The New Matilda debacle is about to punch into day three. It all began when New Matilda‘s editors made the very stupid decision to publish an article about the Clementine Ford argument (that I wrote about here). The article, written by Jack Kilbride, argued that it is the wrong approach to misogyny to make the misogynist feel bad about their misogyny. Instead, he argues, women need to reach out to their aggressors to make them feel like they’re in a safe environment to learn about how terrible it is to write obscenities and rape threats.
Needless to say, social media lost its shit. First was the wave of people who were disgusted that New Matilda would publish such garbage. The second wave was the misogynist trolls responding to the first wave claiming that feminists considered themselves above criticism and that they were trying to censor Kilbride.
The obvious thing to do would be for the editors to apologise for their poor judgement. It shouldn’t have been published. The decent thing to do would be to apologise. The rational thing to do. The mature thing.
Instead, New Matilda published two more articles in response to Kilbride’s in order to show that there was a ‘debate’ about whether or not he should have written his article.
Pretty much everybody knows that I’m pro-censorship. I think this shows, again, that media companies can’t be trusted to improve the quality of public debate and that they need regulation in order to protect the rest of us from their unrestrained use of social power. Instead of covering that old chestnut, I thought I’d argue a different part to the discussion.
One of the articles supporting Kilbride suggested that feminism had become too sensitive to criticism. It is often argued that feminists and various other left wing, politically correct activist groups have become censorious. Crusty old people complain that Millennials have gone wild on university campuses, shutting down all debate that does not match their ideological preferences. If you dare challenge the feminist orthodoxy, they argue, you will be punished with ‘death by a thousand cuts’ or… ahem… ‘lynched’.
Let’s pause there and revisit my favourite misandry video.
Every so often, I get tagged into a conversation about the death penalty by somebody who is genuinely interested in getting my views on a particular instance of its application. I’m in favour of the death penalty (with a bunch of qualifications), and I try to be sensitive to the fact that other people often have a really passionate view on the morality of the death penalty.
More often than not, a third party joins in the conversation and starts babbling slogans at me. No matter what I’ve said, their rebuttal is something they heard once at a high school debating competition: ‘What about the sanctity of life? The State should not murder people? Why can’t people decide whether they want to spend life in prison or opt for the death penalty?’ The conversation doesn’t go anywhere because the other person is never going to move past the slogans.
When I see some of the things said to women in response to their arguments from a feminist perspective, I realise how good I’ve got it. Where I’ll just get one or two dipshits parroting vapid rhetoric, women cop it in spades. And it’s always the same bullshit: you’re trying to censor debate, you’re not really about equality, you hate men. It usually comes from the background: ‘Wait, I know that stuff applies to other men, but what about the good men who want to be your allies? You should be nicer to me.’
I disagree with feminists quite regularly. I’m conservative, male, white, privileged… I am the omni-oppressor. The only box I don’t tick is ‘Baby Boomer’ (so I’m subject to their ageist crap), but for everything else, I’ve got my privilege card maxxed out.
I use the word ‘disagree’ here in a specialist sense. There’s the ‘disagreement’ of Killbride: I see that you have an opinion but here is my opinion that doesn’t engage with any of the content of your opinion but it does say a lot about how I expect you to behave. There’s the ‘disagreement’ of the men’s rights activists: I see that you have an opinion but I don’t want to talk about your opinion or your perspective because I’ve normalised my own experiences as neutral and that makes what you’re saying illegitimate. And then there’s my disagreement: I see that you have an opinion, so here is my understanding of your opinion and where I can’t work out where the source of our disagreement is.
Discourse requires two equally engaged and capable interlocutors being able to advance the conversation by engaging with the other. Publishing clickbait that derails the conversation by failing to engage with its content is not promoting the discourse. I’ve argued before that lots of our panel shows which discuss current affairs are really just controversy performances. Two people who are never, ever going to engage meaningfully with each other are joined by a bunch of other people who are never, ever going to engage meaningfully, and then they all say ludicrous things to drive the next three days of social media interactions. If you can’t engage meaningfully, stay out of the discourse.
Further, it requires a common language. Too often in these ‘feminazis stole my ice-cream’ responses, the language used is entirely at odds with the language of the original feminist critique. Words like ‘freedom’, ‘choice’, ‘equality’ — these all mean something very different when you’re engaging mainstream feminism, and yet they’re dropped as if they’re neutral, objective terms in response. If you can’t engage with the language, stay out of the discourse.
Finally, it’s the nature of our media landscape to publish articles like declarations. ‘Here is the opinion, let the opinion be known, may it last ten thousand glorious years.’ This means that we tend not to get dialogue in the media. People, fundamentally, don’t talk to each other about ideas anymore. But if you’re a white dude giving a hot take on what feminism should be, should do, or should cover, you are almost certainly wrong. Even when I’m going hammer and tongs after liberal feminism, I’m careful to stick in my lane and go after the ‘liberal’ bit and not the ‘feminism’ bit. If you want to tell the other side of the discourse what their argument should be, stay out of the discourse.
I’m an anxious person with a deep voice. I have a stammer, so I think carefully about what I’m going to say, but I’m a fast thinker. When I’m thinking, I think seriously, but I also enjoy getting lost in ideas and playing around with them. I’m an introverted thinker, but I often seem a lot more confident about my opinions than I really am. I get frustrated when I’m misunderstood, and I can’t get the right balance between assuming that everybody knows what I know and assuming that everybody needs an introduction to the conversation at hand. I am a monster when it comes to mansplaining. An utter monster.
My world is fairly esoteric and I spend a lot of my time around extremely intelligent women. I get extremely worried that I come across as patronising, disinterested, and aloof. Quite often, I sincerely apologise in advance for my demeanour, especially if we’re discussing something difficult or bouncing ideas around.
All of these problems are my problem. I own them. I am rightly unhappy that I have these characteristics. I am definitely no saint when it comes to the ‘Being a good citizen when engaging with feminist ideas’ stakes. The virtue ethicist in me worries about the sort of person I am when I try to engage in this space, and also draws my attention to what I’m trying to achieve when I engage: testing my own ideas, prejudices, beliefs, and intuitions against the best positions that are contrary to mine. Although I’m neither a feminist nor a ‘feminist ally’, I am keen to improve the sort of person that I am and that means being open to the critique from other perspectives.
New Matilda goofed when it presented a phony debate as serious discourse. The piece should never have been published; it was a complete error of editorial judgement.