Drama vultures: Some comments on social media

For young people, social media can be a very significant part of their social life. As Mark Brown put it, “Social media went big at the same point that austerity did. We lost our libraries, youth clubs and schools funding but we got smartphones and snapchat instead.” It has also been a means of connection for people who were technologically savvy but socially isolated. This is a surprisingly broad group, including both “geeks” (with subgroups of angry young men who have been radicalised by anti-feminism and the alt-right), those with social communication deficits (who like entirely written communication, as it means that they no longer feel excluded by the pace and non-verbal elements of real life social interactions) and people who are socially isolated because of their geography, disabilities, sexuality, gender identity, culture or more introverted personality, as well as an increasingly broad demographic who have simply discovered the convenience of social media as a means to connect with likeminded others. It can be enticing as a way to gain some social validation, either through “likes” of your content or photographs, or through a sense of belonging to a community of people with shared values or interests. And with so many different platforms, there can be many different qualities to this interaction, and functions that social media serves in people’s lives.

With niche communities, pockets of self-referencing and self-reinforcing cultural norms appear. Whether it is the sensitive niche sexualities of tumblr, or the offensive-as-possible culture on 4chan, the visual memes of imgur, the glamorous selfies of instagram, the endless stream of headlines from twitter, the business focus of linkedin, the many facets of reddit, videos on youtube, livestreaming on twitch or periscope, various blog platforms, an almost endless variety of podcasts, massive web forums on every topic imaginable, or even the comments sections of various publications, each has a different personality and norms. Some are ephemeral, with content disappearing after a certain time. Others stand as searchable archive with a long-term record of past content. Some allow people to broadcast outwards and collect followers, whilst others are focused on more reciprocal relationships. Some allow privacy restrictions that mean you can limit access to friends and family. But most have some means for others to indicate their approval or disapproval. And that means that there can be a sense of being judged or rewarded according to what you post. Sometimes this is based on the quality of the content, but it can also be based on political/group affiliation or appearance – with attractive young women who post photographs or video in particular getting a lot of attention. Some sites allow interesting or amusing content to float to the top where more people will see it, allowing particular posts to be read by remarkably large numbers of people. These can include inspiring content like non-zero days or unintentionally hilarious content like the penis dunking thread on mumsnet (mildly NSFW) that had me failing to contain my laughter during a BPS committee meeting. Some people seek out notoriety by writing controversial or entertaining content. Others who feel they don’t get enough positive attention seek out more negative peer groups, or seek attention in less functional ways. There are also less healthy pockets of social interaction on the internet. There are pro-anorexia communities, and sites that discuss and even encourage self-harm and suicide. There are bullies and trolls, and even people who fake being bullied in order to seek sympathy or justify introspective disclosures*.

One of the great advantages, and problems, with social media is the potential to be anonymous. This is a great leveller because it makes other users blind to your gender, age, race, appearance, physical ability/disability, sexuality, wealth, social class or other sources of prejudice – although many people choose to display these characteristics anyway and seek out similar people for a sense of belonging within specific online communities. However, the very anonymity and ability to create a character for yourself online can be problematic, as anybody can pretend to be anything. As well as the proverbial middle-aged lorry driver pretending to be a teenage girl, there are people pretending to be of different social demographics to infiltrate or undermine these communities. For example, many alt-right trolls attempting to fuel the gamergate conflict signed up “sock puppet” accounts as women and people of colour to pretend that their movement was more diverse or to defend them from criticism for sexism and racism. More obviously there are trolls, who use the anonymity to bully, harass and try to get a rise out of others, safe in the knowledge that social media is functionally a lawless zone, where only the very most serious of attackers, who challenge national security or make repeated overt threats towards targets in the public eye ever see any attempt at identification or prosecution.

By contrast, if you slip up on social media and say something stupid or embarrassing it can be shared with hundreds of thousands of people, your identity can be outed, and the impact can spill out into your real life in unpredictable ways leading to a roulette of inequality in which an ill-judged racist or sexist joke having more consequences than a year-long campaign of rape and death threats.  Or, you can become a target whose personal details are released on the internet (known as doxxing) by someone who dislikes your opinion or feels slighted by you, or subject to “revenge porn” where intimate photographs are published by an ex-partner without the consent of the subject. In America you can even become the target of hoax calls intending to send in an armed response team (known as swatting). And (as in many things) it is women and people of colour who always end up being disproportionately punished.

Having been on the internet since the 1990s, I’ve had an interesting personal history on social media. I was part of the eBay forums around the launch of eBay.co.uk for several years. As well as giving advice about scams and using eBay to buy and sell, there were lively off-topic discussion, running jokes and fundraising activities. But even within a seemingly diverse and healthy community of strangers there were many interesting signs of dysfunction. There were cliques and factions with marked animosity between them. There were people who claimed to be things they were not, including a “detective” and a “vet” (who was so desperate to uphold the facade she tried to get the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons to amend a register entry for a genuine vet to match her name). There was a lady who faked her own death and posted as her (supposedly bereaved) husband, but was rumbled by an astute poster spotting contradictions in her story. When I foolishly mentioned being a psychologist in a conversation that only contained four other active users, that information spread much more widely than I had expected. I started to receive disclosures and allegations, messages about distressing feelings and even what appeared to be a suicide note (with the help of moderators I alerted authorities, and the suicide was not completed) so I soon learnt to be much more private and anonymous.

On clinpsy we have also had our fair share of tea-cup sized dramas, despite having very little need to intervene as moderators compared to the large volume of members and posts. I blogged about some examples two years ago, and I can only think of two people we have banned since then (although I did block someone from registering after they were very antagonistic and inappropriate on facebook after we failed to activate their registration between 10pm one night and 4am the following morning). I did recently have the interesting experience of having someone apply to work for me who had been banned from the forum. They didn’t seem to think I’d know about that, despite the fact that they used the same email address in their application as they had when they had been banned. They withdrew their application when I said that I knew and we’d need to have a conversation about it if they wished to progress their application.

It is an interesting thing that social media crosses the boundaries of communication that we are familiar with. The written form seems somehow impersonal and emotionless compared to forms of communication that contain the non-verbals, and yet somehow emotions are conveyed and evoked. The nature of speaking to strangers who may or may not be conveying the truth, and where we know little about them except for what is posted, involves a lot of extrapolation and ambiguity. It is hard to judge the response of the audience or how far information will spread, and deceptive safe feeling that we are posting in our own homes and usually under pseudonyms, yet it can suddenly become very personal and intrusive. On the clinpsy forum we monitor usage quite closely, and have zero tolerance of personal abuse or inappropriate content. In order to avoid knee-jerk responses or being hooked into unhelpful patterns, and to help us keep on top of maintenance and development tasks on the clinpsy forum, we work as a team. We keep a log of moderator discussions, user reports of concerns and reasons for banning users in a hidden moderators area on the forum. We tend to have quite a rapid response time for removing content for moderator consideration, and quite consistent views about where to draw the line, which has made clinpsy relatively drama free.

That isn’t the case on other forums, where much more banter and jokes are let fly, and these can be quite offensive, particularly if the dominant demographic is young white men. Racism, sexism and misogyny are quite prevalent in some online communities. Many women hide their gender to avoid quips about getting back in the kitchen, or banter about rape (which can be a term used in video gaming communities to refer to trouncing another player). But in some places it can even go a step further than that. 4chan, for example, used to ask for topless photos if anyone mentioned being female with the delightful phrasing “tits or GTFO”, and provoked many young women (at least one of whom appeared to be below the age of consent) to share sexually explicit images of themselves. 4chan also had links to child pornography (although I believe that this was eventually prohibited and split off onto another forum). Reddit has subreddits for misogynist men’s rights activists, pick-up artists, and incels (men who consider themselves to be involuntarily celibate – that is, they are too unpleasant to attract consenting female partners but do not recognise this, and turn the blame onto the women instead, with extreme examples like Elliot Rogers and the man behind the recent Toronto van attack), although again some attempts at prohibition and moderation are creeping in after bad publicity following the recent school shooting.

As a female poster in some male-dominated communities it was initially quite a culture-shock, but it is good to socialise outside the same narrow bubble, and there are also very positive aspects of being part of an online community. There is a hive mind of information on every topic that means you can gain immediate and often highly skilled advice on everything from how to rewire a light fitting, or how to distinguish a wasp from a mortar bee, to which model of television has the best features within a certain price bracket, or how to complain if a parcel doesn’t arrive. The community might be a rapid source of news, or entertaining new memes. There can be reviews of films, music, events or games that lead you to try new things, and erudite discussion about politics, current affairs, history, different cultures, religion, sports, science, religion, mental health, relationships and any topic that takes your interest. There can also be mutual concern and support when things are not going well, and shared delight when people experience unexpected success. So there are definite positives. The problem is that they can come at a price, and some people are more likely to pay the price than others.

Anyone who has been part of an online community knows about how they seem to inevitably create remarkable interpersonal dramas. These are like road traffic accidents – as a neutral spectator they both repulse you and make compulsive viewing, but as a participant they have the ability to cause genuine harm. When a person starts posting erratically or there is public conflict, or even when a person or group is bullying a vulnerable member if they do so in a way that is seem as amusing, it is viewed as entertainment or public spectacle. And, like a fight in a school playground, they inevitably attract a circle of spectators who both encourage and influence the unfolding drama, both joining in to sub-conflicts in the audience, and throwing in more fuel if it seems to be petering out. I’ve been in that circle a few times for different reasons, and it isn’t a fun experience. And as it starts feeling more personal and more antagonistic emotions start showing in how you post, and that seems to fuel the aggressor to go in for the kill, and other posters to join in. Our ability to reason and to predict the way that others will interpret and react to our posts reduces, and the stakes start to feel higher, and yet it somehow becomes harder to leave the conversation whilst feeling threatened or misunderstood. So you get drawn in to the battle, trying to clarify your intended meaning, defend yourself from perceived attack, or persuade others to see your point of view. Perhaps you criticise the other person, who then becomes more antagonistic or defensive. By the time you are in the thick of things there isn’t an obvious exit without either victory or shame.

Walking away from an online community because you don’t like how you are treated feels a lot like social exclusion and can have a significant impact on your sense of self, but to stay once you have attracted negative attention can mean the slow attrition of insults and snide digs that someone once described as “death by a thousand paper cuts” (a less severe/more protracted version of the Chinese torture method death by a thousand cuts, in which it is hard to criticise any individual action as being unduly aggressive or breaking any rules). Frustratingly these can often be the kind of microaggressions that align with real life experiences reflecting the casual degradation of disempowered/minority groups. And, as ever, women and minority groups seem to be disproportionately the target for them. Even a phrase like “calm down love” is loaded with patronising layers of meaning about women being ruled by their emotions and lacking the calm logical analysis of men. It implies that caring about anything enough to show some emotion about it is already losing the battle.

There is little time for compassion or reflection online, and it is hard for an onlooker to intervene in a way that is helpful to diffuse conflict. Thus vulnerable people may end up re-victimised, and people with dysfunctional ways of relating often play these out over and over online. I can particularly recall one poster who had a distinct cycle of debate, feeling criticised, rage and then burning out to a final phase of being shamed and apologetic, trying to make amends to avoid rejection – and the community becoming increasingly intolerant of these emotional extremes. At times it felt like observing a digital version of a disorganised attachment relationship, with the forum community functioning as the inconsistent/abusive parent. It came as no surprise to read disclosures about an abusive childhood, use of crisis mental health services and a personality disorder diagnosis. But s/he was far from alone in having dysfunctional ways of relating to others online. In fact it seems that many people with such difficulties are strongly attracted to the accessibility and 24 hour nature of online communication, and can find significant support from strangers there. But it often comes at a high cost, or with significant risk, because of the prevalence of trolls and the way dramas are amplified by having an audience, and the way social media can serve as a written record of whatever unfolds that is hard to erase. There might be the right to be forgotten under GDPR, but how does this actually work in practise when comments are quoted and replied to, or captured in screenshots and posted elsewhere?

There are plenty of examples of how vulnerable people are enticed by the sense of belonging in a group, or the superficial success of social media influencers, but harmed by the messages they are given. This can range from unhealthy roles models such as the one I blogged about previously to being encouraged to harm others or given advice on how to harm themselves or commit suicide (the Daily Mail recently ran a scare piece on a “Blue Whale” game that culminates in telling children to commit suicide, though snopes felt there was little evidence to substantiate this). It would seem to me that the bigger concern is the indoctrination of larger numbers of young, socially isolated people in toxic beliefs such as alt-right ideologies, through writing that blames others for their ills. Whether it is “psychologist” Jordan B Peterson whose 12 rules for life serve as an introduction to his regressive beliefs including “enforced monogamy” in which he appears to advocate that to prevent male violence women should be allocated to partners and forced to remain monogamous to them (which is rightly being called out as sexist/stupid/victim blaming). It might have sold 1.1 million copies, and he might make £80k/month in patronage, but this isn’t a new enlightenment. Enticing simplistic sexist answers are not the cure for angry young men who feel left behind by progress, I would argue they are the very fuel that will convert them into the school shooters, rapists and perpetrators of future violence and harassment. But it is hard to offer up an alternative perspective or contradictory evidence when an angry mob descends on any divergent opinion, claiming that they are the true victims and that the sexist/racist drivel they promote is being censored by sensitive snowflakes (the new version of “its political correctness gone mad”). Ironically, these repugnant views that are allegedly suppressed/unspeakable are getting lots of airtime, whilst stifling free expression of opposing/alternative views** as progressive voices fear becoming a target of the mob.

In short, its a messy and unregulated space, and there are both interpersonal conflicts and large scale culture wars playing out in it. How to protect people in a digital age needs a lot more thought, both at the level of educating children about critical thinking and empathy, and in terms of regulation of social media, and enforcement of crimes committed via digital media. But with middle aged and older politicians doing the legislating it is hard to see how that is going to happen.

*if you find this surprising, consider the bug chasing community, who are people actively seeking HIV infection in order to gain care, sympathy and a sense of belonging
**including me, as I avoid using certain terms on social media or in the tags and category labels for this blog, as I dislike the surge of abusive/antifeminist responses they trigger

Another sad day

It is very sad news for America and the world that Donald Trump has been elected president. I view him as a dangerous fascist with regressive values about every aspect of society from gender to sexuality, race to disability and an agenda that will restrict human rights in the interest of big business and the super-wealthy. He is in it only for himself, and it is shameful that such a superficial and offensive campaign connected with people in large enough numbers to elect him. I feel nearly as sad as after the referendum, although slightly less surprised. We truly are in a post-truth era, where lies and rhetoric mean more than evidence or experience.

As Caroline Lucas put it “Today is a devastating day. On this dark day we extend the hand of friendship to people in the USA who wake up in fear – we know that you are not defined by the hatred espoused by your new president. It’s at times like this when we need to unite, learn, and resist more than ever before”.

Of course this time round many people viewed it as a choice between two candidates that were both far from ideal. I didn’t see Clinton as any worse than most politicians, and viewed her as head and shoulders more palatable than Trump, but I’d much rather have Michelle Obama as the first female POTUS than Hillary. She has much more charisma, passion and colour to her character compared to the bland establishment figure and stand-by-your-man tradition that Hillary represents. Plus I just love the way Barack looks at her, and the nature of their relationship and family. Of course I wish they’d been able to do more to push through healthcare reforms and gun control, and to close Guantanamo and stop the drone programme, but compared to anyone else in politics in my lifetime they are downright inspirational. I hope that over the next few years new leaders can rise up on both sides of the Atlantic so that we can have a better result next time round.

So why did this happen? I see a number of different factors coinciding – the impact of an increasing wealth gap, the impact of two party first-past-the-post politics, white men fearing the changing power structure in the world and a generation of right-wing media propaganda. Hopefully the Brexit vote and Trump being elected are the last death throws of white supremacism.

And what can be we do about it? We need to regroup and to learn from what is happening. I’m inclined to agree with Corbyn when he says “Trump’s election is an unmistakable rejection of a political establishment and an economic system that simply isn’t working for most people. It is one that has delivered escalating inequality and stagnating or falling living standards for the majority, both in the US and Britain”. The world we live in needs reason and critical thinking. It needs education systems which encourage integration and mutual understanding, as well as showing children the value of caring for the environment and evaluating claims based on evidence rather than opinion. We also need to actively teach and reward empathy and kindness, and seek these qualities out in our leaders too.

I’ll give Caroline Lucas the last word, “I will never believe that people are inherently closed minded, or insular, but I do believe that people, the world over, are scared and angry – and are kicking back in ways that nobody predicted… I have a message for those people who will try to stir up hatred, and fear. Where you try and divide us we will stand firmer together than ever before. Where you try and pitch our communities against each other, we will build stronger bonds between ourselves and our neighbours… This is no time to mourn – instead we must organise like never before to keep our communities cohesive and our climate safe. On this dark day we extend the hand of friendship to people in the US who wake up in fear. Solidarity is a popular word, but we have to make it mean something. It’s at times like this when we need to unite, learn, resist and hope more than ever before. Today, in whatever ways we can, let’s light a candle rather than curse the darkness”.

Not seeing the wood for the trees: A blog on progress and setbacks

After 3 days of feeling overwhelmed with depression about the referendum result and rise of racism, to the point of being immobilised and pessimistic about the future, I went out for a walk in the sunshine this afternoon.
 
I looked at the trees that have grown for much longer than I’ve been alive, and will still be growing long after I am gone. I noticed the way that rivers travel through the landscape making imperceptible changes that can cut through stone over time. And I thought about how evolution means that current species of plants, birds, animals and insects can make better use of their environment than their predecessors.
 
It made me think how much progress there has been in the last century in terms of human society across the world. We’ve made massive steps forward in science. We’ve cured diseases and developed more effective treatments and means of prevention. World poverty has reduced, infant mortality has fallen, and life expectancy has increased. We’ve seen the world from space, and started to map the universe and the genome. We’ve become a more secular society. War and violence are reducing enormously over time. Our tolerance of prejudice has reduced massively. Human rights have been championed in more and more countries. Gay marriage is now enshrined in law in most western democratic nations. We are more aware of finite energy resources and more mindful of the environment. Through increasing internet connectivity, many more people have access to information than ever before.
 
I realised that by the time our kids are adults the world will be very different to how it is now. They have grown up in a different age, with more awareness of the environment, greater opportunities for travel, and much wider access to information than any generation before them. They are world citizens, born into an age of technology and opportunity. I hope they will build a kinder and more tolerant society because of that.
 
It is easy to focus on the depressing headlines in the news, and the latest murders or racist incidents – but they make the news because they aren’t everyday events that we turn a blind eye to. We might have just taken a massive step backwards in the UK, but progress marches onwards, and despite all the skirmishes and set-backs, good triumphs in the end.
 
I believe the UK is mostly full of decent people who care about each other. Sure, much of the British media is full of poisonous propaganda, that blames the vulnerable rather than letting us look upwards at the wealthy and powerful who are siphoning off our rights and resources for their personal gain. And yes, the ideological choice of austerity has increased the wealth gap and made many people feel they had little to lose. And yes, a lot of people feel disenfranchised and were so used to being ignored that they voted for change without knowing what the change would mean. But I think the proportion of people who are genuinely racist and hateful is smaller than it appears. And the rest of us want to find a peaceful, progressive way forward.
So we need to stop being overwhelmed, stop the collective messages reinforcing our learned helplessness, and put our heads together and push for the most positive outcome possible. We need to all engage in the political process. Let us stop mourning the loss of the country we had and work together for a better one.

Some thoughts on causing offence: 2 Trigger Warnings

The idea of cultural appropriation being offensive (which I discussed in part one of this blog entry) seems to go hand in hand with other recent social movements towards being more aware of the emotional well-being of others. This includes the use of social media to document the pervasiveness of small everyday actions that are a cumulative indication of how pervasive some prejudices are in society. The everyday sexism project has highlighted examples of how women’s daily experiences differ from men’s because of their gender, and there are similar projects to highlight the pervasiveness of racism. These small and often individually minor experiences, particularly in the context of race, are being termed “microaggressions” to denote the harm they cause when considered across a lifetime. I think these projects are helpful because, like the short films ‘Homoworld‘  and ‘Oppressed Majority‘, they humanise concepts that might otherwise be hard to explain, and show the massive quantity of incidents that might each in isolation seem too petty to raise. Without such examples or dramatisations it can be very hard to put ourselves into the perspective of another and to realise that their everyday experience is different to your own. And awareness is the first step towards behaviour change.

This change is happening at both the individual and organisational level. There is an increasing perception that organisations such as businesses, universities, public services and broadcasters having some responsibility for the impact of their content on customers, employees, students or their audience. This means being more aware of how the meaning of various content can impact differently on different people according to their experiences. This includes the use of ‘trigger warnings’ to orient readers/viewers/listeners about the aspects of the content that will follow that may resonate for them in negative ways. This could include mention of rape/sexual assault, violence, trauma, child abuse, racism, hate crimes or other forms of prejudice. The intent is to ensure that any person in the audience who has had traumatic experiences in their past is not re-traumatised by unintended exposure similar material without the option to prepare or opt out of that experience.

Although widely mocked, I think trigger warnings are quite sensible in principle. They aren’t there to molly coddle the delicate sensibilities of a whole generation of students (or social justice warriors) that don’t like being challenged, they are there to protect the small percentage of the population that have had traumatic experiences from post-traumatic symptoms. When I hear people on social media bragging about how they intend to trigger others, it seems like they lack either insight into what this means, basic human empathy, or both.

A trigger is a very specific word for what happens in the brain of people who have experienced serious trauma – normally experiences they have perceived as life-threatening – where the brain becomes sensitised to threat. When similar sensory stimuli to those associated with the event are detected, the amygdala goes into overdrive, and will put the person into a state of high physiological arousal (readiness for fight or flight) and make it harder for them to use brain functions apart from those associated with survival. Because the brain does not encode memories in narrative form very effectively during survival situations (due to much reduced activity in the prefrontal cortex) these sensory links often activate sensory memory fragments from the trauma, causing flashbacks and high levels of distress. This means that certain triggers can cause them to re-experience their trauma later on in their lives. Just as a war veteran might get flashbacks or nightmares about their war experiences, so people who have been seriously abused, raped or tortured experience unwanted intrusive images and memories of what they have been through when they see, hear or feel something similar to something they experienced during the trauma.

This isn’t something that has been made up, or reflects certain people being “sensitive flowers” either innately or by choice. It is a scientifically evidenced change to the brain after trauma. Intrusive images or thoughts, including re-experiencing of trauma is one of the diagnostic features of PTSD, and it is well established that certain experiences trigger these flashbacks. MRI scanners show the limbic brain (eg the amygdala) lighting up faster and brighter to threat signals that would not be perceived as threatening by others without the trauma, and the resulting decreased activity in the prefrontal cortex. Neurochemical analysis (eg from swab tests) have shown that this has a significant effect on the person’s neurochemistry and chemical messengers (like adrenalin and cortisol) are released that prepare the body for fight or flight. In short, this is a serious and well-documented physical response to serious trauma that I have blogged about previously. I’ve worked with lots of traumatised and/or abused children and adults and it is a really horrible thing to go though. It seems like a double dose of adversity for those whose abuse/trauma continues to echo through their life months or years later. It is not something to make light of or mock, and only a truly repugnant person would do so.

But being thoughtful about the impact of content on others, and orienting the audience about what is going to be covered, does not have to equal censorship. We should still talk about the tough stuff, study it, make art about it and even sometimes joke about it. It often makes for the most interesting debates, and it is through engagement with these complex and challenging issues that people learn to analyse the motivation of the writer/speaker and to appraise the context as well as the content of what is said.

As uncomfortable as it can be when people use it to say annoying, idiotic and offensive things, I am a believer in free speech. I don’t think being offended is a reason to silence someone. It is a reason to reply so that others are not persuaded by them, to ignore them, or to deny them their audience (because free speech doesn’t entitle you to a platform, and any website, venue or business can decide not to welcome/endorse somebody). But it isn’t a reason to stop them saying their piece, unless it incites violence or racial hatred and is therefore against the law. As hateful and bigoted as Donald Trump is, for example, the answer to the awful things he says is not to ban him from the UK, it is ignore him and deny him the oxygen of publicity, or simply to laugh at him. Mock his ignorance. Share your disgust. Highlight how hateful and harmful his ideas are, and how he has not earned the right to lead by showing any personal qualities that are admirable. Ensure that he faces legal consequences if he oversteps and breaks the law by inciting racial hatred whilst in the UK. But don’t censor him and allow him to take the role of being oppressed, as it would be counter-productive.

Even President Obama has weighed in to say “Anybody who comes to speak to you and you disagree with, you should have an argument with them. But you shouldn’t silence them by saying, ‘You can’t come because I’m too sensitive to hear what you have to say.’ That’s not the way we learn.” I’m inclined to agree. We are all responsible for this conversation, and in the therapy professions, genuine empathy has to include acknowledging the difference between the client’s perspective (or a colleague’s) and your own.

 

Some thoughts on causing offence: 1 Cultural Appropriation

Cultural appropriation” seems to be something increasingly causing debate, especially in the USA, and reading about all the new terminology and topics of debate, I feel like I’m playing catch up. There are certainly some pretty extreme emotions being raised by some of the incidents (eg a student screaming at an academic whose wife sent an email expressing that the restrictions around halloween costumes recommended by the intercultural affairs committee might be excessive). It seems to have hooked into the fraught racial tensions in the USA, and a broader debate about whether to protect people from offence versus being able to speak freely and discuss any topic.

Cultural appropriation is the term used when people dress up/make up to look as if they are from a different culture or ethnic group. It is particularly controversial when white people impersonate or borrow from minority ethnic cultures. It seems to be an increasingly widely used term. The perception of it being inappropriate to stereotype racial groups by borrowing from their culture has spread much more widely from it being taboo to use ‘black face’ makeup into examples that have until recently been considered to be more acceptable, like a pop star wearing an outfit referencing a particular country or culture. Some people find this highly offensive, and feel it is appropriate to publicly shame anyone involved in doing this. The gist of this viewpoint is that people who have not experienced the oppression of being in the less powerful group should not be able to cherry pick and borrow the superficial bits they like of exotic cultures, especially when these same cultural traits have been disparaged within western cultures by the dominant white narrative.

As a fairly privileged white British woman who hasn’t experienced this first hand (despite being a second generation immigrant and having high levels of prejudice and persecution associated with my cultural heritage), it is sometimes hard to see why the reactions are so extreme. However, I understand from what I have read that for people who have been shamed for their culture and forced to conform with white norms, the adoption of non-white symbols or traits as a mark of difference or rebellion by white people is a reminder of that oppression. It is notable that it has a different meaning to those observers than the positive interpretation that is typically intended by the person involved, or that which is construed by other white people (who may not hold the same negative associations). Sometimes people can be absolutely blind to stereotyped imagery that they do not have personal associations with (see this example regarding racial imagery in a video game).

However, there is now a backlash saying that these complaints are part of a whiny politically correct subculture that enjoys being offended, and takes offence on behalf of others as part of a progressive agenda. More regressive voices like to scathingly label this as a desire for social justice, as if this would be a bad thing. See the comments on any article on this topic published online for plenty of examples.

So let me start by saying that I absolutely see the core legitimate grievance within the wider label of cultural appropriation. I can completely see that having white people ‘black up’ or ‘red face‘ is racist and would be offensive to people of colour, and that using cultural or religious artifacts when stripped of their meaning or commercialised (eg feathered head dresses, or the Hindu bindi) is controversial and could be considered to be in pretty poor taste. I also acknowledge that these appearances often go hand in hand with other elements to the role that make it more racist (such as using stereotyped accents or behaviours). I think it is right that overtly racist caricatures like ‘golliwog’ logos and toys, or racist scenes in early cartoons are relegated to the history books. Similarly, the use of logos and names that stereotype native Americans by sports teams in the USA has persisted for far too long. However, I can’t help but feel that the issue of cultural appropriation isn’t as clear cut as some people make out. It seems to me that the rules being made to restrict the risk of offence over culture (eg in American universities) are becoming as much of a problem as the issues they seek to address, and obscuring the very genuine issues of race inequality that lie underneath.

So are Halloween costumes on campus really oppressing people from minority groups? Is it really of concern if someone morphs her own white face to represent endangered African tribes? Or if white models get braided corn-rows? Are musicians like Madonna, Selina Gomez, Iggy Azalea and Beyonce really being “disrespectful” when dressing with elements of Indian costumes, such as wearing a bindi, sari or facial jewellery, or when Katie Perry wears a Geisha-like outfit, or Lady Gaga references a burqa? Is Miley Cyrus twerking disrespectful to working class black women?

If these examples are offensive, how far do we take this? What of actors who play people with different nationalities, religions or accents within a particular skin-tone? What about able bodied or neurotypical actors taking on roles of characters with physical, developmental or learning disabilities? What about actors who have not experienced mental health problems playing characters experiencing them in films/TV? Can musicians/artists only draw on influences within their own country/ethnicity/experience? Can writers only create characters of their own ethnic background? Can art or media not be provocative or controversial any more? Can I not cook curry or sushi or chow mein? The slippery slope could continue ad absurdum.

Surely, several issues are being confounded here. Firstly that there are many areas in which there is very little diversity of representation. For example, we clearly need more ethnic and gender diversity in business leaders and politicians in this country, as most of them remain white men. We also need more varied faces, accents and perspectives in the media, and as role models across the board. We need more diversity in the people who win awards (all white oscar nominations two years running is ridiculous, for example) and we need more diversity in those making decisions. Secondly, we can’t compensate for this lack of diversity by putting yet more of the same group into costume to represent others, and doing so would disrespect the lived experience of those being represented. There is a real need for representation and not just for increased mindfulness from those in power.

I’ve sat on a committee in which we have tried to ‘hold in mind issues of race, age, gender, religion, culture, sexuality, disability and other aspects of diversity’ but I don’t think it was possible when very few of those characteristics varied much within the group, and those which did vary were not much spoken about. The focus tends to be on what the group have in common, and each individual might feel unworthy of their status (particularly if they feel they don’t fit in as well, or are there because of a particular minority status), and that makes it much harder to highlight times when a devalued characteristic of an individual might be relevant. For example, in a mostly male boardroom, women tend to take on more traditionally masculine forms of discourse, and to feel less able to express emotions or feminine characteristics or needs. So, it seems likely that it is even harder to speak up about other aspects of diversity. It felt brave yet somehow risky for Crispin Blunt MP to talk about his use of poppers and how banning this would be criminalising a substance used widely by gay men. However, this is more the exception than the rule. Diverse voices tend to be marginalised and to find it hard to reach a platform, and this is something that needs to change. And that change needs to start right from the top. Having a minister for equality who voted against gay marriage is patently ridiculous, for example, yet we have had two in a row, neither of whom have any more experience of inequality than their privileged example of being female.

To go back to cultural appropriation more specifically, I’m not sure it is the action or costume in isolation that is the problem. I suspect that the context has a lot to do with the derived meaning. If actors and public figures were more varied and included people with physical disabilities, learning difficulties and mental health problems, a variety of religions and cultures, diverse ethnicities, all sexualities, genders, ages and body shapes, then everybody would feel represented and emotions would not be so heightened. If musicians, celebrities and scholars gaining funding and media coverage were more diverse, then the cliched references to other cultures would have much less power. Similarly, if the fashion industry routinely used models with a variety of skin tones for all campaigns, and treated their sources of inspiration more respectfully, then the hairstyles of models used to showcase collections with international influences would be much less problematic. If people from different perspectives had similar levels of power, then speaking up to criticise someone from a majority group would not be so difficult do or as easy for critics to attribute to sour grapes. But attitudes and power structures take a long time to change, and can be very resistant to progress, particularly where this threatens the status quo. The difficulty is therefore twofold – how we move towards the bigger goal, and what we do to manage the problems that will continue to appear until we get there.

Broadly I think we should allow people to express themselves, but also encourage thoughtfulness and conversations that challenge people’s preconceived ideas. Dressing up is usually playful, and done for fun rather than to make a statement. Sometimes, being a little ‘edgy’ is part of that fun. I would hope that a certain degree of role play allows us both flights of imagination and greater empathy. It would be a great shame if children couldn’t dress up as anyone outside of their own cultural group in play, for example, or if fancy dress costumes were similarly restricted. However, we should also be open to learning from other’s experience. So if a costume is culturally insensitive or causes offence, people need to speak up to say so.

However, there are two very important provisos to this. Firstly, it isn’t the responsibility of disempowered minorities to challenge the actions of the majority group, it is everybody’s responsibility. And second, highlighting a different perspective should, as far as possible, be done without publicly shaming the person involved, unless they continue to repeat the same actions which are causing offense. We can all have times when we accidentally do or say something thoughtless, and that shouldn’t be an irreparable error. It is what we do when that is drawn to our attention that is the measure of the person. Publicly shaming a person who makes a mistake or poor judgement is the kind of black and white thinking (if you excuse the pun) that polarises opinion and drives a wedge between different population groups.

I would also note that there are times that it is perfectly appropriate to join in with traditions and wear costumes as an outsider, and would be disrespectful not to. For example, for female western tourists to cover up exposed skin and perhaps their hair when visiting various religious sites, such as mosques and temples, or for guests to festivals and weddings to be dressed and decorated in the local style as part of the ritual preparations. Similarly it is sometimes helpful for somebody independent of a particular culture to study and document aspects of it that those within the culture might take for granted. It doesn’t replace the voices from within that culture (which we need to facilitate and amplify), but can be a helpful supplement. Similarly, I can’t see that use of influences from other culture as inspiration for art can’t be done respectfully or that having different perspectives isn’t generally a way to drive progress in any area of study. We wouldn’t have mathematics, a calendar, politics, written language or many sports if we relied solely on our indigenous and anglo saxon heritage.

Overall, I think nowadays we are in a melting pot whether we want to be or not. Our culture isn’t static, it is fluid and constantly evolving. There is increasing globalisation, and our history has gained from many different cultural roots. We travel internationally more than ever and we all have heritage in our DNA that we can track across continents. Our fashions, arts and sciences are enriched with knowledge and influences from all over the world. I’d see that as a positive thing, and an opportunity for ongoing dialogue and learning. To me, the key to drawing on other cultures is the context and respect with which we do so. There are some good examples of cultural appropriation. If we want to be sensible about culture, then giving credit to our sources, being open to feedback, and doing it with respect and admiration seems like a good place to start.