Anger and Twitterstorms

Personal, Politics, Rambles

In Suzanne Moore’s article Seeing red: the power of female anger, she wrote of said anger, “Cherish it, for this is how the future will be made.” She also made an ill-thought off-hand quip about the body shape of a “Brazilian transexual”. This, understandably, pissed people off. Some of them protested calmly, some angrily. She dug in, exposing that there had indeed been some anti-trans* prejudices simmering away in her all along. People got more angry. It was a twitterstorm, where the updates on an issue progress faster than you can read them, where popular twitterers feel obliged to contribute their comments alongside the impassioned multitude, where the anger about the news became a print and broadcast news story itself. With powerful anger directed at her, Moore understandably didn’t find it so easy to cherish.

In the original article, Moore wrote that “Women’s rage is also never seen as what we say it is actually about. It is inchoate, unreadable and uncontrollable.” In the Guardian article about the twitterstorm she wrote that the rhetoric of intersectionality, which has been directed angrily at her, “refuses to engage with many other political discourses and becomes the old hierarchy of oppression.” In a comment on Stella Duffy’s thoughtful blog, she says that people were trying to “silence” or “bully” her, or that this might have been their effect were she not a stronger person. She wrote that trans activists were  “a vocal minority doing no favours for any kind of sisterhood”. In other words, contradicting her own article, she refused to see their anger as being about what they said it was about: how anti-trans* prejudice (often called transphobia or trans-misogyny) comes across in poorly-chosen language, and how such moments exclude trans* people from feminist struggle.

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Twitterstorms can be thrilling. I don’t just say this out of privilege: even when it is one of my identity groups that’s speaking out, even when I feel oppressed and degraded and angry, I can feel a thrill in being part of it alongside the hurt. You can type (or in my case often mistype) a strident thought and it can be retweeted far wider than you’d expected. You have a bigger audience for your anger than you usually do. You can perform it. You can feel it hitting your target with more force than in other written media available to you. I couldn’t get an angry article in a print newspaper like Moore can, but I can be part of  the much-read angry response to it. (I nearly wrote “equally-read”, but I’m not sure that’s true, much as I’d like it to be.) The thrill is the thrill of empowerment. Twitterstorms happen because disempowered people are given a kind of power by social media.

Protests can be thrilling in the same way. At their best, you feel as though your combined voices, your combined angry voices, are reaching the right ears, are having an effect. (At their worst, you feel like you’re howling into the void.) The street protest is meant to be a form of empowerment. So is the well-timed smashed window. No-one knew the strength of feeling about tuition fees until Millbank was smashed up and occupied. I defend civil disobedience, I defend direct action, I defend property damage because I think it has an emotional necessity and a strategic role.

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A few weeks ago I got involved in a twitterstorm about Scottish identity, about independence and nationalism and so forth. Alasdair Gray had written a now-infamous essay in which he described English immigrants to Scotland as either “settlers” or “colonists”. The Scotsman published an inflammatory gloss on the essay. Cue twitterstorm. Being of Scottish identity but English parentage, having lived all my life in Scotland, I was among those who took umbrage. I wrote some angry tweets. Other people wrote many more. Then I read the essay, and realised that my anger had been hasty and misplaced. There was much less to object to in it than I’d thought, and much to defend. I started contributing to a new bout of the twitterstorm defending the essay and attacking the article. I wrote some more angry tweets. In both sets of angry tweets, I think I wrote some incisive things and some silly things. I also think that this particular social media outrage was ineffective and distracting, and served mainly to whip up fear of anti-Englishness rather than progress an understanding of Scottish cultural politics. A cynic might say that this was not entirely coincidental. Anger, like any other motion, can be manipulated and channelled.

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I follow trans* issues as someone deeply engaged with LGBTQ rights and activism, and as someone who cares about my friends and allies. I am more or less cis-gendered. I do not pretend to speak for trans* experience. One thing I feel it might be useful to talk to less activist friends and readers about is how trans* rights often plays out online:

I do not spend time on 4chan, YouTube comments threads or MMORPGs. So with those likely exceptions, the most virulent, prejudiced and hate-filled stuff I’ve seen online has been on anti-trans* blogposts by people and groups calling themselves feminists. There is a brand of feminism which denies the gender identity of trans* people. The hate-graphic, prejudiced rant and transphobic exclusion is the stock-in-trade of these groups. This hatred is pervasive online as it is in meatspace. I think it is reasonable to suggest that one of the reasons Moore’s comments met with such immediate anger is that trans* activists who spend time online are very aware of how much prejudice there is online and the need to combat it there. (Not to suggest that all trans* people reacted the same  way.) I saw, in the original ill-thought line, that there might be some nastier prejudice lurking behind it. I think later comments, as documented by Stavvers (among others), may have borne that out.

One of the results of this twitterstorm is that more people have been exposed to trans* issues. The virulent arguments that take place regulary online already have got a wider hearing. I suspect the wikipedia pages for “inersectionality” and “cis-gendered” got a hike in hits. More disturbingly, transphobic hate speech has also been published more prominently, most recently in Julie Buchill’s shockingly hateful Guardian piece (trigger warning for serious hate speech). I’m not saying “it’s good that some people got angry and brought it to your attention so that you can discuss it reasonably”; I am saying “Now you know. Get angry.”

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We should not be in the business of telling marginalised and oppressed groups when they’re allowed to be angry. We should not be in the business of telling them how to conduct their political discourse. Often pleas for calm, pleas for reasonable debate and measured reactions, can seem to be doing one or both of these things. When Owen Jones called for more “reasonable” reactions over the Moore controversy, he got a Twitter tongue-lashing, and I think deservedly so.

Another problematic call is to “attack your enemies and educate your allies”. This is deployed in situations like Moore’s. The argument is that often prejudiced comments come out of ignorance, rather than out of hatred, so we need to educate our allies rather than ostracise them and fracture “the movement”. The problem with this is that there is not one movement. Not everyone is an ally who might look like one. Calls for a unified left are often, by implication, calls to leave some groups out in the cold. A feminism which does not call Moore out for her prejudiced remarks is a feminism which excludes trans* people and their allies.

People who complain about their oppression and exclusion by individuals within or the organisation of a movement are often accused of “splitting the movement”. They are not. The are actually calling for solidarity. They are demanding respect and inclusion by a movement. The splitters are those who refuse to listen – who get defensive, a particularly toxic breed of angry.

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Sometimes I’m in a place where I can’t tweet – out of signal, at work, in a meeting – and I think or find something to say in 140 characters. I make a note so that I can tweet it later. Four times out of five, when I’m back on Twitter, I no longer have any desire to make that tweet.

So much of Twitter is driven by momentary impulse. Language is cheap there. It is very hard to express complexity. Arguments are reductive. They entrench quickly, and reach understanding rarely.

“Fuck off and die” is truly horrible thing to say to someone, and that it can now be said in a public forum in response to a comment column is very strange. It could only happen where language is cheap. This does not mean that it can or should never be said. I can’t speak for someone else’s anger, and even if I could it would be fruitless to try and do so.

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Dan Savage is another media figure who’s said some really stupid and prejudiced stuff  about trans* people. (I can find no one link to distill this, so perhaps do some wide reading if you want.) He’s been subject to twitterstorms, he’s even been glitter-bombed. And I have heard him change. He is by his own admission more informed on trans* issues now, and his advice is better. I don’t know if that’s come about because of the level of anger, or because friends sat him down and explained the problems. He still says stuff now and then that I find deeply objectionable. I shout obscenities at the laptop. I hope that people are calling him out on it in person and maybe even via Twitter. I hope people are being reasoned and angry, whichever works. Maybe they both do.

I love listening to Dan Savage because he is boisterous, strident, angry, and his advice is often powerful as a result. I think we need his anger in the media, I think we need his presence. I also think that the personality – his arrogance and forthrightness – which makes him important and necessary is also likely to lead him to say stupid and objectionable things. I expect we will have to continue to call him out on them. That is, as Dan would say, the price of admission.

I do not want to sanitise Dan Savage, and I do not want to silence Suzanne Moore. I think we need voices like theirs. I also think we need angry, strident voices to call them out on their mistakes, and I am glad that Twitter provides one way to do that. I do think that Savage is an ally. I am undecided about Moore.

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I took a couple of workshops in non-violent communication. I found them useful. But I know I am not alone in feeling that sometimes saying “I hear what you are saying. I am feeling…” can be used to exercise power in exactly the same way as — can be just as violent as — “Fuck off and die.”

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If  you’ve stuck with me this far, you’ve probably got a right to ask “But what are you trying to say, Harry? What’s your conclusion?”  I’m writing in this partial, elliptical way because I don’t have one, or at least not a fixed and easily-formulated one.

I think that anger is necessary and that it is messy. I think that when someone is angry at you, you should try to listen to why they’re angry before you defend yourself. I think that the same anger that can undermine power can be used by power to undermine social struggles. I think that sometimes being angry at someone is justified and sometimes it’s not, but that the business of figuring out which is which is often a dead end. I think that it’s very hard to tell in the moment whether any given angry statement is strategic, and that that’s rarely what motivates it anyway. I think that emotional necessity is as good a reason to get angry as strategy, if not better.

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P.S. I’d better live up to my own words. I tried to write this as carefully as I can. I’m white, middle-class, and reasonably comfortable in my maleness: i.e., I carry a lot of privilege. I’ve tried not to speak for anyone else’s experience. I may have said something that pissed you off. Please tell me. I promise not to get angry about it. Probably.

5 thoughts on “Anger and Twitterstorms

  1. Thanks for this, Harry. I read it nodding in agreement and glad to read that in amongst its considered tones, there was no preaching.

    I have read Stella Duffy’s blog (amongst others around this issue), and believe it falls short in not taking into account Moore’s quite blatantly transphobic responses – their degree and what they imply about Moore’s beliefs.

    Finally, I am glad to see someone else using the (accurate) phrase ‘hate speech’ to describe the disgusting slop produced by Birchill in today’s CiF.

  2. Harry, all of this is so great. Thank you for adding this very measured voice to the debate.

    “We should not be in the business of telling marginalised and oppressed groups when they’re allowed to be angry. We should not be in the business of telling them how to conduct their political discourse. Often pleas for calm, pleas for reasonable debate and measured reactions, can seem to be doing one or both of these things.”
    THIS THIS THIS THIS THIS, in particular!

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