February 15th, 2015


Twitter Mobs versus Letter Mobs

I've been following the latest trans row from a slight distance, and I'm not planning to go into all the details of it here. (The tl;dr version: the original letter that caused the fuss is here; and here is one articulate response that draws attention to its numerous errors of fact.) I just want to note a couple of things about the fall-out.

During an eerily similar spat in the newspapers a couple of years ago I wrote a post about the double-standards involved when it comes to pronouncements in the press by well known journalists, or indeed others who are in a position of privilege in terms of having opportunities to make their views known to the public (nationally-known activists, regular panel show participants, academics who've been given their own TV series, and the like, to pick three professions not at random). Two years ago, and again yesterday, it was made clear to the rest of us that when they wish to speak we are duty bound to give them a platform from which to do so, either literally or in a newspaper, or else we will be involved in censorship. If we don't turn up to listen, that too is censorship. I was even informed by a classicist on Facebook yesterday that "refusing to be on the same platform as a speaker is a form of shutting down debate"; so it seems that our duty goes further, and includes turning up to debate, with whoever wishes to discuss it, the stimulating topic of whether we should be allowed to exist. I'd hope the screwed-upness of this thinking was evident to most, but I'll take the opportunity to link you to this truly wonderful blog post, which skewers that kind of privilege better than I could. (It's longish, but do read it, if you haven't - I've been reminded of it numerous times over the last couple of days.)

Anyway, yes, back to the row du jour. I think it was unsurprising that the letter generated quite a lot of debate; presumably that was part of its purpose. It's also pretty unsurprising - indeed, entirely predictable - that a couple of the signatories who had been widely considered trans allies, or at least thoroughly good eggs - namely Peter Tatchell and Mary Beard - received tweets from numerous individuals (trans and otherwise) who were disappointed at the stance they had taken. After all, no one was going to be surprised at Sarah Ditum or Caroline Criado-Perez putting their names to such a letter. But many people who admired Tatchell and Beard felt saddened and even shocked.

Now, I'm not on Twitter, and I've certainly not seen every tweet - but I had a look via the rather clumsy medium of the Twitter website, and read quite a few exchanges that way, particularly those addressed to Tatchell and Beard. Some were straightforwardly expressing disappointment; others were putting alternative points of view. None of the ones I saw could reasonably be construed as abusive. Apparently, however, both Beard and Tatchell found the number of tweets oppressive, and there was talk of them being bullied, of people "piling in", etc. And this, of course, rather than being an example of the kind of uncensored exchange of frank views that they had called for that very day, was parsed as bullying by a mob.

I suppose my first question is this: why is it that a hundred individuals speaking for no one but themselves can so easily be cast as a Twitter mob; while, by contrast, 131 well-connected journalists, broadcasters, academics, etc., all putting their name to a letter penned by (presumably) a few of them at most, are not called a Letter mob? Yet they were surely the ones "piling in", if anyone was. I'm happy to be corrected, but I very much doubt whether many of them bothered to investigate the version of events presented in the letter independently before signing it. And of course, they are the ones who are truly intimidating - not through their numbers alone but through their status, their reach, their influence. Indeed, they were invited to sign the letter on that basis: this is no random selection of individuals who happen to share a point of view, it's a phalanx of movers and shakers, who between them have the power to change the political weather. And, while their letter was ostensibly about free speech, it's no coincidence that the examples they used all involved the "censorship" of anti-trans and anti-sex worker statements by soi-disant feminists. (Clue: the reason for this is not that trans people and sex workers constitute the prime threat to free speech, in universities or elsewhere.)

My second question is: why is it that people calling for free speech and debate were so offended when they got it? Hypocrisy is an easy charge, and perhaps a just one, but is it enough? Privilege is another explanation: disdain for (and fear of) the "many-headed multitude" is alive and well, it seems, and people speaking back to the powerful is still a cause for disquiet. What is liberty in the elite appears as licence in others, to invoke an old distinction. Yet the residual Mary-Beard-respecting part of me jibs at closing the case there. Looking from the outside, at least (and I may be missing something important here), I'd have to add that Twitter seems like a medium designed to make people fraught and defensive. A hundred people speaking their individual thoughts to you on Twitter in a hundred different tweets, even though by any objective measure it's no more than a light spring shower compared to the high-powered water cannon of 131 eminent intellectuals and public figures speaking with one voice in a national newspaper, may still feel more intimidating. We are better able to handle single messages than dozens, no matter how expert at multitasking we may be. Throw in Twitter's 140-character clumsiness in conveying both tone and nuanced content, and add the defensiveness of someone who's feeling got at (after all, very few people like being told they're wrong over and over), and you have a recipe for frayed tempers and a world-famous classics professor "wanting to cry" - even though (as far as I can see) no individual treated her badly, unless joining in the debate she had called for constitutes bad treatment.

One of Beard's tweets was particularly telling from this point of view: "oh dear, cant win on this. Either I'm an out and out transphobe or dear old lady who hasnt quite understood the issues. Which is preferable?" In context, this describes not two kinds of tweet, but two strategies for not engaging: any straightforwardly critical tweet could be dismissed as insulting, and any tweet that made an attempt to put across an alternative point of view could be dismissed as patronizing. These are the hermeneutics of siege, not of intellectual enquiry: I can't begin to imagine a tweet (other than a purely supportive one) that Beard would not have consigned to one or other of these categories at that moment.

That said, I hope she puts her head above the parapet again at some point. I don't demand it, though, because unlike the letter writers I don't think that's what free speech means.