Saturday, February 13, 2016

Anti-harassment politics and the problem of co-option

Cool dude Lowenaffchen posted a thing yesterday about the appropriation of anti-harassment rhetoric by elites against public criticism. He has several takes in here that I don't agree with, and IMHO, Ryan Cooper's critique was essentially right: the article's "overall point is obscured by a lot of extraneous claims," and a lot of them were just incorrect.

Here is how I would put it. Particularly during the last decade, the liberal-left has done an excellent job of popularizing a set of rhetoric meant to remedy (or at least counter) the harassment of oppressed communities. We recognize, for example, that women are exposed to more violent threats than men, that they are more likely to be victimized by people making good on those threats, and so on. We also recognize, for example, that men do not suffer from sexism as women do, so we object to gendered slurs against women in a way that we do not object to gendered slurs against men. In general, these discursive rules function (or at least aspire) to protect the powerless from the powerful; that is why they are good and justified.

Gaming the rules

The problem here is the same problem that liberalism always faces: powerful people are going to look for ways to game and co-opt the rules to their own advantage. This is what they do with financial regulations, this is what they do with international treaties, and this is what they do with discourse rules.

We all recognize how this happens in practice. The most obvious example is the phenomenon of so-called "reverse racism": white people invoke the language of tolerance and egalitarianism to insist that the greatest problem in American today is white people getting called crackers. Superficially, this grievance is playing by standard liberal discourse rules: all it does is extend the prohibition against racial slurs one step further. It is only when you drill down into questions of justification, and consider why we prohibit racial slurs in the first place, that it becomes clear why cries of reverse racism are so ridiculous: getting called a cracker is not an actual, consequential problem for white people.

Or consider Lowenaffchen's example of the James Woods lawsuit. Superficially, Woods is deploying all of the same rhetoric: he complains that his troll is guilty of waging "a malicious on-line campaign" and even appeals to the uniquely amplifying nature of Twitter, insisting that "using social media" allowed his troll to "propagate lies" to "hundreds of thousands of Mr. Woods' followers." But obviously, what is actually happening here is that a rich white man is co-opting anti-harassment rhetoric to perpetrate wildly disproportionate retaliation against a relatively powerless critic.

Obviously it is rude and uncivil to accuse James Woods of being a cocaine addict, much like it is rude and uncivil to call a white guy a cracker. It's also funny as hell, and more importantly, liberalism isn't here to make sure everyone is nice and scrupulously observes Emily Post's rules of etiquette or parliamentary debate procedure. Liberalism has zero stake in protecting the powerful from ridicule and trolling; it is here to protect the powerless, and it is only justified insofar as it actually does so.

Who has the power?

I don't think anything I've written so far is particularly controversial - but in practice, these issues get murky is when it is not entirely clear who the powerless and who the powerful really are.

Consider, for example, Hillary Clinton. Obviously she is rich, white, straight, and a boomer, a member of four of the most powerful groups in America today. If this is all we knew about her, the case for trolling her would be just as obvious as it is for James Woods: liberalism has no stake in protecting people of privilege from everyone else. It might be uncouth to call Clinton bourgeois scum, or a cracker, or a gross boomer, and this is a good reason to not invite the trolls to your dinner party; but this is not a problem that deserves a claim to liberal anti-harassment rhetoric.

The complication, of course, is that not only is Clinton rich, white, straight, and a boomer: she's also a woman. For that reason, despite her overwhelming privilege by other measures, Clinton's partisans routinely invoke liberal discourse rules in her defense. But to what extent is that actually justified?

The answer here depends on one's intersectional analysis.

Here, I see a continuum of positions. At one end, you could conclude that Clinton's wealth, whiteness, orientation and age all disqualify any claim to anti-harassment rhetoric that she could possibly have. She is a woman, but she is an extraordinarily powerful woman, and for that reason it's ridiculous to get worked up over even the most grotesque sexism launched her way. For reasons given momentarily I don't think this analysis is at all correct, but it's entirely possible that some of her critics have made this calculation.

Hijacking the Gamergate critique

At the other extreme, however, is the tendancy that I suspect Lowenaffchen has in mind: the conclusion that Clinton's gender gives her an absolute claim to anti-harassment rhetoric, even when it comes to critiques of her use of power against the powerless. By this logic, any criticism or ridicule of anything about her must, in some sense, be understood as an attack on women in general; and for this reason, all of the usual anti-harrassment rhetoric moves are justified in her defense. That is how we get ridiculous tweets like this:

Sealioning, of course, is a term that was coined "by anti-GamerGate Internet users to mock perceived online discussion tactics employed by GamerGate supporters". Specifically, men were harassing women by asking questions "in bad faith" as "a way to demean, degrade, or otherwise destroy" them. It's completely understandable that we would be wary of this phenomena if it becomes a way for powerful people to oppress powerless people, as was often the case when Gamergate partisans were harassing women.

But that is obviously not what's happening here. What's happening here is that a man is complaining about a general tendancy to ask questions - even obnoxious questions - about Hillary Clinton's foreign policy.

The stakes here are obviously a lot bigger than dumb video games. More to the point, one can obviously criticize - and even harass - people about Hillary Clinton's drone policy without doing it merely because she is a woman. Droning is obviously a hugely controversial issue that people are going to disagree about and argue about and even be rude about for reasons that have zero to do with Hillary Clinton being a woman.

What I see here is an attempt to co-opt liberal anti-harassment politics in defense of the world's most powerful military murdering its most powerless people. And like so many centrist nerds, Greg is specifically doing this by hijacking the arguments and rhetoric that were used by Gamergate critics. His invocation of "sealion" is neither liberal nor feminist; it is not even intended to criticize misogynists, which is why he says "sealion people" instead of "sealion women". It is solely being used to shut down political discourse that he finds unwelcome and rude.

Functionally, this genre of rhetoric occupies an extreme position that awards Clinton a claim to anti-harassment rhetoric even if it comes at the expense of the powerless. Because it equates incivility and even criticism about any issue with oppressive harassment, it sets up a massive discursive barrier around Clinton and her apologists and becomes the exact opposite of the Gamergate critique: a weapon of the powerful.

The intersectional position

We return, then, to the basic problem: how does one navigate anti-harassment discourse when the power dynamics are complicated and not entirely clear?

It seems to me that an intersectional answer to this question is going to have to strike a complicated and controversial balance. On one hand, it will push back against rude or critical discourse that is oppressive to women - but on the other hand, it will have to protect criticism (and even rudeness!) mobilized in defense of oppressed groups, such as people of color, the poor, the LGBT community, the young, and yes, even women who Hillary Clinton would attack.

The lessons of Gamergate cannot be used to justify sexism, but neither can they be used to justify cries of reverse-racism, or James Woods lawsuits, or drone campaigns. The balance one strikes here is always going to be political and controversial, because no matter how carefully liberals try to refine discourse rules, they can always be abused by the powerful. Suffice to say that Sanders-skeptic-Clinton-apologist video game nerds do not get to be the final word on what counts as harassment; thank god for that.