I have no metric for whether or not this is interesting. Usually I judge by making myself laugh, but tonight ain’t laff time. This isn’t a super serious sad post or anything, but it is a reaffirmation of some home truths, and it would have been too long (read: it’s already too long) if I went to the effort of putting in lots of jokes.
Warning: contains old news, abstract swearing and occasional feminism.
It seems like the price of entry to the internet is tuning out the din of comment sections on websites. In its most basic conception, anonymity allows the user to express themselves without any connection to their real world identity. This often manifests in people being confessional, expressing that which may damage their reputation without consequence. The odd corollary is that opinions often surface that are in conflict with political correctness, or generally accepted standards of decency. This stuff is self evident. However, over the last few weeks I’ve heard the din like tinnitus, ringing in my ears long after walking away from the computer.
The jarring effect of internet commenters is perhaps caused by an online environment tailored to our opinions. Decenteralisation in media changes the landscape from a homogeneous product presentation to the audience, into something which is sought out. Sure, traditional news media still exists, but the landscape has moved towards individuals seeking the majority of their news from sources they have chosen, increasing the chance that what they see will be generally agreeable. Moving out of teenagehood, and onto the precipice of actually caring about current events, I’m subject to this trend more than most. My news comes to me from places like reddit, where the subforums I subscribe to literally filter what I already think is important - on facebook, where people I know post news items that I’m likely to agree with - same goes for twitter, tumblr, etc. A while ago it struck me that I was stuck in an echo chamber of my own opinions, and that had me concerned that I was being indoctrinated into an implicit ignorance.
This hasn’t bothered me as much since I realised that social media is a reflection of offline social interactions. The small percentage of time that my opinions are confronted online is probably equivalent to any offline confrontations. As it happens, we’re only as insular as we allow ourselves to be - and it’s just that same old intuitive fallacy of blaming the behaviour on the first available stimulus.
The parallel of online interaction and offline interaction reveals the logic of appearances. This is where the comment section comes in. Under every piece of opinion online, there’s a counterpoint by whoever. The anonymity promotes brazen flaunting of accountability, but in essence it shows us the confronting desire in people to instantly and scathingly rebuke. Offline, this desire only comes out in safe spaces, where the scather assumes the present company to be already sympathetic. So what’s to be learned from the comments that got under my skin recently? Well, they have been, broadly speaking, misogynistic.
Obviously I’m aware of misogyny in every day life. The thing is, when it’s malicious, it’s pretty straight forward. I’ve worked with plenty of men that embody the central paradox of sexism - men who show respect to individual women, and disrespect women writ large. For them, their girlfriends, wives daughters, are exceptions to the rule - the enabling logic of generalisation. Often they present as accepting, decent sorts of people. The cliche then comes into play: I get to hear what they say when the women leave the room.
This is, an unfortunate side effect of political correctness. Those few who have been conditioned to behave as though political correctness itself is the goal are able to cocoon their bias in ‘acceptable’ terms, as though words were the problem in the first place. As far as I see, the narrow problem is reflections of gender and racial constructions in terminology, and the wider problem is hate and the aforementioned logic of generalisation.
For precisely this reason, I have a kind of gut wrenching reaction when I hear people, often my friends, say words such as slut, bitch, pussy and so on. This happens way, way too frequently. I assume you can fill in the blanks, but to make sure we’re clear, it’s because:
The word slut is pejoratively applied only to diminish someone for their sexual behaviour, and almost exclusively to demean women’s sexual agency. The word bitch is used to refer to a person who has any range of negative qualities, and places that person in a group of other bitches that are defined, essentially, as ‘bad women’, illogically tying together notions of virtue and womanhood. The flip side is the word bitch, when applied to men, refers to a man who’s somehow bad because they have qualities of women in general. And pussy, well, pussy is a complicated one.
The use of the word pussy seems to be more varied and often more benign than the aforementioned two. A common use, is in reference to a man who is weak, cowardly and as with bitch, generally womanlike. I have female friends who use the word euphemistically, and I get that. The sense of the word that painfully turns my stomach most regularly, however, is the male inversion of that euphemism. There is the odd occasion in a conversation about sex where men use the term literally, but it’s often extended into referring to not only genitals, but women as genitals - I’ve heard plenty of smart, sophisticated people used the word to commodify women, turning pussy into something to get. It occurs in an odd middle ground, I think that this sense of the word has been around long enough for people (men) to use the word and have it be construed in this offensive sense, but not for long enough for those same men to realise how offensive it is. That is not to say that at some arbitrary point the word becomes offensive, but rather that people are testing the waters with an incidentally offensive term, and maybe haven’t realised that it’s terrible yet. Clearly, here I’m trying to provide the benefit of the doubt, but let it be clear that those users that do deserve a charitable interpretation are in the minority.
I’ve focused on intention in describing my issues with these words, and a common objection would say that I’ve mischaracterised this intention. When I say that it’s used in this way or that way, I mean that it has actually, to my face, or through media, been said with that meaning. The only caveat I have to offer is that of ignorance, simply using a word without actually thinking it through. It’s a caveat, not a justification. And if I didn’t mention it, I’d be a hypocrite. I have a dilemma. I use the word cunt. Not often, not maliciously. But, I do use it. So while I find bitch, slut and pussy offensive, I still say that? The worst possible interpretation and usage of the word is a combination of those senses of bitch, and pussy, in that it can be used to diminish someone through reference to female genitals. The question I have to ask is: why doesn’t it bother me?
I think, simply put, the reduced frequency of the c-word means that there is just less opportunity for it to be used in that sense. I’ve never used it in that sense, I very, very rarely hear it used in that sense, so I’ve never actually heard anyone be offended by it for any reason other than its taboo nature. Australians reading will undoubtedly know of its liberal use, and meaninglessness over here. Because of its privileged status as the ‘worst’ swear word, it was entirely taboo - until it was revived, only because it was the worst. Not for some special, misogynistic purpose, simply because it was shocking. The inherent contradiction in my perception of its meaninglessness, however, is that I have never called a woman a cunt. I’ve called men cunts. Why? Because if I referred to a woman like that, it could be taken as that worst interpretation. But calling a man (or an inanimate object, or whatever you just stubbed your toe on) a cunt is simply to refer to him in the worst way language allows you to, in the least allowed and thus most shocking way possible. This is not a justification, it’s an explanation. It has etymological femininity, but it is so far from this meaning that in context, the worst case scenario is a distant glimmer. But even if it has morphed, and has little chance of offending someone, why use it? Ultimately, there might be reasons why you shouldn’t use a word, but what do you gain from using it? When you use taboo slurs, you’re valuing your right to expression. There’s an implicit valuation of your expression as being more important than the suffering of others. I don’t think that’s fair.
Suffering sounds like a strong word, but I think that’s what it is. Being spoken about in slurs hurts. I’ve been called a faggot, and it fucking sucks. But at least people understand why it sucks. That’s the real point of this diversion into slur discussion. The most offensive words are those that are accepted. When we accept them we internalise the meaning, and once the word can mean something without the intention of the user, it can be used in a way that is unmalicious, but still offensive. It seems paradoxical, but there you go. It puts me in a weird situation, because as I said earlier, probably the most frequent users of bitch and slut are, on balance, my female friends. And there is usually little malice, but I am often a bit perturbed. But why would I say anything? I’m the white male archetypal oppressor. That’s clearly not reason alone for me to not say anything (it’s not like I’m the patriarchy), but I still don’t feel comfortable telling people not to do things when I’m not the one being oppressed. I’m offended, but not oppressed, and I don’t think the best way for me to go about supporting women is to tell women not to do things. This is a bit of an odd conclusion that I don’t think is necessarily logically consistent, but it’s almost a social mandate. There is no way around the fact that it would sound ridiculous for me to correct someone who is a member of the group being marginalised not to marginalise themselves. They may or may not be given the context, but it’s probably not my place. To argue for civil rights issues, separate from terms in themselves - that’s my place.
And this is how it circles back around. Social complacency, political correctness, frictionless and ideology free interaction. Or the myth thereof. This is all dispelled by the zone of free hate established on the comment board. If I hadn’t seen peoples anonymous opinions for most of my life, I don’t think that I would describe myself as a feminist now. Basically because I wouldn’t have needed to.
When I was younger, I would have described myself as an egalitarian. For equality. That’s it. Equality for everyone. Sounds good. The only issue was, after seeing socialisation occur throughout my teens, and seeing everyone become subjects of gender roles, and hearing men, and hearing women, and encountering all these slurs, after seeing porn (and holy fuck, if you think that comment sections on pieces about women’s rights issues are bad, go and read the comments under a porn video) it became really obvious that a big, big part of equality for everyone meant equality for women. After seeing the metaphorical comment board of the world (which is in turn the toilet wall of the internet), I think you’re sort of pressed into feministic action. Yes, feminism is under the banner of egalitarianism, but as an egalitarian, once you locate the inequality it’s your job to champion the cause of the oppressed.
After this turn, you wonder why you hesitated being a feminist at all.
There are two central myths of feminism that discourage men from attaching themselves to the issue:
The first is that feminists advocate for the supremacy of the female sex.
The second is that feminism is only for women.
I’m sure that there are some female supremacists out there, just as I’m sure there are some people that think that feminism is a cause to be championed by women. They’re wrong. I don’t have to be a feminist, but I can be, and I am.
So, I do tend to notice misogyny. As with all that stuff about slurs, most of the straight forward stuff happens face to face. The stuff I see popping up more and more online isn’t so much anti-woman as it is anti-feminist. There’s a lot of stuff in online communities that I’m a part of (facebook, reddit, all that stuff again) that isn’t explicitly misogynistic. More in the vain of questioning bits and pieces here and there. Like a guy referring to it as ‘the myth of the pay gap’, or a guy posting ‘it’s not rape just because you regret it’… those are a few real examples, of the many, many things I have seen recently that are, to me, viscerally disturbing. I honestly don’t understand what motivates these guys. Yes, I get that you think that there are some women that have lied about being raped. Do you think that that is the majority of cases? Do you think that this is common place? Do you think that men are usually the victims of sexual assault? 85% of sexual assaults in Australia happen to women. You can call statistical bias in fifty different ways, yeah, but do you think 85% has a big margin of error?
When you say that there is a problem with the intensity of the interpretation of the facts, you’re not working for truth, you’re working to diminish the issue. It is the exact same modus operandi as holocaust deniers. What is the actual point of trying to reduce the stats? Unless you’re flipping the metaphorical table on the whole debate, why try and encroach a little on the claims? You’re not encroaching on the conclusion in any meaningful way. Heterosexual men do not face the same oppression as heterosexual women. Just fucking deal with it.
A whole language has emerged in a kind of counter cultural right wing milieu. Yes I’m for male equality, but I don’t see suffering of men as so prevalent that I should include it as something I identify with. Yes, there are biological, innate differences between men and women, but there is no reason to champion the cause of a biological wedge between the sexes. In the same way, there might be differences between races of people, but there is no reason to champion race science in this cultural climate. Historically, there is a link between race science and malicious racism, but race science doesn’t necessitate a move towards eugenics or something similar. That’s fine. But we don’t allocate funding towards the furthering of racial science. We don’t need to. Maybe in some future where we live in a utopic society, we can actually get valuable information from that kind of work, but for now we may as well just leave it on the shelf until such a time that it doesn’t solicit malicious bias.
The new right language I’m referring to places emphasis on tradition, community and so on. But again, this seems like a post-political correctness effort to reintroduce a wedge based on ethnicity. Tradition functions to create meaning and solidarity. That might appear to be a valuable function. But in itself, it isn’t. Tradition needn’t be upheld on the basis that it is a tradition, but rather on the effects that it produces. You can create new traditions that espouse positive ideologies - longevity is not a virtue in itself. Take marriage. There is a large contingent in the right that thinks that allowing gay people to marry will corrupt society, because it breaks the tradition of union between man and woman. But, there is another contingent that has evaluated the effects of marriage, rather than its so called sanctity. Those effects, they argue, are essentially a promotion of social cohesion. Marriage creates stability in families, in turn creating economic stability writ large. They value these principles, and as such see no reason why gay people shouldn’t be married. In fact, they should be getting married - the tradition has no merit beyond its consequences, and they recognise that those consequences aren’t built on gender.
It’s odd writing about politically charged material. I don’t tend to. There’s some part of espousing political opinion that seems prosthelytizing. I don’t like telling people what to think. I do, however, really like having conversations about why we think things, and the sort of things we should think. Politics seems to corrupt this, as it is difficult to enter a political conversation without an ideology. Especially in modern partisan politics. Political ideology seems to be founded on the correlation of principles. That is, if I can determine some guiding principle to my thought, then I can extract political opinions from it. A reductive example would be perhaps an identification of suffering as unjust, and then extrapolating ways to avoid suffering. This could result in being pro-healthcare, and pro-legalization of euthanasia. I do hold those two opinions. I also value freedom of expression, so I might advocate for rights to free speech and to public protest. Those two principles might have some overlap, but they’re not fundamentally connected. Even though they might not have anything to do with one another, the products of stray principles tend to get lumped into one category.
I’m not comfortable identifying with the left wing, but I’m not comfortable with not identifying with it either. I’m clearly a product of my culture, because I hold a lot of the views in that left wing cluster… but should I say I’m left wing? That could equally mean that I’m a socialist, an anarchist, etc. I have some lefty opinions, but I have little idea of what beliefs I’m incidentally subscribing to, so I don’t. I like the idea of being an apolitical philosopher, but it’s really hard when your immune system gets attacked by misogyny and tries to fight it by typing.