Friday, December 11, 2015

Dr. Emily Grossman Doesn't Know How the Internet Works

Imagine if everyone had a button installed in the back of their neck that, when pressed, made them explode. Let's agree this would change the way we "interact", as the social scientists like to say. Now, suppose that all deaths by this means were considered "accidental" by definition. That is, if you killed someone with a knife that would be murder in the usual way, but if you, literally, pushed their button there would be no law with which to convict you of anything.

That might be a good plot for a science fiction movie or an episode of the Twilight Zone. But suppose you knew someone who actually believed that there was a button in the back of their head that could make them explode and that if you pushed it no law would hold you accountable for that act. Unless you're a total asshole, you'd probably treat that person with an exceptional amount of courtesy, at least until you were able to help their family arrange to find some competent psychiatric help.

Okay, maybe this is still just a movie pitch for a pretty far-fetched psychodrama, but suppose you heard that this person had fallen in with a group of people who also believed that the button in their neck is real and they were supporting them in the belief that anyone could kill them with complete impunity at any time. We can imagine a sort of "cult" built up around this belief. And, course, the worst people in the world, according to this cult, would be those that were trying to explain that there is no such button in anyone's neck.

Perhaps the title of my post has already given away where I'm going with this. But I have to say I was puzzled by Dr. Emily Grossman's presentation about her experiences with "online misogyny" at the Feminism in London conference in October. I am, however, encouraged by the fact that she claims to have learned something from her experiences and that it was only before all this happened that she had been "naive" about how things work on the Internet. It is possible that she has already been disabused of the feeling that a mean-spirited tweet by someone she doesn't know and who doesn't know her might harm her. Unfortunately, it's also possible that she's fallen in with people who have assured her that such a tweet is, indeed, extremely dangerous, very harmful or, as they say, "damaging".

There are lots of things I want to say about Dr. Grossman's presentation. (There may be more posts.) But the most important one is that she does not, as far as I can tell, offer even one example of an actually harmful or even threatening tweet or comment. I would have thought that if she was going to talk about how the Internet had caused her great distress for two weeks, there would have been some seriously nasty character who had been harassing her constantly, across platforms, and reaching into her real life. As far as I can tell, her "trouble with boys", let's say, could be solved quite simply by ignoring, muting and (though she doesn't offer even one example where this would have been necessary) blocking, a particularly vile and useless character.

I'm trying to use all my terms advisedly. I say that Dr. Grossman had some "trouble with boys", not just to play on Tim Hunt's ill-fated witticism, but because my approach to the Internet is to assume that if someone I don't know is talking like a twelve-year-old up all night with some buddies and a case of Red Bull then, well, that's probably what I'm dealing with. And I say "character" because, well, all of us have a selection of "game faces", "masks" or "personae" that we put on when we get online and write our tweets, comments or blog posts like this. I would encourage her to find one or two of her own instead of making the mistake of being her own damnable self all the time.

Also, although the Internet may seem a very rude place sometimes, there's all kinds of etiquette here. (Notice, please, that that's where we are right now. It's just a more polite corner of it. More arrogant, too, I'm told. But at least we're being articulate, right?) Dr. Grossman didn't think that "turn off your phone" was good advice because she wanted "to know what people were saying about" her. Well, that sort of narcissism is perfectly respectable. (I cultivate it myself sometimes.) But when dealing with "the Internet" (as a whole?) it's a good idea to distinguish what people are saying to you from what they are saying about you and what is just sort of being said around you.

There are variously subtle cues. On Twitter, I've found it depends on whether your tag appears earlier or later in the tweet, and sometimes whether it's your name or your tag. Sometimes, and this can be a little tricky, people say something ostensibly to or at you but are really just posturing in front of their friends. If you engage, you can look a bit foolish, and they'll have a good laugh. But that is really just about it. You ignore, mute or block them and go on with your day. Trolls really have no bite.

I don't deny that there are real forms of abuse on the Internet. But these are cases where people start sending emails to your employer or publish personal information about you so that actually disturbed persons, not just people who are fucking around online, can make a target of you. There is, however, as far as I know, absolutely no actual correlation between receiving a mean, or even "threatening" tweet, and an increased chance of physical bodily harm. The police have something they call a "credible" threat, and, though I'm no expert, I suspect it depends on the amount of effort and knowledge it took to actually issue it.

I know. I'm mansplaining. And Dr. Emily Grossman feels differently about this, and she feels it was a really important experience, and it told her something important about "the extent of sexism in society" or something, and what she feels is, I guess, her own business and she's entitled to feel it. I'm just trying to explain to her, and to anyone else who cares, how the Internet works and, if we learn how it works, I really do believe it can help us communicate better, man to man, woman to woman, and even across those gender lines. It's all about separating the signal from the noise.

I hope this is what Dr. Emily Grossman has learned by wasting two weeks of her life taking the Internet much more seriously than it deserves. And I hope she doesn't let her new friends tell her that I'm "gaslighting" her. Again, I hit on that word in Dr. Grossman's presentation for a reason. I didn't know what that word meant myself until I got accused of doing it in, you guessed it, the context of discussing sexism in science. I looked it up then, and as far as I can tell it is not interchangeable with "straw manning". Importantly, gaslighting is indeed psychologically destructive, but it is (fortunately?) something that only someone who is already abusing you in some other less virtual way can resort to. Straw manning, meanwhile, is perfectly possible on the Internet. That's just where someone demolishes an argument you didn't actually make. And it is, you guessed it, perfectly harmless. If that's what I've done here, she's in absolutely no danger whatsoever. I assure you.

I have a daughter ("have while she is mine") and I intend to watch Dr. Emily Grossman's presentation with her and then explain to her how the Internet actually works. Actually, I don't think it'll be necessary. She's fourteen.


Anonymous said...

As a woman in science myself, I really wish Emily Grossman would STFU. The things she's said have been far more damaging to the image of women in science than Tim Hunt has been even if one were to assume that his infamous 39 words were deadly serious. Was Tim Hunt joking or serious when he said that women cry when criticized? Doesn't really matter what he SAID when Dr. Grossman, self identified female scientist, hasn't DONE anything BUT cry since her 'debate' on the subject of Tim Hunt.

Debbie Kennett said...

I've only just got round to watching this interview and I agree with your comments. I would have liked to have been able to read more of the tweets but the images were very fuzzy but the examples that she cites are very mild compared to the abuses suffered by Tim Hunt after the false reporting. Emily did not have journalists turning up at her home and trying to rake over her private life. She has not been forced to resign from any positions.

I think it's also instructive to watch the original debate between Milo and Emily on Sky:

I'd never heard of either of them before but it seemed to me that Milo won the debate hands down. I was actually mildly offended at the way that Emily Grossman trying to stereotype nearly all women as lacking in confidence and not being able to cope with competition. It is also somewhat ironic that in the debate Emily was emphasising how important it was that people should have the ability to express the feelings, yet Tim Hunt did just that in his now infamous toast and was loudly denounced for doing so. There is a real need for a debate on such issues but I don't see how such a debate can ever happen when criticisms are interpreted as harassment and abuse.

Thomas said...

I agree with you completely, Debbie. It was interesting to watch the audience's reactions to the debate and to imagine the equal and opposite reaction that his supporters have exhibited. There's the sense in which you and I think he won the argument, but then there are all the points each scored and all the "fouls" each committed according to their own particular audiences. It's a very strange rhetorical situation.

For me the most telling moment is 16:50, when she reads a comment and then says, "I disagree," and makes an argument against it. She is experiencing something she is capable of recognizing as actual intellectual disagreement as misogynistic abuse (even when it comes from women).

Just as important was her puzzlement at being told that she would be "debating" the issue (3:40). "It's kind of obvious what there is to say, surely," she says. Underneath this whole encounter and it's aftermath is what appears to be Grossman's sincere belief that there is no room to debate her views. And what he does is, of course, to treat her views precisely as beliefs worthy of debate and discussion.

(This needs to become a post I can see.)

Anonymous said...

Following Grossman's discussion with Milo Yiannopoulos, Grossman claimed she had been on the receiving end of vile misogynistic abuse. Yiannopoulos investigated:

Debbie Kennett said...

It seems to me that the so-called abuse is used as a justification for shutting down any debate. She won't countenance any views that disagree with her own interpretation of events, even if they come from a woman. Ironically it was her failure to listen and concede that there were alternative explanations that was the driving force behind the Twitter backlash. I find her attitude very odd coming from a scientist. Scientists are trained in the scientific method which involves testing hypotheses. That requires looking for evidence to prove that you are wrong not cherry-picking evidence to support your beliefs!