Jane Austen banknote

Twitter has said it will introduce a “report abuse” button, following a cycle of rape threats, beginning with those against an activist who had successfully campaigned for a woman — Jane Austen, as it turned out — would go on the new UK 10-pound banknote. When other prominent women, including a Tory MP and journalists, protested these vile attacks and criticised Twitter for not responding to initial complaints, they too received rape threats.

The libertarian response — that we should all just put up with this — was inadequate, since it didn’t recognise the hybrid public/private space that Twitter is. You wouldn’t tolerate such threats — even if they’re intended only as discomfiting abuse — at a public meeting, or a party. On the other hand, you wouldn’t want someone making such a remark to a friend in the street to be arrested.

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Trouble is, Twitter is neither public walkway nor private party — but both. If you tweet something to your 150 followers, is it public? If you add a hashtag that puts it in a mass readership stream, is it private? If people retweet it, are you responsible for their publicising it? And so on.

That certainly suggests that the process of reporting abuse should be made easier, more straightforward, and more likely to lead to action. But is a button the right model for public speech? After all, what an “abuse” button most resembles is an emergency switch or a fire alarm — both devices designed as a response not to speech, but to an event, whose rhetorical character is nil.

An “abuse” button tends to elide the idea that an argument has to be made against the allegedly abusive speech act. Not a difficult argument to make in the case of “Dear X, I am going to rape you”, if X is an actual person, but what about a whole series of grey-area language? “Dear X, I am going to f-ck you up”? Visceral language, or abuse? Does that status change if it’s a man speaking to a man or a man speaking to a woman? And so on.

What about rape jokes, which have become what “new” racist jokes were a decade or so ago — a way for comedians to get a shock edge on competitors and a reaction out of jaded audiences? These have become the subject of a fairly major campaign about misogyny, though for years their most arch practitioners were comediennes like Joan Rivers and Sarah Silverman.

Should they be told? Probably not, but the whole point about stand-up is that it acts as a conduit for the social unconscious, a release valve for the repression we apply elsewhere. Thus, “new racism” came in at the same time as statutes on racial vilification and hate speech. As did the the new wave of vicious anti-homosexual jokes by people like Eddie Murphy.

Following that, such joking entered the everyday, with a covering of irony. First, “gay” became an acceptable synonym for “lame”, essentially repeating the idea of the “pansy” from the 1950s — the homosexual cowering in same-sex attraction from fear of the female. Bitch became a synonym for woman, even though it encoded an idea of subjection and ownership. Lately, the old sports commentator “plays like a girl” expression has become ubiquitous as an expression of a second-rate effort, or weakness — especially, it seems, in stuff intended for consumption by children, like superhero or animated stuff. As much of it seems to be written by women as by men, suggesting that the idea has become internalised, once again under the cloak of irony.

“… this stuff, with its cultural epicentre in the US, has arisen since 9/11 and then the Afghanistan/Iraq invasions, and the assertion of supremacy by a wounded West.”

In some ways this latter trope is the most insidious of all — the jokes are there because just about all we teach on the surface these days is equality and tolerance, and the Holocaust and etc, etc. Racial and sexual violence, as far as one can tell, is significantly down on what it was three or four decades ago — and because of that and its reduced acceptability, more reported, thus giving the appearance of an epidemic.

The social unconscious may be the manner by which this stuff comes to the surface, but that process doesn’t determine its content. After all, in more positive modes, a different content arises — the Victorian obsessions with the painted n-de, for example, simply erotica hiding in plain sight. This new return of the repressed comes about because our culture simultaneously affirms tolerance and equality — as the social super-ego or conscience — while expressing its identity through war and domination.

Thus this stuff, with its cultural epicentre in the US, has arisen since 9/11 and then the Afghanistan/Iraq invasions, and the assertion of supremacy by a wounded West. We essentially reprised the hypermasculine culture of the Greeks as they asserted themselves against the Persians as the inaugural event of Western civilisation, with the wars that produced philosophy their justification.

Rape, misogyny, hatred of homosexuality is a disdain for the penetrated, the occupied, grouped as one. The more fragile the sense of domination becomes, the more hysterically such disdain must be asserted. By that crazed internal logic, for such people, putting Jane Austen on a banknote absolutely demands reassertion of power by rape, all the more because she has unquestionably earned the right to be there.

Thus, the masculine body must be continuously, compulsively reasserted until every year 10 girl has a permanent sense of being second-rate at the same time as being told she can do “anything she wants!” (look at Jane Austen!). Such a culture, far more widespread than a few nasty rape remarks, has returned because an alternative idea of human power — a shared one, expressed vis difference — has yielded to identity, on the male model (a process in which centre-right liberal feminism has played some role).

The trouble is that treating such a cultural process as some form of social hygiene threat to be dispatched with a button deepens not only the process but also renders our interpretive response all the more shallow. We need more complex engagement and argument, not less, with what’s going on, and there is no button for that.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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