The Old School – Sexism, Social Media, Campus Culture, and Identities

Mostly, when I write and talk about social media, the riskiest thing I’m doing is destabilizing a few people’s dearly-held concepts about the ways in which scholarly influence operates and circulates within academia.

This past weekend, though, I had the privilege of doing something that felt much more dangerous – I talked about the culture of sexism and sexualized violence on campuses and in society at large. In a keynote, on a campus where last year’s student orientation chant about non-consensual sex hit Youtube and made national and international news. The audience, mostly from Maritime Canada higher ed institutions, were lovely. Designing the talk was terrifying.

Not because I was talking particularly outside my field: I wasn’t. I talked about it all through the lens of social media, as both a symptom of and contributor to the problem. I talked about #yesallwomen and about the UCSB shooting and Men’s Rights Activism sites and about how social media amplifies all aspects of who we are and what we think and believe, and reflects society’s power relations as much as it also actively tries to shape them. I talked about how the stories we tell ourselves about technologies are often deterministic, even scapegoating, focusing blame on gadgets rather than on ourselves. It was a culture talk, a structure talk, and a history talk, in addition to being a social media talk. I was proud of it.

And it went well, though I can’t entirely credit my carefully-crafted navigation of the semiotic landscape of gender and power. It worked in part because I didn’t actually have to introduce the topics of conversation or carry them into the arena for discussion: I followed on the heels of the very sincere and very illustrious Wayne MacKay, whose bio features his Order of Canada and the fact that he chairs committees and councils on cyberbullying and sexualized violence on campuses and is a lawyer and professor and former President of my undergraduate institution.

(My bio, on the other hand, pretty much mentions that I have a Twitter account. To thine own self be true.)

It wasn’t punching above my weight that felt dangerous. It was the in-between space of the topic: the fact that what is sayable about the reality of gendered identities and sexual politics these days is fraught and limited. The fact that – and this is at the core of everything I tried to say – they have ALWAYS been fraught and limited. The fact that as a 42 year old grown woman with a big-ass vocabulary, using the word “patriarchy” in a public conversation – online or in person – still makes me nervous. Because I don’t much enjoy being diminished and abused, full stop, and while correlation may not be causation, I tend not to stick my hand back on the stovetop after a burn.

When high-status white males lend their voices to framing these conversations, it’s easier. Their very presence does the discursive work of legitimating the topic, making it a Very Important Thing and not an attack from the margins. In the case of Saturday’s conversation, it also helped that we were addressing college and university student services professionals who live and walk the talk of diverse, inclusive campuses far more adeptly and viscerally and vigilantly than many in higher ed. But Wayne and the gentleman who opened the day also introduced terms like misogyny and rape culture to the conversation, leaving me free to deepen that conversation rather than spend my hour trying to justify having it in the first place. Their acknowledgement of sexism and sexual violence as problems within campus cultures was key.

But the very identity positions that enable white Boomer males who sit at tables of power to speak of sexism and sexual violence without being seen as accusing also allow them to reify frameworks that neutralize and distance these phenomena, whether they mean to or not. Talk of hookup culture and social media and values serves to make this a “kids these days” conversation, not a conversation about the imbalance of power and identities in our culture. It makes the problem new. It makes us – the grownups – less complicit.

Let me be very precise. This is not new…it is old school, in the most literal sense. We are simply forced – by virtue of an immersive and intrusive news culture and the rise of risk management and institutional optics – to talk about it.

I talked about this in terms of stories. Stories are the ways in which we understand who we are, and our stories of culture and technologies right now are failing to give us any tools we need to develop productive identities for the world we’re in.

I told a story about obscene phone calls. When I was nine or ten, my mother and I had a caller who harassed us for months before the threat of being traced finally got rid of him. Screen Shot 2014-06-09 at 9.32.07 PMEarly on, before my mother banned me from answering, I heard the deep, heavy breathing on the other end of the line. I suspect he said more to my mother, because I remember the sharp staccato of her voice, fearful and indignant. I knew from my friends that if we’d only had a man in the house he could’ve gotten on the line and scared the caller into going away. I decided that when I got old enough to get my own phone line I’d put it in my initials, not my name…because I was female. I also began cultivating the deepest, most rumbling voice I could. I wanted to be heard.

Of course, by the time I got old enough to have a phone line of my own, call display had largely wrecked the obscene phone call market and its capacity to assert power and create fear without actually facing personal consequences. The heavy breathers had to go underground and wait for the Internet, for underbelly pockets where they could congregate, no longer isolated, and reflect and amplify each others’ fledgling desires to exert power without consequence, to create fear in vulnerable others. The desires are not new. The technologies of our time regulate and constrain the identities we get to try on for size.

Screen Shot 2014-06-09 at 10.13.55 PM

Mount Allison women’s rugby, 1993

So do our cultural artefacts, and our frames of reference. I  told a story about the chant that scandalized Canadian higher ed last fall. I said that while I shared Wayne’s dismay at the fact that it was part of orientation in 2013, I didn’t share his shock: I knew the words. Twenty years ago, at the university where Wayne was later President, I learned that chant at a rugby game.

The student leaders interviewed last fall about the chant said they’d never really listened to the lyrics. I had. I’d heard and understood, just as I understood the rest of the songs that made up the raucous rugby identity: I just didn’t know what the hell to do with any of it, because I did not know if I could object and still belong. The rugby club was the first mixed-gender space I’d found where I did not feel diminished by the fact that I did not interact like a *lady.* Rugby didn’t take itself too seriously, and I thought I had to not take myself too seriously, either. So I sang along and I drank along and I tried to straddle the cognitive dissonance of it all, and mostly I failed and felt prudish and then tried harder. I did not even know it was supposed to be different. I did not know how to get outside it. It was called a tradition and it appeared to be the water we swam in and so I joined in and perpetuated it because I wanted that sense of belonging and I had no role models for a different discourse. And that is not new, either…but in the smallest ways it is shifting. Because peer-to-peer media don’t just de-isolate the heavy breathers, but those on the other end of the line. They allow outpourings like #yesallwomen as much as they allow forums for MRAs and PUAs. They allow those of us who work on campuses to connect and engage and try to set different frames of reference for campus identities, different examples, different discourses for belonging. They will not magically solve anything. But used well, they can be the kind of signal that enables people – male, female, whomever – to begin to be able to think about objecting, and changing traditions, without having to give up hope of belonging.

Or so I said Saturday. In the end, that talk didn’t feel nearly so risky in the delivery as I’d feared and I was heartened and for a minute I even thought, “maybe it’s not so hard to have this conversation after all.”

Then George Will popped up in The Washington Post yesterday. And I laughed at my naivete and realized this conversation has barely begun.

You’ve probably seen the article by now, deriding “the supposed campus epidemic of rape: aka “sexual assault.” Note the scare quotes. That’s the tone of the whole piece: “micro-aggressions” and “survivors” get the same contempt. The article conflates the recent trigger warning kerfuffle with an overall moral panic about how progressivism has made everyone on campuses “hypersensitive, even delusional, about victimizations.” Will asserts that victimhood is a coveted status on American campuses, one that now confers privileges.

I won’t bother to explain that it is not a privilege but a human right to assert that one is not just a sexual object, even when one is treated that way. I won’t bother to explain that when one DOES assert this right one is often treated to the very questionable privilege of being publicly excoriated and shamed by people like Will himself.

(I will bother to explain – to all of us, even the most active in peer-to-peer communications – that when the surge of people talking about structural grievances like racism and sexism and rape threats and able-ism and the right to speak from identity positions we do not happen to fully understand, share, or agree with begins to sound like victimhood as privilege, we might want to hold that judgement. Because yes, identity and power politics are messy and conflated right now. Yes, it can make some of us with actual structural privileges in the matrix of societal domination feel unfamiliarly – even unfairly – silenced in arenas we are unaccustomed to, and yes, some people will navigate these new discursive regimes in ways that are sensationalist or distasteful or whatever. This is the price of a performative public sphere. Nobody gets to be neutral).

But the privileges of victimhood are not the conversation Will is actually in. He’s in the conversation about who has the right to do what to who; the conversation about what we uphold as unwritten codes of whose bodies and actions and decisions count. This is smack in the middle of Todd Akin “legitimate rape” territory. This is about the privilege to exert power without consequence, to maintain stability in the categories of who counts as a vulnerable Other. This is an old conversation, but one we didn’t have to have publicly for a long ol’ time because respectability politics is powerful, silencing stuff and belonging has long been the price of speaking back.

So I’d like to thank George Will for prompting me to take my keynote from Saturday public. Again, let me be very precise. This issue is not new, and the only privilege here is the privilege that Will is daring us to wrest from him, in Charlton Heston “from my cold, dead hands” style. He may dismiss the #survivorprivilege hashtag that arose in response to him. But he cannot silence it. And as someone who has worked on higher ed campuses for the past fifteen years, I see that as a positive beginning.

no, dude, it’s not bigotry

We interrupt the regularly scheduled MOOCopalyse in education with this little Public Service Announcement about oppression and outrage.

WARNING: This is probably a trigger post. It’s also probably a rant, though it isn’t meant to be. It’s intended to be spoken in my nice teacher voice. Don’t mind the shaking.

Rehtaeh Parsons died on Sunday in Nova Scotia. She hanged herself. After she was raped by four of her high school classmates who shared photos which got her shunned and slutshamed but the police took ten months to even interview the accused, then concluded there was no evidence to prosecute. Anonymous took an interest today and lo and behold, the authorities are re-opening the case.

That’s the backdrop. If you haven’t heard of Rehtaeh, you should go read her dad’s words about her. Especially the ones where he points out that no, she wasn’t bullied to death…she was disappointed to death, by people she trusted. By the societal mechanisms and social contract that are supposed to protect us and seek justice on our behalf, but so often fail victims of rape and all other kinds of sexual violence and abuse of power and instead heap further shame and re-victimization on those who are vulnerable. Especially – not only, but especially – young women. Especially when “boys will be boys” kinds of attitudes are brought in to justify the kind of systemic failure that led her to believe the world wasn’t a place she could live in anymore. Especially that.

But this isn’t about Rehtaeh. It’s about the fact that to many of us – men and women – her story is all kinds of familiar. Maybe personal, maybe no. Maybe just a horror we’d like not to see happen to anyone again. But CNN’s Steubenville apologia was only last month. Amanda Todd died less than seven months ago. We’re getting the message that this isn’t going to just go away unless we DO something. But we don’t know what to do, so we talk about it.

We live in strange times. Everybody gets to have a public opinion and 700 channels to share it on and I for one welcome our new Bedlam overlords.

But there is a strain of discourse rising in the cloud that is starting to permeate a great many of the conversations I happen on. It’s the idea that women critiquing men is oppressive and equates to bigotry.

Before I get the soapbox out, let me acknowledge it’s been a bad week on Teh Internets already. We’re all het up. Everybody has opinions about Margaret Thatcher and a lot of them are ugly which may well prove the old proverb ‘you reap what you sow’ but doesn’t make for a particularly productive public conversation. Kim Jong Un is rattling his soother sabre again. And from the What Were They Thinking Files, the world’s least thought-through call to racial reconciliation EVER, offending most people with ears but getting noses out of joint in the comments sections of major magazines, too.

(Note, fellow educators: a generation of anti-racist education in North America seems to have succeeded in making the word ‘racist’ an offensive thing to call somebody, while utterly failing to actually educate a vast swath of the citizenry about what racism, um, IS.)

Then the Rehtaeh Parsons story hit the media.

And it’s heartbreaking. Women AND men (and everybody else who may not fit the tidy binary) are sad and mad and want to make change and want to talk about it.

But there’s something weird to me about these conversations. I have a son as well as a daughter and a deeply vested interest in having this whole cultural mess improve for everybody involved. But when I see the people who are most societally affected by issues of rape, sexual violence, and patriarchal power responses Talking Out Loud about some of these awful, hidden, stigmatized issues, in public, and expressing their anger and frustration, I see that as good. I see that as where change begins. Maybe.

But if, god forbid, their conversation gets emotional or dares to generalize fear and anger, even in a culture where 90% of rape victims are female and 99% of perpetrators male, there is frequently a descent into accusations of “reverse sexism” and bigotry.

To which I quote The Princess Bride: “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”

Here’s the thing about bigotry, folks.

You’re right, generalizations aren’t nice. And they do tend to make playing nicely together across differences difficult. All of us would do well to remember that. But not all conversations are about playing nice: sometimes they’re about building up enough of a chorus to cross a Rubicon and not go back, about reaching that “we’re mad as hell and we’re not gonna take it anymore” place.

I think all of us have the potential to play a productive role in conversations about equality and sexism…whatever our gender. I absolutely believe that. I want everybody in on this conversation, mad as hell.

But part of this conversation will involve being mad at patriarchy and male privilege, guys. And that doesn’t mean being mad at you personally. Unless you stand in the place of defending the whole system. Unless you insist  on seeing any generalization of yourself as bigotry.

Let me explain. Generalizations – particularly about girls and sexuality – are at the root of the unequal power relations that not only allow young women to be gang raped at parties without intervention but to be revictimized after by both peers and the refusal of the authorities – the legal authorities, even the educational authorities – to dignify her violation with real consequences.

Yes, men are also raped, both by men and by women. This is true and generally the authorities don’t deal with the situation any better (sometimes worse) because that is the problem with rape: it is being made subject to the power of another and when you are on the low side of that equation systems of power like the law are simply not designed to raise you up. For women and girls, who are already on the low side of the gender power equation in our society, rape reinforces that status with a shock. For men, it must be like waking up in the wrong body.

But it is difficult to grow up in a female body and not have the generalizations that make women disproportionately vulnerable to sexual harassment and sexual objectification and sexual assault become, at some point, personal. The generalizing dismissals of “she wanted it” and “she was asking for it”: we have heard them all our lives. We ask ourselves, surely they wouldn’t say that about me? If we are lucky, we never find out. Many of us aren’t lucky. There is a lot of hurt and fear and anger and years of being subject to generalizations that are brought to these conversations about change. And when people are hurt and scared and angry they are not always the most careful about what they say. They don’t necessarily make the conversation safe or welcoming for men.

But that is not bigotry, folks.

In any societal binary – black/white, male/female, gay/straight – there’s a group with less power. Those in that group get generalized based on stereotypes all the time. These generalizations can have damaging and hurtful effects in all aspects of life, and they get institutionalized in phrases like “boys will be boys,” which essentially says, “that’s the way it is, dearie.” That’s sexism. Racism is the institutionalized power of whiteness. Heterosexism is the institutionalized power of straightness.

Bigotry is perpetuating a stereotype that reinforces the imbalance of power.

The generalizations DO work the other way, sure. Of course black people have stereotypes about white people. These stereotypes have been and continue to be a survival mechanism. Women have them about men, for the same reasons. Sometimes, in a story like Rehtaeh’s, those get triggered and people get angry and say things about “men” as a category that are not universally applicable and are hurtful to individuals. And I don’t think that’s productive. But neither is it “reverse sexism” or  bigotry, because the institutional power is NOT on the side of those generalizations.

It is prejudice, yes. It can be really hurtful to be on the receiving end of it. Absolutely. I think it’s important for men to talk about that, and for women to hear it. But until women are an equal proportion of CEOs and judges and law enforcement officers and other powerful figures that men face when they seek a place in society and justice when wounded, then that prejudice is not systematized. It’s not bigotry. It is a reaction against years of being diminished.

I think to participate productively IN those conversations we have to recognize that society does not yet treat men & women equally and IF we happen to fall on the power side of that societal equation and we are nonetheless keen to talk about issues of gender and violence and trying to prevent other people suffering what Rehtaeh Parsons suffered and her family continues to suffer, we need to come into the conversation understanding that the generalizations of how our gender has abused our power – and by extension, other actual human beings – will and DO fall on our shoulders.

No matter how sincere or good we, personally, are.

No matter how difficult it is to hear people make sloppy, sweeping generalizations that don’t apply to us.

We cannot show that those generalizations don’t apply to us by expecting to be treated with the privilege that marks our group in the first place.

If I choose to engage in conversations about racism, the generalizations about white people that will inevitably come out in that conversation as people work through their experiences will fall on me. Because I’m white. They’ll fall on me if I choose to engage in conversations about heterosexism, because I’m a woman with a male partner and therefore that particular inequality works and has always worked to benefit me while others suffer.

If I want to show that I’m an ally, I have to own that the inequality exists and privileges me.

If people of colour talk about white people as racist and I want to participate in that conversation toward their goal of making it better, I need to show that I get what racism IS and reject that worldview. That doesn’t mean rejecting who I am or being ashamed or beating myself up. It means digging deeply until I understand where my whiteness gets me treated as an individual rather a representative of a stereotyped group, and then being open to learning more about how I can help make change. Without getting butthurt by generalized anger, or needing the people on the oppressed side of the equation to make me feel okay. Same with classism. Heterosexism. Ablism.

We can all be in all these conversations. But we need to get that there are structural inequalities that are bigger than our individual experiences of them, especially where we’ve benefited from those inequalities. And we need to be able to hear the ways in which those inequalities have hurt other people, even if the stories are ugly and make us uncomfortable and want reassurance that the ugliness isn’t our fault. Maybe it isn’t. But we can only show that by being willing to stand next to it and use it as a mirror for our own actions and then making change. In ourselves. Which will allow the generalizations, ultimately, to die.