Thursday, July 18, 2013

Counting Coup

Jessa Crispin:

I am used to this kind of thing by now. There was this whole article written a few years back about how because I was running a site named Bookslut and interviewing male authors, I was a tool of the patriarchy. That's fine. These types of things don't really bother me. Mostly because I feel like if you are the type of person to write emails using words like "tool of the patriarchy" and "rape culture," your goal is not to open a dialogue, it's to shame me into correcting my behavior. It's not likely to happen, unfortunately.

I should state up front that I hate the phrase "rape culture." It's not because I don't think we have a culture where rape is normalized, where women are in danger, with television programs with pretty violated dead girls lovingly filmed for our viewing pleasure, whatever. I'm not stupid, I know how this works. But I also think that throwing around the word "rape culture" is a silencing tactic, that shuts down dialogue, that creates an atmosphere of animosity. I think it is stories, not slogans, that change things, that bring people around. And hearing out a person's viewpoint, rather than scolding or telling them they are wrong, is the only way to find middle ground.

...So yeah. It annoys me when someone sends an email telling me that my language needs policing. It annoys me when someone writes to say, "I just today discovered your site and you are doing it wrong and hurting women in the process." You are acting as a tyrant, not as a human being when you do that. I have that impulse, too, god knows. But if you're getting hung up on words, these forbidden words that you yourself are changing into weapons, like slut or bitch or hysterical or whatever else I've been called out for using, you're missing the story. And you're missing the human being using the words. And I don't answer email sent by tyrants.

Yesterday, while sitting in the parking lot at work, I saw a bird aggressively confronting his own reflection in a car's side-view mirror. All ruffled feathers and widespread wings and "Come at me, bro!" attitude. With Crispin's excellent post still fresh in my mind, it struck me as an amusingly apt symbol of so much social media dialogue — people catching a glimpse of their own projected fears or insecurities, reading malign intent into the shadows of vague or poorly-expressed ideas, squawking, pecking and accomplishing absolutely nothing.

There's this former co-worker of mine, a devout Christian. Devout, as in, he and his wife were seriously talking about becoming New Monastics. When I met him, he was attending a conservative Christian college. Liberty University, in fact. Ideologically, we predictably disagree on some things — he's not a right-wing religious nut, but he does seem to have some theocratic leanings where he thinks Christian beliefs should trump civil liberties, such as in cases involving abortion or voluntary euthanasia (that's just an impression I've gotten, to be fair; I've never asked him about it flat-out). We argued a bit over whether Michael Behe is anything more than an intelligent design-promoting hack. He has a lot of left-wing political beliefs, though: he's actually traveled to Palestine to protest Israeli actions and defend Palestinians from being attacked (hoping that the presence of Americans will deter any violence); he's in favor of single-payer health care; he opposed both of our imperial adventures in Iraq and Afghanistan and any potential actions against Iran, but he's also a former Navy SEAL and still has some of that rah-rah, go troops, U-S-A, U-S-A stuff going on. He got into a shouting match with John Hagee after a speech Hagee gave at Liberty. He voted for Bush twice, but still had enough of an intellectual conscience to change his mind about him and admit what a mistake it was. He voted for Obama after having supported Ron Paul in the primaries. He used to hate Michael Moore, now he loves him. He was thrilled when he saw me wearing a Noam Chomsky t-shirt one day, saying that he was his hero. He drives a gigantic monster truck that he converted to run entirely on vegetable oil, and he drives around in it blasting cheesy 80s synth-pop music like Wham! just to freak out the people who assume he's a fellow redneck. Other fun discussions included everything from his love-bordering-on-worship of Billy Corgan and the Smashing Pumpkins to what he saw as a postmodern perspective in Scrubs as personified by the Janitor.

Most importantly, he's just a genuinely nice guy. Intellectually curious and unfailingly polite (though I guess Hagee might argue otherwise), his willingness to consider new perspectives and change his mind accordingly made me realize how accustomed I'd gotten, especially on the Internet, to dealing with ideologues who traffic almost entirely in buzzwords and butthurt, who argue with slogans and snark, and who, by all appearances, care more about being right and being praised by their fellows for being right than actually changing any of the things they spend their Internet time raging against. Anil Dash's perceptive Law of Fail comes to mind here.

Perhaps he's more incoherent than truly iconoclastic; maybe he's just never tried to figure out how all these passions and ideas can coexist in the same skull. Could be that if he ever attempts to be thoroughly rational and internally consistent in his beliefs, he might find himself rejecting his progressive leanings and becoming rigidly fundamentalist. Eh, I doubt it, though.

The rather pedestrian point I'm making is, had I met him on the Internet as a bullet list of beliefs and a set of tribal identity flash cards, I doubt I would have seen him as a friend. And I'm certainly not one to promote a ridiculous romantic Internet, fake, boo; real life, authentic, yay! perspective. I'm just saying what she's saying: if you enjoy being mean and snarky to strangers online to give yourself a little sugar rush of superiority and gain a little status among the rest of the in-group, knock yourself out. But if you honestly want to "make a difference" and change people's minds, you might want to engage with them in a more personable way. You might even thereby decide that the fate of all good things in the world doesn't actually hinge on whether you win an argument or bully someone into acquiescence.