We all know that political discussion on social media can be infuriating, hazardous, frustrating, a minefield, a hornet’s nest, et cetera. And we’re starting to understand how easily social media can be used to manipulate us. But here’s something we don’t know: people with money can pay to design talking points that get allies fighting among ourselves. When this happens invisibly, we have no defense. But we can learn.
Let’s start with a metaphor. A well designed talking point, or meme, is like a hand grenade. It’s thrown carelessly and it does more damage than anyone expected. Or it’s an unethical translator. A says one thing, B translates it for their own personal gain, and C loses trust in A. Or perhaps a virus. An idea that on the surface sounds so good, so exactly like the point you were going to make yourself, that you spread it everywhere. But it has a payload you weren’t expecting.
With that groundwork in place, let’s take a look at some talking points against the #metoo backlash as they appear in a site built by a P.R. firm to change the world by shaping discourse. I’m not going to link directly to their site but SourceWatch has a page for them here and the Wayback machine has generously provided a glimpse at their original intentions when they launched in 2000: “nothing less than the creation of a new language for political, social and cultural writing in the twenty-first century”.
(By the way, the page also makes mention of “fresh, non-consensual thinking.” That’s not what they meant to say, I’m sure, but I find it apt. If propaganda can shape our words, it also shapes our thinking. And when it does so invisibly, there is an element of consent that gets lost.)
Anyway, their article, “Meet the women worried about #MeToo”, gathers opinions from thirteen women on why the #metoo crowd is a bunch of weak victims who are gathered in a screaming mob to chop heads off innocent men. We could go through point by point and refute their arguments, or we could do something different for a change. We could catalog them. With no further ado:
Talking Points for the #Metoo backlash
(I found all these in that single article, by the way.)
A. Destroying REAL feminism
A1. Real feminists don’t think sex is dirty
A2. Women as victims / fainting flowers
A3. My generation kicked them in the balls
A4. Turning back the clock on sexual equality
A5. Watch your privilege!
B. Hysterical mob
B1. Mob violence
B2. Witch hunt
B5. Mass hysteria
C. That’s not really assault
C1. Confusing real assault with failed advances
C2. Trivializes real sexual violence
C3. Phantom sexual harassment
C4. You can’t touch my elbow
D2. George Orwell
D3. Bullying women to conform
E. The legal system
E1. Presumed innocent / no due process
E2. Innocent people destroyed
E3. If it’s not against the law, it’s not assault
E4. All we need to do is fix the law
“we are throwing knee-touching into the same basket as rape” – C1, C4
“sex itself seems increasingly to be seen as dirty” – A1
“destroy almost any man by a single accusation” – E1
“in need of shielding” – A2
“celebrates conformity and demonises dissent” – D3
“it was supposed to be about empowering women” – A3
“this is a witch-hunt” – B2
“return women to delicate, Victorian damsels who reach for the smelling salts if they hear a lewd joke” – A1, A2
“accused of transgressions no reasonable person would define as a crime” – E3
“even decades later” – C3
“The heads keep rolling” – B3
“A charge of creepiness is a death sentence” – E2
“ensuring that the lives of innocent people are not destroyed” – E2
“every male as a potential predator and every female as a perpetual victim” – A2
“modern feminism all but ignores the plight of the most oppressed women around the world” – A5
“turning the clock back on hard-won sexual equality” – A4
“Raise qualms and watch the insults roll” – D1
“those of us who have spent years metaphorically kicking sex pests in the balls” – A3
“bullying climate” – D3
“phantom sexual-harassment epidemics” – C3
“fainting-couch nonsense” – A2
The first step in countering think tank talking points is to find them in the first place. I found it enjoyable – with just a think tank article and a highlighter pen, I was able to take a pile of glowing propaganda and identify the core messages being pushed by the funders, thereby dismantling it until it turned into naked sludge of ugly insults. Fun.
But it would be much more fun as a shared exercise. You could do the same thing to any propaganda campaign, really. Or you could take it one step farther and identify which of the many propaganda techniques are being used. Or consider what’s deliberately left unsaid.
If we can develop a shared understanding of think-tank memes, we’ll be much better prepared to explore the important issues on our own terms. Using our own words, finding our own thoughts. That’s consensual thinking at its finest.
Some of those talking points annoy me on the grounds that they’re not mutually exclusive of some of the things feminists are trying to accomplish.
Like one of those at the Spectator, some women will say “well you should just kick the man in the balls” as if that settles the issue.
But how you deal with harassment once it’s happened is entirely different from how much harassment there actually is in the first place. That seems like a fairly simple distinction to me?
I guarantee those women who say you should just kick the guy in the balls have never actually done it themselves!
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This is a cool exercise.Definitely something I’d hope they are teaching kids in school these days. I wonder if, in the future, propaganda-detection can be automated with tools available to the masses? Or if technology will only continue to serve to make propaganda more overwhelming and effective?
Thanks, Carley. I know our kids’ school is teaching media savvy but it’s better funded than most, so hard to say. But nobody is teaching this particular exercise. As far as I know, I just made it up. I like the idea of automated propaganda-detection tools but as a science fiction writer I can see ten ways from Tuesday that could go wrong. On the other hand, we can get pretty far by applying some ethics and common sense, and even farther by doing it collectively.