The Master’s Tools

I’ve been struggling with getting my ideas together for this post for a while, but today I read this quote from Audre Lourde “The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house”. For an analysis of the context for the quote (and I’m going to argue that context is crucial for anything discussed) here’s an interpretation here.

For context for what I’m about to say, here’s where I’m coming from.

I am not particularly well-versed in political debate, I’ve not pursued it as an academic discipline, or read a lot around it. My entire philosophy or values aren’t really any more nuanced than “Be excellent to each other”. I grew up with messages that equality is important in and of itself, and diversity is stronger than monocultures (“The glory of creation is in its infinite diversity and the ways our differences combine to create meaning and beauty” to be precise.) When reading “The Selfish Gene” I was enormously relieved to discover altruism has a pro-survival underpinning, and is justifiable using game theory. So it’s not just a belief system. Though it makes a good one.

As far as standing up for people’s rights though, I’m pretty much simply an armchair activist, partly through being non-confrontational, partly through laziness. The most extreme stance on anything I’ve ever taken is unfriending schoolfriends for being racist (yes unfriending people was a thing back in the 70s, but it entailed not walking home with them rather than disconnecting on social media) or taking a liberal stance in conversations (not that hard when you’re not hanging out with illiberal people). I think the only occasion where I’ve actually put anything on the line was being asked about homosexuality while a teacher during the Section 28 days. I said it was OK, for which I could have lost my job back then. In theory. I don’t think anyone ever did and it was a short term contract anyway, so the risks were minimal.

So, tbh my credentials on this are a bit thin. But I’m going ahead anyway.

I was bullied a lot at school, so have a knee-jerk response to anything that looks like bullying (and tend to be very partisan on those issues) and also, growing up in the seventies when culture was under the thumb of the National Viewers’ and Listeners’ Association, have a knee-jerk response to censorship. When I say “Censorship is fascism” I’m not using hyperbole, I genuinely see any attempt to control what artists or creators make as part of a movement of oppression. There is nothing in art or culture that is so bad that it is worse than the act of suppressing it. If there was one lesson I would want the next generation to learn from my experiences, it would be to have that same knee-jerk revulsion at the idea of censorship that I have.

Side story. I used to teach media studies. One series of lessons was on media effects. I showed A Clockwork Orange (on a dodgy pirated VHS as it was still banned then) and an interview with the head of the NVALA Mary Whitehouse. After the movie they all sat around and discussed the issue of banning it dispassionately. Five minutes of listening to Whitehouse and her festering ideology they were kicking chairs around the classroom. There is a lesson in there somewhere.

Caveat here – I’m talking about art solely. Freedom of expression in being creative is important, being creative about facts isn’t on. Incitement to violence isn’t permissible. If you’re calling for final solutions and that sort of thing, that’s not OK either.

I’ve not been a part of any cults, but did hang out with the Cardiff Marxist-Leninists for a while (not out of any political conviction, but that’s another story). So I’ve seen up close how movements reinforce and isolate dialogue so it becomes bounded and simply reflective, and how ugly and scary virtue signalling can be when you’re part of a group that enacts it. I didn’t last long there.

Quick explanation of virtue signalling, though you can read the full one here.  Signalling theory is the idea that animals all have codes to indicate that they are members of the same herd or tribe. It’s a safety mechanism to ensure that they can easily spot an intruder. So as with any pro-survival characteristic it’s probably hardwired into our genes. When it’s applied to whether you share the same values as others it’s called virtue signalling. When used individually it’s a fastrack way of identifying whether someone is aligned with your way of thinking, and so whether is going to be a threat to your ideology. When used by a group, it can sometimes look like a blood frenzy.

So for 40 years now I’ve been supporting diversity and equality in my own small ineffectual way. It’s a relief to see that (pre-2016 anyway) there’s been a gradual improvement on those grounds. Obviously, (I hope it’s obvious) there’s still a long way to go.

What has been leading up to this particular post though is seeing a subversion of this gradual increase in liberalism by groups of people within, mainly, social media. And it’s relevant on a blog on technology because I can see how social media have contributed to it.  This came up recently in a conversation between me, a niece and a stepson. We got onto the term “Social Justice Warrior”. If you look up the definition on Wikipedia or urban dictionary (both useful sources because they’re crowdsourced, so represent the general understanding of a phrase) now, I’ll wait. When coined, the term actually referred solely to people who used a liberal discourse as a means to attack people mainly through social media, through identifying some way in which they were falling short of what they perceived as a progressive liberal stance. So for example, a rocket engineer wears a shirt with female anime characters on it (made by a female friend who liked his penchant for flashy shirts) and gets accused of demeaning women, Stephen Fry calls his friend a bag lady and gets a similar backlash. Ricky Gervais mentions Caitlin Jenner in a comedy routine and is accused of transphobia. None of those accusations stack up on examination. All of them led to people being badgered online. One of those three were tough enough mentally to shrug off the abuse. Two weren’t. The implication of the term SJW being that the superficiality, misguidedness and/or vitriol of the attack indicated the attackers were doing it because they wanted to boost their own self-importance rather than out of a genuine concern for social justice.

However, the term SJW has now been thoroughly debased by extreme conservatives who don’t like any change. Who see the media as predominantly for white males under threat and don’t like them changing. Most ridiculous, I think, has been the backlash against the next iteration of Star Trek because it has a non-white female lead and second lead in the roles. Some fans are accusing the show of selling out to SJWs, not realising that the show has always had a social justice agenda – it’s always been about diversity and inclusivity (even when it failed, it was trying). So now, the term “social justice warrior” has been conflated with people who are genuinely concerned about social justice. So it’s essentially now counter-productive to use it.

Unfortunately (for someone who likes precision), any other term could go through the same attenuation, so making up another one doesn’t help. I might as well refer to people as Type A liberals and Type B liberals, and everyone else as Type C (for Conservatives). And yes this will be a generalisation, so I will attempt to interject the word “most” whenever I remember.

Partly this suppressing, bullying effect is amplified by social media. Any one person can object to something, or raise genuine concerns about something, in a tweet or a blog. And that’s OK. But when social media enables that to be echoed and retweeted, and grouped using a hashtag, then suddenly rather than it being a single voice it becomes a torrent. The fear of being on the end of that torrent can make people highly self-censoring, and even more prone to virtue signalling to deflect any likelihood of being on the receiving end of it. It didn’t begin with social media, the same effect happened around witch hunts (both literally and figuratively). If you’re attending the house of un-American activities, or in a courtroom in Salem, or in a room above a pub in Cardiff, you soon learn to denounce the incorrect statements with the absolutely correct condemnation, otherwise you’ll be next. I think, though, that social media have made that activity widespread and quotidian.

Social media have also enabled people to find each other, and reinforce their opinions. This has been a positive thing in some aspects; look at the Labour resurgence at the last general election. People found that there were other like-minded people, who were fed up with the politics of avarice and exploitation, and wanted a change. On your own, you’re likely to give up. When you find lots of people who think similarly it gives you the confidence to continue.

There’s a downside too, though. For a long time, people have been marginalised by the system have not had a voice, and have been oppressed by others. If you’re in a society run by tall white straight affluent able-bodied southern men, you’re more likely to succeed if you’re a tall white straight affluent able-bodied southern man, and the more of those boxes you can tick, the better you will do. There can be endless debate about which of those factors will benefit you the most. They’re never productive.

Social media have now given people a share in that power to some extent. For the type B liberals, who want social justice, who want to see a more pluralist society, who want more diversity, they have presented the opportunity to push for change, and to be visible enough for that change to be brought about. For the Type A liberals, it’s also presented to the opportunity to get in on the oppression and turn it around.

One of the latest campaigns has been to try to prevent the creators of Game of Thrones from making a TV show about the South winning the Civil War around the hashtag #NoConfederate. Irrespective of whether you think the idea is offensive or not, to call for it not to be made is censorship. It is saying there are some things that cannot be made, or said. People who were oppressed are trying to employ the tool that has been the means by which they have been oppressed for millennia. WTF?

Recently there was an apology from Guelph Central Student Association for including “Walk on the Wild Side” in a playlist because it could be perceived as transphobic. Instead of saying “fuck off” at the accusations, they apologised. That’s a fear response if ever there was one.

Fear. Censorship. That’s not what a liberal progressive agenda can include if it wants to continue to be liberal and progressive.

“The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.”

Obviously, (I hope it’s obvious), the oppression from the right is greater still than the oppression from the left. They have more power, there is far more representation of tall white straight affluent able-bodied southern men than of anyone else in our media and a tendency to remove other representations. But when you see tactics from your own side being used to bully, censor, intimidate and shut down others it’s even more distressing, because it requires us type B liberals to actively distance ourselves from the Type As, when really there aren’t enough of us all to go round as it is. And the middle ground is not a difficult one to find; there is a nice wide path to follow between whitewashing on one side and whitehousing on the other.

My niece asked me a very good question which is “how do you tell the people who genuinely want social justice from those who are just using the discourse to boost their own egos?” I had had too much vodka to answer the question coherently at the time, but I’ve been thinking about it since. And these are the ways.

  • Is the likelihood of the post/blog/tweet more likely to increase the level of fear in society (by intimidating the person who made it) or reduce it (by acting to protect rights of the oppressed)?
  • Are you calling for a viewpoint to be censored or just challenging it (or supporting the rights of all views to be heard)?
  • Are you just reacting to a particular term or expression someone has used or taking time to understand the context?
  • Are you hectoring an individual for your interpretation of their views or giving them the benefit of the doubt? (If someone generally is a reasonable person and they slip up, they deserve a break. Obviously, if they’re an ass most of the time, go for it).

The thing in common with all of these is I think, compassion. Be excellent to each other. If you’re responding to a key phrase you object to, or are reading something objectionable into what’s being said, rather than taking the time to work out what was actually meant, then you’re not acting with compassion. To claim that you’re supporting social justice, while acting unjustly, indicates you don’t really mean it. You’re just doing it to boost your own status. Ask yourself the question, “who has the power here in this dynamic?” If it’s you, then exercise some caution in how you apply it. Give the rocket engineer a break.

I’m not going to blame social media for encouraging this. Social media are just tools for communication. The use of them is still in its early days – they’ve been in common use for only a decade, so part of the problem is we’re still learning how to use them. Entire systems of thought have been associated with single hashtags, and rebuttals for arguments reduced to the same. And each associated with the type A or type C politics. So we get hashtags like #blacklivesmatter and #alllivesmatter bounced around like they are polar opposites, and as if each represent a particular ideology. If we were to take both of those statements literally, they are both true, and both complement each other. They’re not mutually exclusive, which is what the automatic gainsaying of the other hashtag would imply. Black people are three times more likely to be shot by the police as white people. Twice as many white people are shot by the police as black. Those two truths should both be the concern of a liberal ideology. Instead of finding common ground, the type Cs lump As and Bs together, the type As lump Bs and Cs together, and in amongst the gainsaying there is little room in the middle for reasoned debate.

Twitter itself does not help. The most erudite, humane and reasoned authors can end up sounding like complete dawks when reduced to 140 characters. The alternative is to split your argument across 10 different ones in a rowling series of tweets. Both of those misspellings are sic btw. We can’t avoid using twitter for communication, but perhaps we can avoid piling on the acrimony by simply copying and pasting the latest trending hashtag, and trying to catch people out through the terminology they use. If it’s been said once, we don’t need to jump in to prove that we’re just as right on. And maybe we should be more fearless about calling people out for behaving in a type A way, rather than being afraid of them labelling us as a Type C. Perhaps if we do that, then everyone on the left can all focus our attention against the ideologies that genuinely do oppress us.

Because there really are enough of those out there still.