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The Ex Post Facto Self-Pity Gambit

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EmmaSulkowicz

This is a thing Meghan Daum wrote.  It is, as you can see, uncharacteristically silly:

It’s a striking juxtaposition, to say the least. In the news this week we’ve seen photos of hundreds of girls and young women, many of them pregnant, recently rescued from captivity and sexual slavery at the hands of Boko Haram, the militant Islamist group in Nigeria. We’ve also seen photos of young women, smiling in their robes and mortarboards on graduation day at Columbia University in New York City, helping a classmate carry her mattress to the podium as a symbol of the trauma she says she experienced from an alleged rape.

[…]

As a trending topic (and one that’s constantly sprouting subtopics), this thread of feminist discourse is compelling because it manages to be both exasperating and necessary. For every fatuous notion that ricochets around social media (mansplaining! microaggression!), the campus assault meme could also be sparking conversations worth having about gender and power, and the overall state of women in the world.

So why aren’t we having those conversations? Why is Mattress Girl generating more headlines and postings than the victims of Boko Haram? Why (other than the usual vagaries of the class divide) are so many young women ignorant of the big picture captured by the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reporting stats — that if you lived in, say, Gallup, N.M., in 2013 you were 47 times more likely to get raped than if you were enrolled at Harvard?

I generally admire Daum’s writing, but this is a real clinker.  This argument — “how can you focus on bad thing x when over there is worse thing y” — is tired, it is wrong, it is inherently conservative.  (You may remember it from such early-aughts classics as “how can you criticize Republican policies towards women when things in Saudi Arabia are so much worse?” and “how can grad students unionize when janitors in Houston have it so much worse?”)  As Katrin Higher puts it:

“Enough of Mattress Girl; what about the victims of Boko Haram?” Daum asks before we’ve even started the column’s first paragraph. OK. But why the victims of Boko Haram and not the women in Sudan, Syria, and literally every other part of the world that lives under patriarchy? What about them? Where do we stop and start, when have we had “enough”?

[…]

Perhaps President Obama stop focusing on the problems faced by the United States – you know, petty things like unemployment and police brutality — and instead go to other worse-off countries to “help”? The “it’s worse over there!” fallacy is a tactic used by conservatives, misogynists and classists alike to take the focus off of what they believe to be trivial problems in our own backyard and divert it towards more sinister problems in “scary” foreign countries – often to their own benefit, either because they literally profit from such diversions or have a stake in those things they’d like us to ignore.

In addition, it’s worth noting that it’s not only the magnitude of an injustice but one’s potential capacity to alleviate that injustice that are relevant when determining priorities. What seems more plausible — that campus activists can affect the policies governing sexual assault at their universities, or that they can affect the behavior of Boko Haram in Nigeria? (To be clear, it is entirely possible that campus activists could pursue the laudatory goal of reducing sexual assault on campus using ineffective tactics or bad policies. People should feel free to point this out if they think so. But either way, Boko Haram is beside the point, and we shouldn’t ever say that we’re sick of hearing about the problem.)

Daum’s follow-up doesn’t link to Higher’s response, but she does link to several other similar ones:

Could repeating those words exactly have prevented the furor that erupted on social media and the feminist blogosphere in the last week? My column was fodder for LAist, Salon and Feministing, and for Twitter vengeance. I was accused of being a “misogynist feminist” and of blaming college activists for the lack of attention to the victims of Boko Haram. One Twitter user told me I was “on the wrong side of history.” Another accused me of “mansplaining,” which she said she didn’t realize women were capable of (as it happens, I’ve written about that too.) Yet another spoke of “patiently waiting for Jezebel to rain hellfire” down on me.

Jezebel, in case you’re unfamiliar with it, is a popular site that began as a smart decoder of women’s media. Today it devotes much of its space to parsing and calling out any smidgen of what it perceives to be public misogyny. In fact, the preponderance of  blogospheric female wrath might, collectively, be called the Jezebel Effect.

So there is something called the “Jezebel Effect.” It is supposed to be very bad. It is apparently reflected by this case, even though as far as I can tell Jezebel has not written about the column. But, as with Hanna Rosin’s similar arguments, I’m entirely unclear what it is that I’m supposed to be upset about. Meghan Daum, generally a sharp writer, made a bad argument in a public forum. Various people in various fora online responded by explaining why it was a bad argument. (There wasn’t even a hashtag campaign!) Daum, who didn’t and shouldn’t have suffer any professional consequences, then used her platform at the LA Times to complain about it. This…is how discourse is supposed to work, right? What’s the problem here? Why are we talking about pitchforks?

Online harassment of women is a very real and very serious problem. Suey Park circa-2013 hashtag campaigns strike me as tactics of dubious efficacy even if their bad effects tend to be overstated, and I’m open to the idea that there may be cases where it has a genuinely chilling effect for little gain. But for writers with access to major platforms to use these things to try to preempt disagreement from other writers is disingenuous. Whether it’s an isolated case (as I hope and expect it will be with Daum,) or whether it’s more systematic, a high ratio of being able to dish it out and being able to take it is not a very attractive combination. When you write stuff and people pay attention, they will sometimes disagree strongly, and if you’re tempted to say that this shows that there’s Something Wrong With the Kids Online Today you probably want to rethink it.

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