Monday 29 July 2013

Rape Threats, Twitter, and Masculine Crisis

So, Caroline Criado-Perez, wages a successful campaign to get a famous woman onto the £10 note and a pledge that, in future, the Bank of England's designs will better reflect the actual look and shape of British society. A welcome happenstance for everyone who isn't white, male and posh. But not all. Unfortunately, the bigger story has been the rape and sexual assault threats she's been on the receiving end of. Caroline talks about some examples here. It goes without saying the volume of misogynistic abuse has generated a furious backlash, from folk bombarding key members of Twitter staff to a 30,000-strong online petition, as well as talk of a Twitter boycott on August 4th. And, for good measure, Caroline has rightly reported threats received to the police. This has led to one arrest, and I expect a few more shall receive an unwelcome knock on the door from the plod.

Unfortunately, Caroline is far from the first prominent woman to have been so targeted. Any woman, especially those who self-identify as feminists and socialists and are active in campaigns around progressive social causes, are no strangers to this sort of harassment. As social media moves from the margins of our lives to something more central to what we do and how we communicate, this kind of behaviour becomes more of a social problem and less something women on the internet have to sigh and resign themselves to. So yes, it is entirely proper perpetrators of abuse are punished, their accounts shut down, and legal/criminal consequences result.

However, ostracising and punishing men and boys who use the internet to abuse women is only part of dealing with the problem. To borrow an over-used cliche, prevention is better than cure. So where does all this rape crap come from, and what's driving it?

To revisit a much-abused concept, masculine crisis might have something to do with it. Look, I know it's a fraught idea seized upon the so-called Men's Movement but I do think it has some sociological utility. It is, after all, undeniable that the way we all perform our genders is different and more varied than was the case 40 or more years ago. That 'being a man' and 'being a woman' is arguably a more uncertain, anxiety-inducing experience than was formerly the case. While feminists do have a point that commentators on gender make a fuss of masculine crisis but tend not to speak about femininity in 'crisis' terms; that says more about the gendered biases so charmingly built into our society rather than using crisis as a frame to think through changes to masculinity. Also, so there is no confusion; when I talk about masculine crisis I'm not harking back to some bucolic ideal. When describing and analysing the complex business of social change it's too simplistic to talk about it in terms of 'good' and 'bad' - conservatives and the hard-of-thinking take note.

There are four interrelated ways to think through this issue sociologically, and help explain why some men tweet rape threats to belittle, traduce and attempt to silence women.

As I argued in this post on UKIP and masculinity, age, gender identity, flexible labour markets/in-work insecurity, and the pace of cultural change conspired to generate a constituency of middle-aged to elderly men who found the "common sense" right wing populism of UKIP attractive. A similar set of processes are at work among younger men, too.

The situation facing all young people when they emerge from the education system, be that at 16, 18 or 21, is greatly uncertain. This month, some 21% of 16-24 year olds - 959,000 people - are unemployed. Whereas perhaps their parents and certainly their grandparents knew full employment and the possibility of getting into work right from school, it's more of a lottery for young people now.

So we have uncertainty. But we also have a more level playing field when it comes to jobs. This isn't to say there is no gender divisions at work - it would be stupid to pretend men and women aren't treated differently. But increasingly, especially at entry level, workplaces are increasingly mixed and young men and young women have to compete for the same jobs. And yet hegemonic masculinity - that complex of ideologies, values and expectations inculcated by socialisation and reinforced through family, friendship and media networks - hasn't caught up. A real man has a well paid job, has disposable income enough to buy all the mod cons and fashions, might *have* (in the property sense) a woman, or, at the very least, has women hanging off his arm; and, of course, has the time and inclination to play or watch sports, and/or indulge in masculine-coded pursuits like video gaming, drinking, gadgetry, or fishing. Women are too well aware of the mismatch between how society expects them to dress, look and behave, and their individual lives. But now that mismatch is being felt more by men too.

With this chasm between expected experience and lived experience, Emile Durkheim's 'anomie' comes in useful. As a sociologist interested in social integration, Durkeim used anomie to describe situations of 'normlessness'. Despite the term, this does not denote an absence of norms but rather a lack of fit between the value systems embedded in processes of integration and those actually inculcated in groups and individuals. Hence the frequent occurrence of dysfunctional and problematic behaviours across numbers of people is not a mass manifestation of psychological deficiencies, but indicative of anomic social problems. Masculine crisis therefore is the anomie that pertains to discourses and ideologies of "maleness".

For men either born during or having grown up knowing nothing other than neoliberalism's tyranny of the economy, there is no worked-out way to cope with the continued ideological affirmation of male privilege while, materially, it is undermined by insecurity and increased competition with women for jobs. This is why there are so many more socially acceptable ways of 'being a man' now. But at the same time anomic mismatches can generate social pathologies and, in this case, a resentment that privileges promised from the off are being frustrated and denied.

This is one way of looking at the homophobic and misogynistic cultures that reign in that intersection of multiplayer video games and hundreds of internet forums. The one place you can be a man - even if you're but a boy - is by shooting the crap out of other people in first person shooters. The celebration of militarism the Call of Duty franchise indulges would take several books to do it justice. But it is quite clear from the "banter" that takes place in the battles raging across Activision's servers that accompanying play is a verbal performance of masculinity defined by violent sexism, racism and homophobia. This is not just a question of 'expression', it's also a policing of boundaries. This juvenilia tries to effect an exclusion zone around what many of its players consider to be an unambiguously masculine space. The frequent calling out of "fags", cries of "I just totally raped you!!" and tea-bagging the digital corpses of one's deceased opponents all combine and recombine with tedious - almost banal - regularity. Unfortunately, while these arenas of death are make-believe there is no wall preventing the performance of masculinity in these and similar settings from bleeding out into real life.

The above is one example of the online performance of a pathological masculinity. There are many such performative sites outside of multiplayer video gaming, such as Facebook groups, porn forums, sports pages, music sites, tech boards. Men and boys might actively participate in one or more, or have a tangential relationship with them. But for a small minority, how to be a man online can heavily influence how they are men in real life. Or rather, while the immediacy of the social world places limits and strictures on behaviour, few if any such barriers exist online. It is therefore easy for men who've acquired a chip on their shoulder to lash out at those they hold responsible for their emasculating frustrations. They do not have to face the subject of their ire, nor do they have to read rebuttals or comebacks. They know their threatening behaviour is wrong, but their anonymity means they don't have to consider it. The safety afforded by the mediation of the monitor is perceived as a shield that allows them to force their privilege on others. As readers know, prominent, politically left wing women are a favourite target.

When it comes to the specifics of this case, matters are not helped by the relationship between peer support and Twitter dynamics. Not many readers will remember Kenneth Tong, but his Twitter-fueled brief foray into the spotlight is a study in how the game is played. In his case, it was a series of over-the-top, outrageous and misogynistic tweets about women's bodies that attracted the attention of several A-list celebrities and drove notoriety and thousands upon thousands of followers his way. The man was a nobody who became a somebody - the more attention he got, the more outrageous he became. With the desperately sad cases harassing Caroline Criado-Perez it's similar, but different too. They threaten not just for notoriety but for the rise they get. Hidden behind anonymous accounts, they are competing with each other for the numbers of followers attracted, the amount of flak they get, direct replies from Caroline, and retweets of their abusive messages. In their closed emasculated masculine universe, the 'look at me' privilege they hunger for is reduced to 140 characters or less. They feel they have won because a woman has been forced to recognise them and respond to their threats. They are pathetically inadequate in other ways, but among their peers they have proved their stunted manliness and as such reap whatever kudos points that awards them.

Of course, violent, misogynist hate speech - which is what these rape threats are - are not new. But what is new is the platform on which they are made, and the public scrutiny they have attracted. I am sure many people - including many men - had no clue this kind of behaviour is part of the deal women writers, campaigners, and politicians have to endure as part of their prominence. But the problem has now been exposed. There are groups of men and boys who, out of a mixture of jealousy and fear, feel a gut hatred toward women for the reasons described. Ensuring the law deals with these men is only a short-term fix. The material relationships that condition this behaviour will take much longer to address. But in the mean time everyone with a decent bone in their body, regardless of their politics, should stand in solidarity with Caroline, Laurie Penny, Helen Lewis, Mary Beard and the thousands of other women who put up with this abuse, day-in, day-out.


Speedy said...

Agreed, although I think you should broaden the field somewhat - I know of women who have acted in ways that fulfill the criteria in your penultimate paragraph.

I read a comment by Mary Beard today about outing "bullies" and their "playground" behaviour - I think there is work to be done in understanding how within some people it appeals to the inner playground bully they have otherwise suppressed/ indeed would be horrified to have revealed to the "real world" as Ms Beard did.

Whenever I read about cases of abuse I come across the playground metaphor and (stick with me here) I think it reveals something about the nature of evil - what supposedly ordinary law-abiding people are actually capable of behind the mask of anonymity and without fear of the consequences.

You don't need to read Lord of the Flies to know what kids are actually like - we've all experienced bullying (and I think Margaret Atwood wrote the ultimate novel Cat's Eye about it).

I really don't think it is much of a leap that when you see this kind of behaviour you can understand how people came to denounce Jews during the Holocaust. Of course it was a minority - but it is a minority that now seeks to inflict pain on other people.

When we are young our personalities are not fully formed and we can lack empathy. Over time we come to empathise with others, but some perhaps do not develop fully and while they may learn to conceal their lack of empathy the anonymity of the internet brings out their true half-formed self. And without empathy, what you have is basically the potential for evil.

Of course the solution is getting them to develop fully but first they must recognise they have a problem - i suspect internet culture tends to reinforce rather than undermine this behaviour.

Phil said...

There is definitely something to what you say. In his study of the Holocaust, Zygmunt Bauman observes something very similar. The bureaucrats could go about the calm liquidation of millions of people because they were far removed from the business of killing. Also the perfection of the gas chambers was because the Nazis found, very rapidly, that even the most fanatical of SS men could not murder hundreds of people in cold blood. There's plenty of stories of them having to be drunk to do so, and of suicides and madness. Again, because they were up close and personal to their victims.

I haven't read a great deal of internet scholarship since the late 90s but even then some canny thinkers had picked up on social distance afforded by the monitor, and a propensity to behave in socially unacceptable ways.

Carol from Leeds said...

"It is, after all, undeniable that the way we all perform our genders is different and more varied than was the case 40 or more years ago. That 'being a man' and 'being a woman' is arguably a more uncertain, anxiety-inducing experience than was formerly the case."

In my experience, I am sure that 'being a woman'is far easier, more relaxed and less stressed than it was for my mother (a 1950's wife, with few educational or job choices) or my grandmother (eight children, three of whom died in infancy).

I have had far more choices and more control over my own body and life than they ever did.

What is true now is that women and men have less opportunity of secure, well-paid employment.