My 16-year-old daughter is studying art. She posted a photograph of herself holding a portrait she’d done, on some site, asking for feedback and advice on how to improve her technique (and, no doubt, hoping for praise!) The website asks you to post yourself holding your work to prove it’s yours.
Within an hour she’d received two pieces of helpful advice, two nice compliments on her work, and, from older men, over 50 sleazy comments on how attractive she was. One asked her if she’d ever considered “selling foot pics.” (Her feet aren’t even in shot!)
This has disturbed her and made her sad. She says it has “shaken her faith in human nature, a little.”
Her experience goes some way, I think, to explain the vituperative intolerance of many online activists. Most men aren’t lecherous old gits, but a number are. It’s a noticeable sub-group of male sexual behaviour. So, if my daughter attended her local art group she might occasionally meet some odious flirt more interested in her body than her artistic ability, but (hopefully) not so frequently as to dishearten her or jaundice her view of men in general. She would, I hope, still have the emotional resilience to tolerate his nonsense and remove herself from the conversation in relatively good humour.
But the internet casts its net so widely, connecting so many people, and then sieves out the silent, normal majority, because in this verbal medium, silence makes people invisible, their benign presence unfelt.
So, my daughter encounters a self-selecting collection of sleazebags from all around the world, a far higher concentration than she’d ever experience in any real-world community.
These men also feel uninhibited by their anonymity, so are willing to be even more forward, without having to fear a punch in the mouth. My daughter is unable to assess whether they are just the naïve, self-deluding and sex-starved products of patriarchal and segregated societies or whether they are truly misogynistic and threatening. It’s a deluge of grubbiness that stretches her capacity for patience.
The next time she encounters one of these morons, therefore, she’s much more likely to respond with furious antipathy, beyond what the situation requires or what is helpful in a plural society where we all need to learn to tolerate each other. Even the scumbags.
Unfortunately, Social Justice theory advocates conflict in the service of total victory, of entirely vanquishing our opponents. Any tolerance of bad behaviour is seen as complicity with that behaviour. It actually makes us misogynistic abuse-enablers, even while we are victims.
This is not only unfair, it is also exhausting: having to pick up cudgels to challenge every single flat-footed attempt at flirtation and blame yourself if you do not. Pretty much every Social Justice activist or Critical Race Theorist I’ve read has admitted to their exhaustion at the constant battling they feel required to engage in. Understandably, they blame this on their enemies, but it also testifies to the inefficiency and unsustainability of their approach.
In addition, hate-speech, intolerance, and persecution against minority groups appears to be increasing since the rise of modern, zero-tolerance Social Justice campaigns. There seems to be a direct, positive correlation between the two phenomena.
Everyone is outraged by this. They blame the corrupting power of the internet, of modern capitalist society. No one seems to be suggesting the obvious point that our own antagonistic methods have been counter-productive, that we may have got it wrong.
We can’t destroy injustice and intolerance through totally obliterating our opponents. They won’t allow it and it goes against our principles of equality, tolerance, and freedom of speech. The Far Right don’t hold these principles and so they are better at destruction than we are. By using aggression and pursuing conflict, we are confronting the Right on their terms and their home ground, using the weapons of their choosing. No wonder, then, that, while conservatives feel terribly threatened and alarmed by the protest movements, it’s always our lot, the reformers, who end up getting killed, in Charlottesville, Virginia, in Kenosha, Wisconsin, in Austin, Texas. (And The Social Justice and Critical Race theorists are still “my lot.” I’m on their side. I just think they are misguided.)
We have to live with these people, however galling it is to admit this. We will need to make compromises, negotiate.