The sensible middle-ground of politics is being lost in a sea of reactive, frothing debate. And what is to blame? Page-view journalism.
We blame our politicians, but it’s page-view journalism that drives Australia’s partisan divide. Too much of our discussion insists on obsessing over personality, instead of wrestling with ideas. Lazy ad hominem attacks are de rigueur; with anti-Abbott T-shirts, “frightbat” polls, and vulgar skits involving dogs, coming to dominate an increasingly vapid landscape.
While publications in Australia vary widely, from the trashy tabloid to the first-class broadsheet, almost all newspapers are transitioning from a model of paper subscription to that of digital. And page-view journalism, whether it exists in Australia or overseas, incentivises polemics that are of questionable quality.
Opinion writers who are “polarisation entrepreneurs”, inspire dozens and dozens of comments on their articles, and grow fat with online status in this market. Non-partisan analysis, which educates rather than angers, is not valued as highly as that which triggers righteous outrage. As a result, we have reactive, frothing debates, which lurch from one insignificance to the next, week after week.
It wasn’t supposed to be like this.
In July 1945, in the sombre aftermath of World War II, Vannevar Bush wrote a treatise. It was called How We May Think, and in it, he formulated an idea of how human beings could better capitalise on and dispense their accumulated knowledge. He imagined a future where we would share what we knew with one another, maximising collective utility. He wrote:
Presumably man’s spirit should be elevated if he can better review his shady past and analyze more completely and objectively his present problems. He has built a civilization so complex that he needs to mechanize his records more fully if he is to push his experiment to its logical conclusion and not merely become bogged down part way there by overtaxing his limited memory. His excursions may be more enjoyable if he can reacquire the privilege of forgetting the manifold things he does not need to have immediately at hand, with some assurance that he can find them again if they prove important.
His essay conceptualised the digital media and went on to develop an early pre-cursor to the internet. He envisaged a knowledge utopia, where informed citizens could share and analyse data with speed and accuracy. We would do this to strengthen our liberty, social capital and to guard against re-enactments of the past.
Six decades later, and not only do we share knowledge with unprecedented ease, social media allows us to chat with friends from every continent in the world, on a daily basis. We are able to exchange ideas with those who have our niche interests in any time-zone that suits us.
University students have the world of research at their fingertips. Just a few clicks, and one can find the most obscure or cutting-edge article, saving the hours of toil in the library that was necessary in past decades.
We all enjoy this freedom. But this knowledge utopia that is facilitated by digital media and online sharing also has a dark side. The sensible middle-ground of politics is being lost.
As Mark Latham said on a recent Q&A, the political class in Australia is a minority. Those engaged with political issues are few in number, but they are rancorous. Because of the rancour, moderates eventually disengage, having better things to do than argue with strangers about politics. The sensible middle is thus drowned out by the vitriol of those inhabiting the extremes: those who are adept at rapid-fire, shallow commentary, often in 140 characters or less.
Page-view statistic-counters do not register if a person is clicking or commenting on an article out of agreement or moral disgust. Anger drives people to share and anger drives people to comment. High volumes of both, equate to “success” in the page-view journalism world.
And viral outrage, led by this new generation of “polarisation-entrepreneurs”, has in recent years led to boycotts, sackings, humiliations and public meltdowns. It is moving us toward a culture of surveillance, where one false move can bring about the end of a career, and fast.
We do not yet know how page-view journalism will affect politics, long term. One reasonable prediction is that the constant surveillance will deter people from joining political parties. We may be left only with apparatchiks, or those motivated by the most extreme or rigid of ideologies. Conversely, others will build entire careers out of manipulating and fanning the flames of online prejudice.
But because this new-business model affects everybody, our partisan division is just as much a product of the left as it is of the right. It is pointless to argue about who started the animosity. Each camp is guilty, each camp likes to see themselves as “victims”, and each camp is rarely accountable.
Pinpointing who started the war doesn’t really matter. What matters is working out what allows it to persist, and figuring out how we can fix it.
Read the original article here:
“When I asked him, fifty-three years after the event, “Mr. Lucas, why did you jump on those grenades?” he did not hesitate with his answer: “To save my buddies.”
Sunni rebels fight a sectarian war across the Middle East. In Texas, gun lovers stockpile their weapons. In Europe, white nationalist, right-wing “euro-sceptic” parties surge at the polls. These groups are held together by something they share in common: it’s called male tribalism.
Western psychology (which is really American psychology) has had difficulty explaining what drives young men to sacrifice their lives for each other, and for their tribe, since its inception. Even evolutionary psychology, which has developed frameworks for understanding parochial altruism, and within-group dynamics, has largely avoided empirical investigation into the relationship between maleness, tribal culture, and inter-group conflict. The Male-Warrior Hypothesis (2012) takes a step in the right direction, but it still remains mute on the relationship between culture and tribal identity.
The discipline of psychology has reified the Northern American “ideal” of personhood, a person who is rational, materialistic, analytic, self-determining, and not tied down by communal obligations or allegiances. In 2010, cultural psychologists Joe Henrich, Steve Heine and Ara Norenzayan exposed the extent of this bias in their paper called “The Weirdest People in the World?” The article shattered psychology’s greatest implicit assumption: that people from Western cultures are representative of all people throughout the globe. (By “weird” they meant both unusual as well as Western, Educated, Industrialised, Rich and Democratic). Dozens of studies have now shown that people from Western, compared to non-Western cultures, think differently. And even among Western cultures, North-American people stand out as being the most different, the “weirdest” of all. In The Righteous Mind, Jonathan Haidt summarises Henrich, Heine and Norenzayan’s key finding like this:
The WEIRDer you are, the more you see a world full of separate objects, rather than relationships. (p. 96).
In other words, Western psychology views people as separate units. Even Australian culture, which is Western, rich and democratic, is less competitive and less hyper-individualistic compared to that of the US. (While for Americans freedom is sacrosanct, in Australia egalitarianism and fairness is prized above liberty, for most people).
Inter-group conflict, specifically male groups fighting other male groups, is something that happens everywhere in every culture, and has all throughout history – it qualifies as a “human universal”. But it is also a cultural construct. The symbols and values that groups of people organise themselves around, vary from group to group. They might be religious symbols, landmarks, emblems of national history or football teams. The symbols change, yet the tribalism remains the same.
Explanations for tribalism from the perspective of evolutionary psychology have typically focused on signaling theory and reproductive opportunities for individuals. Natural and sexual selection produces males with evolved “warrior” abilities because the rewards equate to fitness payoffs. But such explanations do not account for the bonding rituals that take place between males during tribal activities. Or the fact that more men than women watch sport. They do not explain why women are often excluded from tribes, and what the importance and function of male loyalty is – (what we in Australia call “mateship”).
Explanations for such phenomena must incorporate culture. A holistic explanation needs to take a holistic approach, with multiple levels of analysis, from the biological and evolutionary to the social and symbolic.
The most extreme form of tribalism manifests itself in terrorism. Psychologists have struggled to explain the psychology of terrorists, and no psychopathological profile exists which explains terrorist behaviour.
While personality disorder, poverty and extreme hardship are not predictive of terrorist activity, what researchers have called “heightened coalitional commitment” is. In 2008 Ginges, Hansen and Norenzayan published a paper which demonstrated that Palestinian Muslims who attended mosque, most frequently, had the highest levels of support, for the most extreme forms of parochial altruism: suicide attacks. Frequency of prayer was not predictive. Likewise, priming synagogue attendance (but not frequency of prayer) for Jewish Israelis, predicted the likelihood that they would find a suicide attack carried out against Palestinians to be “extremely heroic”.
If we want to understand the motivations of Islamist jihadists, European white nationalists, or anti-government gun-nuts, we need to understand tribalism. If we deny the pull of the tribe, and only focus on its negative consequences, we set the stage for it to flourish in the most anti-social and destructive of ways.
Many of us think that tribalism is at an all-time low, and most likely it is. Steven Pinker’s Better Angels of Our Nature describes how violence has drastically reduced, in large part, due to the suppression of tribalism throughout the world. Yet tribalism is still with us. Right now it is flourishing in the Middle East, with a globalised terror organization wreaking havoc throughout Iraq. Online, tribalism flourishes in the “manosphere”, “Neoreaction” and “Dark Enlightenment” movements.
Despite how civilized and peaceful we become, we can be sure that male tribalism will find a way.
Ginges, J., Hansen, I., & Norenzayan, A. (2009). Religion and support for suicide attacks.
Psychological science, 20(2), 224-230.
Haidt, J. (2012). The righteous mind: Why good people are divided by politics and religion. Random House LLC.
Henrich, J., Heine, S. J., & Norenzayan, A. (2010). The weirdest people in the world?. Behavioral and brain sciences, 33(2-3), 61-83.
Markus, H. R., & Kitayama, S. (1991). Culture and the self: Implications for cognition, emotion, and motivation. Psychological review, 98(2), 224.
A few months ago, pop-feminist Amanda Hess, wrote an Op-Ed in which she accused scientists of doing research that reflected their “masturbatory tendencies”. This month, she has spilled ink on science again, this time with another Op-Ed in Slate’s The XX Factor attempting to “debunk” the ovulatory-shift hypothesis.
Hess concludes her piece with the following words:
“Women’s endocrine processes have officially taken a back seat to our own mental and physical capacities to regulate our preferences and our cycles to better contribute to our societies.”
Yes. One would hope all human beings over a certain age, who are fortunate enough to not be brain-injured, or drug-addicted would be able to regulate certain biological processes. And contribute to society. But being unable to “regulate” “endocrine processes” is not what the ovulatory shift hypothesis is about.
The hypothesis holds that like all other primates, human females change their behaviour during oestrus. Specifically, it predicts that women, on average, will find high-testosterone and socially dominant men more attractive for short-term mating (one night stands) when fertile. The shifts, however, a theorised to be subtle. And of course, there are exceptions to the rule. The hypothesis also only predicts which men women will find attractive, not which men women will actually have sex with (something which a whole lot of other factors influence).
But the fact that women have the ability to regulate their biological processes, does not rule out the ovulatory shift hypothesis. That would be like saying that because some people are able to regulate their appetites, this “contradicts” the neurobiology of hunger. Women choose to act on their desires, just as men do.
Hess’s Op-Ed attempting to debunk the ovulatory shift hypothesis was based on a meta-analysis (a synthesis of data from multiple studies) that was published in March this year in Emotion Review. It was conducted by Wendy Wood and colleagues and found that the relationship between menstrual cycles and mating preference to be negligible. It was supposed to answer once and for all if women’s menstrual cycles really do affect their mating preferences. But it didn’t.
This is because another meta-analysis by Gilversleeve et al was also published this year which came to very different conclusions. Featured in psychology’s flagship journal Psychological Bulletin, this analysis found that ovulatory-shifts in mating preference were “robust,” and “without bias”. It has also been noted that the Wood et al meta-analysis did not distinguish between “short” and “long” term mating, in accordance with sexual strategies theory.
Presumably unaware of these complexities, Slate’s editors went on to publish their Op-Ed with the following title:
In part, the piece argued that because women have free-will, and are also culturally conditioned, ovulatory-shifts in mate preference are implausible. Again, just because women have the ability to override their impulses, doesn’t mean they don’t exist.
Imagine choosing a meal to eat. Just because a person finds the combination of sugar and fat tasty, (it activates that reward centers of the brain), doesn’t mean that person eats cheesecake and ice-cream for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Not eating cheesecake or ice-cream for every meal could be partly due to cultural conditioning, partly due to self-control, and partly due to other factors.
The point is we make choices that override our innate preferences everyday. Having more information about our biology and psychology, does not lead one to be “ruled” by anything. On the contrary, it leads us to be more reflective, and more in control.
This is not the first time that psychological research has come under attack from Amanda Hess, or pop-feminists more widely. In a piece published last year, feminist writer Ruby Hamad made the bizarre comparison:
“Whereas once religion was used to control women and define their role and status in society, more and more, we are finding that science is being used in exactly the same fashion.”
If the pop-feminist worldview seems anti-intellectual and self-serving, that’s because it is. There is no pop-feminist writing championing women’s free will in the face of radical post-modern theories which deny female agency. The extremists of the feminist movement who characterise all heterosexual sex as “rape,” or portray women’s choices as “illusions” get off scot free.
In fact, pop-feminists have been duplicitous in attempting to convince an entire generation of impressionable, young, (mostly white, middle-class) women that they don’t have agency. Like astrologers before them, they ply readers who are prone to fatalism with their ideological fairytales. Instead of Mars aligning with Venus, the ‘Patriarchy’ colludes with ‘Hegemonic Masculinity’ to obstruct women’s ‘true’ destinies.
Yet despite all the rhetoric and hostility , I suspect that Hess and her ilk have known that women enjoy free-will in their lives all along. They just admit it when it suits them. The irony is that gaining insight into biological and psychological processes only enhances women’s capacity to live how they want to. It is sad that feminists feel they must protect women from that.
Gildersleeve, K., Haselton, M. G., & Fales, M. R. (2014). Do Women’s Mate Preferences Change Across the Ovulatory Cycle? A Meta-Analytic Review. Psychological Bulletin, doi: 10.1037/a0035438
Ferguson, C. J. (2014). Comment: Why Meta-Analyses Rarely Resolve Ideological Debates. Emotion Review, 1–2. Retrieved from: http://www.christopherjferguson.com/Emotion%20Review.pdf
Wood, W., Kressel, L., Joshi, P. D., & Louie, B. (2014). Meta-analysis of menstrual cycle effects on women’s mate preferences. Emotion Review, 1-2.
The original article published in The Guardian today can be found here .
Feminism is often a hostile enterprise
Objections to the label “feminist” are becoming less rare. Susan Sarandon, Bjork, PJ Harvey, Madonna and Marissa Meyer have all distanced themselves from the label, to name just a few.
This reflects badly on how feminism is perceived today. Partly due to its successes, feminism now battles over values and lifestyles instead of legal rights. Because of this, many women feel if they fail to make the “correct” lifestyle choices, they are being judged.
It wasn’t meant to be like this. In the 1960s and 1970s, feminists fought for equity. Women (and men) came together, celebrating women’s dignity and individuality. Women’s right to have intellectual fulfilment and social respect through work was enshrined. The movement promised women they could live their lives with authenticity and pride.
Fast forward four decades, and our lives today are unrecognisable to our grandmothers. Yet commercially driven online websites, marketed to a youthful female readership, portray women as miserable victims. Activists with a radical bent condemn western liberal democracies as places of widespread, ritual oppression.
The catchment of indiscretion that is Twitter also exposes just how frequently gender warriors belittle other women. Last year, during the federal election, those who had publicly deplored the “ditch the witch” placard, which made reference to Julia Gillard, reveled in calling outgoing Sophie Mirabella the same. More recently, the response toNatalie Barr’s admission of a sexism-free professional life has been to shut it down, and fast. Many dismissed her experience as a once-off aberration.
To imply that Susan Sarandon, who has dedicated much of her life to human-rights activism, objects to the feminist label because she is “right-wing” is disingenuous. The simple fact is that feminism is often a hostile enterprise. The term has come to have a certain stigma, and activists will have to work hard if they want to reverse that.
My own politics have changed over time; the older I get the more I count conservative and libertarian women as friends. But I still have friends from childhood who are unflinchingly progressive. And while we have our disagreements, we respect each other. We each have different approaches to feminism, but recognise an underlying desire for female self-determination.
While I cherish the original conception of feminism, I understand those who object to the label today. But I also know that one does not need badges or labels, to truly live out feminism’s philosophy.
“Pop-feminism,” as a movement, valorises feelings above reason, cynicism above hope. It has regressed to a point where anything at all, no matter how irrational or how narcissistic, can be celebrated as ‘feminist’.
Articles such as: I Look Down On Young Women With Husbands And Kids And I’m Not Sorry, or How Accepting Leggings as Pants Made Me a Better Feminist are shared wide and far on social media as feminist political statements.
Anyone can identify as a “feminist”. Even men who openly admit to domestic violence, such as Hugo Schwyzer. There are no boundaries, no benchmarks and no standards to which feminism will hold itself accountable.
It was not meant to be like this. In 1792, Mary Wollstonecraft published The Vindication of the Rights of Women. Her basic hypothesis was that women are capable of reason; just as men are. Yet because women are denied a rigorous education, this capability is rarely expressed.
Wollstonecraft’s achievement was to extend Enlightenment principles to women. Women were rational. Women were not innately ignorant, or naive, but socialised to be that way because their educations were neglected. She wrote that the more educated women became, the better off society would be.
Despite the gains women have made in public life, the model of female empowerment held up by the media, today, is pop-feminism. In magazines and online news-sites, feminism and fashion intermingle. Humanities graduates, who specialize in snark, but not much else, now claim to speak on all women’s behalf.
In 1797, Thomas Gisborne wrote An Enquiry into the Duties of the Female Sex. He stated:
The science of legislation, of jurisprudence, of political economy; the conduct of government in all its executive functions; the abstruse researches of erudition … the knowledge indispensable in the wide field of commercial enterprise … these, and other studies, pursuits and occupations, assigned chiefly or entirely to men, demand the efforts of a mind endued with the powers of close and comprehensive reasoning, and of intense and continued application. [emphasis mine].
Fast forward to 2014, and in the pages of ‘proudly female biased’ online news-sites, beauty is showcased over technology and business. Instead of evidence-based feminism, we get anecdote and science denialism.
In December last year, pop-feminist Amanda Marcotte, wrote a piece titled Are Men Hard-Wired to Show Off Around Women? written in response to a Wall Street Journal article about the Cheerleader Effect (the tendency of men to modify their behaviour in the presence of women).
Typical of a pop-feminist anti-science piece, Marcotte provides zero links to any of the studies discussed. Like most pop-feminists, she builds a murky picture of a body of “studies” with dubious outcomes and a sinister premise. We never found out the titles of the studies, authors, or journals from which they are sourced. She writes, “no doubt the data is accurate, but it does not follow that it’s necessarily hard-wired.”
After a quick perusal of the studies (some of which can be found here, here and here) I found that the term “hard-wired” is absent from all of them; as one would expect. No one in psychology talks about brain wiring; that’s what neuroscientists do.
It seems as though Marcotte does not understand the difference between psychology and neuroscience. Psychologists look at function. Neuroscientists look at structure. Despite this ignorance, Marcotte has the gall to “debunk” an entire body of scientific work. Work, it seems, she may not have even read. Work, she has also hidden from the reader.
Almost every time a pop-feminist critiques science or a scientific study, their argument is built on a strawman. In general, pop-feminists misrepresent published scientific work without providing links to primary sources. Pop-feminist articles (found here and here) are generally put-together wholly from second-hand material – stories about studies – not the studies themselves. Not only is this bad feminist critique; it is bad journalism.
It is ironic that in 2014, the women who confirm Thomas Gisborne’s eighteenth century sentiments are feminists who enjoy the most media privilege. (Academics in gender tucked away in universities all over the world, have used close application to develop nuanced ideas). Pop-feminists have not.
And it is sad that we have reached a point where to criticise anything labelled as “feminist” is to invite a slur on one’s character.
Slurs of “sexism” are ubiquitous. Any disagreement – no matter how sensible – is “trolling,” “abuse” a “backlash” or a “silencing”. Women like me, who simply call for feminism to rediscover Enlightenment principles, are labelled “female misogynists” on Twitter.
But the slurs really must stop. Writers who wear their ignorance as a badge of honour are not models of empowerment. News outlets should not have to disrespect women’s intelligence to make their platforms viable. Women should be respected for the originality of their thought – regardless of their conformity to media-sanctioned ideologies.
And the feminist label should not protect ill-conceived ideas with impunity.
Media companies are to feminist-writers what a pimp is to his prostitutes. Too often, women’s bodies are put in harm’s way, to make “the man” some money.
We all know that publishing articles about feminism pays. Readers, share and comment on gender-war tropes because it incites hot emotion. Because of the traffic that such pieces generate, editors are moved to frequently publish them. And media companies devote entire platforms such as Daily Life, Jezebel and xoJane to explore the topic of “gender” or “women” in minute detail.
An op-ed written by Julia Baird, published over the weekend, brought attention to the Twitter trolls targeting feminist writers like Van Badham and Catherine Deveny, amongst others. It detailed the horrific abuse these writers attract. These women are targeted online on a daily basis; sometimes even receiving death and rape threats. Yet what was unclear in the piece was how much these writers’ employers were compensating them.
Clearly being a feminist-writer is risky business. But generally when people are employed in risky jobs they are paid for it pretty well. In Australia at least, a writer cannot even earn a living from his or her trade. The average writer is only paid between $30 to $100 per piece, even in a broadsheet newspaper, and many writers are paid in exposure.
In Helen Razer’s blogpost “I Quit” last year, she talks of enduring hours of ignorant, spiteful attacks on her person for a piece which earned her a mere $200, from The Guardian. Razer’s angst was not about being on the receiving end of abuse, but rather, the fact that she was not being adequately recompensed.
It seems that media companies have played a trick on female writers. Inexperienced writers feel privileged just to be published – to have a “voice” – and that exercising this “voice” is a political, feminist act. It isn’t. Women have been writers forever. Receiving slave wages from a corporate employer, while suffering abuse from deranged trolls is not empowerment, it is exploitation. As Baird’s op-ed illustrates, it puts some writers’ mental health at risk.
The essay Hate Sinks, about a young woman employed to moderate comments for an unnamed newspaper’s site, describes the subtle exploitation. She says she feels “lucky” to have job in the current media climate, where journalists are now laid-off en masse. She speaks of how editors and managers do not have a clear plan of what to do and “make up things as they go”. Being the moderator of comments Sarah explains that -
The topics that promise especially bitter, polarized debate, tempt editors with the traffic and comments they can attract. Sarah rattles off a list of themes she knows she will have a long comment queue—and that editors will keep publishing: “Israel and Palestine, Gaza … anything on climate change, the science of climate change. Anything published by one of the climate-change skeptics. But then anything published by a climate-change believer as well. Anything about refugees, you know, asylum seekers, border control, that sort of stuff. Anything sort of what could be loosely described as a feminist article, so you know, like Slutwalk.” [emphasis mine].
Sarah also talks of the vicarious trauma of moderating the comments that get sent to the newspaper’s site. She has to moderate, on average, 1500 comments between breakfast and lunch; filtering some commenters “who will just post the word c*nt 50 times for like three hours.” Sarah gets paid the minimum wage.
In Australia and the US, media companies are mostly run by men. Jezebel is owned by Gawker media, which is owned by Nick Denton. DailyLife is a Fairfax publication whose chairman and CEO are both men. Say Media (which runs xoJane) is owned by Matt Sanchez. It is ironic, but not surprising that so-called feminist media can all be traced back to male owners, CEOs and chairmen. It is these executives and their shareholders who profit, not the writers receiving abuse.
If pseudo-feminist platforms were as “pro-woman” as they declare themselves to be, they would pay women decent salaries, not pitiful freelancer rates. And we would see writing of depth and quality with a mixture of new writers as well as old. Until that happens, they will continue to use these vulnerable women to court outrage, in their constant search for clicks and cash.
Women, especially young women, can be real bitches.
Anyone who has attended highschool with girls knows that women fight differently from men. We use covert, stealthy tactics of manipulation and ostracism. While men will ask each other to ‘step outside,’ beat their chests and use their fists, we women will sneakily sabotage our ‘frenemies’. We keep our enemies close. And while we attempt to sabotage them, we will appear well-meaning and well-behaved, so as not to besmirch our clean reputations.
Because such forms of female aggression are universal and common, they are found repeatedly in stories and art. They are also found in fairy and folk-tales. Such depictions are often more than symbolic; they are a form of communication, or a lesson, about the real world.
Researchers Sarah Hrdy, Joyce Beneson and Anne Campbell have researched female aggression over the last three decades. They have found that females often use indirect methods to hurt and harm each other. Whether this is due to cultural reasons or selective pressures, is unclear. But what is clear is that women fight in less violent and less noticeable ways compared with men. Our aggression flies under the radar.
A recurring stereotype of female aggression is the wicked step-mother. The wicked step-mother wreaks havoc on Cinderella, Snow White and Hansel and Gretel while sinisterly appearing in folk tales in over 20 different languages. “Better a serpent than a step-mother”! wrote Greek playwright, Euripides, 2,400 years ago.
In the 1990s, evolutionary psychologists, Margo Wilson and Martin Daly, completed study after study after study using cross-cultural data on what they called the “Cinderella effect”. They found that children were at much higher risk of abuse and neglect if one of their parents died. And if a step-mother arrived on the scene – with her own genetic children – that risk compounded significantly. Step-parents, sadly, have historically been one of the greatest dangers to orphaned or motherless children.
But before becoming step-mothers we females practice our aggression through forming coalitions with one another to lock out our sexual rivals. We use tactics such as cold-shoulders, ‘silent-treatments’ and gossip to stigmatise. We will derogate our rival’s personality, appearance, nurturing capabilities, faithfulness and loyalty all in an attempt to lower their value and raise our own. And we often do this in groups.
An artistic representation of this specific coalitional form of aggression is the coven of witches. Art history is replete with depictions of witches (real and imagined) in plural form. The ancient Greeks depicted “The Fates” as weaving the fabric of human life from birth. And bands of passively-powerful women can be found all over classical and ancient mythology and are reincarnated in Hollywood films such as The Craft, The Witches of Eastwick, and The Crucible.
In Arthur Miller’s classic play about witch-hunts, the nightmarish power of a girl gang is played out in its extreme. Young girls of Salem group together and wreak havoc on their village. Their power exists in their cooperation and their gender. Because their aggression is both collective and passive, and because they are both young and female, their wicked intentions are never detected. They are perceived as innocent and compliant girls and use this to their advantage. Together in a group, they are able to destroy their community from the inside out.
A real-life example of the girl-gang can be seen online in Twitter-feminism. Young women pillory each other for not being ‘intersectional’ enough; or for having too much ‘privilege’; or for ‘slut-shaming’; or for ‘victim-blaming’.
This activity goes on and on and on in an endless frenzy reconstructing the dominant feminist clique. Normal men and women watch this confused gender-based activism from the sidelines and recoil with distaste. Recent articles written by online feminists have agonised over the toxic, cannibalistic nature of their community; these can be found here, here and here.
Yet not all female aggression is acted out behind the cover of a girl gang. There also exists the female super-manipulator. She is the high-status woman who does not gain anything from forming alliances with lower status “friends” (who might flirt with her husband and tempt him with novelty). But she gains everything from brokering power deals in secret, or out of public sight. The super-manipulator controls and directs the power possessed by her male relatives and lovers. She is immortalised by characters such as Lady Macbeth.
Women. We’re crafty, intelligent and capable. The notion that women are not players in the game of life and are not playing the game to win is archaic and quaint. It is an artefact from a bygone era.
In the age of social media, a new currency is emerging. It is the currency of outrage. Those of us who follow news and commentary on Twitter flock together in groups according to our shared values and interests. But we also have our collective buttons pushed by ‘outrage generators’. They’re a new type of commentator, who skilfully capitalise on our deep-seated instincts for tribalism and righteous indignation.
Today a prurient Allison Pearson article was published about Nigella Lawson. It tried to justify her estranged husband’s public abuse in light of alleged drug use. In the article, Ms. Pearson wrote “what if Charles Saatchi is the victim of an injustice” and “physical violence is never excusable, but what if a frustrated Charles was shaking his wife and saying: “Wake up, woman!” Understandably, the Twittersphere errupted with rage.
Also published today, a NewStatesman article was circulated about “Movember,” the international charity drive for men’s health. The article opened by saying “Movember is divisive, gender normative, racist and ineffective”. The comments section was filled with commenters asking “how does such miserable material get published”?
Both of these transparently manipulative pieces were published on mainstream media newsites. And it is happening with increasing frequency – almost as if mainstream media is deliberately trying to “troll”.
It may be a phenomenon which has grown very organically out of Twitter’s eco-system. Articles about morally loaded topics trigger high octane reactions in tweets, incentivising writers to produce more of them. The writers inspire dozens to share their views in comments sections, where readers disagree with each other, having fist-fights with words. And herein lies the hook: once a reader has made a comment, he or she will return endlessly to the page to monitor reactions, driving page-view statistics through the roof. These inflated statistics are then used to sell the advertising space subsidising these flagging publications.
Psychologists know that having strong views (which are in opposition to another’s) actually has a gratifying and rewarding effect. It gratifies us because it allows us to feel as though we’re part of a moral team. It feels good for the simple reason that it helps us to feel connected and forget ourselves for a period of time – we become immersed in something larger. At its most extreme, strong conviction is psychologically addictive.
In The Righteous Mind: Why good people are divided by politics and religion psychologist Jonathan Haidt, shows us that moral decision-making is a process driven by strategic social aims and a very deep and unconscious need to belong. Outrage pieces exploit this psychology by fulfilling our evolved need to defend our “moral tribe”.
Today social media provides the architecture for pitting teams against each other. Media platforms employ writers who churn out polemics appealing to their target audience at a break-neck speed. Self-selecting audiences flock together, confirming each other’s biases – enjoying the luxury of never having their assumptions seriously tested.
Provoking indignant outrage may be a good business strategy for online news outlets – but it is terrible for our promoting social cohesion. And as we have seen today, mainstream media is all too happy to play the part of head troll.
Victimhood can be a performance. Many of today’s feminists “do” victimhood like an actor “does” emotion up on a stage. And the performance-of-victimhood becomes a self-fulfilling cycle – it encourages dissent and then that dissent is used as proof of one’s victim status.
Highly visible feminists (especially on Twitter) like to stigmatise themselves. They align with any political agenda that would be viewed as deviant by mainstream audiences, as a deliberate tactic to position themselves as marginalised. By inciting disapproval and ultimately stigma, it makes the performance of victimhood very easy. All one has to do is trigger disgust and then when any disapproval is uttered, it is then proof (!) of sexism/misogyny/oppression/whatever.
Check Etsy for the word misandry and you’ll find super-cute pom-pom knit hats with “misandry” emblazoned between rows of hearts. You’ll also find lavender and white heart-shaped misandry hair barrettes, a plastic misandry necklace and a misandry-adorned heart-shaped felt brooch with beads.
It’s all pretty distasteful. And do these women really hate men? I doubt it. One thing is irrefutable however – these women love being irritants of a first-class order.
Irritants and shock-jocks should be called out for their offensive comments. But we are afraid of calling out female shock-jocks lest we are accused of sexism. Twitter feminists take any and all criticism as evidence that “women are being silenced”. No. Some of us women are just embarrassed that they speak on our behalf. Some of us cringe at the repeated failures in logic which unfairly malign whole groups of people.
The idea of “woman as victim” is a stereotype like any other, and it needs to be put to rest. It is just as toxic than other stereotypes of women that people dislike and have fought against (like the docile housewife or trophy-wife ornament). And there’s nothing that undermines agency than a fatalistic, paranoid feeling that the world is out to get you.
If I were a feminist in a position of high visibility I would tell girls that the world is not out to get you. Boys and men are not out to get you. What happens in your life is mostly up to you – the choices you make, the people you associate with, and the vision you have for yourself is your responsibility. Life can be unfair, but it is more unfair if you don’t make good decisions. And if you come up against sexism, stand up for yourself. Speak to authorities and demand action. Don’t walk away and internalise your victimhood and then tell the rest of us that we are all victims too.