Friday, 20 March, 2015

Trigger warning: sexual assault

The dark reflections of Francisco Goya’s Saturn Devouring His Son, an allegory of the revolutionary turmoil in early nineteenth century Spain, echoed the sentiments of Jacques Mallet du Pan, who previously had said of the similar situation in France: “the Revolution devours its children”. The words continue to resonate, particularly in view of the strange fruit born of the Arab Spring. Yet, as vexing as all of that is, here in the West we are witnessing a new Terror take hold, as the Great Wars of Culture and Social Justice continue to ravage the Online communities, pitting Facebook friend against Facebook friend, follower against follower, in a struggle for hearts and minds everywhere. There’s fighting in the Blogosphere, fighting in the Tweetosphere, and fighting in the Commentosphere, with some of the worst carnage occurring on the dreaded Tumblr Front. With no clear conditions for victory, and an ever more stringent definition of what can be called ‘problematic’, it is worth asking of the more zealous Social Justice Warriors whether having the jus ad bellum excuses a growing absence of jus in bello, and whether the tactics of policing, outrage and ostracisation represent part of an effective strategy for spreading the gospel.

So how did we get here? When did finding a firm footing upon the shifting sands of social justice internet-jargon become the sign of Goodness? How have writers and other producers of culture unwittingly become charged with the responsibility of representing a ‘movement’, subject to strict policing by vocal online observers?

Well, first we must assume that cultures exist as languages. Why? Well, it seems as good a theory as any other. Then, we look at the statistics and the stories of people that tell of the troubling inequality in our society – and there are plenty of them, and they are pretty damning. It follows that in order to rectify this inequity, there needs to be a positive change in the way the culture represents itself through discourse, which it does for the most part via the internet in this modern age. Spice this agenda with the democratic nature of internet communities, and add some of the characteristic unpleasantness of people acting under a certain level of anonymity, et voila! You get Twitter and Tumblr.

Unfortunately, as the old saying goes, when all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. Young, straight, cis-gendered white women, whose anger had traditionally been directed toward the oppressive white male patriarchy, now find themselves a little too privileged within the new intersectional paradigm, too often spared the toil of the field in the relative comfort of the master’s house. It is easy to understand why, when Harvard alumna Sheryl Sandberg, Chief Operating Officer of Facebook, wrote a recent book advising women to be more assertive in the boardroom, and have their husbands do more housework, a lot of less fortunate women responded: “thanks for the tip, bitch”.

In 2014 Michelle Goldberg wrote ‘Feminism’s Toxic Twitter Wars’ for The Nation, in which she described an initiative by feminist bloggers and online activists to convene and discuss potential sources of fund-raising for their efforts, that was met with “coruscating anger and contempt” from other online activists. Apparently, all of this white feminism was really just so much racism, and the hashtag #solidarityisforwhitewomen was born. The attacks upon the organisers grew so personal and so heated that many of the women quoted in the piece described their growing fear to speak out on many issues and risk being condemned or ostracised.

Why is such self-righteous vitriol countenanced within this arena? It follows from the bastardisation of a concept called ‘tone policing’. Tone policing is the idea that privileged members of a group can tend to shut down conversations involving less privileged members of the group expressing their frustrations, by complaining that these frustrations are being expressed with too much anger, rather than addressing the concerns being raised. Of course, tone policing tends to be avoided in online social justice communities, and when this aversion is taken to the extreme, it creates a competition of oppression, in which those who have greater oppression-credentials may sound off as rudely and intolerably as they please, and if everyone else doesn’t shut up and take it then they are evil. As one Tumblr writer put it, quoting another: “Anger is valid, anger is important, anger brings social change, anger makes people listen, anger is threatening, and anger is passion.” She concludes: “I am not responsible for your feelings”, and suggests that if “you’re still butthurt about your fee-fees” that you follow a link provided to some further Tumblr scholarship on the subject.

Aside from the unlikely assertion that people listen when they feel threatened, the most… problematic… aspect of this attitude, comes from earlier in the piece, when she says that if someone shows confusion about the validity of the tone policing theory, it “automatically labels them as racist/sexist in my brain”. As this suggests, the illocution commonly encountered online is not a directive – “please do not speak like this” – but rather a declaration – “you are a bigot”. As seen before in the case of feminist activists – undoubtedly good, non-racist people! – being called racist by angry tweeters, one lazy declaration such as this can upend a person’s professional and social world, particularly if they are actively working to address injustice. It is natural for fear of being ostracised to force people into silence, when straying from the ever-changing party line can elicit such accusations. Or to simply deactivate their accounts.

Twenty years ago, Glenn Loury, Professor of Economics at Brown University, described this process in Self-Censorship in Public Discourse: A Theory of “Political Correctness” and Related Phenomena. For Loury, the information asymmetry between a speaker and their audience as to the speaker’s deep-seated values leads to a certain dance between the lines of speech, as the speaker attempts to signal, strategically, that they’re ‘cool’, and the audience screens their words for clues that they’re not. In order to avoid being ostracised, speakers must then employ a certain level of deceit, and self-censorship, to avoid incurring these social costs – unless, of course, they belong to a group that doesn’t share these values. One need only watch Fox news for an hour or two before encountering some ‘pundit’ who is perfectly comfortable saying, on national TV, something like: “the problem with blacks is that, since the ‘60s, the feminist and homosexual agenda has destroyed the institution of marriage, and now these young men are growing up without a father to teach them how to behave”. They go home heroes to their communities, and when told that left wing commentators have accused them of gross prejudice, they answer: “Jimmy cracked corn, and I don’t care.”

However, within groups whose members do feel a need to self-censor on certain sensitive topics, there is the potential for a ‘bad equilibrium’ to arise, akin to the tale of The Emperor’s New Clothes. A recent example of this is Rolling Stone magazine’s decision to loosen its journalistic standards in order to publish ‘A Rape on Campus’, an article describing a vicious gang rape by fraternity members of a prestigious US university on another student. The article turned out to be fraudulent, and a disaster for the magazine, the author, anti-rape advocates, and the victim. The decision to allow such lax investigation could only have come from the editors’ fear of seeming ‘pro-rape’ by questioning the account of events given by the victim and speaking to the accused.

Even more… I’m sorry… problematic… is the evidence that fear of confirming negative stereotypes about one’s group, such as the fear white people might have of being accused of racism, leads to an anxiety that makes for bad encounters in real life. When there is a split in one’s attention, with a significant portion of one’s cognitive resources given over to worry about seeming prejudiced, the atmosphere becomes poisoned by nervousness. You may consciously hate the idea of unfair treatment of disadvantaged groups, but your body language will betray you as still being a little more ‘comfortable’ around your own kind. The end result is the same: you give the job to someone who looks and talks like you, your friends are people who look and talk like you, the goods in society remain disproportionately held by people who look and talk like you. Not because you’re a bad person, but just because it’s easier on the nerves.

All of this is not meant to show that online activism, and the effect it is having on our culture, is necessarily a bad thing. But everything in this age of information is incredibly complex, and caution, patience and nuance are necessary at almost every turn.

Oh, and by the way, I’m black, so if you disagree with anything I’ve said here you’re a racist shitlord who deserves to die. Why? Because slavery. Comments closed.