Poisoning the well of public debate

Following up on my previous post about talking points for the #MeToo backlash, I did a google search for the phrase “meet the women worried about metoo” and found two articles of interest, one rebutting talking points and another, earlier article, that was propagating them for somebody’s profit. Exploring these articles and the connections between them can lead us to insights about how propaganda happens in the twenty-first century and some potential solutions.

Poison and its rebuttal

Since it’s more pleasant reading, I’ll start with the rebuttal: “People Still Have No Idea What The #MeToo Movement Is Actually About” by Callie Byrnes, January 11th 2018.

It appeared on a site called thoughtcatalog.com, which I hadn’t heard on, so my first step was to wonder, “Okay, who’s funding this?” If I’m going to do true critical thinking I can’t simply criticize sources that challenge my own world view but must also suspect those that confirm them. To my pleasant surprise, their funding appears to come from the sale of products (such as books) rather than the pockets of the ultra-rich.

Byrne summarizes her main points here:

It’s as if people have taken the #MeToo movement and twisted it backwards and sideways and so many directions that it’s stopping them from focusing on what it really is: a movement against sexual harassment and assault. It’s not anti-men. It’s not anti-sex. It’s not Victorian or puritanic. It’s not meant to create victims on either side. It’s about stopping a problem we’ve always had but have always overlooked — and the only reason it seems like a “revolution” is because people are finally paying attention.

Nicely argued, and if I were debating #MeToo on social media, I’d do well to start with these points. But there’s another question: Why do we have to bother? Why can’t we just get on with our work rather than continually answering irrelevant questions?

I’d suggest the answer is right there in her quote, with a few tweaks (in bold and strikeout). It’s exactly as if somebody has taken #MeToo twisted it backwards and sideways and so many directions in order to focus attention away from it’s central message.

Then who is that somebody? Yesterday I pointed to the “Meet the women . . .” article, published in Spiked Online, December 19, 2017. That article was pushing the talking points anti-sex (“Real feminists don’t think sex is dirty”), Victorian victims (“Women as victims/fainting flowers”), Puritanic (“Witch hunt”), and victims on both sides (“innocent people destroyed”).

But that’s only one among many of well-funded think tank pieces, so today I’ll pick on an article published in The Federalist, “The #MeToo Movement Is DestroyingTrust Between Men And Women” by D.C. McAllister.

First, what is the Federalist and who funds it? It’s an online magazine with a tag line “Be lovers of freedom and anxious for the fray” (meaning: get involved in social media fights). It’s free and with limited advertising, which suggests funding from another source. Well, what does that mean? It’s operating under capitalism. There is a buyer, a seller, and a product. FDRLST Media is the seller, the buyer is unknown, and the product is manipulation of public opinion.

The product of this article is talking points, specifically Glittering Generalities, Destroying Trust, Demonizing Men or Masculinity, Naive Touch/ Innocent Kiss, Destroying the Rule of Law, Propagation of Fear, Totalitarianism, Policing of Sex and Love. Here are the examples:

  • Glittering Generalities (all of which are theoretically threatened): “Freedom and community flourish in a culture of trust,” “free, civil society,” “free society,” “we must have faith,” “free and happy,” “relationship freedom”
  • Destroying Trust: “breakdown of trust between the sexes,” “distrust is generated,” “environment of suspicion”
  • Demonizing Men or Masculinity: “cannot be labeled toxic, brutal, or evil,” “all men with their masculine sexuality intact are dangerous,” “become eunuchs,” “abandoning their natural sexuality”
  • Naive Touch/Innocent Kiss: “When anything from a naive touch during a photo shoot to an innocent attempt at a kiss is compared to rape”
  • Destroying the Rule of Law: “men never know when they will be presented at the court of injustice as a “sexual abuser”
  • Propagation of Fear: “when fear of the other sex becomes generalized, society simply can’t thrive,” “women assume a man’s sexuality is a threat,” “fear is generated on both sides,” “live in fear of a woman’s accusation”
  • Totalitarianism: “as was done in the past by certain totalitarian religions regarding feminine sexuality,” “political freedom breaks down,” “silenced through threats and intimidation,” “totalitarian regimes incite fear to maintain power,” “totalitarianism thrives on distrust,” “court of injustice”
  • Policing of Sex and Love: “harmless flirting is stifled,” “love is eradicated,” “sex being policed as a result of the sexual harassment with-hunt,” “in [1984], sex was severely regulated and loving relationships between men and women forbidden,” “robbing ourselves of mutual affection,” “one day we will wake up and feel the hollowness within, find that we’re alone”

These talking points are manipulating peoples’ basic values, deep insecurities, and genuine need for love. So they’re powerful and they get replicated. Like a cold virus. Replicated how much? Well, according to the traffic analysis website SimilarWeb, the Federalist gets five million visits every six months. So it’s replicated a lot.

(Replicated . . . for free. I already said there’s a buyer, a seller, and a product. There’s also unpaid, volunteer labor. All those folks who read the magazine and recycle its talking points are doing it on their own time.)

So that’s why authors like Byrne end up having to rebut such manipulative talking points: because the points come at us so hard and so fast and in such great numbers. Like a swarm of angry hornets or a cloud of mosquitoes. Or spam in our email inboxes.

Even worse: they’re coming at us from our friends and family members. People we trust. Even people who are on our side of whichever issue.

Is there an antidote?

On an individual level, the solution is to turn off social media and walk away. I know a few people who have done that. But let’s be realistic: social media is here to stay. And we need a collective solution for the problem.

What would it look like? Let’s use spam as an analogy. In the early days of the Internet, a few enterprising people learned you could make money by emailing huge numbers of people. At first the emails came in a trickle, and people read them carefully and emailed back saying “I don’t want your emails!” Eventually somebody got annoyed enough to name them, spam, after a Monty Python song. Eventually people built tools to automate it.

I don’t know if people can build tools to automate propaganda detection (it’s all about the context, the motivation of the entity spreading the phrase, etcetera) and in any case that sounds like a hazardous experiment in deliberate centralized censorship.

But we could name it, catalog it, learn to recognize it, and develop a quick and easy response. I have some ideas, which are just for starters.

On naming it: I’ve been using the term “think tank talking point” or “propaganda” but neither really work for that short, seductive, manipulative nugget of language that causes so much trouble. Maybe there is a word and I just don’t know it? Is there a linguist in the house?

On cataloging it: Somehow, seeing all the points in one list robs them of their power and makes them easy to recognize in casual use.

On developing a quick and easy response: A good response doesn’t shoot the messenger. If my friend says, “Oh, sure I support #metoo, but I don’t support policing kisses,” I could call my friend all sorts of names, or I could cuss at the Federalist and either ignore the statement or ask my friend to kindly put it in their own words.

-Kristin
ouat3-20kansas

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3 responses to “Poisoning the well of public debate

  1. None of these three answers is helpful:
    1. You’d be refusing to make a civil argument.
    2. You’d be implying that the magazine is evil without any evidence, and accusing her of being possessed by it.
    3. You’d be pretending you don’t understand the question.

    This isn’t a radical movement; it’s a rise of common sense. Like all common-sense proposals, it’s relentlessly attacked by both sides of politics. If you don’t want to write an essay about it, fine; but casting aspersions at anyone who doesn’t understand it, trying to replace it with a catechism, and concluding by specifically disrecommending reasonable discussion — makes you sound like part of the very backlash you’re criticizing.

    • Thanks for your comments. To clarify, I didn’t give three answers, I gave two bad answers in favor of the third. And no, asking for a restate isn’t the same as pretending you don’t understand.

  2. Nicely done. I like the in depth investigation you have done.

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