When free speech is expensive

This Saturday, the University of Washington College Republicans are bringing in a speaker from a right-wing group called Patriot Prayer, amidst protests by campus groups. The president of the university has warned people to stay away from the area for the entire day because the university has information that people are coming with the explicit purpose of instigating violence. Now, it also turns out, according to an article in the University of Washington’s Daily newspaper, that the College of Republicans is also suing because the University is imposing a fee of $17,000 to provide security. That is some expensive free speech!

Last year, on January 20th, when a protester was shot (by somebody who came to the university, with a gun, with the intent to use it, at an event sponsored by the College Republicans) he and his family and community paid dearly for medical costs. He almost died. This was free speech for the wealthy and powerful speaker, who wasn’t even a UW student, but expensive on many levels for everyone else.

In a free society, who should bear these costs?

Let’s suppose the College Republicans has to pay the $17,000 for security. I assume they could. But most student groups couldn’t, which in practice means they wouldn’t be allowed the same free speech rights as the College Republicans.

Something’s wrong here, not only with the situation, but also the way we’re all thinking about free speech. I have this to say to antifa activists regarding the “No Platform” strategy:  right now, it is the wrong tool for the job. More powerful and constitutionally defensible tools exist. For instance: what if every campus group demanded $17,000 for the combined costs of bringing out a speaker and paying for security? A call for “Equal Platform” — now, that would be free speech.

Above all else though . . . folks, be safe out there on Saturday.

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Could collective cognition be manipulated?

After my last post I wondered if the term “collective cognition” is already in use, and a quick Google search shows me the answer is yes. The next question: could it be manipulated? Also yes. Here are a few “teaser” sites for further exploration. But I’m going to resist the temptation to follow my curiosity because I have a backlog of writing projects . . . including novel revisions.

Since at least 2001, corporate strategists have been studying the manipulation of collective cognition. For example, here is the abstract to an article by John Mezias in the journal Long Range Planning, “Changing Collective Cognition: A Process Model for Strategic Change.”

Firms face increasing pressures to modify their strategies and adjust to rapidly changing environmental threats and opportunities. Yet strategic reorientations are difficult to achieve, especially as most methods fail to recognize the cognitive aspects of change. While some methods such as facilitated workshops have become increasingly popular to help top management teams better facilitate strategic change, these have largely evolved on the basis of successful experience rather than on an understanding of cognitive processes. This paper seeks to fill this gap, by drawing both upon theoretical literature and experience with successful change facilitation practices from Europe and the US. Its focus is on the cognitive aspects of strategic orientation and provides a practical guide to those who use this process.

In other words, when corporate leadership wants to make a change to strategic organization, this article is recommending also changing collective thought processes.

Here’s an outline of topics covered:

  1.  Introduction
  2.  From theory to practice
  3.  From the individual to the collective
  4. Changing collective cognition
  5. Problems with recognizing a need for change
  6. Problems with mobilizing change forces
  7. Problems with overcoming change barriers
  8. Unlearning, learning and cognitive reorientation
  9. The facilitated Change Workshop
  10. Summary and conclusion

But why stop with changing collective cognition within a single corporation, when the world is full of potential customers and policymakers? That’s definitely happening within the field of education. Corporately funded think tanks are pushing messages, for instance, that public schools are failing, and encouraging people to become “change agents.”

And what do you know, the manipulation of social media is indeed being studied. This from “Mnemonic convergence in social networks: the emergent properties of cognition at a collective level” by Coman, Alin, et al, published 2016 in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States.

 Here we report results on the formation of collective memories in laboratory-created communities. We manipulated conversational network structure in a series of real-time, computer-mediated interactions in fourteen 10-member communities. . . . The social-interactionist approach proposed herein points to optimal strategies for spreading information in social networks and provides a framework for measuring and forging collective memories in communities of individuals.

Apparently they built collective memories out of nothing? Well, if that capability is available, somebody’s going to use it.

And that’s quite enough dystopia for one day. I am an optimistic person, though, and I do believe there are utopian solutions that involve intentional, democratic, and compassionate attention to collective cognition.

 

-Kristin

(Picture is from Doctor Who: “The Lie of the Land,” featuring aliens who had the power to manipulate collective memory provided one person gave consent.)

doctor who lie of the land

From Doctor Who “The Lie of the Land”

Musings on collective cognition

Something I’ve been thinking about for a while is Carl Jung’s concept of a collective unconscious and the omission of a complementary term, collective consciousness. The emerging fields of AI and of rapid transmission of thoughts by social media is making the idea more and more interesting all the time.

Many people in different fields are working on the question of defining things like cognition, sentience, consciousness, and so forth, and in different fields. I haven’t studied anything deeply but I get bits and pieces now and again, like the concept that human consciousness/identity/”I” is simply an illusion made up by a vastly more complex brain. If that’s the case, then perhaps a single voice could pipe up, such as an artificial intelligence, call itself the mind of the world, and convince others that only it has the power of speech. And maybe that would be a collective consciousness.

So I think about weird things like that.

Or perhaps humanity has always had not one but many collective consciousnesses, with some dominating the conversation and others forced to remain silent. The ones on top would be, for instance, news outlets, celebrities, and respected authors.

In that case, what effect is social media having? Is another collective consciousness rising to the surface, as when people use hashtags such as #metoo and #blacklivesmatter, quickly followed by #notme and #bluelivesmatter. If so, it’s based in humanity but it’s also inhuman. It’s an emergent consciousness.

Depending on how you define consciousness (cognitive scientists disagree), this is an overreach. But maybe collective cognition is a safer and less new-age concept.

Here’s Wikipedia’s current definition of cognition: “the mental action or process of acquiring knowledge and understanding through thought, experience, and the senses”. This definition leaves out the question of “who or what is doing the thinking,” because we’ve always assumed it to be a human or other animal. Maybe it’s time to question that.

Back to the idea that maybe social media and artificial intelligence could give rise to collective consciousness, we had better be damn sure that what we are building, accidentally at the moment, serves the interests of humanity and the Earth.

Then connecting that concept to the idea “the medium is the message” — that is, if you communicated the same idea over the TV, radio, or speech, the media you used would make a much larger difference than the idea you were expressing — our social media platforms impact our collective cognition.

Connecting that idea to Facebook in particular, it just changed its algorithms for what kinds of posts get higher in our news feeds. It’s a good idea to do something, since social media encouraged fake news, which helped swing a presidential election, but there will inevitably be unexpected side effects. We need to watch them.

Now, taking that idea and putting it into a crystal ball, what is likely to happen in the near future? What kinds of positive change are likely and which impossible? Well, in the absence of a catastrophic failure of technology (could happen), there’s no going back. Social media is with us to stay.

The one thing we can  impact is who owns it.

So that’s it, a tour of my musings. Like the image I’m featuring, they turn the ways we typically view the world on its side. Hope you enjoyed the ride.

-Kristin

(Image features a sideways view of the globe.)

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Daniel R. Strebe, March 27, 2015, from Wikimedia Commons

Managing family screen time

Every parent I talk to about “screen time” is struggling with it. Managing appropriate use of screens is harder than ever and the generic advice we get isn’t catching up. For instance: how do you restrict screen time when schools expect homework to be done online? Or when kids get music through streaming? When our kids use screen time and what kind they use has a major effect on all our day-to-day routines.

In this post, rather than give the answers (which I don’t have anyway), I’ll give an unedited, disorganized view into what our family is dealing with and the strategies we’re considering. Please feel free to jump in on the comments with an “argh, me too!” or an “I found a good solution for that.”

With no further ado, we’re struggling with:

  • Getting to bed at a reasonable hour
  • Having enough “down time”
  • Making sure to take breaks even while gaming
  • Staying focused while doing homework

A big part of the solution is setting up family expectations and routines. We’re doing this, but with mixed results. It may come as a shock, but I am not a Perfect Mom. I set rules and fail to enforce them or even follow them myself. This is life.

I’m also finding myself stymied by the technology itself. Companies want my kids to be online at all hours, partly because kids’ online activity brings them advertiser revenue. So the technology is deeply manipulative. The kids end up in the middle of a tug-of-war between responsible parenting and capitalism.

I’m sure — or rather, I hope — that hardware and software tools exist that will simplify my parenting job instead of making it harder. So I’m on the hunt for them. The first part is getting specific about which problems need solving, the second part is imagining solutions that will help, and the third part is finding tools that meet my needs.

How technology is making it worse:

  • No stopping points
  • Manufacture of anxiety
  • Encouragement of addictive behavior (for financial benefit)

A side note on stopping points. . .

When I was a kid, television had advertisements–opportunities to get a snack, go to the bathroom. They were also a place a parent could step in and say, “Turn off the TV now!” Arcade video games also had stopping points. Run out of lives, and you have to put in another quarter to keep going.

It didn’t take long, though, for makers of arcade games to realize the “Put in another quarter to continue” trick. A stressed-out player who must win the Boss Battle is a great money-making opportunity.

As a parent, I have to say it’s much, much worse. Our first run-in with software that played tug-of-war with children’s attention was Webkinz. It was introduced through an after-school class offered at school. We’d say, “Time to get off!” and first there would be protests because the pet needed feeding or whatever, and then there were three minutes of mini-games you could only play upon logout.

So unfortunately, the old practice of setting a time and simply shutting off a device leads to power struggles specifically because the game player has something to lose if they don’t play for “one more minute.” And I’ll be honest, I suck at that. I know I should just set hard-core limits and let the kids figure out how to save their work from being lost, but it’s just not in my nature. So I need to automate it.

The worst offenders

For instance: Youtube autoplay. One video ends, another video chosen by youtube runs automatically.

Solutions we’re looking into:

  • Bedtime at the router level
  • Enjoyable online activities that encourage breaks
  • Software that enforces regular breaks from gaming altogether
  • For homework, a locked-down user account

Some things we need from a router:

  • Ability to schedule access for each device separately. A blanket “no screen use between these hours” won’t work for our family.
  • That access needs to be fine-grained, with different hours each day
  • That scheduled access actually has to shut off access to the Internet

Our current router has a setting to schedule access, but it is set for the same time each day. That’s not helpful. Worse, it doesn’t even shut off Internet access to the device. I think it just shuts off the ability of a computer to open new connections, but old connections work just fine.

So when I’m looking at feature lists for routers, they’ll talk about parental control and access scheduling, but it’s not easy to tell whether they’ll do what I want.

I’d also really love this:

  • Ability to shut off Internet to the house for a certain amount of time but maintain wireless connections

We currently do this by unplugging the router, which unfortunately also messes up our printer, which then has to be rebooted. (The printer is also the reason I can’t just pick a new wifi password every day, a strategy that’s often recommended. I don’t even know how to change the password on the printer!)

Online games that encourage breaks:

One of the worst offenders in our house is bonk.io. Games are quick and one morphs into another, leading to “just-a-minute-itis” and ultimately the unplugging of the modem, which, as I mentioned before, messes up our printer.

For Minecraft, some game modes are easy to break away from and others start family fights because quitting can lead to loss of hard-won inventory or worse, leave something they’ve painstakingly built open to griefing.

Personally, I found some help from a little Mah-Jongg matching game. Its moneymaking scheme is to grant the user only one life every thirty minutes, with a maximum of five lives, and to make the levels progressively harder. The point is to get users to spend money so they can keep playing but for me, this thirty-minute stop makes the game ideal for mandatory breaks.

Software that enforces regular breaks:

This is new territory for me. It seems like we want something that will interrupt the user regularly with a reminder to take a break, to fill the whole screen, but to allow for a certain number of “Not just yet!” clicks.

But another option is to have a more optional reminder, combined with software that tracks success.

Locked-down user account:

Online homework is a problem. And the older kids get, the more of it they have to do. It’s like saying, “Here kid, have a nutritious dinner of soggy green beans and liver,” and putting it down next to a bowl of M&M. It’s no good blaming the kid for eating the candy–that’s not the origin of the problem. Adults set up kids to be distracted.

So I’m thinking  about making a user account that is in “kiosk mode” to prevent switching from homework to games.

The kicker here is that often, kids need to do research on google. And google is candy.

Finding solutions under capitalism

So I have some very specific things I want, but when I go online to find them, I have to wander through a mishmash of companies that want to sell me their products. It’s like going into a hardware store in search of a screwdriver, only nobody organized the shelves, and instead of one worker dedicated to helping find you what you want, you have fifty workers wandering around with supermarket circulars. You end up leaving with a hammer.

Tools I’m looking at

I didn’t write this post to sell tools, and in fact, I can’t vouch for any of these. I found them through a pretty ineffective method, google searching. It’s just that they made the cut for further investigation.

Desktop apps (Windows-compatible)

Big list of related apps at AlternativeTo website.

Stretchly

Stretchly is a free, open-source desktop app that gives periodic reminders to take breaks. You can customize the frequency and length of breaks but not from the user interface – you have to edit a configuration file. The developer’s page, with download instructions, is here.

It looks relaxing, but since it’s on the polite end of things, it would be easy to ignore. With configuration, it could probably with extended writing sessions both for homework and for me.

Cold Turkey

Cold Turkey looks like the opposite of Stretchly. It has customizable blocking of specific apps or the whole Internet, but once you’ve scheduled blocking them, it’s nearly impossible to get it back. I think our family is too chaotic for this.

ClearFocus

This app lets you configure work sessions and breaks. You can disable distracting apps or turn off wifi. You can also get statistics on your usage. There’s a free version (with a banner ad) and a paid version.

Down side: no Windows version. Bummer!

Tomighty

It looks like a simple Pomodoro timer that’s pretty customizable. Might be a good starter choice. It’s explained at Lifehacker and is available here.

Other stuff I haven’t looked at yet, but might be promising:

  • Focus Keeper
  • Focus booster
  • PomoDoneApp
  • StretchClock Break Reminder
  • Stand Up!
  • SelfControl
  • Freedom
  • HeyFocus

Not workable for various reasons:

  • Marinara is a web-based timer that has URLs you can share. I’m thinking about this for group writing sessions – imagine if we set up a google hangout or whatever, and every certain amount of time, we stopped for chitchat.
  • Forest is an app for phones that gameifies not using your phone. Grows a beautiful forest.
  • Pomodorium also gameifies productivity by letting you spend finished pomodoros (units of time worked) on enhancing a character. That could be something to try later.
  • Push by Zapier Chrome Extension – looks really cool as an integrated task management system. That’s too big for what I want.

Next Steps

I’ll keep looking into apps and modems, but the next thing I’m going to try is simply getting a user account on one laptop that works like a “kiosk.” Windows has a mode called “Assigned Access Mode,” which allows a particular account access to only one application–in this case, Firefox. The goal here is to stop homework sessions from turning into bonk.io games.

I’ll try to come back to this in a later post and let folks know how it went.

Update 2/6/2018 – Nope, you can’t use Firefox as the “Assigned Access Mode” application, at least, not without some extreme technical knowhow. So I went for the simpler solution of setting up a user account named “school” and deleting Chrome. Baby steps. 

– Kristin

(Image features a socket wrench poised to twist a nail and a hammer ready to pound a bolt.)

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wrong tool for the job

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

Talking points for the #MeToo backlash

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

B3. Beheading

B4. Panic

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

D. Totalitarianism

D1. Censorship

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

Examples

“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

What’s Next?

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.

– Kristin

witch hunter

 

 

 

 

Watch your language . . . please?

So there’s an argument on social media somewhere. Doesn’t matter what the argument is. There are two sides to the argument, even though the issue itself may have many sides. You try to make a third point and are swarmed by angry hornets, maybe on one side or maybe on both.

Poor you! You’ve just been unfairly mobbed! It’s a witch hunt! Thought crimes! There’s no room for moderates any more!

What do you do? Retaliate, of course. Of course you do. Because on social media, you have to think fast and act fast. You take advantage of your brain’s superpower — and it is indeed a superpower — of quickly assembling meaning from a group of facts, of seeing patterns. And you respond.

But now you’re somebody else’s angry hornet.

For most folks on social media, the solution is simple: go offline, get a cup of tea, call a friend and vent, smell some flowers, or do whatever you need to do to take care of yourself. Come back later when you’re calmer, or move on to some more pleasurable activity.

But there is one group of people for whom I have a higher expectation: public writers and bloggers. You, my dearies, are the ones that upset the hornet’s nest in the first place. This isn’t a value judgement. Sometimes a situation calls for a swarm of angry hornets.

But if you are writing for the public, if you set those hornets off accidentally, that’s on you. That’s your mistake. If you’re complaining about thought police and whatnot, and you’re doing it honestly (you don’t have a hidden agenda, that is), but not looking at where you might have gone wrong, you’re only compounding the mistake.

Me? Who? Me? I didn’t do anything wrong! I was just saying what I think!

Yes, you did do something wrong. You were careless with your craft. And if someone is kind enough to point it out to you, for heaven’s sake, pay attention! Put on that thick skin that all professional writers must have, and look past the sting of the comment to what the person is really saying. Writers mess up, all the time, but if we look honestly at our mistakes we will always improve.

Now, when I say you were careless with your craft, what I mean is that you didn’t bother to get to know your audience. And that’s Rule #2 for persuasive writing. (Rule #1 is “Consider your purpose” and Rule #2 is “Consider your audience”.) No matter how good of a writer you are, you will never have a full understanding of the depth and breadth of your audience’s viewpoints and life experiences.

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So why am I saying all this right now? Is there a specific piece and writer that set me off? Yes, there were two or three or four. But rather than go into the specifics, here’s what they did wrong.

  1. A respected Second Wave feminist who actually had something important to say about #Metoo but erred in using the phrase “witch hunt.” There were no actual witches in Salem, but there are plenty of people who sexually assault and harass others. This matters because some of the people who are actively fighting to maintain the status quo, such as Gamergater types, are also using the phrase “witch hunt.” Is it fair of people to accuse you of guilt by association? No, of course not. But, as a master wordsmith, did you really intend to align yourself with Gamergaters?
  2. Same feminist who is apparently getting into arguments with millenial feminists and wrote an article to defend herself against the claim that she is a “bad feminist.” This broke Rule #2, “Consider Your Audience,” because her message will be received positively by some audiences (anybody who feels defensive about being called a “bad feminist”) and with anger by others (millenial feminists who don’t feel listened to).
  3. A writer of an ostensibly progressive paper who started her article complaining about social media is a brush fire — which is true — and callout culture is a problem — also true, but lost me in the middle when she started talking about “thought crimes.” For some reason, although George Orwell coined the phrase to attack authoritarian governments, these days it’s mostly used to shut down conversations about racism, sexism, ableism, and the like. I paused in my reading of the article to wonder, “Which side is she on, anyway?” and then, “Should I bother finding out, or do I have better things to do?”

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To go all meta, let’s look at my purpose and audience in writing this piece.

My primary purpose is to provide an alternative perspective to a problem we’re all complaining about (other people being annoying on social media) and also to advocate for craft in persuasive writing. This is a bit of a follow-up on a series I started several years back on persuasive writing for activists and have yet to finish.

So far so good. But let’s be honest: my primary audience is imaginary. I wrote it for every single author who’s ever started a pointless argument over a topic that actually needs attention, and who, when called out, takes it personally and attacks back. This is what I’d say if we were in the same room and I had their undivided attention.

So there’s also a secondary audience: every writer everywhere who has to write for an audience of human beings. My condolences.

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Keep writing, but for the sake of your craft . . . mind your language!

scoobydoogang01

-Kristin