So, this Reddit thing. (The internet’s mostly moved on from this by now, but I can still has opinions, even if it’s taken me too long to get around to expressing them.)
Reddit’s this place on the internet where people talk about stuff. I don’t really go there, so I don’t know much more about it than that, and you don’t need to. Anyway, in one bit of Reddit that’s set aside for talking about atheism, a 15-year-old girl posted a new thread about the Carl Sagan book Demon-Haunted World, an awesome primer on skepticism and critical thinking. Her “super religious” mother had bought her a copy of the book for for Christmas, and this girl posted a picture of herself holding the book up and smiling.
Which is pretty neat, as most of the internet’s atheisty bits agree. It’s a great book, which has meant a lot to a lot of people and helped them come to appreciate rationalism, and it’s great that someone young has been pleased to discover it. It’s also pretty awesome that, even though at least one of her parents is a religious believer, they’re still nurturing a healthy sense of enquiry and scientific interest in their child. Too often we hear of stories ending rather differently.
All of which was splendid, until some of the comments veered off in a different direction. Namely, the direction of how physically attractive some commenters found the girl in the picture, and how much they wanted to have sex with her.
The results ranged from banter about anal rape (“Blood is mother nature’s lubricant”) to contrived cosmology-themed double entendres (“I’d occupy her habitable zone”). There were many comments like this, and many more “upvotes” of those comments (Reddit’s system of determining which comments people find entertaining or worthwhile.)
Rebecca Watson was, it’s fair to say, particularly dismayed about this course of events, not least because the 15-year-old girl in question later posted elsewhere of her concerns that she’ll “never be taken seriously in the atheist/scientific/political/whatever community” because of her gender. Given a substantial chunk of the internet’s reaction to the girl’s attempt to interact with a community she wants to feel connected to – i.e., a number of them made references to her as a sexual being and nothing more – it’s easy to sympathise with her feelings.
Rebecca’s frustration has been shared by Hayley Stevens, Christina at WWJTD, Ed Brayton, Greta Christina, and many others. These are all writers I admire, and none of them is wrong to be concerned. Their criticism of these comments at Reddit is by no means illegitimate.
But there are some things emerging from the discussion which I don’t think are optimal.
Now, already I’m at odds with Greta’s post. Her whole point was about the tiresome inevitability of the “Yes, but” response to discussions of sexism or misogyny, in which serious problems are tacitly swept away by the reminder of some other complaint, which then takes dominance over the actual subject under discussion. For instance, when a bunch of men joke together about the hypothetical rape of a 15-year-old girl, and I come along and start complaining about the feminist response.
And to quite an extent, she’s right. It’s a truly problematic way in which people’s (often women’s) complaints are neglected, and it’s something that’s easily done inadvertently. I don’t want to do that, so I want to re-emphasise the importance, and the primacy, of the concerns raised by Rebecca and others.
There are other points, however, which I think are also worth mentioning – not to the exclusion or detriment of the points already made, but not wholly negligible either. I do believe that Greta’s condemnation of the “Yes, but” form of argument can be something of a thought-stopper, which people resort to before determining whether the purported change of subject actually does any of the things she’s concerned about.
It’s not that her concerns aren’t real and serious. And it’s a cliché that “I’m not a racist, but” is shorthand for “I’m about to say something massively racist”, so a lot of the “Yes, but” responses will inevitably amount to little more than a defense of unacceptable misogyny. But I don’t believe it’s never okay to bring up a tangential point in a “Yes, but” manner. It’s just something which merits very great care, when, say, you’re disagreeing with the people condemning those who joked about raping a 15-year-old.
None of this is more important than anyone’s original point. You should read all those posts I linked to above, and then consider this post of mine as a side note, an addendum, which neither overrides nor supplants anything that’s gone before. I want the place of my comments in the discourse to be very clear. Particularly when other people’s disagreement reads like this:
Go fuck yourself with a knife you irrational cunt.
We will continue to act as we please and you can continue to bitch and moan, but it’s just going to antagonize us.
That was genuinely directed at Greta, seemingly without irony. I don’t care how much you disagree with her point; that comment is unequivocally, totally wrong. In fact, this attitude and its ilk are the wrongest thing about any of this. You might disagree with the way someone argues her case, but if dehumanising abuse is the only response you can muster to someone’s sincere concern about misogyny in the face of rape jokes directed at a 15-year-old… well, I can’t even begin to relate to such a lack of empathy.
But here’s what I’m not supposed to say in the wake of Redditgate. All men don’t deserve to be hated because of what happened on Reddit. All atheists don’t deserve to be hated because of what happened on Reddit. Maintaining “nothing but contempt” for the “sickos” in question may blind us to the possibility of alternative approaches to something that does still need to be addressed.
The problem Greta was anticipating with facts like these isn’t that they’re untrue. It’s that they’re too often employed to supersede the original concerns about misogyny. I don’t mean for that to happen here, and you don’t have to let it. If it feels like the fundamental problem is being brushed aside, go back and read Rebecca’s and JT’s and Ed’s posts again, and consider my basic support for their concerns and frustration re-affirmed. I’m not trying to make any point so important that it overrides any of what they’re saying.
But. I reserve the right to say “but”. To suggest amendments, at an appropriate volume. Some people would do better to keep their contrary ideas to themselves, but not every tangential opinion needs to stay quiet for the sake of a proportioned discussion.
The internet will make a joke out of everything. You only need to check anyone’s Twitter feed after the news of a celebrity’s death is announced to learn that. And anal sex is by no means an exception. It’s become a cliché for comedians to refer to pedophilia to give a joke a certain shock impact, and a similar thing is going on in this Reddit thread. People are deliberately crossing bounds of good taste, and referencing memes, and making puns, and being “meta”, and doing all the things people on the internet do when they want other people on the internet to think they’re funny.
The important fact they’re missing, of course, is that they’re responding to a 15-year-old girl who didn’t ask for any of this. The possible negative impact, beyond providing their own peer group with amusement, is something they’ve reprehensibly chosen to ignore. But just labelling them all as monstrous scum is too easy a response, and ignores the more interesting questions about what makes people think saying these things is a good idea. Why, in this context, has wanting to have sex with a child become the focus of one-up-manship?
Remember, that’s what was going on there. A bunch of guys telling internet jokes on the internet, not wanting to be left out of the group by failing to break a taboo with a hilarious description of child rape. Nobody was making any serious threats to do anything to her for real. The fact that nobody was every going to physically harm anybody should have some impact on our assessment of what happened.
But, of course, it doesn’t mean there was no harm done. To clarify once again: the minor ways in which I think people have misinterpreted what went on here are not nearly as severe as the way certain Redditors missed the point, when the fact that a 15-year-old girl was reading all this stuff being said about her, and likely feeling increasingly disturbed and uncomfortable, got completely forgotten about amidst all the fun they were having. They might have known they meant no harm, but she can’t see inside the heads of random strangers on the internet, and her discomfort ought to trump whatever was motivating anyone else in that discussion.
They were just making jokes, but that’s not meant as an excuse. It’s a problem that they seemed to think the “just a joke” defense would excuse it, rather than – at the very least – deciding to save the overtly sexual humour for a more private context, where it wouldn’t have any kind of a negative impact on an innocent audience.
So. When you’re on the internet discussing things like rape, or how much you want to have sex with children, you really need to be careful to place that kind of thing in a context, and consider whether lashing out furiously when somebody protests is really something that a non-asshole would do. And although I’ve mostly used this post to take up opposition to some of the things they said, Greta, Rebecca, et al. are much less wrong about everything than people who joke about raping 15-year-olds. And far less wrong again than those people who respond to their understandable frustration with inane personal abuse.