Essay — From the March 2018 issue

The Other Whisper Network

How Twitter feminism is bad for women

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One thing that makes it hard to engage with the feminist moment is the sense of great, unmanageable anger. Given what men have gotten away with for centuries, this anger is understandable. Yet it can also lead to an alarming lack of proportion. Rebecca Trais­ter, one of the smartest and most prominent voices of the #MeToo movement, writes:

The rage that many of us are feeling doesn’t necessarily correspond with the severity of the trespass: Lots of us are on some level as incensed about the guy who looked down our shirt at a company retreat as we are about Weinstein, even if we can acknowledge that there’s something nuts about that, a weird overreaction.

At first glance, this seems honest and insightful of her. She seems, for a moment, to recognize the energy that is unnerving some of us, an anger not interested in making distinctions between Harvey Weinstein and the man looking down your shirt—an anger that is, as Traister herself puts it, “terrifyingly out of control.” But weirdly, she also seems to be fine with it, even roused. When Trump supporters let their anger run terrifyingly out of control, we are alarmed, and rightly so. Perhaps Traister should consider that “I am so angry I am not thinking straight” is not the best mood in which to radically envision and engineer a new society. 

It would be one thing if collapsing the continuum of bad behaviors happened only in moments of overshoot recognized by everyone. But I am afraid that this collapse is an explicit part of this new ideology. The need to differentiate between smaller offenses and assault is not interesting to a certain breed of Twitter feminist; it makes them impatient, suspicious. The deeper attitude toward due process is: don’t bother me with trifles! (One of the editors of n+1, Dayna Tortorici, tweets: “I get the queasiness of no due process. But . . . losing your job isn’t death or prison.”)

The widely revered feminist Rebecca Solnit made a related argument in a 2014 interview, speaking in the immediate wake of California’s Isla Vista mass shooting. “I think it’s important that we look at all this stuff together,” she said. “It begins with these microaggressions; it ends with rape and murder.” Solnit is not arguing literally that all arrogant men will go on to sexual assault. But by connecting condescending men and rapists as part of the same wellspring of male contempt for women, she renders the idea of proportion irrelevant, and lends an alluring drama to the fight against mansplaining. She gives a gloss of mainstream respectability and intellectual cachet to the dangerous idea that distinctions between Weinstein and a man who looks down someone’s shirt don’t ultimately matter.

Because of the anger animating the movement, incidents that might otherwise seem outrageous become acceptable or normal to us. The Shitty Media Men list, the anonymously crowd-sourced spreadsheet chronicling sexual misconduct in the publishing world, is a good example. If we think of how we would feel about a secretly circulating, anonymously crowd-sourced list of Muslims who might blow up planes, the strangeness of the document snaps into focus. And yet the Guardian described the list as an attempt “to take control of the narrative by speaking out,” while the Washington Post said “the point was community.” According to The Awl, “a few false positives is probably an acceptable price,” and Mashable opined: “Maybe the women accessing it will see a name and feel a little less crazy, a little more validated in knowing that weird interaction they had with that media guy in a bar was, in fact, creepy.” There is something chilling about circulating lists like this, with their shadowy accusations capable of ruining reputations and careers, simply so that a woman can be sure that a weird interaction she had at a bar with a media guy was, in fact, creepy. (“It feels Maoist,” says one of the deeply anonymous, while others question whether the list was ever designed to remain clandestine in the first place.)

To do a close reading of the list: some of the offenses on the spreadsheet (“creepy DMs,” “weird lunch ‘dates,’” “leering,” “flirting,” “violent language,” and “leading on multiple women online”) seem not quite substantial or rare enough to put into the category of sexual misconduct. I am not even sure they merit a warning to a hopeful young employee. I have graduate students who go on to work for these sorts of publications, and I am very mother-hen-ish about them. But I can’t imagine sitting with one of my smart, ambitious students in my office, lined with shelves of books like The Second Sex and A Room of One’s Own and I Love Dick and The Argonauts, saying, “Before you go work there, I just want to warn you, that guy might leer at you.” I would worry I was being condescending, treating her like a child who doesn’t know how to handle herself in the world.

I am not trying to suggest that the list makers don’t understand the difference in scale between leering and assault, but rather that the blurring of common (if a little sleazy) behavior and serious sexual harassment reveals a lot about how they think. For them, the world is overrun with leering monsters you have to steer around, as if in a video game. And if some of us seem overly occupied with problems of scale, with separating small gross moments from larger criminal ones, it is because we think the very idea of women’s power is at stake.

One man on the spreadsheet—a writer with no authority over anyone, and a drinker himself—is accused of the following: “targets very drunk women.” To me, the verb “target” is eloquent of the motives and the mind-set of the list’s creators. Why is hitting on someone, even with the third drink in your hand, targeting? Surely some of the women are targeting him back, or targeting someone else—the tall guy with a paperback tucked into his jacket pocket, maybe, on the other side of the room. However one feels about the health of drinkers who hang around till the last minutes of the party consorting with other drinkers, I am not sure you can accurately frame this as political oppression. Among other things, the verb makes a series of sexist assumptions about how helpless and passive the women (I mean, targets) at the party are.

In one of the sexual harassment stories in New York magazine’s The Cut, Emma Cline describes a drunken evening during which the head of a literary organization sits too close to her in a cab and asks for her number on the way home from a party. (“Why is this a story?” one of the deeply anonymous says.) Granted, we’re now used to the endless mediation of screens in our personal lives. Still, one wonders when someone asking for your phone number became an aggressive and dehumanizing gesture rather than, say, annoying or awkward. In a way, asking someone for her phone number seems like asking for consent—it’s asking, not assuming, it’s reaching out, risking rejection. It begins to feel as if the endgame of this project is not bringing to account powerful sexual bullies but, as a male acquaintance puts it, the “presumptive criminalization of all male sexual initiatives.”

A couple of days after my friend made this potentially outsized claim, Josephine Livingstone issued a fresh dictum in The New Republic: “You probably shouldn’t kiss anybody without asking.” She insists that everyone, not just college students, must now obtain verbal permission; all those ways you used to think you could tell whether someone wanted to kiss you six months ago no longer matter: “The world has changed, and affirmative consent is now the standard.” Note the friendly yet threatening
tone of a low-level secret policeman in a new totalitarian state.

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