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Monday, January 2, 2012

The power of "Not cool"

"Dude, we don't want to see that shit. Here, have a sip of
Douche-Be-Gone so you'll stop being so...you know."
Concerning the topic of online sexual harassment against women, atheist and otherwise, and what to do about it, Stephanie Zvan defends the use of social disapproval:
I’ve even seen a couple of people say things like, “Social disapproval is a technique used against atheists by theists. We shouldn’t be doing that ourselves.” All told, the consensus among those feeling challenged for doing nothing is that doing something is dangerously repressive–when that doing something is registering that one simply does not approve. 
They’re even a tiny bit right. Social disapproval is indeed a potent force. It strongly shapes our societies and our interactions with each other. Being outcast presents a form of stress that is bad for us all on its own. 
However, where these folks are a tiny bit right, they’re also a whole heaping lot wrong. The problem with this sort of social pressure isn’t that it is inherently wrong. As I mentioned, this is a big part of how we add order and structure to our societies. The problem is when we use to enforce pointless conformity, when we shame or cast out those who are doing nothing wrong, nothing that will harm our society. 
For the record, sexism, misogyny, objectification, normalizing rape through nudge-nudge-wink-wink humor, threats to bodily autonomy–these are all doing something wrong. They all hurt a substantial portion of our society, and I don’t just mean women. This is not comparable to not believing in a god. 
Those behaviors are all also prevalent in our society, though less than they used to be before we started confronting them. They are being held in place by a narrative that, while it can no longer claim that nobody at all is concerned by this behavior, the only people who are concerned are “thin-skinned pussies” and “irrational cunts.” That means that if you–yes, you–don’t speak up when something like this happens right in front of you, you feed that narrative. This is what “If you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem” means. 
The only thing that can really cut through that narrative is more voices that come from within the groups where this behavior happens. No bullying or questing for bad behavior required. You don’t have to be any more eloquent than “Dude, don’t go there” or “It’s only a joke if it’s funny” or “I’m with X on this” to back up someone else already taking the heat for standing up. Or you can just use the brilliant line that should become a meme as of yesterday: “I am also the internet and I don’t want to see that shit.”
Absolutely right. There is nothing intrinsic to social disapproval that makes it a bad thing. It can be a very good thing when it comes to dissuading people from treating each other terribly, even in an atmosphere like the internet where people are often allowed to be anonymous or anonymous-but-trackable (using screen names). The problem with social disapproval of atheists isn't the what but the why-- the shaming and alienation of people for something about them which has nothing to do with their actual worth or moral standing. When what you are is a troll and/or a jerk, however, your moral standing goes down and calling you on it is entirely appropriate. Social pressure can simply be what happens when a bunch of people call you on it, and it works.

Online communities can and usually do also have systems of moderation in place, automated or warm-blooded, whose job it is to regulate and prevent obnoxious and hateful speech. But the most likely message someone who is being arsey gets from being penalized from one of these is "The Man is keeping me down! Violation of freedom of speech!" Which is bollocks, of course-- no private community has an obligation to protect the dissemination of odious speech if the owners/ruling powers do not desire it. Still, I think if possible it's always better to rely on the community at large to make it highly uncomfortable to express nasty sentiments, so that the perpetrators know that the negative reaction isn't just from one person or a few who happen to be on a power trip or have it out for them personally.

The corollary to the rule of using social pressure to combat internet douchiness is, of course, that those employing it should be able to explain what's wrong with the speech to which they're objecting so strenuously. A Picard facepalm might seem sufficient:

...but if not (and usually not), you should be able to articulate the problem, no matter how obvious it appears to you. For one thing, it makes the group disapproval amount to more than "There are a bunch of us who frown on that sort of thing" and create an opportunity for the jerk to comprehend the reason for the perception of his/her jerkiness.

This, in turn, creates an opportunity for him/her to correct the behavior. To maybe even apologize. It does happen! And when it does, that's the cue to stop with the social disapproval. If the "Dude, that's messed up"-ing doesn't end even after the behavior has stopped and admitted fault, the message sent will instead be that he/she can't do anything right, at least from now on, thereby negating any positive consequence of all of the disapproval. It will probably even counter-productively convey the impression that the disapproving crowd are irrational blowhards and there's no point in listening to their exclamations. Our jerk in question may even nurse a messiah complex for him/herself as a result, thus becoming further bolstered against any future accusations of jerkiness. With great power comes great responsibility-- so it is with the power of "not cool."

One further thing to note is that online as well as in RL, the most effective social disapproval is likely to come from peers-- the people most familiar and similar to the jerk. Yes, pro-active peer pressure! Don't make the target of the jerkiness and his/her peers the only ones to speak up about it. It might not feel like the best thing, but the thoughts of people who are more like the jerk yet are willing to stick their necks out on the target's behalf are probably going to carry more weight with the jerk, because they can't be as easily dismissed as "whiners" or "killjoys" (or "thin-skinned pussies" or "irrational cunts"). Yeah, that's not rational, but jerks often aren't-- that's why they're jerks. It's also not rational to suddenly start listening to complaints about your behavior just because they start coming from someone you otherwise admire (even if they're not exactly a peer), but damned if that doesn't work pretty well too.

I do understand the complaint about misogyny being especially vexing to see in the atheist/skeptical community because they're supposed to be so...well, skeptical. But though the same thing which makes a person mistrusting of stories about ghosts or Bigfoot should also make them doubt the premise that the most important thing about women is their appearance and general fuckability, justifying turning every internet discussion to that topic, all too often it doesn't. As we have seen. So it's high time to start calling out the people who pride themselves on rejecting the former but practice the latter as though it's going out of style. And if you've been doing the calling out, the socially disapproving, all along...my hat's off to you. Keep it up, please.

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