Saturday, 27 July 2013

Authority, morality and the irresistible feminist urge to ban everything

Now that I'm back out from the great firewall, and in a more sociable timezone (GMT +8 is great for being the first one to wish your friends a happy birthday, but not so good for real time social media networking), I'm trying to up my Twitter presence again. Get down with the kids, create my brand, do whatever it is we're supposed to do with social media. I like Twitter because despite the fact that 99% of what happens on it is rubbish, the 1% is usually stuff that you'd never have read without people of vaguely the same allegiance to you pointing out how interesting it is. I also follow Sarah Palin, which is useful in itself because without her tweets I'd never have known that George Bush Sr. shaved his head the other week!

So, what's going on in Twitterland? Well, for one thing Laura Bates from Everyday Sexism went on the Jeremy Vine show: an event which he introduces in his build-up as "if you're a bloke, ring in and find out what you can and can't say", which seems to be to be a bit of a bad start. I don't know what happened on the show itself after that because I am allergic to the sound of Jeremy Vine's smarmy devils advocate voice, but the aftermath was a predictable barrage of sexist outpouring from men on the internet, documented on the Everyday Sexism twitter.

Meanwhile, while having Jane Austen on the tenner remains (I hope!) an uncontroversial decision, the fact that Caroline Criado-Perez, the brilliant creator of the Women's Room, dared to mobilise women to join in the decision making process is, according to misogynist scum, an offence worthy of a barrage of rape threats. Cue a petition calling on Twitter to create a report abuse button, so that people subjected to systematic threats have a way to shut people down more easily than the current blocking process.

There's also some thing about the ever-relevant Caitlin Moran and her followers leaving Twitter for a day but I'm not sure what that has to do with anything, so we'll gloss over that.

I think my readers will already be aware of the general state of sexism on the internet, the frequency of sexist abuse for women who dare to talk authoritatively, and the lack of understanding among men about why the violent sexist dimension of internet abuse is important in its own right. Let me also be clear that everyone who gets threats like this should not just be told to "go away and ignore it", even if it's not immediately clear what should be done. Nobody should have to sit through violent abuse in the first place, let alone then having to put up with endless variants of "calm down, dear" or "sticks and stones" as soon as they reach out for help. If you are the kind of person who thinks this is a valid contribution, please go away and have a good hard think about your life.

But it's not immediately clear what should be done in the short term about things like this. Should Twitter provide an easier route for reporting members to be banned, or would it just be used by the same morons who already think that sending rape threats is a valid expression of their personalities?

As with so many feminist issues, it comes down to the tricky problem of legality vs. morality. The two are related but shouldn't be confused. In most cases, we believe that laws (or I guess "rules", as this isn't just about law) should follow society's ethical principles. The exception to laws having moral justifications are purely normative regulations like "stop at this red light". The converse is things that we have moral judgements about, but don't think should be in law, which encompasses a lot more things, like not cheating on your spouse without consent, or going to visit your gran once in a while (actually both of these things are laws elsewhere, but shhh)

 Confusing the latter is a favourite tactic for people arguing against particular feminist campaigns. Take the most common criticism against No More Page 3; although the campaign is very specific on the fact that it is asking for the Sun to voluntarily stop printing topless women in its newspaper, it's a favourite tactic of everyone from random lads to David Cameron to go "yeah well I don't think it's serious enough to ban it, is it? Freedom of speech!" This is an example of many things: terrible listening skills, some ridiculous hypocrisy from David Cameron, and the depressingly common use of "freedom of speech" to mean "I should be able to talk about how sexy women are at any time it suits me, no exceptions". It's also worrying because the distinction matters, and it's not clear whether arguments which conflate the two are deliberately derailing or genuine misunderstandings. Given that No More Page 3 operates alongside campaigns which do advocate legal change on related issues (like Child's Eyes) it's pretty important for the debate that people are equipped to understand the basics of what different campaigns hope to achieve. Feminists do disagree, after all!

I'm in two minds about whether Twitter needs a "report abuse" button. I signed the petition: I certainly think the people in charge of Twitter have a responsibility to acknowledge that their service has a problem, and I think the petition is the best way to achieve that (I'm not naive enough to think it will automatically obtain what it's actually asking for). But I also have a lot of sympathy with those who think that a new button would be immediately open to abuse. Given how much less anger women need to show before they are labelled inappropriate or aggressive, a fast-track ban service would probably end up with opinionated women being reported for far less offensive things than their male counterparts, and as Twitter staff are humans with the same unconscious biases as all of us, it would be impossible to ensure fair treatment. It's not an easy choice to make.

The long term goal here has to be moral change. It's changing societal mindsets so that sexist abuse of women is unthinkable by the vast majority of people, and changing societal pressures so the kind of people who continue to abuse and threaten women even knowing that it's wrong have other powerful constraints on their behaviour. Having enforceable rules in place might influence the second part of this equation, but it's likely to do so at some cost to free speech in general ‒ which, shock horror, many feminists do believe in! It's also unlikely to conquer any additional hearts and minds. Anybody who believes this abuse is unacceptable will still believe it is unacceptable, all of the injured male (and occasionally female) egos worrying about misandry and threats to world peace from femifascists will take this as a defeat rather than a learning opportunity and slink off to their horrible forums to talk about their white male oppression some more.

But if changing laws (or rules, I'm being very sloppy with terminology here) won't create the desired effect on morality, how do we influence morality directly? And how do we protect the fantastic, visible women who are doing so much to put feminism back on the national agenda, at great risk to themselves? That's an issue that requires a lot of discussion, but I think it starts with exactly that- discussion. We speak up. We demonstrate that for most of us, men and women, these norms about not threatening women are already our norms, and that we actively do not want to tolerate people who violate them. We replace silencing platitudes with expressions of solidarity, we work to make our positions and campaigns as clear as possible, we challenge authorities when they allow violence to run unchecked.

Human morality has had problems for thousands of years, and it's not there yet. Internet morality lags behind even that. These things are depressing, but we can fight them- and we probably don't even have to ban everything.

(While writing, Caroline Criado-Perez wrote her own article on New Statesman. I actually really dislike the way the internet slang "trolls" is being used in this debate but... that's a problem for another time. Still worth a read.)

Day 4 of 30. No end in sight. Day 5 will not be this depressing.