So long, and thanks for all the fish

Stewart Lee was on fine form in yesterday’s Observer on a burning, but delicious, political issue of our day: are milkshakes the new politics of resistance?

“During his appearances on the campaign trail, Ukip’s star candidate, the internet’s Carl Benjamin, has been assailed with a total of four milkshakes and a single fish. This is a paltry selection of foods on paper, but one which Our Lord Jesus could have used to feed 5,000 people. Or pelt roughly 3,570 Brexiteers.”

Mr. Benjamin‘s milkshake misadventures also featured on Friday’s Have I Got News For You…

As Jess Phillips, MP for Birmingham Yardley, puts it in that clip…

“No, I don’t think you should throw things at politicians, I don’t think you should attack them. I think you should win by being better than them, which is what I am currently doing to Carl Benjamin.”

Jess, current majority of 37.2%, is very definitely winning. The extent of Carl’s political humiliation — which he, of course, will now attempt to pathetically and transparently laugh off as “trolling the establishment” (or some such similar nonsense) [1] — became clear late last night:

UKIP polled just 3.2 per cent of ballots cast in Benjamin’s constituency — a 29 per cent drop from their previous election. Even better, the combined toxicity of Benjamin and Tommy Robinson Stephen Christopher Yaxley-Lennon, and, of course, the wholly predictable and dispiriting success of Farage’s Brexit party, meant that UKIP lost every single seat. (Yaxley-Lennon had to sneak out of the election count early he was so embarrassed.)

Let’s just hope that last night’s very poor Labour performance will finally encourage Jeremy Corbyn to bow to pressure to support a second referendum. I’m not holding my breath, however. (I joined the Labour Party because of Jeremy Corbyn. And I left the Labour Party because of Jeremy Corbyn.)

If you, in turn, were waiting with baited breath for me to close this post with a good fish pun, I’m afraid that, just like Carl’s political career, I floundered…

[1] Carl Benjamin is 39 years old.

I wouldn’t even call ’em pathetic: The alpha-rated fragility of the Manosphere

NoGirlsAllowed.png

If you’re not familiar with the internet sub-culture known as the Manosphere, you may want to look away right now. This is going to get ugly.

We’ll need the traditional trigger warning before we start…

If you find that you are unable to respond to criticism of sexism without randomly arranging terms such as SJW, white knight, cuck, kill yourself, bitch, whore, rape, professional victims, PC gone mad, First Amendment, feminazi, and/or fuck (or other assorted expletives) into grammatically dubious and arbitrarily capitalised boilerplate then you may find the following post both intellectually and emotionally challenging. A strong and potentially damaging kneejerk response or, indeed, extreme overreaction may result.

You have been warned.

My apologies for the need to include a trigger warning but, as we’re about to see, the Manospherians (Manospheroids?) are a hyper-sensitive and fragile bunch. They take offence at the drop of a fedora so it’s only fair to give any Manosphere-dweller that might be reading a heads-up — there’s some content ahead that they’re going to find ‘problematic’.

In the short video below, the wonderful somegreybloke explains the Manosphere so much better than I ever could. It’s well worth somewhat less than two minutes of your time…

To summarise Mr. Greybloke’s already pithy summary, the central premise of the average Manospherian is that “white heterosexual men living in affluent Western societies are the most oppressed and discriminated-against people in the world…living under the jackboot of a misandrist gynocracy… [because] the evil feminazis that control the vagina supply have imposed a secret genital boycott.”

Got that? Like Mr. Greybloke, this shocking revelation was news to me until I was introduced a few years back to the, ahem, ‘content’ generated by a number of leading lights in the Manospherical movement via this video series from the (Minchin-esque) Michael Rowlands. Oh, and of course this classic (from the aforementioned (first link above) Harry Brewis.)

Now, usually, the Manosphere’s residents are safely and happily ensconced in YouTubia, where they preach to their converted subscriber bases (which typically number of order a million or so). One of its denizens, however, has moved overground of late to participate in real world politics. I’m talking about the guy pictured in the Sky News tweet below…

Carl Benjamin — or, to use his Manospherian identity, Sargon of Akkad (…yes, I know; let’s move swiftly on) — is second on UKIP’s list for MEP candidates in the South-West of England (should the European Parliament elections go ahead.)  As David Baddiel points out in his tweet above, Carl, an out-and-proud Manospherian, tends to get very worked up and emotional about that misandrist gynocracy that’s happening under our noses (….if we’d only wake up.) Now, as a similarly out-and-proud social justice warrior (SJW), I’ve got to say that there’s nothing wrong, at all, with emotional responses. But Mr. Benjamin is a fully signed-up member of the “Fuck Your Feelings” brigade, who loudly claim that they put rational, dispassionate argument above all else. So here is Carl dispassionately musing on the subject of Eliot Rodger, the 22 year-old who murdered six people in California in 2014 because women rejected him…

(And just as I was writing this post, I note that The Guardian has, earlier this evening, picked up on the video above (although they don’t include the clip itself in the article): UKIP MEP candidate blamed feminists for rise in misogyny )

In case you couldn’t quite get the jist of Carl’s message there, here’s what the UKIP South-West MEP candidate (945K YouTube subscribers and counting) had to say about the murders:

When someone takes the option of absolute, insanely last resort, you have to wonder what kind of system is producing them. And I tell you what … it is a fucking feminist system that’s doing this

But it gets worse.

I tangled with “Sargon” and a few of his chums — including the gentleman advocating for paedophilia described in this Twitter thread – a few years back; I described Mr. Benjamin as “odious” on more than one occasion back then and I’ve certainly not seen any reason to revise that opinion just yet. (This was before I copped on and realised that, by reacting, I was simply taking the bait and doing nothing more than helping generate Patreon income for Benjamin and his ilk.) Kristi Winters, a political scientist based in Germany, has documented many instances (here are just a few) of Mr. Benjamin’s cluelessness on feminism and social justice. Indeed, she formally debated Benjamin a number of years ago, deftly highlighting the paucity of his ‘arguments’.

Benjamin’s “I wouldn’t even rape you” tweet neatly sums up all you need to know about the man’s quality of argumentation and wit in just five words. As Jess Phillips, MP, at whom Benjamin targeted his tweet, points out:

While the reading comprehension of a not-insignificant fraction of the “Sargon” fanbase doesn’t quite stretch to understanding the role that the inclusion of “even” plays in his infamous tweet, Mr. Benjamin himself certainly knows. He very deliberately left out the word when he called his mum to tell her about how naughty he’d been, and then uploaded the footage. (Yes, you read that right. A 38 year old man, and father of two, filmed himself calling his mum to tell her what he didn’t say to an MP about raping her. And then uploaded it for his cheering fans.)

Benjamin doubles, triples, and quadruples down on his tweet at any available opportunity, claiming that he doesn’t care about the “moral outrage” it generates. But then, as with most who claim to be vigorous defenders of freedom of speech, who whine incessantly about putting “facts above feelings”, and who throw around the “snowflake” label with relish, Mr. Benjamin does not respond at all well to jokes at his expense. When a “Sargon of Akkad” parody account was set up, instead of taking the criticism (the “banter”) on the chin, Carl was very clearly outraged. Some might even say that he was hurt. By jokes.

He’s also not quite grasped the concept of freedom of speech.

I’ve just finished reading the incredible “Rising Out of Hatred” by Eli Saslow. I cannot recommend this book highly enough. It’s a powerfully affecting account of how Derek Black — son of Don Black, godson of David Duke, and arguably the most important person in U.S. white nationalism before he rose out of the hatred — came to change his views and mindset. That happened not through ostracising and demonising the man but, remarkably, because his (Jewish, Hispanic, liberal, progressive) friends listened, countered the prejudices and deeply engrained ideology, and changed his views. They changed him.

I’d like to think that Carl might similarly one day realise just what role he is playing in stoking up hate and division; he’s been lauded by no less than Richard Spencer as a “gateway” to the alt-right. I don’t think he’s entirely comfortable with that dubious accolade. But he’s got a long way to go before he can let go of the fragile rage that drives him. It is now nearly two years since Heather Anable, a contributor to a channel called The Skeptic Feminist, was murdered by her boyfriend. Carl Benjamin, along with a number of other sick individuals, participated in a livestream, hours after Heather’s murder, to laugh at her death. Even some of his fellow Manospherians were disgusted by this.

I wouldn’t even, Carl.

I wouldn’t even.


I did not ever meet Heather but I got to know her via Facebook messages while I was a member of a social justice/feminist FB group for a few months. Heather was the first to see the good in someone. The irony is that she would have tried her best to talk with Benjamin, to try to find some common ground and to appeal to his humanity. She’d have loved to have read “Rising Out of Hatred.”

Image credit: http://whenthekidsgotobed.com/2013/03/12/the-bookshelf-no-girls-allowed/

How to sociably debate social justice

or Why We Should Feed The Trolls.

The following is a fascinating guest post by Hugh Dingwall. Hugh, aka “Objective Reality”, has posted a number of intelligent, perceptive, and compellingly-argued comments under previous posts at “Symptoms…”. I was very impressed by the quality of his writing, and by the careful manner in which he laid out his arguments, so I invited him to write a guest post. That post is below. I have never been happier to be told I’m wrong.  

[Note that (i) the title (and sub-title) above are due to me, not Hugh, so any criticism about the titling of the piece should be directed to me; (ii) Hugh’s points about safe spaces and no platforming are particularly timely in the context of this recent debate in academia: https://www.timeshighereducation.com/news/chicago-academics-hit-back-safe-spaces %5D


First off, thanks to Phil for inviting me to do this guest post, which I intend to begin by disagreeing with him about a couple of things.

Phil’s made it clear in a couple of different places, that he doesn’t agree with the idea of no-platforming (or blocking people), or with safe spaces. I get his reasons (and I think they come from a good place) but I think he’s wrong.

To deal with safe spaces first, this concept is usually portrayed by “SJW-slayers” as a way for a person to avoid concepts that challenge them, and this is, I think, what Phil (rightly) disagrees with. The problem is that that’s not what they are, at least in the forms that I’ve encountered them. The “safe spaces” I’ve come across have been areas, particularly on a university campus, where a marginalised group can go and (quite literally) be safe. The best example of this is the Women’s Room at my old university, which was established because there were a number of behaviours that male students engaged in that made female students feel quite (justifiably) unsafe. Since it was one room, with some paper resources if you needed them and a free phone (I know because my girlfriend of the time called me from there on a number of occasions) you could hardly use it to shelter your precious worldview. You could however, use it to call your boyfriend to come and pick you up when you’d had a distressing encounter with an arsehole at the student pub. This kind of safe space is, in my opinion, quite hard to argue against unless you’re the aforementioned pub arsehole – and is more commonly what defenders of safe spaces have in mind.

As regards no-platforming (the practice of preventing people from speaking on campuses because of their views), and relatedly blocking people you can’t be bothered with on social media, I again see Phil’s point. On the other hand, I remember how angry I was when my university played host to an Intelligent Design proponent. The issue wasn’t that my ideas were being challenged, or even that I thought this guy would convince anyone. I was angry that money (MY money – we have to pay for university in New Zealand (which this guy hadn’t when he attended but that’s another angry story)) had been spent paying him to lecture, when it could have been given to someone, even someone just as controversial, whose views weren’t provably false. It was an hour of my life I wasn’t going to get back, and the man had been paid for wasting it. He wasn’t going to convince anyone who wasn’t a closet-Creationist, and most infuriatingly, he didn’t even understand the theory of evolution that he claimed to debunk. (I should mention at this point that I dropped out of university, and while I was attending I was a Classics major – and I still had a clearer understanding of the theory than this guy who purported to be able to prove it wrong.)

To extend this logic to blocking people on social media, I think it’s important to know when a conversation has reached its useful end. I understand the principle that it’s good to be exposed to views you disagree with, but firstly, there’s no amount of David Icke I can read that will convince me that giant reptilians are a real non-metaphorical problem in the world. There’s a point past which a conversation with an Icke-believer stops being useful as a result. (The reader is invited to extend the logic to situations where political or philosophical disagreement devolves into mere fountains of bile). Moreover, I think that people whose goal is to harass or bully their intellectual opponents often use this idea (that you should always be open to defending your ideas from opposing views) as a way to try and argue that you owe them a continued conversation (even once they’ve begun abusing you or bringing in their followers to try for a dogpile) and that refusing them that conversation is a sign of cowardice. Which is bullshit – especially if you’re someone whose fame and/or status as a member of a despised group makes you a target for nastier-than-usual or literally-dangerous attacks, or if your opponent is a well-established internet presence who can call on a literal horde of faceless howling zealots to shout you down.

Finally, I’m not that keen on Rush. Though I acknowledge their technical skill, I’ve always been more of a psychedelia guy, and I have a special place in my heart for the British folk-rock explosion of the 70s (go look up Joe Boyd, and listen to basically everyone he produced, then work sideways from there, also the Grateful Dead, and Tom Waits).

[Editor’s note: Hugh’s criticism of Rush here is clearly an uncharacteristic lapse of judgement. He redeems himself by mentioning Tom Waits (whose, um, unique music I got to know via the fantastic Primus), so, much as it pains me, I’m willing to overlook the lack of enthusiasm for Rush. I’m sure Hugh will come round to their unique charms in the end.]

As you can see from the above, it’s entirely possible to disagree with people while remaining entirely civil. More importantly, it’s possible to disagree with people while acknowledging that they make good points, or have good reasons for the views they hold. (Reasons can be good even if you think they’re incorrect.) In philosophy, this is called “the principle of charity”. The idea is that to avoid strawmanning, you should ensure that you’re engaging with the strongest possible form of your opponent’s argument, given the things they’ve actually said. I find that it also helps to ask what people mean if you’re not sure, so you don’t end up talking at cross purposes.

Which brings me to the various discussions I had in the comments of Phil’s blog post “The Faith And Fables of Thunderfoot”.

The style of discussion I’ve indulged in above (and attempted to explain thereafter) is the way I talk on the internet if I’m interested in getting to the bottom of what people think, or making a genuine point. I’ll talk about the points that got discussed in that comments section in a bit, but first I want to talk about this style of discourse as opposed to trolling. See, I agree with Phil that trolling, while inherently somewhat mean-spirited, can be an art in and of itself (and some examples can be truly transcendent). However, the purpose of trolling is to keep your victim(s) expending energy for your amusement (and that of any onlookers). It’s not a form of argumentation, and if you put more energy into it than your victims do, you are a very ineffective troll. This is why I call bullshit on the likes of Thunderfoot and Sargon of Akkad when they claim to be “just trolling” as a way to avoid defending their arguments and/or actions. If they are trolls, then firstly we have no reason to accept their arguments as anything other than deliberately vexatious nonsense, and secondly (given the average length of their videos) they are very bad trolls indeed.

Pleasingly, there wasn’t much of that kind of conversation in the comments at Phil’s blog. Instead, two major points seemed to come up:

  1. People wanted to know how we could be sure that sexual dimorphism wasn’t to blame for the lack of women in STEM fields (this was the initial disagreement between Phil and Thunderfoot which led to the email exchange reproduced in the blogpost – I recommend going and reading it if you haven’t (otherwise some of this post may be quite confusing).
  2. People seemed nervous of adopting what might be seen as “feminist” positions, for fear that this might somehow be seen as implicating all men in a mass act of malice against all women, or that it might lead to them inadvertently endorsing some position that they deeply disagreed with.

To deal with the first point first (a novel idea, I know), the short answer is that we can’t. We can know very little for sure. On the other hand, it seems very unlikely that sexual dimorphism is to blame for women’s career and study choices. Phil goes into this in detail in this post here, but I’m not an academic (I’m a sound technician) and I want to talk about some other stuff as well, so I’ll just summarise the main points.

First off, I need to acknowledge that it’s not an inherently silly idea that sexual dimorphism might be to blame, as humans are a moderately sexually dimorphic species. Men* tend to be bigger, stronger, and hairier than women, who tend in turn to outlive them. It’s not totally outlandish to suggest that there may be brain differences as well. However, the evidence doesn’t bear this out, and as Phil points out in both the blogposts I’ve linked to, it’s very very difficult to decouple social factors from purely biological ones in humans. The evidence for social factors influencing women’s choices, on the other hand, seems to be pretty strong. It’s easily provable that society used to be much more sexist than it is right now. Most antifeminists would even agree with this proposition. I think it’s quite reasonable to argue that the recent (as in, last 50 years or so) influx of women into traditionally male fields is more likely to stem from an increased acceptance of women doing these kinds of jobs and studying in these fields than it is to be a result of evolution.

Which brings me to another point – there were a good number of appeals in the pro-sexual-dimorphism camp to what we might call “naturalistic” explanations, including a good deal of recourse to evolutionary psychology. Now, my good friend Daniel Copeland is convinced that there’s some merit in evopsych, and he is a very intelligent guy and makes a good case for the bits he supports. However, evopsych is probably one of the most abused theories I’ve ever seen. If you’re not familiar with it, the idea is that you can find explanations for bits of human behaviour in our evolutionary past, and sometimes you can discover those bits of evolutionary past by, for example, observing other primates. There are two problems with this – the first is that people who don’t fully understand it tend to just point to an aspect of human behaviour they wish to claim is immutable, and then invent an “evolutionary-sounding” reason for it. The more fundamental problem is that we’re not other primates, and even if we were, the world of animal sexual dynamics is hugely diverse.

There was a tendency in the early days of biology to assume that most animals would follow the family/relationship structure that those early biologists considered “natural” – dominant males, submissive females, and so on. The actual picture is much more complicated, and as I noted, we’re not other primates – we’re humans. Our whole thing is using technologies (including social technologies) to overcome our natural limits. That’s how come my wife can see, and my mother can hear. That’s how come we developed hugely complex social structures that let us live stacked on top of each other in cities without all killing each other (most of the time). There’s no reason to assume that even if there were a natural predisposition that led women to shun certain fields, we would allow ourselves to be bound by that. It’s not how we work. (Daniel Copeland wrote a nice blog post that goes into this in more detail.) We can also look at evidence (detailed in Phil’s post that I already linked) that shows that the steady decline of sexism globally correlates with a steady increase in women going into traditionally male fields both in science and the arts (there are far more female-fronted rock bands than their used to be, for one thing.) Obviously correlation is not causation, but it’s telling that these changes are far quicker than the sort of effect we’d expect from evolution, giventhe length of human generations.

And now to point number two. Again, I have some sympathy for this position. It’s completely wrong, but I get it. The issue is that while feminism is becoming quite broadly discussed (online at least), it’s not as broadly understood. This means that many people think that they are (or need to be) anti-feminist or non-feminist, when their views actually align with the majority of feminist theory. This is certainly the position I was in to begin with**. Then a very patient feminist lady on Facebook took the time to actually unpack what we were talking about, and I realised precisely how badly I had the wrong end of the stick.

The first issue I want to talk about here is terminology. Feminists use a number of words in ways which differ from a naive dictionary definition. This is (contrary to to what anti-SJWs would have you believe) not actually uncommon. In my own field as a sound engineer for a radio station, I use a number of terms which would be incomprehensible to someone who isn’t versed in sound tech, and a number of common words (for example “wet/dry”, “trim”, “bright/dark” and “dead/alive”) have quite specific meanings within that field. I’m sure Philip talks differently about physics to advanced students than he does to laypeople for the same reason. The advantage Phil and I have over feminists is that no-one misunderstands or willfully misuses our terminology against us. The terms that suffer the most abuse in discussions about feminism are, I think, “patriarchy” and “privilege”.

Again, since I’m not an academic, and I have already used a significant amount of virtual ink in this post, I’m going to summarise here. If you want really detailed discussions of exactly how these terms function, I suggest you go and check out people like Garrett, Chrisiousity, or Kristi Winters on Youtube. Patriarchy, as I understand it, refers to a social order which assumes that a specific sort of masculinity is the “default” gender identity, and judges all other in comparison (usually negatively). Privilege refers to the advantages (often small, at least when taken individually) that individuals accrue by being close to that default. In the Anglosphere*** the patriarchal ideal is rich, white, physically and emotionally dominant, heterosexual, and male – the more like that you are, the more privilege you have. The tendency is for one’s own privilege to be invisible (ie it just feels “normal”) so you tend to assume everyone can freely do what you can, unless you stop and think about it.

For example, I live in New Zealand. It is a small and fairly egalitarian country (we were among the first to give votes to women, and signed a treaty with our indigenous people rather than just murdering them all and taking their stuff, for example****) and seems reasonably enlightened on the surface. However, when I got married to a Samoan woman, I found that I was now conducting a field test into latent community racism. My wife and I can go into the same store within minutes of each other and get hugely different reactions from staff, because she is brown. When I am out alone with our daughters, I get approving noises from mums about how good it is that I as a Dad spend time with my girls, my wife gets asked if those little blonde girls are really hers. This was entirely invisible to me until that relationship opened a window for me into her world – in other words, a portion of my own privilege became visible to me in a way it hadn’t been. Here’s another example, in New Zealand, the majority of voters want decriminalisation or outright legalisation of cannabis. Our (Tory) prime minister has ruled this out, relying instead on “police discretion” to institute a sort of “de-facto decriminalisation”. The problem is that because people tend to use their discretion in slightly racist ways, this has led to disproportionately terrible outcomes for our Pacific Island and Maori minorities.

This is the result of an organic accretion of values over time – not a conspiracy. (White, straight) men have not conspired to create this system, though some men do work to preserve it because (presumably) they’re afraid of losing what power they have. This system also negatively affects some men – we are expected to be physically dominant and prepared to fight for family or country, and failure to do so can lead to terrible personal consequences. We are not generally assumed to have as deep an emotional life as women (because this is not patriarchally desirable) and this leads to terrible outcomes in mental health. We are expected to be hale and hearty and this leads to horrible outcomes in physical health. This is not a state of affairs that benefits us overall.

I use a pseudonym in lots of places on the internet because when I started out online (in the total wild west of pre-internet dial-up bulletin boards) that was just what people did, and I never thought deeply enough about the habit to change it. I don’t do it because I am afraid that people may harm me or my family because of my opinions. Anecdotally, my female friends are. Moreover, because I exist in a fairly privileged position (I am after all, a straight white dude from the wider Anglosphere) I don’t have to constantly justify my presence online, and my right to an opinion. Anecdotally, my female friends do. This means that I can get into arguments about feminism or other social justice causes on the internet without bringing the fatigue that results from a life of fighting sealions along with me, and I can be polite if the situation seems to merit it. (Also I am a pedantic and argumentative bugger.) While I think that it can be counterproductive to snap at people, I can totally understand why many women, POC, transpeople and so on do not have my level of patience with dudes***** who barge into conversations and restate very basic arguments very incoherently. This is because I have a privilege in terms of online discussion, which they do not.

Since you’re granted privilege by society on the basis of factors you can’t control, you can’t really get rid of it. All you can do is attempt to use it responsibly. One of the ways I try to do this, is by patiently and politely asking questions of antifeminists on the internet until they either make themselves look silly, or become more reasonable. That is, after all, what worked for me.

_____

*I’m going to stick with the terms “men” and “women” here because a) I don’t think trans people are a big enough population to seriously throw out the averages as far as size and weight distributions, and b) the exact configurations of people’s genitals are largely none of my business. I’ll worry about my own genitals, and my wife’s, and that’ll do me.

**I had a deeply tiresome “pendulum” theory about how power moved from group to group in society, and it tied into the death of prog and the rise of punk and it was awful. I had a bit of an embarrassment-shudder just typing that.

***It strikes me as a better shorthand for “mostly-white, mostly-English-speaking countries” than “The West”.

****If any of my readers are Maori and about to get cross with me for oversimplifying and making it seem like NZ’s racial history is just peachy-keen – stop. I know it’s more complicated than that and that the government did plenty of murdering and nicking of stuff (sometimes by stealthy law-making) and that the situation is far from resolved. It’s also a better deal than many colonised indigenous peoples got (which is totally shameful, I know).

*****Let’s face it dudes, it’s usually us. Like, 95% of the time, at least.