Thursday, July 31, 2014

Does the rarity of false rape reports justify assuming guilt?

In the weeks that succeeded Eliza Schultz’s petition for reforming the campus policies on sexual violence, another excellent writer at Hopkins named Juliana Vigorito endorsed the policy in a mostly fantastic article she penned for JHU Politik. There was one excerpt, however, from this article that I disagreed with. I’d like to respond to it here.
Vigorito wrote:

“The current policy notes that an accuser may request a change in their housing or class schedule. This places the onus of uprooting one’s lifestyle on the presumptive survivor. The word “presumptive” is apt here, as false accusations of sexual violence are only as common as false reports of any other violent crime nationally–that is to say, such instances hover around 2%. Given the fact that roughly 85% of all campus sexual assaults go unreported, the so-called false reporting is a myth. When a victim comes forward, statistically speaking, we ought to believe them. So it seems appropriate that, rather than obligating a survivor to rearrange their life after trauma, our University should instead apply housing or curricular changes to the accused perpetrator. Forcing a student to choose between changing classes mid-semester and feeling unsafe neither sufficiently provides support nor promotes academic success at a competitive institution like ours.”

Let’s examine this logic for a moment. Vigorito argues that because the rate of false reporting for sexual violence is no higher than the rate for violent crimes of a non-sexual nature, it’s sufficiently marginal to be ignored; the likelihood of a false report is so low, she concludes, that we can safely presume anyone who alleges sexual violence is telling he whole and unbiased truth of the matter.

But even her statistics are true (which this post will not address), there are two problems with this argument:
1. Would it not follow from this argument that because the alleged rates of false reporting are similar, we can likewise cast aside the possibility that the accuser is lying
in any other violent crime? Are accusations of murder, armed robbery, assault, battery, and arson to be presumed true, simply because it’s statistically unlikely that the accuser would make it up? If so, doesn’t this turn the cherished American principle of innocent before proven guilty on its head? And if not, what distinguishes sexual violence – a crime which, by the author’s confession, is exactly as likely to be reported inaccurately as these other violent crimes – as an exception to that principle?

2. As a general principle, is it fair to make judgments about individuals based on broad social statistics describing their demographics? Statistically, a variety of socio-economic factors make it such that black people are far more likely to commit violent crimes than white people in this country. Suppose there is both a white and a black suspect in a violent crime. Would it be just to hold the black man to a higher burden of proving his innocence than the white man, solely on the assumption that “statistically speaking,” he was more likely to have committed it? Or ought we not speak statistically when we’re making life-changing assumptions about the guilt or innocence of individual people?

Belated response to Hopkins sexual violence policy reform petition

A few months ago, a Johns Hopkins student named Eliza Schultz drafted a petition (since endorsed by the SGA) proposing several reforms to the university’s sexual violence policies. When she walked up to me asking me to sign that petition one afternoon, I asked that she email it to me in full so I could read it and decide. She obliged. This is my response to her proposal:

“Hey Eliza, just got around to reading this - thanks for sending it and for having the ambition to spearhead change on an important issue. I agree with the first, third, and fifth bullet points enthusiastically and in their entirety (comprehensive definition, delineating the range of sanctions, and removing faculty peers from the disciplinary process). However, as you anticipated, I have some qualms in deciding whether or not to sign:

1. I’ve never heard of nonphysical violence before. I’ve heard of coercion, which is also a terrible and fundamental wrong. But some of your examples don’t seem to qualify as even that. Voyeurism should be illegal and severely punished, but to me, it’s a stretch to call it violent - maybe that falls under stalking? And prostitution is another thing entirely: a morally subjective personal choice that a lot of people think should be legal. Lumping pimps and peeping Tom’s in with rapists under the all-inclusive category of “sexual violence” confuses the debate by seeming to equate very different crimes. I will gladly join you in the fight against each of these things independently, but I won’t gloss over the differences between them.

2. I support requiring the perpetrator moving residences and changing courses - on the obvious condition that he or she has actually been found guilty of perpetrating, using whatever standard of evidence the university uses to ascertain guilt for any other alleged offense. If this is what you meant in your petition all along, great, but the way you word it makes me suspicious. You say “this should occur following an investigation by the University or police”, but don’t comment on how that investigation must conclude in order to warrant the requirement.

An investigation can have two statuses: it has ascertained that the person is guilty, or it has not yet concluded that. In which situation would the proposal make sense? If they’ve concluded the person is guilty already, he or she should be expelled and perhaps jailed anyway, making a housing change redundant. If they have not yet done so, it is unjust to punish them at all. I sympathize with how frequently the accuser is right in these situations, but no justice system worth its salt can levy punishment based purely on allegations - not for murder, not for child abduction, and not for sexual violence. So please clarify what you mean by this segment.

3. When I hear the term “zero-tolerance policy,” this is what comes to mind:

Zero tolerance policy for weapons: “In 2001, honor student Lindsay Brown parked her car in the wrong spot at her high school. A county police officer looked inside and saw a kitchen knife—a butter knife with a rounded tip. Because Lindsay was on school property, she had violated the zero-tolerance policy for knives. She was arrested, handcuffed, and hauled off to county jail where she spent nine hours on a felony weapons possession charge. School Principal Fred Bode told a local paper, "A weapon is a weapon."”

Again on weapons: “Four kindergartners—5-year-old boys—played cops and robbers at Wilson Elementary in New Jersey. One yelled: "Boom! I have a bazooka, and I want to shoot you." He did not, of course, have a bazooka. Nevertheless, all four boys were suspended from school for three days for "making threats," a violation of their school district's zero-tolerance policy. School Principal Georgia Baumann said, "We cannot take any of these statements in a light manner." District Superintendent William Bauer said: "This is a no-tolerance policy. We're very firm on weapons and threats."

You don’t have to support weapons or fighting to think that the enforcement of any policy labeled “zero-tolerance” sometimes gets out of hand. Can we pick different words to articulate the same concept? Maybe call upon the university to “immediately expel any student found to have committed a crime of sexual violence?”

Why conversations with your man could be even MORE instructive!

I found a feminist article that disagrees with the argument I laid out in my last two posts that social activists should speak differently to those who are not yet part of the movement than they do amongst themselves. Her post, titled “Occasionally Conversations with my Man Are Instructive” is structured as the transcript of a conversation she claims to have had with her male partner about the tone feminists use online. I’ll respond to certain excerpts below.

When the male partner observed “the way you express things sometimes, isn’t it just making it easier for men to get defensive?” our feminist friend replied:

“No. What we aren’t doing is taking care of them. Nurturing them. Putting their feelings first. Looking out for them, making things safe for them. We aren’t making them the center. We’re talking just the way we’d talk, the way we do talk, when y’all aren’t around.”

Well, I’d say what she isn’t doing is delivering an effective message to her audience. This is because talking the way you talk when others aren’t around is a really bad strategy when others are, in fact, around. When you’re trying to convince somebody of a thing, you have to make them the center, because they’re the one you’re trying to convince. You already get it, they don’t. But our friend continues:

"And you know sometimes that gets ugly, but the thing to do then is to remember: Everything else IS centered around y'all. Everything else--you guys got the talk radio to take care of you, the ESPN, the CNN, the New York Times, the advertising industry--you can't bask in all that adoration day in and day out and then pitch a fit because a handful of blogs on the internet don't recognize your awesomeness. Or I mean, you can pitch a fit, go right ahead, but it's not going to end with me bringing you your binky and kissing your forehead. It's going to end with my foot in your ass."

Well, no – it’s going to end with feminism’s failure to enact as much change as it could and should given the strength of its actual ideas. This is because human beings in generally unable to decenter themselves from their own opinions. If you think it’s sort of pathetic that people of all genders and sexes and sexualities are so self-absorbed that they need to make everything about them, you’re right. If you find it sort of irritating that human nature makes people more receptive to ideas they don’t feel threatened by, you’re right. If you find it inconvenient to baby people and hold their hand and constantly reassure them that we’re not attacking them and that they’re not a bad person, you’re right. But we should do it anyway, because we can’t change human nature and that’s how minds are changed.

To me, the willingness to do that is what separates activists primarily concerned with enacting change from those primarily concerned with self-affiliation, or manicuring how they themselves appear to their activist peers. In other words, those feminists who make a big, showy, condescending public stink about the not-yet-feminists who inevitably “make it all about them”…are in truth only doing it to make it all about them. They are gleefully gloating in their progressivism, hoping for social kudos and slaps on the back from fellow progressives, instead of being the bigger woman and explaining it to the ignorant person in non-condescending terms.

Our feminist friend counters:

"It's not as hard if you move yourself out of the center of everything, though. That's what I finally got through my thick skull. It's not ABOUT me, always.”

When you spend enormous portions of your time blogging about sex and race and privilege, and reading other people’s blogs about sex and race and privilege, it’s a lot easier to isolate yourself from the collectives being described. I know this because I too meet that description, and was able to do it. But both she and I must realize that the vast majority of people on the planet do not do that, and will never do that, and thus will never be able to isolate themselves the way we can. Look at it as a sort of feminist privilege: you, unlike those less educated than you, are adequately immersed in intersectional thinking that you can read scathing criticism of your demographic’s unjust and oppressive behavior without feeling personally resistant to the ideology driving the criticism.

What our ally calls “finally getting through her thick skull” is better described as training oneself to shut off instinctual defensive reactions that the vast majority of human beings on the planet – the exact same majority feminists must win to their way of thinking if they want change to occur – will never train themselves to shut off. Everyone in the entire world, regardless of their demographic or relative amount of privilege, puts themselves first. Everyone sees things from their own perspective, and filters things through the lens of “how does this affect me? What does this mean for me?”

Contrary to what our ally implies, this is not a symptom of sexism, or a byproduct of the patriarchy teaching men to make everything about them. The recent #solidarityisforwhitewomen infighting shows that women and blacks and homosexuals every other demographic does it just as much as guys do. It’s just human nature! We cannot change the way people naturally respond to various tactics, even if those responses are self-absorbed. But we can alter our tactics so as to produce a different response in other people, which is better aligned with our interests as social reformers.

You should do this not because you have to, but because you’re the one who cares. You’re the one who’s supposed to give a shit about the outcome of this conversation. You’re the one who should enter the discussion with the objective of a canvasser trying to get another signature on your petition. If it dissolves, and the other person shrugs and goes about their business having learned nothing about feminism except that its members treated him rudely, you’re still right and he’s still wrong – but you’re the one who’s failed.

Feminism’s fighting an uphill battle as it is, because the communication of its message is already impeded by sexism and misogyny. It is sad to see it further impeded, needlessly, by our tactics themselves.

In defense of tone tinkering

In the interest of furthering discussion on the issue, I’d like to preempt a few anticipated feminist retorts to the second half of my last post on how feminists can improve their tone.

Counterargument #1: Tone tinkering, or tone policing?

I’d first like to address the accusation that feminist readers of my last post were doubtlessly screaming into their keyboards in boldfaced caps-lock letters:


To the uninitiated, this is because what’s called “tone policing” is a nasty word in the feminist community. Tone policing is allegedly a diversionary tactic, designed to change the subject from something important (the issue at hand) to something unrelated (the manner in which that issue is discussed). It’s also viewed as a form of censorship. “Who are you to regulate how oppressed peoples express their frustration at being oppressed?” an indignant feminist might retort. “Men don’t get to control how women react to the patriarchy. I’ll say what I want, how I want, and you can get the hell over it!”

I agree with feminists that external tone policing is unhelpful in the context of a specific discussion. Calling out somebody else on the tone with which they address you is nitpicking, thin-skinned censorship, not to mention irrelevant to the topic at hand. All participants in a debate should remain on topic to the best of their ability. If you find yourself being derided or unfairly attacked, it’s generally on you to be the bigger person and address the issue underneath the derision.

But just because others cannot always expect you to speak to them nicely does not mean it isn’t wise to try.

Therein lies the difference, I argue, between tone policing – indignantly demanding that others be nicer to you in the midst of an ongoing discussion – and what I’ll call tone tinkering: a form of preemptive, strategic self-regulation designed to maximize the likelihood that the upcoming conversation will be productive and convincing. Tone tinkering is what I advocated in my last post, and what I’ll advocate with regard to feminism in particular in this post.

The unwillingness of most feminists to tinker their tones for anybody anywhere reveals a pretty remarkable double standard built into feminist thinking about the patriarchy: feminists get indignant when others tone police them, even as they vigilantly and unabashedly tone police others. If a man says something nasty and insulting to a woman, it’s seen as misogyny: a severe enough infraction to get him banned from the discussion. But if a woman says something nasty and insulting to a man, it isn’t seen as misandry (which, feminists assure us, “isn’t a thing”) – it’s merely an expression of her wholly justifiable frustration about misogyny! I lamented this double standard in an earlier post:

“[Say p]erson A and Person B disagree about something. Person A has less privilege, on net, than Person B. This incidental stroke of fate means, according to feminists, that Person “A can say whatever they like to Person B, no matter how offensive. They can scream, they can hurl obscenities, they can levy personal attacks, and they are freed from the necessity of making any sense as they do so, because they have a right to free expression and find it empowering. Any objection from Person B should be decried as “tone policing”. Any emotional reaction this produces in Person B should be scorned as making the discussion “all about them.” Any psychological distress this creates in Person B should be ignored or even ridiculed. In fact, Person B should be grateful for the knowledge which Person A’s obscenity laden rants have provided them.

Meanwhile, the only thing Person B needs to do to get removed from the group is express any opinion to which Person A objects. When this happens, the simple fact that Person A has objected is expected to change Person B’s mind, and produce an immediate, unquestioning apology.

I yearn for a feminism that was about eliminating double standards between men and women, as opposed to erecting more.”

Of course, to anyone who isn’t already indoctrinated into feminist ideology, this is just the sort of unworkable circular logic likely to make them roll their eyes and run to an MRA group.

As someone who mostly is indoctrinated into feminist ideology, however, I prefer to tease out the excesses from the good stuff. The logic underlying the feminist position on tone-policing is simply that sexism hurts women more than men. To many feminists, it follows that those discussing sexism must be remarkably sensitive to the emotional duress female participants, but need not be even remotely sensitive to the emotional duress of male participants. At times this is reasonable. For example, feminists rightly see an enormous distinction between the psychic distress that arises in women when they rehash unpleasant personal experiences with sexism, and the mental discomfort that arises in men when they have their privilege illuminated and challenged. The first perpetuates sexism, while the second combats it. Sensitivity is more justified in some situations than others.

However, we have to be specific about what those situations are, and too many feminists broaden the above distinction into an umbrella justification for vitriol. There is a noticeable tendency to purposely provoke and exacerbate defensiveness in male participants with aggressive rhetoric, an instinct to resort to tone #2 as the default in all conversations. This behavior may be therapeutic, but it’s also counterproductive. People are only convinced of something under certain circumstances, and those circumstances don’t change when the speaker happens to be systematically disadvantaged. Oppressed peoples are not exempt from the rules which enable productive discourse in every other venue of human discussion. One of those rules is that the manner in which a message is delivered impacts an audience’s receptiveness to that message. If feminists want to spread their message to as many people as possible, they have to recognize what I explained last post: different tones are better equipped for different situations.

Counterargument #2: What happened to free speech, dude?

If feminists who read my last post were shouting into their keyboards then, any who bothered to click on the hyperlinks I provided to earlier posts of mine about feminism are probably shouting even louder:

“This guy is such a hypocrite!”

This is because as recently as last week, I a series of posts passionately defending free speech, which included the following excerpts:

·         “I feel ideologically, intellectually threatened by the idea that because those conversations are likely to offend, they are therefore fruitless and a hassle and not worth the bother.”
·         “Even this post gave feminists more deference than is normal; that I had to fret so heavily and tread so lightly in phrasing my beliefs is itself an indication that other men feel pressured to do the same. This inhibits the debate by preventing many productive, change-inducing conversations from ever taking place. When the threat of scathing feminist call-out culture scares us away from your movement, it scares us away from learning about the topic at all.”
·         “the extension of the hypersensitivity one might expect at a rape clinic or PTSD counseling session to cover the entire universe, on the basis that every individual with an opinion has an obligation to present it (or not) in a manner that is “emotionally safe” for those the left has designated as amply oppressed….is complete bullshit, and I want to denounce it in no uncertain terms.”

So here I am, asserting my right to “offend” by “phrasing my beliefs” in a way that isn’t “hypersensitive” to people’s “emotional safety,” and now it seems I’m trying to restrict the ways feminists can express their opinions. What a hypocrite I am, right? At first glance, it would appear I’ve inverted the problem I described above: am I not suggesting that female feminists have should tone police themselves, but I need not do so myself?

Not quite. Here it is important to distinguish between two types of psychic discomfort: the cognitive dissonance that results from encountering information or argument that runs contrary to your beliefs, and the personal offense that results when that information or argument is presented in an abrasive manner. More specifically, there is a difference between the uneasiness that people feel when confronted with an idea they find incompatible with their previous beliefs, and the defensiveness that people feel when they are addressed in an aggressive, angry, accusatory or attacking tone. The most important of these differences is that the second can be avoided without sacrificing the vibrancy and progression of the public discussion. As a self-anointed steward of that discussion, my consistent position throughout all my recent blog entries has been that the first is okay, while the second is undesirable.

So yes, I have been imploring audiences to overcome that first type of mental discomfort, because it is not only unavoidable, but healthy and productive. We should encourage people to seek it out, wrestle with it, and ultimately get over it. At the same time, yes, I am also imploring speakers to avoid imposing the second type of mental discomfort, because it is not only unnecessary, but toxic and counterproductive. Those who truly care about spreading their ideas should avoid or minimize it whenever possible. Following both rules enables healthy, respectful, enthusiastic conversation that is neither polluted by emotionally reactionary personal attacks, nor hindered by the fear of inciting such attacks, on either end. That is what I’m after.

Counterargument #3: What about libertarians?

Admittedly, I don’t get off that easy. If tone tinkering is important for the effectiveness of feminism, it follows that it’s also important to the effectiveness of libertarianism. Accusing one movement without the other would be to apply a double standard rooted in favoritism for my original ideological roots. Do I have evidence that I cared about tone before feminism came into the scene?

The answer is yes. You can finds example of me chastising libertarians for unwise tone selection here, and here, and here. Lest you think I am some rare exception among libertarians, other libertarians do it too.

Additionally, I had planned another post that I did not get around to posting titled “To Win Respect, Libertarians must Profess Professionally.” It would be sort of redundant to post now, but the notes I had kept on a word document read as follows:

àcommon tactic of our enemies is to denigrate us with personal attacks without engaging our ideas, only way people will take us seriously is if we present ourselves professionally.

àif you want to win respect and consideration, the severity of your ideas must be checked by the moderate and rational air with which you carry yourself. The establishment is out to marginalize us, so we have to hold ourselves to a higher standard of debating conduct, professional and mature, no personal attacks, issues only.

àGive Dad’s advice about not labeling groups of people, because it makes people defensive, you can attack mindsets but don’t make the mistake of clustering that mindset with a demographic or you won’t convince that demographic, say “those of the more liberal mindset” rather than “liberals”, etc.

àperhaps frame it as a letter to other libertarians?

àPerhaps make it part of a larger post about “Strategies for Libertarians”, how we should present our message to maximize our appeal.
1. Part one is the above about being calm and rational,
2. part two is about never using the logical fallacies the other side uses, and calmly, politely pointing it out when they do,
3. part three is to be hopeful and optimistic, not so negative, speak in consequentialist terms about all the good that our policies can do

I continue to endorse these strategies, and urge my fellow libertarians to employ them. The heart of the matter is that we as social activists seeking support should speak differently to individuals who do not already hold our ideology than we do to one another – just as politicians seeking votes speak differently to independents than they do to their base or to the opposition in a debate.

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Different tones for different situations: A guide for social activists

In thinking about the tones I employed in my last two blog posts, it hit me that the core of their argument was essentially the same; only the manner of presentation was different. Which post was “better,” I wondered, and conveying that same message? Which tone is more effective?

My initial reaction was to say the first one. I generally prefer abstract intellectual discussions to vitriolic arguments over them. Perhaps I was immature for indulging my anger in the second post. Perhaps I was being shallow, or selfish, or grandstanding. Maybe I should take it down.

But after a while, I decided the “correct” way to engage a topic is not so simple or universal as I was making it out to be. There are situations in which either of those two tones are more or less effective than others. In fact, my preference for the first type of debate reveals something about my own biases and tendencies which should be interesting to people who think like me.

Today, I’d like to give an overview of two different tones and the situations in which they’re best used. After that, I will relay observations about the use of these tones in two movements that are important to me – feminism and libertarianism – and draw implications from what I have observed.

Tone 1: Reasoned discussion

The tone of a reasoned discussion is polite, respectful, and formal, taking care not to offend or alienate. It is that of a lawyer arguing before the Supreme Court, or of a friend attempting to sway a dissenting friend to his or her way of thinking. As anyone who’s ever attempted either endeavor can attest, these tasks are much more easily accomplished if the speaker is able to avoid provoking a defensive reaction in whoever’s ideas are being challenged. Consequently, it behooves the speaker to avoid even the insinuation of a personal slight against the listener; rhetoric must be levied squarely at the faulty ideas in question, abstracted from the individual who holds them.

A speaker wielding this tone must place the feelings, thoughts, and pride of whoever is receiving the speech at the forefront of their considerations. In this way, it is also similar to the tone of a telemarketer making a pitch to a skeptical potential buyer. The conversation revolves around the audience and their anticipated reactions to what is said, so the speaker must be reserved, gentle, and completely non-aggressive.

Ideally, the speaker should present their opinions in a way that suggests they are open to the possibility of being wrong – even if they know they will never be convinced otherwise – to present themselves as neutral, objective, and rational. Of course, the tone itself is no more rational than any other tone, in that the ideas presented through it may not be logically sound. However, this tone does attempt to isolate whatever logic (sound or faulty) underlies one’s position, with inflammatory distractions and emotional coloration kept to a minimum.

Ultimately, reasoned discussion is designed to convince the specific person or people at whom the speech is directed. If successful, the convinced person should be able to articulate precisely why they now hold this new belief in a rational way.

Although what I posted a few days ago is not a good example, I generally prefer this tone, because I find it both more productive and more pleasant. Its usefulness lies primarily in its ability to convince people who previously disagreed with you. By presenting contrarian ideas in such a disarming and unthreatening way, without calling public attention to the wrongness of specific individuals, it makes it much easier for those individuals to change their minds and join your position without losing face.

That said, reasoned discussion does have its downsides. The first is that human beings are largely creatures of emotion, and stripping that passion out of your writing entirely makes your voice seem unnaturally dry. Ben Stein comes to mind, discussing some dull topic in the dismal science of economics. Normal people don’t sound like that! To many listeners worth convincing, purely abstract discussion is unappealing, and those who wield it are unrelatable.

From my observation, libertarians use this tone a lot, and overusing it is something many libertarians need to work on. Abstract discussions about property rights may be interesting to us philosophy geeks, but when Steven Landsburg asks with apparent sincerity whether rape is okay if the victim is unconscious, he cannot be surprised when most people fail to be amused by such a thought experiment. However unjustified, libertarians have a reputation for being cruelly unsympathetic to the plight of the unfortunate, and stripping the emotion from our voice does nothing to combat this stereotype.

By contrast, feminists are rarely lacking in personality. Feminism has constructed a lively online community full of flair, swagger and satire, which often makes their work much more enjoyable to read. That leads me to Tone #2.

Tone 2: Passionate argument

The tone of a passionate argument is sharp, lively and domineering, with at least a twinge of anger or dismissiveness. It is the tone of two irritated siblings getting in a fight, or that of a politician delivering a fervent speech to a riled up crowd in the midst of a tight electoral campaign. In such settings the speaker endeavors not to determine who is right, but to assert it loudly, forcefully and unapologetically. While reasoned discussion is a cooperative endeavor, passionate argument is a competitive one. The speaker cares not who is offended by what has been said, and practically dares anyone to “take them on” by expressing disagreement.

Unlike a reasoned discussion, the speech of a passionate argument revolves around the thoughts and feelings of the speaker. Every nuance of the speaker’s reaction to the opposing idea is captured, recorded and expressed, sometimes magnified for effect. Unlike a reasoned discussion, the speaker need not (and in fact should not) present themselves as open to possibility that they are wrong, as apparent certainty strengthens the rhetorical tug of the argument. Unlike a reasoned discussion, no attempt is made to isolate the underlying logic from stylistic decoration.

Ultimately, the purpose of a passionate argument is not only illuminate the falsity of the opposite belief, but to ridicule that falsity by deriding it – and any who ascribe to it – as absurd, hypocritical, stupid or even evil. Biting sarcasm mocks the other side in a condescending manner. Scathing, accusatory criticism puts the other side on the defensive. Sassy cheap shots are permitted and encouraged. Satire almost always plays a prominent role. It may seem childish when described from afar, but all these tactics can effectively manipulate the audience’s emotions and sense of humor to the speaker’s advantage.

This tone is useful in a number of settings. First, revealing the passion behind ones convictions solidifies support by rallying those members of the audience who already agree with you. Many people with strong opinions about something find difficulty articulating why it is they believe as they do, so it inspires a sort of “fuck yeah!” response when somebody else is able to express it for them so potently. The phrase “couldn’t have said it better myself!” is an example of this sentiment.

Second, passionate delivery helps “win the crowd” by strongly influencing those members of the audience observing, but not participating in the debate themselves. This is, again, because humans are largely emotional creatures; conveying emotion requires theatrics. Confidence and flair impresses us. We’re often drawn to the idea which was expressed more forcefully, whether or not it’s the one that makes the most logical sense. The more vividly the speaker is able to describe the strength of their convictions, the stronger the pull of his entreaty to the undecided audience. And the more ridiculous the speaker is able to portray their opponent, the more the undecided audience will fear being on the receiving end of such accusations!

A third benefit of dismissive tones is that they can be empowering for the speaker; sometimes, it just feels great to get everything off your chest. When you adamantly believe someone is wrong, it feels liberating to tell them what’s what with no filter or restraint. If someone insulted you personally, it feels invigorating to revel in how thoroughly you just them a new asshole. People are largely self-absorbed, so it makes sense that a form of writing which revolves around our own emotions and reactions would simply be more fun.

For all its benefits, passionate argument has its downsides as well. The first is that if you use this tone, you had better make damn sure you are actually right. Nobody looks more foolish than the blowhard who rants and raves about an issue, only to be calmly proven wrong shortly thereafter. Spiteful language is usually reciprocated, but when it is not, it can be dangerous for whoever fired the initial salvo. Many debates have reasonable arguments on both sides, so when one participant is calmly and respectfully presenting those arguments while the other is hurling insults and over-simplifying complex issues, it makes the second person look immature.

This tone is also more effective when it’s seldom used. The Boy Who Cried Wolf syndrome applies here; constant shouting makes each incident of shouting less impressive or noteworthy. If you’re always a firebrand all the time, you open yourself up to accusations of demagoguery, especially on that inevitable day when you realize you’re wrong about something. The Bill O’Reilly’s and Chris Matthews’ of the world do little to actually advance the debate, and Lord knows we have enough outlets for venomous rage already.

Just as I noticed libertarians seem to overuse tone #1, from my observation feminists seem to overuse tone #2. And since this is feminism week, I'm going to focus on the way they can improve their tone at a little bit larger length than I did for libertarianism (for those interested, my next post addresses additional ways for libertarians to improve their tone as well).

How feminists can improve their tone

The dismissive tone has undeniably rallied feminism in the online age. One could argue that the humor and “get off me!” swagger pushed on places like Jezebel magazine was what really gave rise to “third-wave” feminism. Overall, I think this is glorious. Feminists should continue to write with unrestrained passion and power on feminist websites, frequented by an audience of sympathizers and intrigued observers. They should continue to commiserate with their feminist friends in feminist safe spaces. They should continue to indulge in the catharsis of getting things off their chest without mincing words when the situation calls for emphasis. Feminists are already very good at this, so they probably don’t need me to tell them twice.

Where they could improve their activism game is in those situations which call for sincere and direct communication with a single individual. My recent posts have thoroughly explained the need for this communication, so I won’t repeat its necessity here. As feminists realize, antiquated but entrenched sexist attitudes are one of the biggest hindrances to this communication. But I fear too many feminists, perhaps flustered by this, have assumed an attitude towards these conversations that is equally if not more inhibitive of actual communication. In preferring snide insults and divisive jokes within the ranks of those who already agree with them to actual good faith efforts to engage with and correct those they disagree with, these feminists have unfortunately sunk to their opposition’s level.

I understand the temptation to eviscerate the maker of an ignorant or oppressive comment just for the joy of it, but doing so misses an opportunity for productive communication. For example, remember when #notallmen prompted #yesallwomen, which in turn prompted #yesallpeople? The responses on both sides were childish (hello, it’s Twitter!), but feminists in particular were wont to respond with something like this:

Tweet 1: “Yeah, because men need to carry around rape whistles and plan their route home to protect themselves from roving female assailants...(/sarcasm). 

Tweet 2: Stop mansplaining, take off your fedora, shave your neckbeard and LISTEN for once in your life!”

I cannot tell you how many tweets I read along those lines. By contrast, I can count on one hand the number of feminists I saw responding to a dissenting tweeter like this:

Tweet 1: “I get how #yesallwomen could be misinterpreted. It’s only natural to feel defensive when your privilege is challenged. Nobody’s blaming you.” 

Tweet 2: That said, please reserve judgment for long enough to hear us out. Women face unique problems rooted in sexism, and solving them requires voicing their perspective.”

That last one had slightly more than 140 characters, but you get the idea. When exposed to dissent, feminists’ first impulse is not to debate, but to attack. Adversarial. Vicious. Satire laden atop vitriol laden atop hatred. They’re often right, of course, and there may be good reasons they are conditioned to respond this way. But that doesn’t make it wise or effective.

And it isn’t effective, because all it does is let the discussion denigrate into name calling and personal attacks. Both sides get angry, and hostilities escalate. Eventually, the conversations stops. No minds are changed. Most minds are hardened. Oppressive mindsets – and thus, oppressive behaviors – persist unchallenged.

Feminists are by no means the only corner of the internet that behaves this way (especially on Twitter!) but they do it more often than most ideologies. All across the internet, feminists have a well-earned reputation for being particularly hostile, even to one another. Perhaps this is merely an indication that feminists are passionate about the subject at hand. Losing your cool in a discussion does not make you a bad person or a bad ally or a bad feminist, it makes you human. But it being human does not make it effective, and feminists should understand that it’s not.

If you want to do everything in your power to hasten the pace of progress, you should explain to sexist people not only that they’re wrong, but why they’re wrong, in as civil terms as you can bring ourselves to use. Sort of like these feminists doThe two examples I just hyper-linked are exactly the sort of tone I wish feminists would use more often. I got pumped up just reading them – awesome, awesome, awesome. If more feminists presented feminism to people who are not yet feminists in the way those feminists did, the pace of feminism’s advance would be greatly accelerated. I would also like to nominate that for “most times the root word feminist has ever been use in a single sentence.

In closing, there’s a Dane Cook skit I like where he’s describing an argument he had, and he snaps at his foe to “just sit there in your wrongness and be wrong!” It’s a funny line because it captures the frustration we all experience when we’re convinced we’re right about something, and feel passionately about it, but lack the ability, energy, interest, or time to articulate why. We can all relate to that frustration.

If you, as an educated social justice advocate, are so overcome by that frustration that you prefer to continue insulting the ignorant, without making any effort to make them less ignorant first, that’s fine (so long as you’re actually right, anyway). It’s your right, and no one could blame you for releasing your anger. But don’t confuse that release with social activism, for you are doing little (and less than you might) to actively change society.