The Braindead Megaphone
“The Other Whisper Network” [Essay, March] is a rehash of Katie Roiphe’s decades-old argument that women are prone to hysterical overreactions to male sexual behavior. In the Nineties, she suggested that women exaggerated the problem of date rape. Today, she claims that “Twitter feminists” exaggerate the problem of sexual harassment and silence those who challenge them.
Roiphe uses anonymous sources to support her position, obfuscates events, and often mischaracterizes competing views. Her treatment of Rebecca Solnit is exemplary in this respect. On the basis only of select passages from a 2014 broadcast interview, Roiphe claims that Solnit “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.” Never mind that the interview was conducted years before the Weinstein exposé and that Solnit has more recently argued the exact opposite. “We’re now at the point where people are being canned for jokes, by people who . . . don’t get that maybe there should be some proportion in this thing,” she wrote in the Guardian in December 2017. “How do we weigh degrees of gravity?”
Roiphe takes the same approach with other women as well. Such is her method. She highlights just a single tweet by Dayna Tortorici instead of exploring her longer, subtler writing on the topic and ignores the many other writers (Jia Tolentino, Moira Weigel, Sarah Leonard, Melissa Gira Grant, Roxane Gay, Doreen St. Félix, to name just a few) who look beyond their immediate milieu to link feminism to issues of race, politics, technology, and class. Though the piece touches on a case of sexual harassment at Harper’s Magazine, neither Roiphe nor anyone from the magazine contacted the victim.
It’s disappointing that Harper’s held Roiphe to such low journalistic standards. At a minimum, she should have been compelled to find on-the-record sources, to adequately report out sexual harassment allegations before dismissing them, and to fairly represent other people’s work. Constructive and nuanced disagreement over the future of #MeToo is most welcome. Roiphe’s approach, however, suggests that she and her publisher are simply courting controversy in bad faith.
New York City
Katie Roiphe responds:
Astra Taylor presents a caricature of my work, which has always been cultural interpretation, not political advocacy. I have written about what I see as an infantilizing and almost Victorian strain in feminist discourse that is not in women’s interest.
I have seen two pieces in the past week in which Solnit speaks in the exact same melodramatic register I refer to in my piece (in the Financial Times and on Lit Hub). Additionally, in my reporting, I reached out to Solnit but she did not respond.
I quoted Tortorici’s tweet expressing impatience with due process not because I believed it was the sum total of her work on earth but because it accurately represents a powerful strain of Twitter feminism. (I was heartened to see that after my piece came out she retreated somewhat from that tweet.)
The suggestion that I should have fully investigated a case of sexual harassment at Harper’s in what was a passing reference is obviously a trumped-up expectation, and not a call for normal journalistic diligence.
The complaint that my article included too many anonymous quotes seems to almost willfully miss the article’s point. It seemed troubling and noteworthy that so many women of various ages spoke to me eagerly while insisting on anonymity. Their quotes document an inconvenient reality that the Twitter feminists would rather disqualify on a technicality than confront. (I also find it curious that my critics do not acknowledge my named sources, Ottessa Moshfegh and Amie Barrodale. I suppose that when two excellent female writers praise a demonized male editor, their testimony doesn’t count.)
The Twitter-feminist panic at the slightest criticism from me and others is telling. In January they tried to stop the publication of a critical article. Now they try to discredit my sources. But my sources only want fairness and nuance for men and women alike. Twitter feminists, alas, want something else.
Weapons of Influence
The most optimistic aspect of these thoughtful essays on persuasion in the age of Trump is how they try to encourage dialogue that transcends our political comfort zones, emphasizing respectful goodwill between partisans of different camps [“The Minds of Others,” Forum, February]. This is especially important today, when we are surrounded by Trump-style persuasion, with its incendiary emotive tweets to an angry, frustrated base of supporters, messages deliberately designed to divide rather than unite, which is the traditional aim of presidential rhetoric.
Divisive rhetoric is particularly problematic in an era when social media algorithms favor congenial posts, in this way providing precious little exposure to alternative perspectives (the best of deliberative persuasion) or to corrections of factually inaccurate partisan messages. In this fiftieth year since the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy — the archetype of a leader who seized a painful historical moment and delivered the best that persuasion has to offer — one longs for the plaint RFK memorably proffered, noting, “Some men see things as they are, and say why. I dream things that never were, and say why not?” This, not tempestuous tweets, is the persuasion we need today.
Richard M. Perloff
Professor of Communication, Psychology, and Political Science
Cleveland State University
David Bromwich’s observation that persuasion is both interpretative and activist, blurring a commonly held distinction between categories, is astute. But his imagining of the most dangerous conservative and her liberal counterpart is unpersuasive. While the former “blames a vulnerable group for a reversal of fortune whose actual causes are complex” — a scenario immediately familiar to the reader as a precedent to violence and even genocide — the latter is merely “one who angrily invokes the sufferings of the oppressed while doing little to combat the forces of oppression.” In other words, a wellintentioned hypocrite.
It is possible to conceive of a more dangerous liberal — for example, the one who imagines that the homeless enjoy the same freedoms as billionaires. Or, worse, the liberal who champions the equal rights of minorities or marginalized groups to fight imperial wars against foreign others.