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Twitter is often the frontline of public conversations online, and while the social media service is very good at being a broadcast tool for individual sentiments, as a debate forum, Twitter is sorely lacking.
Nowhere has this been more evident in the past year than in the conversation around gender, with its volatile mix of politics, sexism and personal trauma. The topic draws strong personalities, and the clashes are frequent and often, sadly, toxic.
The debates are organized around hashtags, tools of convenience and necessity that are easily hijacked to drown out voices. Before the UCSB murders over the weekend, one of the last flash points in the debate was around one of these hashtags, and in the aftermath of the rampage some green shoots of hope have emerged from its opposite.
The flashpoint hashtag this time was #NotAllMen. At its core #NotAllMen is an emotional reaction to stories of sexual predation and harassment, a ham-fisted attempt to make the point that not all men commit these acts.
Valid logic, but that misses the point of the larger context: that the stories being shared are evidence of a structural defect in our society that goes beyond individual agency.
Sexual predators and other all-too-human monsters use the norms of our culture to hide in plain sight. “Broisms” provide an excellent camouflage for an individual who would sexually assault another. As the Academy Award nominated 2012 documentary The Invisible War points out, the targets of such assaults are not limited to women, but the everyday harassment that provides cover for this pathology overwhelmingly is.
The central problem with #NotAllMen as a discussion fulcrum is that the issue isn’t about the men who don’t harass and rape women. The cultural problem that needs to be addressed are the men who do. In short: #NotAllMen is irrelevant, but in the emotionally charged environment of social media this is not an easy point to get across.
Social media as a whole is, after all, deeply narcissistic. Asking anyone to empathize with another human being in anything but the most superficial fashion using a communication tool that is limited to 140 characters and is constantly inter—
RT @HappySpam to enter to win a year supply of Doritos Locos Tacos! #free #klout
-tupted by nonsensical advertisements is the definition of a Sisyphisan task. (I’d say this in more earthy terms, but they don’t let me curse here.)
Fighting a battle over #NotAllMen was always a losing proposition. Focusing attention on the hashtag just fuels the narcissistic drive.
Which is why it was so great to see #YesAllWomen pop up in the conversation in the wake of the murders.
The always-enlightening Alyssa Rosenberg defines the #YesAllWomen hashtagin a piece on the cultural impact of the UCSB killings thusly:
A wide-ranging discussion about everything from the consequences women face for turning down romantic advances to structural bias in any number of industries…
This framing of the topic puts the emphasis where it belongs, instead of getting into a pissing contest over who is and isn’t a “nice guy”—itself a functionally meaningless yet charged term. The tales of near-assaults, assaults, workplace discrimination and frankly inhumane behavior are often gut wrenching. Many in just 140 characters, showcasing what Twitter is good at: provoking an emotional response through minimalist prose.
Yet that hasn’t stopped the belligerence.
Many of the active male combatants in the online rancor are very young men from “men’s rights” forums where self-esteem issues and deep awkwardness are frothed up into anger. Few of them have the framework to transcend their own confusion and egos to see anything in the world as being separate from their own concerns.
We used to have a term for this: adolescence. In some corners of the world we still do, and we practice the difficult task of helping those blockheads mature into reasonable, empathic adults. Whether or not that task can be accomplished online, en masse, remains to be seen.
It is, however, just one component of a larger cultural triage that is currently taking place. One piece of a puzzle that has taken a generation to take shape, and may take generations to solve nationally let alone globally.
It seems pathetic to dwell on hashtags in the wake of the deaths of six people, yet there is a some evidence that septic elements of online culture may have helped fuel the killer’s psychosis, possibly creating a feedback loop that gave his darkest impulses the wrong kind of succor.
Addressing one aspect that led up to the killings alone— easy access to guns, our national inability to deal with mental health as a topic, sexism as “default mode” of our culture —wouldn’t necessarily have stopped that young man. After all, he stabbed multiple men to death before switching to firearms, had been in therapy his entire life, and was so far down the rabbit hole of “men’s rights” forums that he hated anyone who he thought was having sex.
Even working diligently on all three and beyond almost certainly won’t stop a similar incident from happening again. That’s no reason not to fix the problems, because if we believe that everyone has the right to pursue their lives free of the threat of murder, rape, and punishing harassment, then every time we stop that from happening is a victory of humanity over chaos.
For anyone, especially young men, who wants to know where to start, go read the #YesAllWomen tweets that share women’s worst experiences. Read those and sit with it. Don’t shield yourself by thinking about how you wouldn’t do those things, instead think about if that was your mother, sister, good friend…or if you were a woman and had to put up with the harassment and worse.
What we need now most of all is real dialogue, not screaming matches. If we can collectively find a way to do that online, perhaps there is some good that can come out of this horror after all.