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Mean World Syndrome, Redux

“So of course we discover that achieving Earthseed’s Destiny, despite Lauren Olamina’s dreams, hasn’t solved the problem of the human at all, only extended our confrontation with the very difficult problems that drove its development in the first place — only removed them to some other world where they can take some other form. The Destiny was essentially a hyperbolic delaying tactic, a strategy of avoidance; even achieved, it’s worthless in its own terms. The fundamental problem is still how to make a better world with such bad building blocks as human beings.”

– Gerry Canavan, on Octavia Butler’s unfinished works

They told us the Internet would become an echo chamber. They didn’t tell us how deafening the echoes would be when everyone started screaming. Like the unstoppable screech of feedback from a microphone. Lately when I open Twitter, that’s the sound I hear. It gives me stomach cramps and makes me want to give everything up and go work on a farm with no Internet connection.

The Internet has recently imploded into a discussion about the oppression and abuse of women, in technology and elsewhere. And yet we are not having a discussion. So often, most of us are just talking, in one direction, not listening, not responding. I’m not on Facebook anymore, but Twitter, and more specifically the “retweet” or re-post function on many social media, seems to be making this one-way communication worse.

The field of communications long ago identified a phenomenon known as Mean World Syndrome. It’s what happens when the news constantly emphasizes violence and crime — as it has always tended to, because that’s what holds people’s attention and sells copies of papers or advertising. You hear awful things are happening other places, over and over. It begins to seem as if these awful things are more likely to happen than they actually are. It’s why white people from majority-white communities are terrified that black people will do them violence: that’s all the news gives them to think about, when it comes to black people. It’s why homeschooling is on the rise: parents are sure school shootings happen all the time. People who develop Mean World Syndrome view the world as more dangerous than it actually is.

In the race, class, and gender work going on on Twitter and other social media, I am sure there are people who are coming to understand oppression for the first time because of tags like #YesAllWomen. And there are also people speaking out against their oppression for the first time, and feeling better for having done it. But are we also in the process of breeding a new strain of Mean World Syndrome? A particularly insidious one, where it’s not media corporations constantly exclaiming about how awful things are, but regular people? I can’t be sure we aren’t.

With our community constantly talking about incidents of mistreated women, the threat that I will be mistreated because of my gender begins to feel like a constant, daily drumbeat. I’ve been feeling this way for a few years, as the evidence on the Geek Feminism Wiki mounts, and friends exclaim about instances of harassment and exclusion which make their way into the blogosphere and news. I used to feel this way about the Hollaback Project, which is why I stopped reading women’s testimony there. It just made me angry and frustrated. It took my own sporadic bad experiences on the subway and made them daily, multiplied them a hundred times. It did not inspire me to take action, because there was not much I could do, and I didn’t want it to be my job just because I was born with two X chromosomes. (Not that I have done nothing. I’ve been known to loudly confront men I see who are touching women they’ve never met on the street or subway. Oddly, it feels like there’s less I can do when it’s me than when it’s someone else.) A friend tells me what I’m going through may be stereotype threat. The phrase comes as balm to the soul.

This anger and frustration erases details in situations I am in where the issue is far more nuanced than just gender. And it is almost always more nuanced. It is nuanced when I face not getting a job not only because I am a woman in my thirties (and nobody should ask, but I don’t plan to bear kids, thanks), but because of any number of other things about my eclectic background and societal biases against certain kinds of knowledge. It is nuanced when I organize a conference where two key organizers have been hostile to me and it’s taken on a gendered tone, but I’m aware they’re hostile to absolutely everyone they work with, male or female, and I am no exception. It is nuanced when I work in a field (open source software) that makes all sorts of draconian ideological demands on its users, but whether that is correlated with or actually causative of the 3% participation rate of women cannot be conclusively determined. It is nuanced when I fight with my boyfriend over who does chores in the house even as I know he is an ally in some of the deepest possible ways, but my deep fatigue about gender creeps in like a dark fog anyways, covering everything.

We are all the media now. The picture of the mean world we are creating in shouting about oppression is one in which harassment appears to constantly happen at conferences, in tech jobs, and on the Internet. It is rape culture that is more pervasive than actual rape culture, one where we do not distinguish between men who try their hardest to be our allies and those who tell their buddies “she’s a bitch for not putting out.”

And this is not the only mean world being created online. There are parallel mean universes. Christian mommy-blog universes in which every adult is a potential child molester. Anti-vaccination universes in which corporations sicken children with mercury, for profit. Xenophobic universes in which Obama is helping the Taliban and Mexican immigrants take over the United States. “Incel” or involuntary celibate communities like the ones where shooter Elliot Rodger hung out to complain about the women who spurned him. And I don’t get the sense that there are any travelers between these alternate dimensions, taking civil discussion between them in order to move the discussion beyond the screech of feedback.

Using Twitter to make proclamations about what is right and what’s wrong strikes me as a central contributor to this noisy establishing of a picture of the universe. I’ve taken to unfollowing anyone who routinely uses their Twitter account for declaring norms and making proclamations. Proclamations don’t help much in changing people’s minds. Most of what they’re for is declaring what is right. Sometimes they just serve to establish that you are a good person, not even for doing what’s right, but just for declaring it.

I have heard these proclamations of what’s right since I started college. I don’t need to be reminded of them. I have a feeling they never fall on ears that need to hear them, and when they do, they’re not the right medium for the message.

To have a conversation with people you care about, or people who are the problem, or the management at your job is one thing. A very useful thing. To amplify that message online, without a specific person you’re speaking to, is to pollute some already very polluted air. There are people who tweet #YesAllWomen to raise awareness. There are those who tweet to cry out their pain in sympathy to others. I think most of us who tweet for these reasons would be better served by having an interpersonal conversation with someone — almost anyone. Someone sympathetic, who can tell you you’re not alone. The person who’s causing you the problem, if possible, or others who can help you stand up to that person.

But there are certainly also people who are retweeting #YesAllWomen to communicate their position and status as “good” people who understand how oppression works and who see it around them, not to create change. This is another function of the media: to provide us totems and symbols through which we can define our identity. My students last year at Marist did this with the cable show Here Comes Honey Boo Boo: those people are terrible, they told me, unhealthy and trashy and outrageous. The unspoken message was that they, my students, were not THAT kind of people. The work of retweeting or re-posting political messages (without a concrete outcome like calling your senator) is the work of defining oneself as a good person and identifying who the bad people are. It’s basically political Pinterest.


I spent the weekend with classmates from Hampshire College (yes, privilege, I know, if you’d like to talk about that we can take it elsewhere(1)), talking this out in ways which were deeply therapeutic.

The people I was talking to are veterans of a particularly ugly couple of fights at Hampshire, in which other students tried to get them kicked out of school for speech the other students deemed offensive or hurtful — what could glibly be called “political incorrectness” if you didn’t take the hurt seriously. I will not discount the hurt caused by the things my friends said. But I also saw the campaign of harassment against the people who had said the offending things, which included physical threats as well as calls for expulsion. It was destructive, not conducive to building a better world.

So those of us who went to Hampshire are really friggin tired of the online yelling. We’ve been in this movie before. Everyone at Hampshire was working out their identity in relation to race, class, and gender issues. It was a hard and painful process both for those undoing earlier hurts and for those who were feeling hurt as they realized what they had done to other people, or what had been done in their name.

Spending the weekend with these veterans was a balm to the soul even though this was most of what we talked about. One friend feels this frustration with the tone of online conversation too. I want to drop out of this discussion, she says, but the accusation is that if you can drop out of it, it’s because you have the privilege that allows you to do so. She acknowledges what privilege she has, and is as upset about violence, discrimination, and harassment as anyone else I know. But what if I just want to go lie down for a while, because I’m tired?, she asks.

I think it is a lie that only the privileged can escape from these fights, or only the privileged want to. We all find our safe spaces where we can go. My friends who are or have been on welfare, who have been unfairly shat on by life in any number of ways, have their ways of getting out of the fight, their people to go talk to, their distractions.

Social media discussion is even more difficult to reform than mainstream media discussion: it has to be a matter of personal reformation, by all participants, which means everyone. So I’m more inclined to just drop out of social media, and find some other, less broadcast-shaped way to talk to people until this storm blows over.

What I can do is suggest alternatives to repeating the badness into the ether. More positive things to focus on.

Five People/Things That Make Me Feel Better When I’m Tired Of Stories Of Rape Culture and Harassment

Mallory Ortberg, and everything she writes. Nothing’s more therapeutic to me right now than her gleeful ability to tear into sexism and troll mansplainers with great good humor.

Ladies Against Humanity. OK, sometimes these Cards Against Humanity supplements are triggery for me in their super-timely responses to sexist shit in the media, but like Mallory Ortberg, their biting humor about this crap, and more intimate, small-scale tribulations of being female, is a relief.

Bitch Magazine, and its web presence. Bitch continues to be a civil place to discuss the nuances of gender, and a living celebration of the work of female and queer artists of all stripes.

Octavia Butler and her offspring. The great science fiction writer never had children herself, but her work is being carried on in Octavia’s Brood, a collection of sci-fi by activists of color. A recently-discovered set of her early stories will be published as an e-book this month. And of course, Janelle Monae loves her.

Kate Beaton and her work. Great moments of feminist takes on history, and on humanity and nature as a whole in her lovely recent Ducks series.


(1)Here’s my background, just so anyone who wants to call me out on privilege can do it right:
I am a straight white woman, with a doctorate, who is middle-class and was raised in a mostly middle-class, non-diverse environment. I went to private schools and colleges from when I was a kid through grad school, on scholarship the whole time (which doesn’t change my privilege, but very much helped change my perspective on it). I’ve spent my adult life working in nonprofits and educational instutitions, much of the time in the diverse communities of New York City, which taught me a lot. I’ve gone by a masculine nickname since I was seventeen, more than half my life, in part because it made navigating the online world easier and in part because I felt it fit, for reasons too complicated to go into here.

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