Wednesday, 5 March 2014

Facebook, Feminism & Tantrums

The use of social media as a conduit for heated debates about feminism, politics, religions etc. is turning what should be intelligent conversation into playground fights of ever more polarized monologues, each egging the other on to become more unconsidered, more belligerent and ruder than the last.

I ONCE had a conversation with a politician in which he told me you should stay well away from any sort of social media whatsoever whenever tired or drunk. The wisdom in this is evident; in fact, it’s probably worth going a little further.

I’ll contend that we’re better off all-out avoiding the sort of online ideological skirmishes some of us (I speak as one guilty) insist on having all the time all over Facebook, Twitter, anywhere there’s a box into which we can slot our strong opinions from bed.

The great advantage of a real forum – that, chaps, is a room – is that people in each others’ physical presence can usually rely on a subconscious set of social instincts to stop them from bursting out with insults or even a tantrum whenever a point of contention comes up. Debates on the web offer no such safety catches.

Even the (ahem) best of us fall into the trap, of course. Over my morning coffee I unwisely ignored my own resolution and questioned a cartoon, posted by a friend, presenting a ranting (and sensibly dressed, I’ll add) ‘faux feminist’ lecturing two other women on their ‘unfeminist’ attire. One was wearing a burqa, the other wore absolutely nothing but a deeply minimalist—bordering on conceptual—pair of knickers. 

Now, I opined in response, are we really equating burqas with full-on nudity? Are we advocating the banning of the latter or the un-banning of the former? And for that matter, doesn’t the normal clothing of the cartoon’s devil’s advocate come across as a comparably good choice?

A point that's perhaps a little prolix, but surely inoffensive. 

Well, the reply was unequivocal: I was to stop mansplaining immediately, if you please. How very dare I?

The ugly shoving together of the words ‘man’ and ‘explaining’ is not something worth checking in the schoolyard dictionary but I assume I get the idea.

As an individual bestowed with male anatomy, sir, you have no place commenting on the relative egalitarian merits of entire body coverings and pants so skimpy they could have been made from the material cut out for the eye slits of the former.*

It didn't stop there. A barrage of insults ensued – "arrogant... blithe... ignorant... 'lololololol' (?!)... prejudiced..." – growing increasingly vitriolic to the point where I could feel the hairs on the back of my own neck bristling. The exchange mercifully broke off as my interlocutor severed our digital friendship in a rage. I sat stunned and slightly puzzled.

And anybody whose eyes have wandered down from any YouTube video to the comments below will be familiar with similarly heated – often simply nasty – comments. They have a propensity to spontaneously burst out on pretty much any online forum.

But where does this aggression come from? Where in a physical space an eyebrow might be raised – or an objection – the realm of the digital is one in which impoliteness can break out in an instant. Perhaps it's the instant nature of online social media: 'considering a point of view' jars with a medium characterised by the instant and instantly forgotten. 

Well, if social media lends itself to the knee-jerk and a mindset of 'speak-before-you-think', in doing so it silently polarizes us. In the 160 characters of a tweet, it's easier to quickly build and execute a straw man than construct a more sensible argument and then consider its merits. 

And there's another thing. Can you imagine these sort of manners around a table? It seems that our digital alter-egos are often ruder, uglier versions of ourselves. Isn't that rather sad?

The lowering of intelligent debate to playground name calling (and the inception of some truly horrible quasi-vocabulary) is a small step backwards that is already tripping up perfectly rational individuals and having them leap backwards from rational discussion, towards mutually deaf monologue.

And in doing so, it is producing in people of generally good manners and reasonable, nuanced opinions a propensity to talk—if not eventually to think—like children.


*There's an argument to be had about the rights of men to express opinions about feminism, as there is about the non-religious to opine about religious practices or expatriates to voice opinions about their host countries. I fear that's too much to go into in this post – perhaps my next.


  1. Hope that wasn't P you were debating then!

    1. Ah! No, a relativist extraordinaire and armchair expert on Islam ;)

      Pin has taken to assuming I'll see 'the light' and convert at any moment. I remain in every sense sceptical. Hope Oman is treating you well!