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.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

An open response to the “letter to privileged people who play devil’s advocate”

By: A privileged person who plays devil’s advocate

(Before I begin, the reader should know that I make a point of addressing people with the same level of scathing, patronizing condescension with which they address me. Bear that in mind as you read both the original letter, and my response below.

If you’d prefer a more respectful tone that isolates the ideas in question, instead of coloring them with sarcasm, defensiveness, and personal attacks, so do I. In fact, I have employed such a tone when discussing this very issue here, here, here, here, here, and here. But right now, I’m simply not in the mood. I have spent the past two weeks pausing every half sentence to bite my nails for fear of being misconstrued by thin-skinned manufacturers of perpetual outrage. My back is not flexible enough to bend any further backwards in accommodation for these people. Caution is healthy, but too much timidity for too long can drive a writer insane, so I’m going to let loose for once. Consider this your trigger warning.)

“You know who you are. You are that white guy in an Ethnic Studies class who’s exploring the idea that poor people might have babies to stay on welfare. Or some person arguing over drinks that maybe a lot of women do fake rape for attention. Or, recently, someone insisting that I consider the idea that Elliot Rodger could have been a madman and an anomaly, not at all a product of a white supremacist and misogynistic society.”

Although I’ve neither taken an Ethnic Studies class nor accused a woman of lying about a sexual encounter, it’s worth pointing out that the positions you presented in your last sentence are not mutually exclusive. Elliot Rodger could have been a product of a misogynistic society, and also a madman, and also an anomaly. In fact, I think it’s reasonable to argue he was all of those things at once. Positing those positions as contradictory is an example of a logical fallacy called “false choice,” in which one is directed to choose between fewer possibilities than actually exist. But then again, you much prefer ethos and pathos to logos, don’t you?

“Most of the time, it’s clear that you actually believe the arguments you claim to have just for the heck of it. However, you know that these beliefs are unpopular, largely because they make you sound selfish and privileged, so you blame them on the “devil.”

There are a few reasons this paragraph is, erm, “problematic”:
1.     The first half of the first sentence is just not true. Most times I play devil’s advocate, I’ve not yet thought about the topic enough to have well-formed beliefs. The fact that I’m engaging in devil’s advocate means I’m hoping somebody else will help those beliefs form. By contrast, there are many topics on which I do have thoroughly considered views. When those topics come up, I assure you I have no reservations about voicing them in my own name (see reason #3).
2.     The second half of the first sentence also isn’t true, but for a separate reason: I do not claim to play devil’s advocate “just for the heck of it.” I do it for two reasons: first, to learn more about the subject from someone who may have more extensive exposure to it than I; and second, to further the disussion on the matter, to the potential gain of all participants and observers. Those are important benefits with important implications for the question of whether devil’s advocate is a worthwhile endeavor. To dismiss them as simple shits and giggles is to purposefully and lazily misrepresent my intentions.
3.     The second sentence is just pure bullshit. I believe, and have publicly argued, that polygamous, homosexual, undocumented immigrants should be able to do heroin on their wedding night without breaking any laws. I’ve defended the sale of organs, sweatshop labor, prostitution, open borders, and a whole bunch of other shit that’s a whole lot less popular than the thought that maybe you don’t have a right to free birth control. Besides, if we truly feared advocating unpopular ideas, why stick our necks out by commenting at all? Most people would just keep to themselves. There are a lot of people in the world who are afraid to take their ideas wherever they lead them, for fear others will disapprove of what they say. I am not one of them, and I suspect most people who demonstrate the intellectual curiosity it takes to play devil’s advocate are not either.

“Here’s the thing: the devil doesn’t need any more advocates. He’s got plenty of power without you helping him.”

By “the devil”, the author means “ideas she disagrees with.” Of course, everybody in the world with any opinion at all thinks the opinions they disagree with do not need any more advocates. The trouble is, you can’t just wish those ideas away by closing your eyes and clicking your heels together. If you want to prevent the people who disagree with you from gathering additional sympathizers, the burden falls upon you to convince the undecided people that you are right, and those other people are wrong – a process which is greatly aided, might I add, by a glorious explanatory tool called “devil’s advocate.”

I understand that male-dominated anti-feminist ideas have pervaded our society for centuries, and I agree that feminist ideas pose a welcome challenge to those outdated concepts. I further recognize that those who challenge stubborn mindsets are often met with predictable responses from those whose mindsets they challenge, so I can grasp the skepticism with which you might approach the next guy in line. But people engaging you in conversation have neither an obligation to omit those arguments you might have heard before, nor an obligation to be convinced or satisfied by the rebuttals you offered previously.

“These discussions may feel like “playing” to you, but to many people in the room, it’s their lives you are “playing” with. The reason it feels like a game to you is because these are issues that probably do not directly affect you. It doesn’t matter whether most mass shootings are targeted at women who rejected the gunman if you are a man – though it should, since misogyny kills men too. If you are white, it doesn’t matter whether people of color are being racially profiled or not. You can attach puppet strings to dialogues about real issues because at the end of the day, you can walk away from the tangled mess you’ve exacerbated.”

Fair enough, which is why we should be a responsible devil’s advocate, but this is not an argument for why we shouldn’t play devil’s advocate at all. Yes, I’m very lucky to be able to discuss things in an abstract and objective way, without potentially traumatic personal experiences coming into play. For that reason it behooves me to tread lightly around those who are less lucky. But no matter how lightly I tread, the conversation still needs to take place if feminism is to get anywhere at all. If we ever want to reach the day when there are fewer misogynistic massacres and less racial profiling, we as a society have to frickin’ talk about those issues! We have to exchange the bad ideas for the good. What too many feminists fail to recognize is that this communication is a process; it can’t consist of feminists talking at people and expecting them to just shut up and agree.

“To be fair, there are many privileged devil’s advocates out there who are truly trying to figure things out. I know people who think best out loud, throwing ideas at me to see which sticks to their “friendly neighborhood feminist.” Your kind like to come at a concept from every angle before deciding what you think. You ask those of us who are knowledgeable on the subject to explain it to you again and again because in this world it is harder for you to believe that maybe the deck is stacked in your favor than to think of us as lazy, whining, or liars.”

You were doing good up until the second half of the last sentence. It should have finished “because not everything we say is sacrosanct, occasionally we’re wrong, and it’s important to tease out those occasions from the rest so that feminism’s otherwise laudable message isn’t polluted with illogical crap.” But besides that, yeah, you got the gist.

“It is physically and emotionally draining to be called upon to prove that these systems of power exist. For many of us, just struggling against them is enough — now you want us to break them down for you? Imagine having weights tied to your feet and a gag around your mouth, and then being asked to explain why you think you are at an unfair disadvantage. Imagine watching a video where a young man promises to kill women who chose not to sleep with him and then being forced to engage with the idea that maybe you are just a hysterical feminist seeing misogyny where there is none. It is incredibly painful to feel that in order for you to care about my safety, I have to win this verbal contest you have constructed “for fun.”

To answer your question, yes: I do want you to substantiate your beliefs. If this burden is as “incredibly painful” to you as you claim, perhaps due to some personal trauma you’ve suffered that I cannot relate to, you have my sincere condolences. As someone who thinks feminists are right 80% of the time, I sympathize with how agitating it must be to have people deny your oppression. I, as a privileged dude, don’t have to deal with that same feeling, so I will take your word that it is physically and emotionally draining. Accordingly, I will treat you and your beliefs with respect and sympathy. I will also give you every opportunity to either a) take a break if you need to collect your thoughts or cool down, b) direct me to a link that explains it better or more thoroughly than you’re presently able to, or c) tell me you’re not in the mood and that I should go on my merry way. Which I will do!

What I won’t do is what you and too many of your feminist sistren seem to expect: encounter ideas I’m not sure about on topics that are important and affect all of us, but shut up and roll with them anyway, just to prevent you from “being forced to engage with the idea” that you might be wrong about something. That’s not how my mind works, it’s not how our society’s discourse will advance, and it’s just not a reasonable thing to expect of the world. If I see the public discussion being swayed by an idea that strikes me as dubious, I’m going to challenge it. If I have a question, I’m going to ask it. You don’t get to police my reactions to your ideas any more than I get to police yours to mine.

What this means for you is that if you’re not interested in having your ideas respectfully scrutinized, you shouldn’t share them with an audience of people that includes me. When you post your opinions to a public forum like Twitter, Facebook, Reddit, or the comments section of an article, you do so at the peril that somebody else on that forum might not immediately agree with you. This is especially true, as you seem to have gathered, when the ideas you’re posting radically unsettle entrenched power systems. Prepare yourself accordingly! You ever heard that saying, “if you can’t take the heat, get out of the kitchen?” Well, if you can’t handle dissent, don’t preach controversial opinions on social media, because it’s essentially daring people to take you on.

Should you choose to share your views (and I so hope you do), you rightly point out that you do not have to humor me in discussion. But if you have enough energy and interest to show me your thoughts on the topic in the first place, you do have to deal with me showing you mine, at least initially. That’s how this works; you clutter my newsfeed, I clutter yours.

“For those devil’s advocates who are trying to learn, I suggest you explore other avenues. Consider that you are not paying your friends to break down concepts that are often painfully lived experiences for them, and be mindful of their time and energy. Be grateful (and show it), and listen carefully and thoughtfully when they are generous enough to talk about these experiences with you.”

I must have some tremendously generous friends, because sometimes they seem almost eager to talk about their most passionate beliefs, and I’ve never paid them a dime! You may find it hard to believe, but a great many people (who, might I add, are wholly capable of managing their own time and energy) actually enjoy a polite intellectual joust on topics that intrigue or animate them. I engage with these enthusiastic social activists on a daily basis. You may find this shocking, but some of them are even women.

Patriarchy or no patriarchy, you will not convince me that women as a class are too traumatized by dudely oppression to have their ideas scrutinized – even if it’s by someone who fails to demonstrate adequate gratitude for the opportunity. There’s some overlap here with the Blurred Lines controversy, which I wrote the following about last fall:
“I am bewildered when self-described feminists suggest men must coddle women, and speak to them more gingerly then we speak to other men. This mindset only perpetuates the bullshit stereotype that women are these dithering, indecisive, easily overwhelmed creatures who lack the emotional wherewithal to take charge of the situation and say yes and no with clarity and confidence. There was a time when feminism was about empowering women to view themselves as fully capable of such authority. It’s sad that the modern version seems to have given up on encouraging female communication, and turned instead to blaming men for having the audacity to expect it.”

Ideas cannot be fairly examined when the discussion takes the form of one participant doing the other one a favor. You cannot expect people who aren’t sold on what you’re selling them to sit cross legged at your feet, patiently pleading you to shower your enlightenment upon them. Socrates comes to mind, feigning reverence for Euthyphro’s wisdom even as he runs intellectual circles around him. In fact, Socrates – who was condemned for persistently questioning widely held beliefs in Ancient Greece - is a damn good analogy for what’s happening here. You should read him some time.

“Some might challenge that I am shutting myself off to new ideas and censoring important opportunities for growth. But these ideas you are forcing me to consider are not new. They stem from centuries of inequality and your desperate desire to keep them relevant is based in the fact that you benefit from their existence. Let it go. You did NOT come up with these racist, misogynistic theories. We’ve heard them before and we are f*cking tired of being asked to consider them, just one. more. Time.”

I am tired of reading the word “forced” in sentences where it does not belong.

            “ideas you are forcing me to consider”
            “being forced to engage with the idea”

“You keep using that word…I don’t think it means what you think it means.” Am I putting a gun to your head and demanding that you debate me, or else? Or am I asking you a fucking question? Tweeting upon your Twitter involves no force whatsoever. What’s more, the fact that I’m playing Devil’s Advocate to test the strength of your idea means that you did it first! I’m not forcing you to consider my ideas any more than you are forcing me to consider yours.

Anyways, when you strip out all the circular arguments and stylized vitriol, the reasoning that underlies this paragraph is just pure intellectual laziness. Translated from feminist to English, it reads “Some might challenge that I am shutting myself off to new ideas…but those ideas are wrong! I know I’m censoring important opportunities for growth…but…but…but I don’t wanna grow out of the exact same set of opinions I already hold! I’ve probably got it all figured out already – after all, I’m in my twenties!”

So dearest devil’s advocates: speak for yourself, not for the “devil.” Teach yourself. Consider that people have been advocating for your cause for centuries, so take a seat. It’s our time to be heard.

No. I refuse to timidly tiptoe around the heart of important matters because some people are too feeble-minded to deal with dissent – whether or not the reason they lack that mental fortitude is because they’ve been systematically oppressed in ways I have not. They’re welcome to my sympathy and assistance, but not my silence, because the vibrancy of our public discourse on the critical issues facing humankind is simply too important to sacrifice on behalf of their short term mental state.

If you don’t like it, don’t read it. Ignore me, vilify me, go on cathartic rants about what a douchebag I am for daring to speak my mind. Or, even better, articulate why I’m wrong, and put it in writing. If you do, I’ll be happy to abandon the rambling anger of this post and resume the respectful, considerate tone of an intrigued but uncertain debater, eager to learn. But I won’t prostrate myself before you or refuse to challenge anything you say, so don’t expect me to “take a seat.”

Juliana should get a gold star for every time she refrained from saying “go f*ck yourself” to Elliot Rodger apologists.

Andrew should get a gold star for every time he refrained from closing his computer and giving Juliana the comforting cocoon of unchallenged consensus the thinks she's entitled to.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Reason is not part of the patriarchy

(note: this post is part of a series on why feminism should embrace the clash of ideas. It can be read in isolation, but would probably be more thoroughly understood in context. Go here for hyperlinks to all posts in this series)

Feminist Argument #5: Open debate is itself part of the patriarchy, because the veneration of reason and logic as superior means of knowing than emotion is merely a tool to marginalize and ridicule women associated with those traits.

I have only encountered this argument at the extremes of the feminist movement, and I desperately hope it remains there. Whereas a prior generation of feminists sought only to remove the association between emotionalism and femininity, this new argument seeks to remove the “stigma” around emotional reactions at all, even in places which were formerly thought to require the use of unclouded reason and abstract logic. What’s so good about reason anyway, it asks? Humans are creatures of emotion, and it’s unnatural to attempt to divorce ourselves from it. Just because ones arguments are more rational, it concludes, does not mean they are right or just, so we should diminish the importance of rationality in our discussions.

If this thinking ever catches on, I fear my differences with feminism will become irreconcilable.

To attack reason is to attack the entire endeavor of comparing ideas by proxy, because without it there is no means to evaluate the ideas we compare. Without the guide of logic, debate is just a bunch of people chaotically shouting at one another. And to attack debate is to attack the virtue of free speech altogether, for who needs alternate viewpoints if there’s nothing to be gained by considering them? It reduces feminism – once a rationally defensible layering of sourced ideas – to a self-sustaining, quasi-religious dogma of circular logic.

I disagree fervently with the notion that free speech is part of “the patriarchy” we rightly fight. But even if I’m wrong about that, the implication to me is not that free speech must go – it’s that not all of the patriarchy must be torn down. Masculine or not (and I think it’s not) freedom of thought is the foundation and guarantor for all other freedoms. It precedes them in order and supersedes them in importance. Free speech trumps the right to bear arms. Free speech trumps the right to own property. Free speech trumps civil rights and the right to a living wage or healthcare or whatever other rights you want to invent. And yes, free speech trumps feminism, because without it, feminism – along with every other ideology under the sun – is a meaningless mockery of a discourse, a sham collection of pre-approved notions masquerading as the battle tested product of reasoned thought. I could not endorse such an illusion of knowledge. I’d rather drink hemlock.