Where Some Ideas Are Stranger Than Others...
Funny, That (2020-01-13)
Few phenomena are as strange to witness as that of reversal, especially patriarchal reversal, which was so carefully and revealingly unpacked and explained by Mary Daly in her breakthrough book Gyn/Ecology. It is a rampant rhetorical technique in societies characterized by persistent oppressive structures maintained by many people refusing to oppose the oppression so long as it doesn't trouble them and theirs. It also a rampant practical technique, most often in the form of blaming, trying, and punishing victims of oppression rather than the people who actually harmed them. Patriarchal reversal in particular can be blunt and frankly stupid in implementation, usually following a longer term more cleverly set up sequence of reversals. The bullshittery of men claiming they are lesbians could not have gotten any mainstream play at all without the lengthy development and spread of queer theory, which itself is a blatantly anti-Feminist, anti-freedom movement. The second part of that characterization may be surprising, and I will come back to it.
Reversal has been on my mind a great deal of late, in part due to an odd encounter with the notion of "safe spaces." These sound like they should be a good idea, yet my experience of how they are invoked and what is expected in them leaves me feeling pretty damned unsafe. This is no doubt because the definition of "safe space" I have is not congruent with the reversed definition that is most widely flogged by people claiming to be in favour of social justice and other things that also sound quite reasonable, so long as you don't look too hard at the practical actions implemented under those terms. For my part, I understood and understand safe spaces to be places where people may discuss difficult topics and express diverse points of view without fear of being physically harmed or shouted down. I have been in such a space, where a young person repeated a racist myth about the spread of AIDS. This person was not shouted down, nor were they trying to convince the rest of us. In that space, they felt able to raise this idea, which they clearly weren't very certain about. We were able to explain that it was a myth, a highly racist and vicious one, alas therefore also extremely memorable. Respectful and firm corrected information provided, not an attack on that person, who indeed may or may not have come away agreeing with the corrections. That was for them to decide. This was a tough situation, many of us were very uncomfortable. We met the challenge in a good and humane way. That doesn't always happen, I know. The key is to keep building on the times we've done it right. Claims today that in a "safe space" no one is allowed to be uncomfortable, and the not so implied follow up that violence against those considered to have unacceptable opinions is permitted are extraordinary, eviscerating reversals of an excellent goal for places and times where we wrestle together in groups with difficult topics.
A growing problem right now online is censorship of Feminist, gender critical, and simply transactivist questioning materials. The reach of this censorship has been slipping further offline due to the growing overlap in the media in particular, and the abusive reversal of the notion of "safe space." I do my best to read the original of a person's controversial opinion, because when emotions are high it is important to check what they actually said, not what someone else claims they said. Claims made when emotions are very high can be wrong, because it is hard for us to give a fair hearing to others when we're upset. On the other hand, if the person in question has truly expressed an objectionable opinion, it will still be objectionable with a cool head and in the original. The ongoing mess in social media censorship is not news to anyone (see Graham Linehan's site for ongoing coverage specific to twitter; I have not yet found similar round ups for facebook's similar messes). This move to censorship is growing in some blogging outlets, including automattic's wordpress.com (for follow up on this start with 4thwavenow's coverage of the Gallus Mag case), and medium. In the case of medium, perhaps I am late to the party of realizing what was going on there. My knowledge has been firmly updated due to my efforts to have a look at Dr. Em's discussion of queer theory and the fact that many of its major founders were and are in favour of legalizing paedophilia (it has four parts, is not a pile of raving accusations, and includes full references for all quotes, see for yourself: 1 | 2 | 3 | 4). That connection is not new, and has been documented in the academic context before, led by Sheila Jeffreys in her book Unpacking Queer Politics. I was intrigued to learn that this work was being redone, especially in a more popularly oriented outlet. Medium is presented as a place to share different ideas and opinions. However, Dr. Em's account is now apparently "This account is under investigation or was found in violation of the Medium Rules" (quoting directly from the error page that comes up at medium). It's not too difficult to surmise that Dr. Em has probably been another victim of targeted abuse of the system for complaining about someone's posts. Such abuse only works because the systems are set up so that to be accused is to be found guilty, and then censored, with avenues of appeal difficult to access and often set up to prevent successful appeals in any case. That these systems are supposedly automated is no excuse, because victims of censorship have been able to show how somehow the system bent to target them. Meanwhile, screenshot after screenshot of threats to kill, rape, and beat women generally let alone having specifically controversial opinions get a pass.
I do think that online it is possible to have something more like real safe space, in which people are physically and socially safe to express controversial opinions. It is true that generally even when an online platform is run by people willing to invest in human moderators and train them well, that the moderators can still be overwhelmed by volume, so some form of automation is needed, and people need to be able to report complaints and concerns. Yet it is also necessary to curb abuse of reporting systems and resist the temptation to censor for fear of somebody, usually an advertiser, being "offended." Many of the larger companies crying fear of advertisers are in fact big enough to refuse to give in to the fear, if their claims to be afraid are not disingenuous. Leaving aside issues of greed and power-hungry junk, practically it is quite possible to get closer to an online safe space with the assistance of digital tools.
For instance, right now many moderation algorithms are performing reversal by banning and silencing people whose writing or speech gets mobbed my trolls. I talked about this some time ago in Garbage In Means Garbage Out. It's a technical challenge to retrain these algorithms to point in the right direction, but since when did a had programming problem become reason to refuse to solve it? For a person to be able to report abuse or otherwise make a complaint, they should have to be registered on the platform in question, and there should be a probation period to see if they develop a pattern of abusing the reporting system. Serious abusers will wait this period out anyway, but this is likely to counter the mob tactics that are typically applied as part of abuse of reporting systems. For accusations of particularly severe rule violations, immediate bans or deletions are unjust and crush the credibility of the site as much as ignoring genuine threats. To my knowledge claims that a person is not merely expressing a controversial opinion but being abusive doesn't always require providing specific quotes, and that even if it does, the application is so broad as to evidently be an expression of specific politics, not application of a balanced policy. So before the ban hammer or delete button can be applied, I think it is reasonable for there to be a flag that is added to the top of the reported page saying something like "Readers should be aware that concerns have been reported about the content of this page. An investigation of the report(s) is underway. For more information on our review process, see our policy page." Wikipedia is in bad shape these days, but it does have something that approaches the right idea when it comes to marking a page or section as controversial. In any case, that leaves it to the reader to decide whether to continue reading or not, and they can also tell others whether they think the page should be read or not. From there of course, the challenge is to make sure that there is a genuine review process. But again, since when does a challenge chase off so many techies and people who care about freedom of speech and social justice?
The crowning recent reversal in some ways has been the slippage in the usage of the verb "validate." It comes from one of the better latin verbs, valere, "to be strong," the same word at the root of such words as "valour," "valid," and of course further derivatives like "valorous" and "validity." "Valid" specifically means "having a sound basis in fact" according to my OED. The accompanying verb "validate" is the act of checking or proving that something has a sound basis in fact. This did not originally refer in day to day life to feelings, because we have no way to validate someone else's feelings anymore than they have a way to validate ours. Sometimes we have feelings that not only can't be validated by others, we can have our emotions engaged by nonsense, which is frustrating. But our feelings are our feelings, and none but ourselves can say they are true and real for us. To try to force someone to validate our feelings for us is none other than a power play that can never truly satisfy, because even if we successfully bully them into acting in a way that we think should validate us, it's still an act. The buzz will wear off, the demand for repetition and for more people to repeat the supposedly validating behaviour will grow. This is the opposite of validation, which when applied to a more usual real life case, such as validating our ticket at the theatre, is specific and limited in extent. You hold out your ticket, the agent checks it, and if your ticket is good, off you go to the event. Hence the growing insistence by those interested in "gender self-identification" in having official documents that say whatever they say their gender is, because maybe that will finally validate them once and for all. There's a weird logical sense to this even though it won't work, even though the reversal embedded in this use of "validate" is the worst sort of mug's game.