreeing with a politician, this echoed a thought that has been bothering me for some time.  If anybody wanders into the public domain and offers an opinion or observation that isn’t bombastic in conviction and absolute in content, they get lambasted or ridiculed. It seems that, unless they come complete with a blindfold, leather whip and incredibly dodgy prose, we really do not like shades of grey.

The problem with this is that most of life is exactly that – grey.  Life is nuanced, problematic and shifting. The issues we face every day, both personally and collectively, often require a thoughtful and balanced response and do not have black and white answers. Yet as soon as you look at the debates around those issues you find strident voices telling you black and white is all you have. Problems with the NHS? Blame the immigrants, No jobs? Blame the immigrants (again), Too many immigrants? Blame the EU, Don’t like the EU? Leave and all our problems will be solved. Society breaking down? Blame anybody – immigrants, schools, working mothers, single mothers, feckless dads, feminism…

And so we come to feminism. Most of the most ridiculous blacknwhite rhetoric I’ve ever come across revolves around feminism; what it is and what it isn’t – its aims, its impacts, its history, its winners and its losers.  The debates into which feminism, both ideologically and practically, can be brought are many and varied, but in all of them it doesn’t take long for blacknwhitism to surface.  At one level the statements, on both sides, are so crude they are laughable; feminism is a Marxist plot (or a capitalist one) to destabilise society; housewives are stupid; feminists hate men; men can’t be victims and so on. But as crude as these statements are, they pose a problem for those of us who do accept and embrace the grey, because they block positive, healthy debate. In this sort of debate, we accept not every one will agree and people may draw different conclusions from the same source. This type of debate, where we have the possibility of gaining insight and change, can only occur if we step into the grey. In the grey, we can discuss why, and if, we needed feminism and where it came from historically. We can explore that history (or histories) and it’s various alliances with other political ideologies, while seeing it as a diffuse and developing idea. We can acknowledge that, while feminism is celebrated by some, others including both men and women, view it only as a negative and argue for its reversal.

As a feminist historian the grey is important to me, because if there are those who argue that feminism has made things worse (a common contention), then you have to accept the past was somehow better. And that is a tricky argument to make, precisely because of the grey. Not only is life nuanced, problematic and shifting, it always was and trying to unearth the historical reality of people’s lives is a complex task. More than that, it is a task that will rarely uncover hard “facts” about those lives from which can be drawn the blacknwhite statements so beloved of contemporary commentators.  “Facts” are notoriously slippery things.  So no, history doesn’t tell us all women were desperate for feminism nor does it tell us all women were blissfully happy under patriarchy, it tells us something far more difficult and subtle; that the truth (another problematic concept, but one for a different time) lies somewhere in the middle, in the grey.

In the grey, the observation can be made that both patriarchy and feminism have a checkered past, but only by looking to that past and the lessons it teaches us can we move forward and try and meet in middle.

So this is a call to arms for those of us who understand that life is not black and white and that it is in the shades of grey that understanding, change and progress is to be found. We will never stop those who revel in blacknwhitism, either because they can’t see the grey or don’t care too. But those of us who appreciate the grey can try and find it in our debates and discussions, and by doing so can make life a little more colourful. Step into the grey and you just might find the rainbow.

And on that note – who wants to discuss religion?