What have we learned from #hysteria?

I used to be an optimist about the democratic potential of the Internet. That was before I discovered Youtube comments.

Is online discussion good for democracy?

Habermas, the grand theorist of communicative action, actually had his doubts about online discussion.  Rather than facilitating democratic participation in the public sphere, he worried the Internet might just fragment it even further.

We’ve certainly seen how this can happen.  Like befriends like on Facebook and Twitter, and pretty soon we’re cocooned in a political echo chamber.  Or Google learns our search preferences and we’re trapped in our own personal filter bubbles.  For a lovely TED talk on these issues, check out this one by Ethan Zuckerman.

There are also cultural reasons why online discussion can produce fragmentation.  According to Habermas:

Transformative communication occurs under ideal speech situations, in which (…) people’s claims are comprehensible (understandable to others), true (they are not logically or rationally false and can be defended by argument or data), appropriate (justified by a shared purpose among participants) and sincere (people state what they mean). (Labonte, Feather & Mills, 1999; cites Habermas, 1984)

Hopefully nobody points out this all sounds very idealistic, because that is acknowledged in the name: ideal speech situations.

In my experience, online discussion is usually the opposite of these four things.  Nobody reads posts or articles in-depth, anymore; they just skim the text for launching-off points for diatribes in the comments section about their pet hates, which they carry from site to site.  When those positions are challenged, they just dig in deeper.

Far from ‘agreeing to disagree’, people don’t agree on enough to have a disagreement.  We just divide into tribes on every position  and nobody ever expects to change anyone’s mind.  In what Jay Rosen has called “the cult of savvy”, in political discussions we no longer debate the meanings, we argue about how to argue them.

I trained in law, English and cultural studies at university, and I work in HIV prevention, where I have a minor specialisation in the multi-disciplinary study of social stigma and the impacts of ethnic prejudice on social connectedness and health.

In an earlier post I attributed the increasing pointlessness of debates about HIV prevention to the influence of tabloid and talkback culture.  But there are also middlebrow sites like New Matilda, Crikey, and the Drum where bloggers can become ‘opinion celebrities’ and this creates an opinion economy in which controversy is currency: hotter topics mean bigger social media uptake means more hits for your post.

The ‘debate’ over #hysteria

Recently Justin Shaw and Ben Pobjie wrote articles for Shaw’s publication The King’s Tribune, which has just started charging for its print edition.  In the same edition they both wrote about feminist responses to porn and they both used the word hysteria.

Tammi Jonas (@tammois) politely took this up with Shaw (@juzzytribune) on Twitter.  He very quickly conceded her point, but he also sent these side-tweets to Pobjie (@benpobjie):

@juzzytribune: @benpobjie you ready for the hate, big guy? It’s started…

@juzzytribune: @benpobjie our p0rn pieces. I’m a sexist pig, you’re (as usual) making rape jokes..

In the shitstorm that ensued, Pobjie made a claim I want to interrogate here:

But Shaw had referred to anti-porn crusader Gail Dines’ “hysterical screeches”, and unless she was laughing uncontrollably or unable to speak from emotion on Q&A, the dictionary definition Pobjie cited couldn’t possibly fit the usage.

‘When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.’ (Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking Glass, ch 6.)

“Hysteria” no longer literally means pathology of the uterus that disorders the female mind, but that is the history to which its modern-day use as metaphor refers.  Pobjie knew this ahead of time, since he mentions nineteenth-century treatments for the condition in his own article:

There are many reasons a person might be weird enough to not like pornography. For example, that person may be suffering from nervous hysteria and just need a good finger massage or fire-hose-induced orgasm to set things right.

At this point the whole thing is looking a lot like a setup.  We’re no longer arguing about porn, if we ever were — now we’re arguing about whether words mean what the dictionary says they mean.

Following John Howard’s eleven year war on post-modernism and political correctness, Lefty writers seemed to retreat into a bunker of political naturalism: a cult of common sense worshipping in a temple of the taken for granted.

It’s a world in which words mean what the dictionary says, in the way their authors intend, and interpretation stops there;  where you take a man at his word when he says he’s not anti-feminist;  where arguments consist only of premises combined according to the rules of formal logic;  where the Queensberry Rules apply to women debating men on Twitter.

A retreat to the intellectual conditions of the 1950s, in other words.  John Howard would feel right at home.

It makes no sense to refer to a ‘debate’ over #hysteria, because Pobjie performed a public refusal to engage with Jonas.  He wanted to dismiss her point and shut her down; to suggest that talking about male privilege and its effects on his perspective was a complete waste of breath; when his responses didn’t achieve these functions he sought to filter her, as if she were noise, from his stream; and finally, he set his entire Twitter account to hidden.

Above all, he wanted to deny the rationality of a feminist response to Shaw’s article.

The ‘ad womynym’ attack

That denial was perfectly continuous with the historical logic of the diagnosis of hysteria: it began its life as a medical hypothesis but quickly entered popular circulation as a condition any man could diagnose at will in a woman he no longer felt like listening to.

The nature of male privilege was made blatantly apparent: educated white men think they get to define rationality.  And then they get to have natty jackets made and decide who gets admitted to the club.

This kind of response was repeated over and over again in the firestorm of criticism that engulfed Jonas in the following days.  Instead of disagreeing with her, they simply refused to recognise what she said as argument, preferring to characterise it as an emotional overreaction, oversensitivity, an ego trip, a personal attack, and a failure of niceness.

To use a debating metaphor, these participants don’t see themselves as debaters, they think they’re adjudicators — that their critical stance and 140-character emanations operate on a higher plane where they argue-about-argument instead of actually engaging.

Their responses — abuse, stonewalling, ‘gaslighting’, derailing, dismissal and denial of rationality — reflect a stable and predictable pattern that emerges whenever educated white men and their apologists feel challenged by a woman: the ‘ad womynym’ response.

The label was coined by Tseen Khoo after some numpty accused Jonas of ‘ad homynym’ (sic) attacks.  I think it’s particularly apt, because it involves the dismissal of a ‘straw womyn’ — a reduction of all feminism to a single caricature of the queer, postmodern and critical theory-inspired feminism found in universities.

For anyone writing from the Left about porn, that dismissive response is unforgivably stupid, because it’s exactly that school of thought that has the most to offer anyone looking for counter-arguments to Gail Dines, Melinda Tankard Reist, Bettina Arndt, Steve Biddulph and Steve Dow and all the other opinion celebrities peddling essentialist crap about sex and gender in modern society.

So why do they do it?

As Gramsci used it, the word hegemony refers to the way in which social inequality is made to seem normal and natural, common sense, just the way the world works; it can be seen operating in all those responses that insisted on taking the word “hysteria” at face value, ignoring its history and multiple layers of meaning — all of which are conveyed when it is used.

Hegemony is what makes feminist interpretation vulnerable.  Like any critical theory, it works by de-naturalising, by posing questions that reveal the hidden ideological baggage of common sense and every day life.  That’s never an easy feat; there’s a lot weighing against it — not least the desire to live a simple, easy, comfortable life, unplagued by difficult ethical questions. Sure enough, Shaw’s article is all about how feminists overthink everything and the porn issue is all really very simple.

So what have we learned?

This brings us back to Habermas and the problem of fragmentation for the possibility of transformative communication.  Jennifer Wilson (@noplaceforsheep) took Jonas to task for wanting to convince people:

In Wilson’s view, the purpose of discussion is to “express POV” (points of view).  I’d like to draw out the difference between “expression” and “communication”.  Expression doesn’t need anyone to hear it — expression could be two people shouting about different topics from opposite ends of a room.  As long as they get their views out, expression has occurred.

Communication, on the other hand, requires both parties to listen as much as they speak.  I think Wilson gives a pithily accurate summary of the ethos of most ‘discussion’ on Twitter and in blogland, and indeed of articles in the middlebrow opinion economy in Australia.  It’s about getting your views out, not seeking to persuade anyone.

What’s missing in this view is the speech condition of appropriateness — the idea that disagreement is justified by a shared purpose.  This is what I meant above when I said we don’t agree enough to disagree.  We don’t agree on the possibility of agreement — we’re not open to changing our own views and don’t expect to convince anyone.  It’s just serve and volley of opinions.

Wilson goes on to add “respond to challenges [and] engage with them” — but how is that possible when someone replies #block #fuckyou, I wonder?  Pobjie didn’t engage: he dismissed, ad womynym. In the classical formulation, an ad hominem attack fails to separate the man and his argument.  The underlying logic of ad womynym isn’t attack, it’s refusal to engage.  It says ‘nothing you say can ever persuade me of anything’.  It dismisses the person and their argument.

A further challenge to online discussion is that we’ve all studied in a highly fragmentary education system.  Separate subjects, separate streams, separate degrees, separate departments, separate majors.  Jonas took a patient, good-faith approach to explaining the underpinning of her views to Shaw and Pobjie, setting out to make her claims comprehensible.  But we are coming to argument in the public sphere from ever greater conceptual distances apart.  It was a distance Pobjie just couldn’t be arsed attempting to cross.

Finally, it was striking how many of the responses on Twitter evinced concern trolling, and how most blog posts and articles on hysteria/Dines/porn have adopted a tone of very heavy sarcasm.  Maybe we’re all embarrassed by talking about porn.  Maybe it reflects the fact that so many saw it as a flamewar rather than a discussion with a real point to it.  But the whole thing lacked sincerity. As for truth in the porn debate, that’s a topic for another post.