Guest post by AJ Milne: The monsters in the room

Originally a comment on Missing parts

There’s a pattern, here–and forgive me if I’m restating what others might find obvious–but the general inappropriateness of citing Mill to justify misogynistic harassment–it fits again so well, I guess I felt noting this again is almost a forced move.

Mill’s essay is largely about the relationship between the state and dissenters, but not quite so exclusively–as it’s also more generally about relationships between majorities and minorities. The conclusion I can summarize quickly–anyone wants to argue otherwise, let me know, but to borrow from Mill himself: ‘… the sole end for which mankind are warranted, individually or collectively, in interfering with the liberty of action of any of their number, is self-protection…’

… note that Mill doesn’t restrict this to physical coercion and legal penalties (also his words). Look at the sentence right before that one, which mentions also ‘the moral coercion of public opinion’. And yeah, that’s an important addition, and a thought provoking one, I’d say. Mill seems to have recognized well enough the immense informal power a social hegemony can have. You don’t have to have formal laws forbidding the expression of a particular opinion if there’s sufficient dislike of it within a community*.

Anyway, I wonder if the people citing Mill figure that’s their out: they figure they can say, look, you can’t silence my odious opinions and threatening speech, with or without the force of law (and, okay, yes, I’m probably giving them too much credit; did they actually read Mill? Reilly-Cooper, I suspect, would equally wonder, but anyway, but this may be irrelevant; let’s just parse the logic of it anyway, I guess), because this isn’t really about self-protection…

Completely overlooking the reality that, yes, if they continue, en masse, to threaten anyone speaking for feminism, they’ve become, in fact, the very overwhelming, silencing social force Mill’s essay seeks to defang. Any number of targets of such harassment will tell you how very difficult it becomes simply to go on, simply to continue expressing themselves, under a sufficient volume of such vitriol. Even as their harassers warp themselves in this convenient cloak of victimhood, loudly proclaiming how stifling progressives are. It’s a bit of a confusion, I think, born of this technology**: a mob wielding truncheons and growling ‘shut it bitch or this is going to get ugly’ is more visible in physical space; in this decade, it hides from making such an evocative spectacle of itself in discrete packets, delivered a kilobyte at a time…

And, of course, arguing it’s not about self-protection is to have a rather precious and self-serving definition, too, of just what constitutes harm. No one I think at all responsible seriously questions that these campaigns of hatred can genuinely hurt people. One skilled harasser can drive their target to suicide, and it will make the news; what a mob of them can do is likewise clear enough.

What would Mill have said? Honestly, I find it a bit of an academic question, anyway; it’s the same problem we get when we make idols of the US founding fathers and ask what would the framers of the constitution have made of whichever point of contemporary law…

The point being that the question is more for ourselves: yes, still considering these larger principles held up in the past with some reason as wise, what matter of society do we want to make, given this new connected, online world, immediate communication, the ability to put hate mail on someone’s desktop half a world away with the click of a mouse or tap on a touchscreen?

And about this inversion of victimhood. Again, it’s probably saying the obvious, but I figure this is much of the source of mischief, here. People can become right rat bastards, whenever they imagine themselves the wounded party. Seems pretty much to take the ethical brakes right off them. Am I hounding someone to their grave with my hatred? Whatever. They’re a feminist, and I’ve managed to convince myself feminists are this terrifying social force; they’ve taken over the courts, they’re dominating the conversation; I’m just looking out for my remaining rights, under siege, as I’m sure they are. That I’ve got to pick my evidence rather selectively to believe this, well, whatever; I have so done, so have at them. This, I figure, is much of what makes the MRAs so incredibly toxic: this imagined victimhood, this very cooked sense of injustice. When a de facto hegemony with really rather overweaning economic power and ongoing social advantages they keep working to avoid even noticing convinces itself they’re this hunted, besieged minority, watch out.

The also kinda a funny thing: I like Mill***, but he did write this bit a little while ago, and it did have its context and thrust. And, of course, in fact, we actually have laws against threatening speech, and I’d say for good reason. That this becomes very quickly real intimidation very likely to suppress ongoing expression from the recipient–and see again what Mill makes of silencing speech in general; this being, generally his concern inOn Liberty. (And note also, as I’m amused to do, one of his clear reasons for defending speech as he does: that suppression of an idea that may well be correct does us a disservice, if we miss hearing a good idea just not popularly held; it’s a bit of a stretch seeing this applying terribly well to physical threats, and hateful taunts, in general****.)

But it continues to amaze me. Got into–or I guess more just witnessed–another thing online just last week–yer standard MRA going on about how it was somehow a dreadfully oppressive thing he was being asked to examine his own privilege. And I think, watching that, growing rapidly into the same bleating dimensions of how victimized he apparently was as always, and watching it start to creep again to really rather (I thought) pushy, abusive behaviour–that it’s mostly, again, largely about privilege: roll it back, even a tiny bit–hell, even seem to come within a mile of doing so–and all of a sudden whomever had it is deeply aggrieved. It’s the peculiar blindness of that state, I figure: when you don’t know how good you got it (or, the more suspicious man in me keeps whispering, were working rather hard not to know), being asked to take a look does cut awfully close to the ego. Shitty behaviour will follow.

Recommendations for addressing this? I dunno. A little introspection, I guess, might cure a few things. Recognizing that look, just because you were bullied in high school or women rather generally rejected your requests for dates ten years ago doesn’t suddenly mean you can’t become the socially poisonous force that’s driving all the oxygen out of the discussion today. The monsters in the room happy deliberately to terrorize won’t be reached by this, but at best, I guess, I can hope people might avoid making themselves their accessories.

Know thyself, I guess. We’re back to that. Be prepared to acknowledge the bully within. I guess I’m probably not going to get it published as a classic essay, in that state, but anyway.

(*As any atheist, for instance, who lives in a nation where theoretically freedom of religion is guaranteed, but voicing certain opinions aloud will kill your social life–and potentially your business–as dead as if it had been hanged; I expect I should be preaching to the choir here.)

(**Or, okay, this is probably naive. Born of the technology, or enabled by it? As I do expect some of the more deliberately manipulative asshats in this thing know perfectly well what they’re doing, and use this feature knowingly. And are probably just as honest in their pose of ‘victimhood’.)

(***Oh, fun if mostly I guess irrelevant fact: I’m probably related to Mill myself, if less directly than Ms. Reilly-Cooper–Mill’s father was born a Milne, in the same general bits of Scotland I got that surname from myself; his mom allegedly found the name sounded too yokel-ish, in an era that was kinda the perception of Scots. But I suspect my forebears were the poorer relations in that bunch, and that’s saying something–more rag and bone men and sharecroppers, not so much shoemakers; anyway. Anyway, you needn’t file this particularly under ‘annoyed relatives of Mill’ so much as ‘annoyed/amused readers of Mill’. But yeah, still, whatever, this being 2014, let’s see what else we can’t cook up, here, anyway, shall we?)

(****Also for your consideration, maybe not so directly relevant, but still something to put in your file: read the dedication to On Liberty. And Mill’s own The Subjection of Women. I expect the precious wankers who pull this crap will insist oh, they’re all for equality, really, rape threats employed to silence notwithstanding, and somehow Mill would have agreed with them–forgive me, Ms. Reilly-Cooper, yes, we’re probably better off not even considering this–mind, so, yeah, it’s probably hardly worth mentioning.)

AJ Milne


  1. says

    …erm, re not getting it published, then again, I might just see it promoted to a post at Butterflies and Wheels

    (Seriously, thanks, Ophelia.)

  2. quixote says

    (Just a tangential “thank you” for plowing through the MRAs so we don’t have to!)

  3. Blanche Quizno says

    Even as their harassers warp themselves in this convenient cloak of victimhood

    Nice Freudian slip!

    Mill’s contemporary was young French nobleman Alexis de Tocqueville’s, who visited the US in the early 1830s, observed Americans, and subsequently wrote two volumes on all things American. A couple of his observations come into play here:

    I think that it is extremely difficult to excite the enthusiasm of a democratic people for any theory which has not a palpable, direct, and immediate connection with the daily occupations of life: therefore they will not easily forsake their old opinions; for it is enthusiasm which flings the minds of men out of the beaten track, and effects the great revolutions of the intellect as well as the great revolutions of the political world. Thus democratic nations have neither time nor taste to go in search of novel opinions. Even when those they possess become doubtful, they still retain them, because it would take too much time and inquiry to change them—they retain them, not as certain, but as established.

    There are yet other and more cogent reasons which prevent any great change from being easily effected in the principles of a democratic people. … If the influence of individuals is weak and hardly perceptible amongst such a people, the power exercised by the mass upon the mind of each individual is extremely great—I have already shown for what reasons.. I would now observe that it is wrong to suppose that this depends solely upon the form of government, and that the majority would lose its intellectual supremacy if it were to lose its political power. In aristocracies men have often much greatness and strength of their own: when they find themselves at variance with the greater number of their fellow-countrymen, they withdraw to their own circle, where they support and console themselves. Such is not the case in a democratic country; there public favor seems as necessary as the air we breathe, and to live at variance with the multitude is, as it were, not to live. The multitude requires no laws to coerce those who think not like itself: public disapprobation is enough; a sense of their loneliness and impotence overtakes them and drives them to despair.

    Or suicide, in some cases O_O

    Whenever social conditions are equal, public opinion presses with enormous weight upon the mind of each individual; it surrounds, directs, and oppresses him; and this arises from the very constitution of society, much more than from its political laws. As men grow more alike, each man feels himself weaker in regard to all the rest; as he discerns nothing by which he is considerably raised above them, or distinguished from them, he mistrusts himself as soon as they assail him.

    Two heads are better than one, right?

    Not only does he mistrust his strength, but he even doubts of his right; and he is very near acknowledging that he is in the wrong, when the greater number of his countrymen assert that he is so. The majority do not need to constrain him—they convince him. In whatever way then the powers of a democratic community may be organized and balanced, it will always be extremely difficult to believe what the bulk of the people reject, or to profess what they condemn.

    This circumstance is extraordinarily favorable to the stability of opinions. When an opinion has taken root amongst a democratic people, and established itself in the minds of the bulk of the community, it afterwards subsists by itself and is maintained without effort, because no one attacks it. Those who at first rejected it as false, ultimately receive it as the general impression; and those who still dispute it in their hearts, conceal their dissent; they are careful not to engage in a dangerous and useless conflict. It is true, that when the majority of a democratic people change their opinions, they may suddenly and arbitrarily effect strange revolutions in men’s minds; but their opinions do not change without much difficulty, and it is almost as difficult to show that they are changed. – Chapter XXI: Why Great Revolutions Will Become More Rare</cite.

    Thus we see privilege comfortably ensconced in a warm cocoon of public pressure to conform. This is why, within our particular societal structure, it is so very difficult for oppressed groups to get equal rights (or anything approaching equal rights) and why those who seek more equality and accountability within society are attacked so savagely. We don’t even need to go so far as to propose the idea of a zero-sum game here; it’s the fact that it’s something different than what most people are comfortable with that is pressure enough to condemn it.

  4. Blanche Quizno says

    Pliny, was that her exact comment, the one the woman in the panel is saying? Really, the whole thing is brilliant!

    I am such a fan SQUEEEEEEEEEEEEEEE!!!!

  5. Pliny the in Between says

    It’s a minor paraphrase but I laughed so hard when she said it because – well, it’s really true.

  6. says

    quixote, I guess you’re welcome. Though I feel I should clarify/cop to the fact that honestly, I hardly feel I’ve done the heavy lifting in any of this. And this really isn’t false modesty.

    Been reading them, though, yeah, on and off, at least. Reading, thinking, trying to work out the dimensions of the mess. And while I’ve immense respect for those who regularly engage them, wouldn’t imagine it’s on the same level of wear and tear, umm, yeah, even doing that much actually does put some mileage on you too, I think I can report.

    And Blanche, for what my judgement of this is worth, I think you’re very right that de Tocqueville’s observation is relevant, here. But the (kinda darkly amusing) hell of it is, specifically with the MRAs broadly calling themselves also ‘skeptics’ (and yeah, I expect a lot of those reading this would already guess this, too), I doubt they’d recognize themselves in those passages…

    … as they’re generally working to convince themselves their stance is one of profound and brave intellectual independence from some mindless groupthink feminism that has brainwashed liberal academia, taken over the courts… There’s a bit of confusion in this claim, as apparently they’re also winning, their critics terribly isolated, depending, I suspect, on the audience, their rhetorical purposes, or perhaps just the time of day–it’s always a bit of a dance, when you’re playing persecuted and powerless, and, generally, you really aren’t, at least in the larger culture (in certain very limited fora, maybe sure, they are at least outnumbered, and you’d think this might give them some pause, when these are the same places, say, creationists and climate denialists are outnumbered). But anyway, see, they’re standing up against this ill-considered mainstream view, same, see, as unbelievers stand against the dominance of religion in culture…

    … missing, generally, the long shadow of history, some very ingrained customs and attitudes, some stuff that no, you don’t just somehow legislate out of existence in the stroke of a pen, say, right then, let’s stop being sexist, all done now. That, really, they have also somehow wound up parroting some very mouldy attitudes about women as schemers and manipulators and so on, and some raving about the dangers of feminism that would have fit in pretty comfortably prior to the suffragettes, hey, well, they came to these independently, honest, all the same, because the pendulum has swung so far over to give all these advantages to women, apparently, notwithstanding what the statistics actually say about who’s still actually paid what.

    But yeah, that’s a good addition; again, for what my opinion is worth, I figure you’re right, that de Tocqueville is generally right about where the power stroke really is are more naturally to be in any swinging pendula. And that there are those who pose as revolutionaries all while effectively trying to hold the same conventions in place (if not restore them to former glory), well, it ain’t like it’s a new thing. Ask any ‘reformer’ gone to Washington to raze the government to the ground in the name of the little guy, and whose program, oddly, will mostly wind up favouring those not at all little.

  7. says

    ( .. and please forgive the slightly fractured composition directly above. Long day. Sentence structure is apparently the first thing to go, on these. )

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