Missing parts

The philosopher Becca Reilly-Cooper on Twitter (@ boodleoops – yes it’s true, not all philosophers take themselves terribly seriously:

I’m pretty sure my grandfather *didn’t* fight for your right to threaten women with rape, torture and mutilation actually, free speech bros.

And I’ve read On Liberty several times, but I missed the part where Mill defends harassment, or threats to invade and cut women’s genitals.

Same here!


  1. says

    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 am. 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 in On 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.)


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