Tuesday, June 3, 2014
I try to judge people (since we absolutely must judge others, right?) based on what they do rather than what they say in a handful of characters, and certainly not based on what they hashtag. You say you're a civil rights activist...a feminist...a humanitarian (seems like that last one should incorporate the first two, no?), I say cool. But the proof is in the pudding. Your actions will prove or disprove it, and they will indicate the things that you are for to a greater extent than telling me what you're against. I'll instinctively assume you're against civil wrongs, misogyny and space alien invasion.
But since I spend FAR TOO MUCH time on Twitter, activism by hashtag is what I see plenty of these days. I'm not against the principle exactly. For the most part it does no harm even if often does no tangible good either. A hashtag can raise awareness of a cause. Fine, we're aware, what now? I ask only two things of a hashtag to consider it constructive. 1) That it not be created to blanket insult a broad group of people which includes many individuals undeserving of the insult. 2) That the name of it accurately conveys the message. Be specific. If you want to create a hashtag about basketball don't name it #sports #sportsinvolvingaball #thingsthatmakeyousweat. Call it #basketball.
Recently a hashtag that caught on like wildfire was #YesAllWomen. As this article neatly summarizes, the hashtag’s purpose was to "raise awareness of the effect of misogyny and sexism in the daily life of women". So far so good. The article goes on to shoot down any complaints men might opt to voice about the hashtag. It lists some reasonable complaints, some less reasonable ones, and a handful of ridiculous explanations for why men might be troubled by the tone of the more outlandish proclamations. The goofy ones are good for a laugh but not in need of addressing. But is it fair to say that a man who walks the walk of feminism by being a good husband/father/colleague/person who is a respectful friend to women, nevertheless does not qualify as an ally to the cause because he thinks many of the statements made within the #YesAllWomen hashtag go too far and paint with too broad a stroke?
Not long ago a discussion broke out on Twitter about what women happened to be wearing when they were sexually assaulted. It was a powerful social media moment, I thought. A hashtag was probably used for it, though I don't recall what it was. What I do remember is the point explicitly made that rape has nothing to do with how provocatively the victim was dressed or behaving. The only requirements for a rape to take place are the presence of a rapist and a victim. What beyond that causes rape? I honestly don't know. I only know that rape isn't something men do. It's something rapists do. There is a world of difference between the two. I found the discussion that evening to be an effective use of social media to confront ugly truths, even it if did devolve a bit towards the end with arguments breaking out over which journalists remarked on the group conversation properly and which did not. No reasonable person felt insulted by the exchange. Anybody who disagreed with the central argument and believes that certain outfits cause and justify rape is a monster best to be avoided. The stories told that night were heart breaking and eye opening.
On the other hand, when awareness raising results in people cyber yelling at each other, all sides claiming to have been misunderstood, then I'm less inclined to declare that it was a complete success. If you need to continually clarify what your point was, repeatedly explain what it is you didn't mean because you sure as hell seem to have implied it, then in my opinion a teachable moment has gone awry. I don't believe the purpose of #YesAllWomen is to alienate those men about whom the complaints are not applicable and in whose direction the bile is not pointed. I get that #AllMen are not the target of ire. Still, a fair number of men (such as this one who I believe makes several valid points despite a rather weak door opening anecdote) felt that they were unfairly hit in the crossfire. They weren't looking for credit or acknowledgment as "nice guys". They weren't asking for a trophy because they don't habitually view and treat women like pieces of meat. They (and I include myself among them) simply felt that things had gotten out of hand and rather than being instructive and cathartic, the hashtag had become a runaway ball of negativity that didn't care who it ran over. "Watch out grandpa!!!" If a substantial number of people feel a hashtag went overboard, perhaps this is something to respectfully contemplate rather than being dismissive. When I see someone comfortable with being insulted I wonder about their motivation. Does he not want to make trouble by standing up for himself, or is his silence admission of a guilty conscience?
It ultimately comes down to the individuals jumping on board a movement rather than the hashtag itself. For any given tag there are those with legitimate commentary to share and those who see it as an opportunity to randomly bash based on gender/race/whatever. It's hard to filter one group out from the other when they are lumped together. But for good and not so good, that's precisely what a hashtag does. That is the very intent. A hashtag mashes voices together, makes no distinctions between the articulate and the incomprehensible, the compassionate and the bitterly furious, the fair minded and the stereotype promoters, the well meaning teachers and the blindly hurtful. There is no fix for this that I can think of other than what I started out with. Judge individuals on a case by case basis. Distinguish between those you loathe and those you love. Even in the social media era, at root I believe most of us want to like each other. I believe we can play nicely, and when a topic of disagreement is landed upon, manage to disagree in an agreeable manner. We can speak the truth without resorting to general slander.
I agree with this article that #YesAllWomen matters, just as I feel #BringBackOurGirls matters, and other movements carried out online as well. That doesn't mean everyone is deploying #YesAllWomen correctly and effectively, or that those who have something to say to the contrary don't deserve to be heard. No conversation can take place when we tune each other out, nothing new can be learned.
Bottom line: If a man insults or degrades you, he isn't worthy of your respect. On the other hand, if a man feels insulted or degraded by you because you lumped him in with rapists and street harassers and guys with the bare minimum of home training, maybe he has earned the right by a lifetime of respectful attitude and actions to feel offended. He'll probably get over it though, just in time for the next hashtag to drop.