Y’all need a holiday

Well, you’re getting one whether you need it or not!

Going to be away for the best part of a fortnight, so rather than worrying about what you’re all saying behind my back, I’ll be switching off comments on all posts later this evening, so if you want to get in the last word on an argument you’d better be quick!

Normal service will be resumed in September.


The Equal Treatment Fallacy

I’ve heard it said that the root of all religious and secular morality is contained in the Christian dictum: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. It’s a seductive and simple message, and will get you through day to day interactions better than the average Facebook meme aphorism, but it is not a solution to social injustice.  The belief that the route to social justice is to treat everyone equally is dangerously flawed.

First, a rather violent metaphor. Imagine you have two Roman gladiators squaring up in the Coliseum. One is dressed in full body armour and helmet and armed with a slingshot. The other is barehanded and wearing a loin cloth. Under those circumstances a rule to say that the two combatants could only fight by throwing stones at each other would make anything but a fair fight.

In socioeconomic terms, the fallacy is best illustrated by Anatole France’s brilliant observation. “In its majestic equalitythe law forbids rich and poor alike to sleep under bridges, beg in the streets, and steal loaves of bread.”  To treat rich and poor alike is to treat them entirely differently.

The fallacy appears often in gender debates. It crops up in discussions of sexual harassment and even sexual abuse, where hard-of-thinking members of my gender often splutter “But I’d love it if someone sexually harassed / sexually abused me!”

In recent weeks I have seen it applied often to the debate around misogynistic abuse on Twitter, where the ‘do unto others’ dictum has been viciously inverted. “I wouldn’t give a shit if someone threatened to rape me, wouldn’t bother me in the slightest, so you have no grounds to complain if I do it to you.”  

At the heart of the fallacy is an obliviousness to both individual and collective differences. No two individuals will react identically to a threat of violence, but since we are socialised into gendered phenomenology and face different real world risks, stresses and pressures, the impact on the typical man and the typical woman will be different. This is not to say a threat of physical or sexual violence against a man is acceptable or even that it is less unacceptable. It is to say that the difference is not quantitative, it is qualitative.

As you may have noticed, last week I wrote about penises in the Guardian. I took a fair bit of grief in the comments, and even from some valued friends on this blog, because I didn’t write the piece that most readers (at least most of the male readers) wanted me to write. They wanted a storming rebuttal of Suzanne Moore’s rules for managing you penis or a turning of the tables – a man to write the equivalent rules for managing your vaginas. I had tried to satirise both that demand and Moore’s article in a quick, snarky blog-post on this site, but I had no wish to take that particular point any further.

Critics were quite right to say that the Guardian would never publish the same article written by a man about women. However this misses the point that it would be impossible for a man to write the same article about women. Even if the genders (and genitals) were reversed while leaving the rest of the words in place, it would still be a very different article because of the surrounding cultural and political culture. With hindsight, my Guardian piece didn’t explain this very well, but this is what I was trying to say when I pointed out:

Our culture, media and politics have, for thousands of years, positively bubbled with men telling women what to do with their reproductive organs, whether it is instructing against using them too often or too rarely, using them too young, leaving them until they are too old, or medically intervening in their natural and/or God-given functions. Pertinently, many of those voices have been backed by the machineries of state, politics and religion.

I don’t think the Guardian should have published Moore’s article, because it was patronising, needlessly insulting, divisive and, above all, just a very poor article by her standards. It was self-contradictory, muddled and switching awkwardly between irony and sincerity. (Whatever political and ideological differences I have with her, I do believe Suzanne is one of the most brilliant polemicists in the British media. I’ll often accuse her of having a bad argument, rarely of writing a bad article). However that is not the same as arguing that an organisation such as the Guardian should only ever write about men in the same way they (or we, if you like) write about women and vice versa. Equal treatments do not have equal impacts and effects.

What is the alternative to ‘Do unto others…”? I’m not being entirely mischievous when I suggest that it is contained in a very different kind of dogmatic canon: “From each according to their abilities, to each according to their needs.”

That was intended as an economic principle, of course, but I think it very much applies to social policy and even interpersonal communications. “To each according to their needs” is a good working definition of respect at both individual and policy levels.  I also believe it applies strongly to those issues where men face gender-specific issues and disadvantages. Do male victims of violence or abuse need the same interventions, services and framework of understanding that female victims do? No, often they don’t. Their situation is likely to be different in key respects, and so too should be the response – to each according to his needs.

One of the points raised repeatedly by campaigners for men’s physical and mental health is that services are built on assumptions of patients’ needs, which in practice often mean women’s needs. One explanation proffered for boys’ underachievement in school is that the education system has in recent decades shifted from treating every pupil equally as if they were male towards treating every pupil equally as if they were female. Neither option is truly fair. It seems to me that men’s activists too often routinely demand whatever they perceive women to be getting (not least victimhood) and too rarely analysing and demanding what it is that men actually need.

The logical endpoint of the Equal Treatment Fallacy is the belief that if we treat everyone equally, then everyone will become equal. The truth is that in an unequal system, if we treat everyone equally we maintain the unequal status quo. That’s why you’ll never get me to agree to follow the modern trend to claim to be an equalist, rather than a feminist. I’m neither.

None of this is to excuse or justify rudeness, hypocrisy or negative stereotyping. Arguing that misandry is not the mirror image of misogyny does not mean that misandry is OK or politically constructive. It just means it is qualitatively different and should be understood differently. I don’t blame the 2000+ commenters on Suzanne Moore’s piece for reacting angrily to her trolling. I’ve reacted similarly to other provocations plenty of times. She was being insulting and I don’t blame anyone for feeling insulted. I would caution against using the saga as an argument for false notions of equal treatment. There is really no such thing.

10 Rules for Managing Your Vagina

I might write something more earnest about this when I get the chance, but just for now…

Ten Rules for Managing Your Vagina

No.1: Don’t let any fucker tell you what to do with your vagina. It’s yours.

No. 2: Don’t let any fucker tell you what to do with your vagina. It’s yours.

No. 3: Don’t let any fucker tell you what to do with your vagina. It’s yours.

No.4: Don’t let any fucker tell you what to do with your vagina. It’s yours.

No.5: Don’t let any fucker tell you what to do with your vagina. It’s yours.

No.6: Don’t let any fucker tell you what to do with your vagina. It’s yours.

No.7: Don’t let any fucker tell you what to do with your vagina. It’s yours.

No.8: Don’t let any fucker tell you what to do with your vagina. It’s yours.

No.9: Don’t let any fucker tell you what to do with your vagina. It’s yours.

No.10: Don’t let any fucker tell you what to do with your vagina. It’s yours.


UPDATE 08/08/13

I’ve written some additional thoughts on Suzanne Moore’s piece here. Might as well point out that I had no desire to write a line by line take down or rebuttal – this blog catches my feelings about it as well as anything I could say at length. But it did set me off on some tangential musings on, well, penises.


Malestrom pt 4: Trolling is more than a game

In Airplane, Lloyd Bridges declared in exasperation: “It looks like I picked the wrong week to quit sniffing glue.” A few days ago I returned from a brief family holiday to find the media ablaze with the issue of misogynistic trolling, threats and intimidation, and the first thought that popped into my head was “looks like I picked the wrong week to quit blogging about male anger.”

I’ve spent a couple of days catching up on opinion pieces from all perspectives, ranging from the insightful and profound to the downright dumb, checking whether there could be anything left that has yet to be said. There is. For all the discussion about how we police and moderate abusive messages; for all the potential problems with solutions such as a Report Abuse button; all the debates about freedom of speech versus protection from intimidation and bullying; alleged hypocrisy of those advocating stronger constraints and everything else, there is one question which nobody seems prepared to ask, and it is, I think, the most important of them all. What motivates people – mostly but not entirely men – to attack others online using the most extremely violent, threatening and offensive terms at their disposal?

I’ve often heard it said when discussing the cases of Anita Sarkeesian, Rebecca Watson, Lindy West or the recent clutch of targets that what appears to be misogyny isn’t really misogyny because it is “just trolling.” I don’t buy that. I’ll willingly admit I’ve trolled the internet occasionally. I’ve used  disingenuous arguments to get a rise out of those I think deserve it. I’ve used throwaway nyms to make mischief on occasion. I’ve been bloody rude to people on many occasions, out of anger, frustration or malice. However the thought of sending someone a rape threat, like the thought of sending someone racist or homophobic abuse, makes me feel literally sick in the pit of my stomach. I honestly cannot imagine ever hating anyone enough to do that. I don’t believe for a moment that makes me somehow saintly, I firmly believe that the great majority of internet users feel the same and it is obvious that the proportion of men online who behave like this is very small.

Late last year Anita Sarkeesian gave a TED talk, discussed by Helen Lewis here where she discussed the abuse that she had famously received. She describes the phenomenon, insightfully, as a game. There is a Big Boss enemy (Sarkeesian) who must be defeated, and a supportive team of players who  turn the entire internet into a battlefield. They have home bases where they co-ordinate their attacks, boast of their exploits, and congratulate each other on their hits, gain status or (in gaming terms) experience points for successful attacks. They see themselves not as the villains, but as the heroes.

Over the past week or two we have seen something similar happen with Caroline Criado-Perez, Stella Creasy, Mary Beard and others have been thrust into the role of level bosses. I find it fascinating that the spark which ignited this inferno was so randomly trivial. Criado-Perez was targeted because she’s been involved in a successful campaign to get a woman featured on a banknote. I’ll admit this never struck me as the most pressing social justice campaign on the table at present, but by the same token, nor did it strike me as something that anyone could get especially upset about. But it was enough to rile one or two people sufficiently to begin sending hate messages and rape threats. When Criado-Perez and her supporters refused to accept this in silence, it was as if the broad community of online warrior-gamers pricked up their collective ears and declared “game on.”  The players reached for whatever weapons were available in their arsenal, and for many the heavy duty cannon was the rape allusion or direct threat.

To these people, making a rape threat, a death threat, even a hoax bomb threat is a perfectly legitimate tactic within the game. It is no more real or serious than running over a pedestrian on GTA – just a tactic to get to the end of the level.  However in this case the pedestrian being run over is not treating it as a game, but a very real part of her life.

This, I think, largely explains what we have seen these past couple of weeks, but it is inadequate. Psychologists researching online behaviour have come up with concepts such as deindividuation and self-awareness, which shed light on how the internet can disinhibit aggressive behaviours, but they do not explain why the aggression is there in the first place.

It seems apparent to me that at the heart of this behaviour is at least some element of desire to hurt women. Not physically but emotionally and psychologically, nonetheless inflicting the most discomfort, fear and distress they can. The fact that they so quickly and so commonly resort to sexualised and gendered attacks suggests to me that underneath the game mentality, there is genuine misogyny at play.

A debate has raged prominently over the past week, but it has largely been the wrong debate. The ugly truth is that if we want to end the extremes of hateful behaviour on the internet (by which I don’t mean the day to day ballyhoo, but overtly criminal, threatening and intimidatory behaviour) we will not do it with a report abuse button or a few more moderators on social media sites, or even yet more criminalization of online behaviour, all of which will be easily circumvented by all but the most stupid and immature of trolls. We need to look deeper, into where the misogyny originates, where the aggression originates, where the desire to cause hurt originates, then work to resolve them. That is an overwhelmingly challenging proposition, but the only one which will, ultimately, bring solutions.