Anger and arrogance: why gender debates need to be less hostile and more informed

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Gender politics

We all know that the anonymity of the internet has made it a pretty hostile place, and hardly the bastion of civilised discussion.  This becomes an issue when it has become perhaps the primary arena for discussion of gender politics.  With various strains of feminism and men’s rights activists (MRAs) spewing vitriol at each other it portends a pretty bleak future for the future of the gender discussion, as it further becomes part of the political mainstream.

It has been speculated that the internet is of paramount importance to this dialogue, with some going as far as to propose that we are now seeing the Fourth Wave of feminism, which is chiefly identified by its use of the internet as a space for communication and discussion.  If the Internet is key to the future of gender politics, then a marked increase in education, civility and humility on all sides is absolutely essential if meaningful change is to occur.  Under the status quo, the arrogant hatred exchanged in chatrooms and message boards will never make it as far as policy proposals and attitude changes that can affect actual change and work towards a better social settlement for everyone, regardless of gender or perspective.

The great power of the internet is that anyone can swiftly gain an outline of knowledge on any issue, and begin to participate in a discussion of that knowledge with people all around the world.  The problem is that in the gender debate (which I will simplify as Feminists vs. Men’s Rights Activists) both sides present a kind of knowledge that tells the reader it has discovered some secret, hidden truth about the world that by finding out, they enter a kind of elite club that is so much more perceptive than the general public.  In many anti-feminist circles this is referred to as taking the ‘Red Pill,’ as in The Matrix, that removes the illusion and shows you the true nature of the world around you.  You may have uncovered how every aspect of human society is the construction of the patriarchy designed to keep you oppressed, or maybe you realised that feminism is a plot to create a society where men are subordinate and defenceless against the newly empowered women.  This special, exclusive knowledge makes people convinced that they are unassailably right, and this has the effect of making opposing opinions abhorrent, and utterly destroys any kind of introspection or self-criticism.

This absolute righteousness leads to a horrible environment of both sides both mocking and flinging the most disgusting abuse at their perceived enemies, in a way that can only be read as self-congratulatory, as there is no way that insulting someone in such a way could ever change an opinion or win them to your cause.  In parts of Reddit, someone who disagrees with you is a ‘shitlord’, and the website mensrightsactivism.com (dedicated to reposting the most controversial/offensive MRA content) has a section chronicling the ‘Greatest Shits.’  Regardless of how much you disagree with someone’s opinion, nothing is accomplished by gleefully gathering together their views to bask in how unacceptable you find them.  The smug nature of these websites is evident in how they believe that merely by posting the positions of their opponents, they reveal their wrongness, and thus have won the argument.  Granted, there are genuinely insightful and intelligent comments and blog posts out there, and occasionally civilised discussion, but these are sadly drowned out and usually short lived before descending into a shouting match.

The problems detailed so far are exacerbated by the general lack of understanding on both sides of the divide.  Posters carelessly sling around essentially academic terms like ‘privilege’, often with a poor understanding of the more nuanced meaning of the concept (I confess to lacking a full appreciation of its meaning myself).  This also applies to the more everyday notion of ‘consent’ – the idea of a consent workshop is completely laughable to someone who thinks sexual consent is always a completely obvious and clear cut issue, which is precisely why greater effective communication and effort to understand is required.  The use of vocabulary that users don’t understand leads to confusion, misrepresentations, and people unintentionally straw-manning their own side.

So we have established that people are thoroughly unpleasant to each other when discussing gender politics online.  This is a really big problem, and just one of many areas where it is vital that people are just generally more civil to each other.  Gender politics is entering the mainstream more than ever, and to have an open and honest discussion then people need to lay down their tribal banners and simply try and be nicer to each other.  So many people avoid political engagement of all kinds because they see it as essentially a hostile shouting match between two highly belligerent factions.

Gender is going to be a bigger political talking point in the future than it is today – it is highly visible in the political mainstream in universities, and most people with political inclinations have at least something to say about it.  We need to be nicer now, or else have a future policy area dominated by hatred and misunderstanding.  For simple reasons of socialisation and established gender expectations, men and women experience the world differently, so some misunderstandings are going to occur.  A bit of tolerance and willingness to listen is the only way this can be overcome.

The capacity for change is why this is more important than other discussions in which people are vile to each other on the internet.  If feminists and MRAs want their perspectives to be heard and appreciated by each other and the general public, they need to start acting in a reasonable and constructive way.  Only by doing so, can a more mature and civilised discussion of gender politics occur.

I am going to end by paraphrasing Youtube sex educator and feminist Laci Green, in saying that just because you are right, doesn’t give you the right to be a jerk to dissenting opinions.  Be nice everyone.

By Alex Lumsden