Read enough opinion pieces and you’ll quickly begin to notice the tactic of script flipping. This is when someone takes a term or a type of language used by someone they disagree with and flip it to serve their own political agenda. They may appropriate terms directly and subtly shift their definitions, such as Christians who claim to have lost “religious freedom” when another group is gaining theirs. Or, they may create new terms that parallel others, such as “creep shaming” and “offense culture.”
Script flipping is a way to capitalize on the popularity of certain ways of analyzing particular issues in order to be taken more seriously or to provoke an emotional reaction in readers or listeners. For instance, “rape culture” has become a powerful way to express the complex tangle of factors that lead to high rates of sexual assault among disadvantaged groups. So, people who want to talk about something totally unrelated to rape culture (and probably not even real) may simply append “-culture” to the thing they’re criticizing, presumably hoping that that might cause more people to take it seriously.
The problem with script flipping isn’t necessarily the lack of originality, though some might take issue with that too. The problem is that the script flippers often don’t understand the original script very well, so they flip it in a direction that makes no sense, sometimes for the purpose of ridiculing the original script. As I’ll discuss, people who use terms like “female privilege” and “creep shaming” in earnest don’t seem to understand what is meant by “privilege” or what is meant by “creep” or “shaming.” The analysis falls flat, and everyone who hears the flipped script before understanding the original one ends up with a shallow conception of what people were trying to say in the first place.
The other problem is that it’s simply a bad argument most of the time. It’s an appeal to emotion, whether meant to irritate and hurt the creators of the original script, or to horrify and galvanize the target audience. What if I told you that free speech is being severely threatened on the internet, or that a particular religious group is being steadily denied the freedom to practice their religion in America? That sounds pretty bad. Well, what if I told you that the threat to free speech is bloggers moderating their comments, or that the religious group being denied freedom is Christians who are upset that classroom holiday celebrations must now mention Chanukah and Kwanzaa in addition to Christmas? Sounds a lot less dire now.
Social justice terms seem especially likely to be targeted by script flippers, perhaps because they can be difficult to understand (especially to those with the motivation to avoid understanding), they may sound silly to those unfamiliar with them, and, well, many people oppose social justice ideals.
These are just a few examples of script flipping:
The ultimate script-flip, misandry equates anti-male sentiments with the whole system of oppression and violence against women known as misogyny.
First of all, a lot of things that get called “misandry” objectively lack any sort of hatred of men. When I’m told that it’s “misandry” to say that men should not catcall me on the street, for instance, this is disingenuous, a transparent attempt to make me feel bad for expressing a preference that has nothing to do with my feelings about men themselves. Suddenly, a preference to walk down the street without hearing crude sexual remarks becomes hating an entire group of people and being prejudiced against them. The script is flipped, and so is the blame.
Second, even when someone is expressing an opinion that suggests they hate men as a group, it still makes no sense to equate this to misogyny, because misogyny isn’t simply random occasional men hating women. It’s about millennia of many men hating women, so much so that they were able to deny women basic human rights until fairly recently (and continue to do so in some places).
When a woman hates a man, there’s no structural power behind it. It may be hurtful, it may be rude, it may be unfair (or maybe not, given how many women have been attacked and abused by multiple men in their lifetimes), but it rarely has a power that goes beyond their individual interactions. Nor does it stem from a long and storied history of women being taught to hate and look down upon men. It can feel crappy without having a special name that suggests historical and structural causes.
What blogger hasn’t encountered the pathetic whining of a commenter whose comment has been deleted and whose free speech has been gravely infringed upon?
Even people who understand that “free speech” is something that can only be denied by a government, not by an individual with a blog, will claim that what they really mean by the phrase is that one “ought” to listen to dissenting viewpoints, even if expressed abusively, and that blogs and forums and other online spaces “ought” to be considered public free-for-alls. To them, moderating comments on a blog I own would be equivalent to shouting at random strangers on the street and demanding that they stop saying things they don’t like.
In her article about the “free speech” script-flip, Lindy West writes, “I’ll go to the mat for the First Amendment, but as far as comments on private websites are concerned, I say squelch ‘em all. The right to speak your mind does not include the right to parasitically attach yourself to a high-traffic website in order to reach an audience you could never earn on your own.”
Nevertheless, people call this “free speech” because it makes it sound like a bigger deal than “getting to say whatever I want however I want on someone else’s website.”
“Feminists can’t take no for an answer.”/”No means no.”
When the Women Against Feminism Tumblr blew up recently, I saw some prominent anti-feminist women tweeting stuff like this. The implication being that feminists are pushing for changes that some women don’t want, and therefore they’re somehow violating those women’s consent because they are saying “no” and the feminists aren’t listening.
Let’s be clear. Pushing for political changes that someone else doesn’t want is not a violation of their consent. That’s not how consent works. It is, however, how a democracy works. But these anti-feminists appropriated language that’s been used by feminists for decades to fight sexual violence and flipped it around as an attack on feminists, making a mockery of what it means to consent or not consent, and what it means to violate someone.
I get that it doesn’t feel nice when other women are speaking as a group and saying things that you, as a woman, don’t agree with. Apparently some people were really rubbed the wrong way by the #YesAllWomen hashtag for this reason, but #YesMostWomenJustNotAFewWhoSeemToLikeItButThat’sTheirRightAndWeStillReallyDon’tLikeIt doesn’t exactly work. No, I don’t need your consent to speak about the way that being female in this society has affected me, even if you feel differently about it. My experiences with sexual assault, harassment, and prejudice are not idiosyncratic aspects of my individual life. They happened because I’m a woman.
“Christians are being denied religious freedom.”
This act of verbal gymnastics should be familiar to anyone who follows American news. “Religious freedom” is, obviously, one of the concepts that the United States was created to embody, and its guarantee in the Bill of Rights is what has historically allowed religious minorities to worship freely in this country–well, sometimes. Relative to some other places.
Now some Christians are flipping the script and insisting that when others try to assert their freedom of or from religion, they are actually threatening the Christians’ “religious freedom.” This term, apparently, has come to mean, “the freedom to have one’s religion considered the dominant one, and for local, state, and federal law to be based upon it.”
But protesting that your religious freedom is being curtailed makes for better news coverage than whining that you’re not being allowed to impose your religion on others, so they flip the script.
“Witch hunt”/”lynch mob”
Whenever some prominent person (usually white, usually male) does an unethical and/or hurtful thing, they get called out for it, because when you’re prominent, many people are watching what you do and many people are affected by what you do. While there will always be individuals who take their condemnation of someone too far (for instance, by issuing threats of violence), the majority of the pushback is usually reasonable. Sometimes angry, sometimes profane, but generally justified to various extents.
Then the person who fucked up and their defenders will inevitably use rhetoric like “witch hunt” and “lynch mob” to describe the backlash. It’s ironic, really, because witch hunts and lynch mobs are some of the most extreme manifestations of sexist and racist violence, and the (usually white, usually male) person in question is often being called out for sexism or racism.
Actual witch hunts and lynch mobs are issues of massive social injustice. The former is an example of some of the worst excesses of religious misogyny, while the latter represents a legacy of terrorism against Black people that some would argue continues to this day. White dudes, these are not your analogies to use. Using them for the emotional impact to create sympathy, and especially using them when you have been accused of doing something sexist or racist, is unacceptable.
“Female privilege” is the term used by some people to refer to benefits that women have in our society simply because they are women. It’s important to note, though, that most of these “benefits”–having doors held open for you, being assumed a good parent and caretaker, being offered free drinks–are not benefits so much as manifestations of what’s called benevolent sexism. This type of sexism is still sexism, and it still harms.
Other types of “female privileges,” such as women being given lighter sentences than men for the same crimes or being more likely to receive custody of children (if the latter actually happens–the jury may still be out, as it were), are unquestionably benefits, but they are not caused by a large-scale societal devaluation and oppression of men. They are caused by assumptions about women that are ultimately harmful or straight-up negative. No other type of privilege works this way.
These benefits will disappear when sexism disappears, and they should. But it doesn’t make any sense to call them “female privilege,” because fighting these patterns requires fighting the larger system of sexism against women. Calling them “female privilege” creates the impression–probably intentionally–that we have a societal framework that systematically values women above men and considers them better. We do not.
This derivative of “slut shaming” is used by folks who are very very concerned that innocent men are being punished for nonexistent offenses like “creeping out” women who only have a problem with the behavior because they don’t consider the men attractive or they’re just “prudes” or whatever. Interestingly–I’m not sure if this is intentional or not–this script flip shares the same weakness as “slut shaming” does as a term. Namely, they both assume that there is such a thing as a creep or a slut. The people crying “creep shaming!” would probably want to deny the existence of what the rest of us call “creeps.”
But if a “slut” is a woman who is unfairly decried for being “too sexual,” then a “creep,” in this frame, is presumably the male version of the same. Except that a “slutty” woman’s behavior presumably harms nobody but herself (really, it doesn’t hurt her, either), whereas a “creepy” man’s behavior harms another person. And while “slut shaming” consists of denigrating, devaluing, and even committing violence against women who are deemed “slutty,” “creep shaming” seems to consist largely of saying, “Guys, please don’t do that,” or, at the extreme, asking a man to leave an event at which he is making others uncomfortable.
Some people think that Black pride, gay pride, etc are about considering your group superior to others and being proud of it for that. So in that context, having “white pride” makes sense, since many white people really do consider themselves superior to everyone else.
But minority pride slogans are more about celebrating the achievements of a group traditionally left out of history books, fighting back against negative stereotypes, and reclaiming a sense of self-worth in the face of a society that actively tries to deprive you of it. In that context, “white pride” makes no sense. There is, similarly, no need for a White History Month or a White Entertainment Television, because whiteness has always been presumed something to be proud of, and white history is the only history that’s ever traditionally been taught, and entertainment for and by white people is the only entertainment that was traditionally available to the mass public.
“White pride” is an attempt to reframe racism and narrow-mindedness as something noble and deserving of respect. It is not. It’s a cowardly backlash against the attempts of people of color to get you to see them as fully human.
“I don’t identify as ‘cis'”/”You’re forcing labels on me”
First of all, to be clear, some people are obviously not cis. I’m referring to cis people who protest the use of the term “cis,” claiming that it’s “not how they identify” or that trans people are “forcing labels” on them.
It can be a compelling narrative, but it’s really just a script flip. Trans people have been fighting for decades for recognition of their identities, saying that they don’t identify as the gender they were assigned at birth and that they do not want people to force those identities onto them. Now some cis people are appropriating their language.
Obviously, you don’t have to call yourself cis if you don’t want to, but if you identify with the gender you were assigned at birth, and only with that gender, then you are cis by definition. The reason some people don’t want to be called “cis” is because they don’t want to be called anything at all. They want their gender identities to be considered default, and for trans people to be the ones who have to use all the extra labels. To them, “cis” means “normal,” so there’s no need for a new term.
Realizing that most trans people will have a strong aversion to referring to someone in a way that they’ve said they do not identify, these cis people use this language of identity against them. “I don’t identify as ‘cis.’ You’re forcing labels on me that I did not choose.” But why should the default be “not trans”?
A few months ago, a guy wrote a very long post on Medium in which he criticized his ex for cutting off contact with him after what, even when told from his perspective, seems like a lot of creepy and entitled behavior. He complained that his ex not only ignored what he wanted from the situation, but also that in doing so, she cut off her own potential for “growth.” Much concern troll. Wow.
Captain Awkward has a great analysis of the piece here, but the particular bone I’m going to pick with it now is its attempt to make this about something more than one entitled guy pining for an ex–“cutoff culture.” Yes, he is claiming that just as there is a rape culture that encourages people to sexually assault others and often excuses those who do so, there is a “cutoff culture” that encourages people to cruelly cut exes off for no good reason.
Notably, the guy’s behavior exemplifies some of the forms of boundary-crossing that feminists claim rape culture encourages–the attempts to stay in touch despite the person’s wishes, the feeling of entitlement to someone else’s attention (sexual or otherwise), the shifting of blame onto the person who does not want the contact.
But he flips the script to make himself the victim, not the person whose boundaries he continues to cross.
Of course, rather than a “cutoff culture,” we have just the opposite. We have a culture in which cutting off relationships, especially (but not only) familial ones, is strongly discouraged, sometimes even in cases of abuse. Women who have been battered by spouses are often encouraged to “make it work.” Ending friendships for any reason other than some clearly horrible transgression by someone is sometimes frowned upon. We do not have a “cutoff culture.” We have a culture in which if someone really really wants your attention or friendship, then that’s considered a good enough reason for you to be compelled to give it to them, regardless of how you feel about it.
“Not your body, not your choice”
This is used as a pro-life slogan, with the “not your body” referring to, obviously, the body of the fetus. It’s a script-flip of “My body, my choice.” Pro-lifers often appropriate pro-choice language to try to diminish the fact that they are arguing against the right to bodily autonomy. So they’ll make it about the fetus’s rights, or the fetus’s body, or the fetus’s choice. (The latter is, of course, ridiculous. Fetuses cannot choose anything. They are not alive.)
But many people have pointed out that the pro-life movement is not very concerned with the health or welfare of fetuses, babies, children, or even expectant mothers generally. If they were, you would see them advocating for increased access to prenatal care for mothers and healthcare for babies, as well as affordable childcare. They would be furious at the fact that mothers are getting arrested for leaving their children unattended because they cannot afford childcare but must go to work or job interviews. They would be working to encourage people who want children to consider adoption so that people with unwanted pregnancies are more likely to consider that a viable option. They would be battling the stigma of single motherhood and teenage pregnancy. They would be pouring their considerable resources into initiatives to lower the disproportionately high infant mortality rate among African Americans. They would be sending teams into impoverished neighborhoods to hand out free prenatal vitamins and formula.
But they don’t. So it’s not exactly honest to claim that their position is all about the rights and the bodies of fetuses.
Script flippers may be attempting to piggyback on what they see as the emotional salience of the terms they appropriate. “Feminists are pushing for reforms that I personally don’t want and think are bad” is one thing; “Feminists just can’t take no for an answer!” is another entirely. The hope is that people have strong negative reactions to hearing that someone “can’t take no for an answer” because they associate that with harassment, assault, rape, stalking, and other Very Very Bad things, and now that same emotional reaction will be transferred over to feminists. “Not taking no for an answer” is a Very Very Bad thing; therefore feminists are doing something Very Very Bad, and therefore feminists are Very Very Bad. It’s a cheap trick.
Sometimes it also seems as though people think that being taken seriously in the realm of social justice is just about using the correct “buzzwords” or “jargon,” like attaching “-culture” to everything or shouting out “no means no” or “you’re bullying me” whenever you don’t like something.
And therefore we end up with grotesque permutations like “outrage culture” and “feminists can’t take no for an answer,” as well as panic about trans women and women of color “bullying” people on Twitter.
It’s not that it’s impossible for some individual to be “too easily offended” (although I’m skeptical that that’s ever possible to objectively define), or for a trans woman or a woman of color to be a bully, or for a feminist to disrespect someone’s consent. It’s just that there doesn’t seem to be any evidence that these things are happening at significant enough rates to refer to them as a “culture” or as a significant problem separate from the issues of bullying or online harassment or whatever in general.
I suspect that the people who flip the script in these ways realize that they are not able to present evidence, so they hope that their reliance on what they perceive as effective tropes or catchphrases will carry their argument when evidence is unavailable. Don’t fall for it.
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