Don't Eat With Your Mouth Full

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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.


Beard says on Twitter that she is composing a blog post about it all now, so she doesn't seem to have been too cowed by the experience. I like to hope, especially as a fellow-Classicist, that she'll emerge from it all as having learnt something, but her 'can't win' comment which you mention above does rather suggest she will cast herself as the victim in her longer-form commentary, just as she has on Twitter. (She is, I've noticed before, quite good at couching these sorts of situations as terrible misunderstandings in which her good intentions have been distorted by the public discourse - never, of course, her fault.)

Oh, and I absolutely agree on how strong Ika's blog post about her experience with the invited speaker at Bristol is. It definitely prompted a distinct step forward in my own understanding of the issues around granting or denying platforms, freedom of speech, and safe spaces.

I share your hope, but also your pessimism, alas.

It's hardly a surprise that this would prove fodder for a Beard blog post. The question is, what should I do when it appears? Weigh in, pointing out that she's wrong, that she can be a trans ally or sign that letter, but not both? Or stay out of it? The former seems draining, the latter a bit cowardly.

I don't think anyone can be blamed for picking their battles (I doubt there'll be a shortage any time soon), but if I were you I'd wait and see what she says. Just possibly it will be entirely unproblematic; but if not, perhaps a particular avenue of approach will reveal itself.

It's already up. It's a bit "well, there was really only one bit of the letter I really agreed with", to which the obvious reply is, "well, you shouldn't have signed it then."

Yes, I see. I agree it's disappointing, especially when the passage from the letter that she uses to sum up the "core" of the argument sloppily conflates no-platforming with bullying and protest with intimidation. On the other hand, although there is more talk of her having been bullied on Twitter in the comments I notice she refrains from that herself, which is to the good. Her placatory mention of Gia Milinovich as one of those who are clearly "good guys" as far as gender is concerned may suggest that it's not an area she follows very closely.

Actually, do you think it would be worthwhile my putting a link to this post in the comments?

And in the end, I did respond.

And very well too.

Thank you.

Thank you for that link.

It makes me heartsick, how very slow we are to become civilized.

1) The "I can say this to you, but you can't say it to me" mentality is very widespread.

2) So is the phenomenon of people learning an incomplete and distorted version of a story and signing on to a protest without realizing that the story is actually very different. Even the sainted UKL did that once (on a copyright infringement issue). That's probably what happened to Tatchell and Beard, at least initially, or at least I hope so.

3) I find I still have to look up "tl; dr" every time I see it.

4) I found the blog post you mentioned, the one on "should we be allowed to exist", to be disturbing in a thought-provoking way. It points out the difficulty of distinguishing between those who accept your existence and those who don't but are merely not attempting to burn you at the stake at the moment, and that self-defensiveness forces the assumption of the latter. So what should the former do? Wear supportive buttons all the time?

4a) I also wish to investigate the concept of it not being a "safe space" to listen to people saying, oh so politely, that in their opinion you should not exist. I've sat in a friend's living room listening to her explain that, although she was very sorry to say it, her religion forces her to believe that, because I am not a Christian, I will burn in Hell. How does that measure as an unsafe space? Should I have been offended?

3) It's not the most gainly of internet abbreviations, is it?

4 and 4a) I agree it's very tricky, and I wish I had the answers. I know that the short-cut of pretending that once you step into a university all playing fields are magically levelled, all voices given equal weight, all societal assumptions and privileges suspended, is the lazy way to go because it's founded in a lie, and actually perpetuates inequality.

I'm still thinking about the concept of safe spaces, but I'm pretty sure it's not to do with offence alone. It's more about power. For example, if your interlocutor had not believed simply that God would in due course send you to burn hell but was campaigning to have non-Christians burned in the market place, then you might have less safe than you did in the actual conversation. But she'd be a lone voice, so probably not too unsafe. If she had been arguing for you to be burned in the market place in a society where you knew that many people expressed similar views, and an unknown number of others were secretly sympathetic to them, then you might have felt less safe again. If she had asked you to come and debate the matter in a room (even in a university) filled with many of her biggest fans, and signed copies of her book Why Kalimac Must Die on sale in the foyer... well, you get the idea.

The difficulty is that, in a world of unequal power, there may be no safe space in which those without power can talk on reasonably equal terms to those with it, and without such places where is the basis for dialogue and the good things that should flow from it? Universities ought, of course, to be just the location for such debates - and to that extent I understand where Beard and the others are coming from - but they won't become so just by pretending they already are and demonizing those who point out that the truth is otherwise.

Fair enough. I mean this as a rhetorical point, and not as an actual question to put you on the spot, but how much does thousands of years of anti-semitism contribute to the power balance here? Are people still selling copies of The Protocols of the ELders of Zion? Was I being overly sensitive or merely properly cautious by, 20 or 25 years ago when it looked like a live possibility, saying that I'd consider leaving the US for my own safety if Pat Buchanan were elected president?

I'd say it absolutely makes a difference. (I just looked, and yes you can pick up your copy of the Protocols on Amazon, bundled with The Jews and their Lies by Martin Luther. It's got quite high ratings, too.) These things vary from time to time and place to place, but it's always part of the background radiation, isn't it? And in certain places on the Continent just now it's looking pretty toxic.

I think I should add, though (in case it wasn't obvious), that I am speaking here of something of which I have no experience and, compared with you and many of my friends list, very little knowledge.

Edited at 2015-02-16 01:36 pm (UTC)

I've nothing useful to add (for the amount of thought the whole 'free' speech' thing is causing me to do means I haven't formulated my own ideas fully, and keep thinking of aspects that need rethinking) but I wanted to thank you for the 'wonderful post' link. it's given words to a lot of things I've seen and felt and fretted about, but never quite articulated clearly. I think the emotions get in the way of the rational thinking for some of us, and we silence ourselves on subjects where we ought to be more outspoken. Having this articulated is the first step to understanding it which is the first step to changing, hence the need to thank you for the link!

Great, isn't it? I keep it as a mental vade mecum to steady me in certain kinds of "difficult" encounter.

Damn. I'd missed this whole thing entirely, so only now following your links I see that one of the signatories is someone who, while I've lost touch with hir over the last couple of decades, was a close friend at university :-( Also saddened by the Mary Beard thing, and by the awful comment from the classicist on facebook - as a classicist it makes me feel ashamed of my own kind :-(

Thank you for highlighting all this so calmly and cogently, and for the excellent links.

The Latin for the Judgin'

If it helps, some classicists have been awesome! The blog post I recommend near the beginning of this one is by a classicist, for example, and strange_complex and swisstone in the comments above this one are classicists too.

Edited at 2015-03-01 08:19 am (UTC)


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