I’ve been riveted by the #MooreandMe campaign (for the uninitiated, #MooreandMe is a Twitter-based campaign initiated by Sady Doyle in response to Michael Moore and Keith Olbermann’s mischaracterizations and outright dismissals of the allegations against Assange. Sady Doyle supplies a timeline of the events (with quotes) here. Matthew Elliot has a smart post covering the protest here. Kate Harding explains why she joined here, Jessica Valenti has a good roundup of relevant links here, other links are available at the bottom of this post).
I’m not interested in talking about Julian Assange, or the rape allegations, or Keith Olbermann, or Michael Moore. People have done that elsewhere much better than I could—a substantial list of links is available below. My interests are more instrumental: what can we learn about Twitter’s usefulness as a site for activism, having watched #MooreandMe in operation?
That said, this post will not be legible without some basic background information. So…
You should really go read Kate Harding’s “Some Shit I’m Sick of Hearing About Regarding Rape and Assange,” which will put the vast majority of misinformation about #Mooreandme to rest. And then come back.
Trigger warning: This post includes detailed information on the Julian Assange rape allegations and reproduces Tweets from known trolls.
Despite the derision that Twitter-based campaigns tend to attract (chiefly as a lazy and ineffective form of activism), #MooreandMe has been a remarkably effective and steadfast protest (thanks largely to the dogged persistence of Sady Doyle and Kate Harding, whose prolific Twitterfeeds will quickly dispense with any and all accusations of laziness). It’s been an astoundingly efficient recruitment tool, it has raised funds, it has been covered everywhere from Salon to Mediaite to The Atlantic, and it has succeeded (as of this writing) in getting at least partial acknowledgment from Keith Olbermann.
Well, Twitter is, quite possibly, the best available medium for this particular kind of protest. The format has a number of features that level a playing field that tends to push women into the outfield.
The first advantage? Disembodiment.
Because there’s no audio component to Twitter, women’s voices are harder to dismiss as “shrill” or “annoying.” Because there’s no audio component, Keith Olbermann’s words can’t benefit from his baritone gravitas. The subconscious processes that incline us to hear a man’s voice (and a lower voice) as more judicious or reasonable or authoritative than a woman’s are harder to trigger on Twitter. Like song lyrics in the absence of the song, both sets of words have to stand alone. This is an amazingly democratizing side effect.
Olbermann, as we all know, has a long record of deploying his tone, and I mean that literally—often by shouting. On Twitter, it’s been harder for him to figure out how to control that other kind of “tone,” the kind English teachers kept trying to teach us and that seems so ineffable and hard to pin down until you see something like this:
I might actually use this to teach “tone” to undergraduates. One short Tweet from Keith Olbermann and “tone” makes all the sense in the world. By eliminating some auditory channels that would normally distract us and make an absurd question like the above sound sensible and germane, we hear more clearly the real tone underpinning that rhetoric. Twitter, for all its frivolity, lets us hear some things more clearly.
Which brings me to the second advantage Twitter affords women: comparative invisibility. In the example above, Keith Olbermann demonstrates a kneejerk (and often quite effective) response to a female opponent—scour her image for something to criticize. Olbermann did his best, but he didn’t have much to work with. Twitter actually offers precious little fodder to those who, if provided with a physical image, would immediately criticize their weight, size, demeanor, etc.
Despite the abundance of determined trolls (as well as legitimate critics) using the #Mooreandme hashtag, you’ll find comparatively few references to the appearances of the women concerned. If you’ve spent any time anywhere else on the internet, you’ll know how unprecedented this is.
Trolls, Usefulness Of
Plenty of what’s happening at #Mooreandme has ample precedent. Trolls like Twitter. But! In this case, the trolls have actually done the #Mooreandme campaign an enormous service. Twitter might be the only format where, if you search for #Mooreandme, you’ll see not only the activists (who, like all activists, will sound earnest and monotonous and defensive to an uninitiated audience), but also the abusive responses they receive. It’s awful to watch, and it’s certainly taken its toll on Sady Doyle, whose account of what she’s gone through is here, but at least that suffering is public. It’s hard to think of a better way to illustrate the kind of harassment and psychological abuse to which women (and rape victims) are frequently subject. And the trolls are doing all the work of a documentary/exposé themselves!
I want to talk about some of the trolls in some detail, because there’s a lot to be learned from what this kind of discourse does or can do—unwittingly—for protests in general. The “transparency” of Twitter offers (like Wikileaks) a complete record that makes it hard for people genuinely interested in examining the movement to unsee the amount of misinformation and abuse there is, when it comes to rape and consent.
Let’s start with one of the uglier characters, GoldenScepter, who mainly sticks to questioning the protesters’ sexuality and calling the people involved c*nts. Here are some sample Tweets:
(As an aside, it’s worth noting that GoldenScepter (Paul Gaskin) ended up getting trolled by an impersonator, GoldenSceptRE, Paul Gasskin:.
He didn’t take it well:
As it happens, GoldenScepter was wrong on that score.)
Now, GoldenScepter (the original) is, as the above Tweets indicate, an admitted troll—someone being intentionally provocative and inflammatory, with no real investment in what s/he says. The art of trolling consist of posting to a group that believes in a certain principle, and posting in a way designed to attract predictable responses or flames. As eHow helpfully puts it: “As a good troll, your goal is to abuse the members psychologically and provoke negative reactions out of them.”
A troll is, in that sense, actually a pretty useful index; a good troll does his/her research and outlines and articulates the extreme position—the position likeliest to occasion the population protesting the most grief. What’s interesting about #Mooreandme as an exercise is that it demonstrates, with alarming clarity, that the line between trolls and self-proclaimed “genuine critics” of the Assange case is thin to nonexistent.
For example, here’s a Tweet from good ol’ GoldenScepter:
Here’s a Tweet from a new account with no followers:
And then there’s this:
Now: tell the trolls apart from the non-trolls genuinely interested in having a conversation about rape.
Now, defenders of trolldom will say that this is the point: a troll is a gifted imitator of an agenda he disbelieves. But unlike conversations about, say, God, or porn, the conversation about rape—and whether a woman might stay the night with her rapist, or buy him breakfast, and whether penetrating someone without a condom when she asked him to wear one—these are, despite the troll’s best efforts, rather nuanced discussions about what constitutes consent. When you, as a lurker, find yourself lining up with a troll’s views, it’s hard not to conclude that you need to reexamine your position. Plenty of people who joined #Mooreandme have expressed some surprise at how badly they’d misunderstood the allegations and what does and doesn’t constitute sexual abuse.
This—drawing in and persuading outsiders—seems to me to be a fairly new phenomenon in internet activism. Sady Doyle has stumbled onto a form of protest that exposes people who don’t usually think about this stuff or encounter it to issues that deserve consideration. No matter what your pet issue or issues happen to be, chances are you self-select your web-browsing to reflect those interests. One of the worst consequences of the death of newspapers is the extent to which Americans have lost a shared platform. Where once people of different political persuasions read the same paper and shared a few basic tenets of what constitutes life in meatland, your average person these days gets their news from Fox or MSNBC and the websites of their choosing. The result is an ever-sharpening divide between the realities of Left and Right. Twitter makes possible—in a way nothing else really does—the reemergence of a truly public platform.
I don’t want to overstate this; I don’t think Twitter will save the world. But I’m deeply interested in the possibilities #Mooreandme has revealed. Whether Assange is guilty or innocent matters deeply. He deserves due process, as do his accusers, and I don’t mean to minimize either his situation or the important work WikiLeaks does. But looked at as an experiment in online activism, #Mooreandme isn’t really about him. It’s about a form of activism that allows people, women in particular, to skip over the stupid but daunting obstacles of voice and image that so often get in the way of the message being heard. And it offers an opportunity to actually reach the unengaged and uninformed and clarify, to crib from Raymond Carver, What We Talk About When We Talk About Rape.
That the conversation is happening publicly, in a space that can’t be limited to women’s-only interests, makes Twitter a kind of anti-ghetto. Even if you have no interest in women’s issues or #Mooreandme, if you follow anyone who’s talking about it, you’re getting some exposure, and it’s amazingly easy to get more.
Now, the other thing #Mooreandme has demonstrated is how easily some will dismiss women’s concerns as tangential, irrelevant or trumped-up. Several of the critics of #Mooreandme don’t understand what the phrase “rape apologism” means. (It does not, as many seem to think, mean apologizing for a rapist.) Here are a couple of definitions that should put us all be more or less on the same page:
Rape Apologism, as defined by FinallyFeminism:
The simple answer is that a rape apology is any argument that boils down to the myth that rapists can be provoked into raping by what the victim does or does not do.
Such apologies feed off the old myth that rapists have no control over the sexual temptation they experience in response to the victim, therefore the victim could have avoided awakening the irresistible rape temptation by behaving differently. It’s classic victim-blaming.
Most people who make such arguments are not consciously intending to defend rapists. They are simply repeating arguments they have heard before and haven’t fully examined.
Another definition, from gethenblog:
Rape apologism is when someone says that rape isn’t really rape, or that rape is not really that bad, or makes an unfounded claim that allegations of rape are untrue, or claims that rape allegations in general are often untrue and should not be taken seriously. In reality the rape of false rape allegations is around 1-2%, the same as for other crimes.
#Mooreandme has attracted not only legitimate criticisms but also the usual arguments that come up whenever rape allegations surface. In short, variations on rape apologism. This happens often, and it’s difficult to address on (for example) comment boards, where people rarely sustain a discussion for long.
Rather than play Whackamole at a distance (from a blog, say), Twitter allows people to respond to those old chestnuts directly AND it allows lurkers to see those exchanges.
Straw Men and Other ManHaters
It’s clear, at this point, that there are lots of critics of #Mooreandme who just plain haven’t done their homework. Again–if you’re new, read Kate Harding’s post. It’s quick, it’s easy, and it’ll give you a sense of what #Mooreandme ISN’T about.
Twitter has many perks, but ease of documentation isn’t one of them. This cuts two ways. On the one hand, it gives both sides of the conversation a certain fluidity and lets new people join in. On the other, it makes that same conversation repeat, sometimes in less than useful ways. (People tend to harden and get more extreme as they rehearse and rehash a position—Twitter demonstrates this beautifully.) I’ve collected some of the main trends via specific Tweets.
Straw man #1: #MooreandMe blame Julian Assange for daring to defend himself. He should be convicted without a trial. He shouldn’t get bail. Period.
Straw Man 2: MooreandMe takes the accusers’ account to be unadulterated Truth and thinks we should eliminate due process and presume all accused rapists (and Julian Assange in particular) guilty:
Straw Man 3: #MooreandMe wants men to be perfect mind-readers. (Despite the fact that, according to details published in The Guardian, the women said, explicitly, that their boundaries included wearing a condom.)
Straw Man 4: Guiding view seems to be that protesting and/or holding journalists and commentators accountable for reporting facts is just as bad as rape. Corollary: accusing a man of rape is as bad or worse than being raped.
Straw Man 5: #MooreandMe irrationally objects to Michael Moore and Keith Olbermann pointing out the true fact that the rape allegations coincided with Julian Assange’s political persecution.
Straw Man 5.5: If you are a man, your reason for supporting MooreandMe is clearly sex:
Straw Man 6: MooreandMe are trying to strip men of their rights by saying sex without a condom is rape!
and the corollary, that you’ve consented to sex if you’re in bed with someone:
(That’s from the official California Fire News Twitterfeed. Weird. [Correction: No, it’s not—it’s a fan.])
Straw Man 7: MooreandMe was started by the CIA. The participants have probably been “bamboozled” into participating.
Straw Man 8: MooreandMe is unfairly representing the character of the opposition it faces.
Since woodenshow seems to see himself as more representative, here’s what his objections looks like:
Straw Man 9: MooreandMe is doing Feminism (and Michael Moore) wrong, because it is furthering capitalism.
Straw Man 10: #Mooreandme will never ever be happy. They want Keith Olbermann to beg for mercy.
Straw Man 11: MooreandMe is guilty of missing the really important thing, which is not women, but something else:
For Will Shetterly, the unsubstantiated charge of “neoliberalism” seems to negate the validity of #Mooreandme’s claims:
Will Shetterly, to put it another way, agrees with this guy:
Straw Man 12: Guiding View: MooreandMe is hell-bent on protecting Assange’s accusers; when they’ve sacrificed that right by leaking Assange’s. name.
I have to add here that women who have accused someone of rape or harassment are almost without exception dragged through a miserable process. Their pasts are intensely scrutinized, their motives are questioned, and their conduct is constantly evaluated and reevaluated. That’s the norm.
Look up the case of the gang rape in Richmond:
Morales’ attorney, Ernesto Castillo, acknowledged that his client had sexually assaulted the victim and urinated on her, but said the acts owed to childishness and foolishness.
Castillo said the victim – who was later found to have a blood-alcohol level of 0.35, more than four times the legal driving limit – willingly “drank herself into a state of unconsciousness” by chugging brandy provided by the suspects.
Castillo said the girl had been beaten but not raped by force, because the blows were “not used to overcome her will. She’s incapacitated.”
See, she wasn’t beaten to overcome her will; she was already incapacitated. Anyway, she was drunk. It’s extremely lucky that the SFChronicle does not reveal the names of alleged rape victims (or minors), since this could ruin her life. For a more in-depth account of how women get blamed—and why it’s useful to protect their names—see this harrowing account of a woman who visited four hospitals after being drugged and raped but was unable to get a rape kit, because she had been drinking when she was drugged.
As to whether concealing the alleged vicitms’ names is acceptable journalistic practice, well, there’s a debate. This overview of common practice at JusticeJournalism is well worth a look. Nick Kristof justifies his decision to publish the names of 9-year-old victims at the New York Times here. (His argument, in part: “On the one hand, it’s impossible to get rape on the agenda when the victims are anonymous. Human beings just aren’t hard-wired to feel compassion for classes of victims, but for individuals.”)
It’s an interesting argument—and doesn’t hold water for a second. Here’s one account of what’s happening to Assange’s accusers. Not a whole lot of compassion out there.
As to why Sady Doyle and other #MooreandMe people objected to Keith Olbermann retweeting a link containing the victims’ names when they were already public, it’s worth knowing that most newspapers have a policy against doing this. As for #MooreandMe, here’s what they say:
The “Kill Yourself” Tweet Keith Olbermann Received:
Here it is:
Some have suggested that this is a reference to an e-mail Keith Olbermann wrote in response to someone taunting him, in which he says, “Hey, save the oxygen for somebody whose brain can use it. Kill yourself.” Olbermann later apologized.
The Kill Yourself Tweet was condemned by #Mooreandme people:
Aubrey Clark has a two part statement of her objections to the MooreandMe campaign, delivered via Twitter here and here. ETA: It’s well worth reading them in their entirety. The problematic part of her argument (in my view) is here:
Keith Olbermann and Michael Moore, for reasons obvious to anyone who has followed the Wikileaks saga for the past year, support Julian Assange’s innocence. They did not have to choose a side, but in choosing chose that one, and (in the case of Moore) have defended it vociferously. …
“You must have done something.” The five words no rape survivor should ever hear. A tacit example of rape apology. Does Michael Moore believe that Julian Assange committed rape, but that the rape was somehow justified? Based on his own statements, that does not appear to be that case. After relying so heavily on heretofore trusted reporting from multiple sources, the certainty bias kicks in. Michael Moore is not a rape apologist, because he does not believe that Julian Assange committed rape, and therefore has nothing to defend. Language shapes our thinking. We must choose our words carefully, they have power over us.
Let’s start with the first part: it’s illogical to assert that Keith Olbermann and Michael Moore have the right to choose a side and “defend it vociferously” when you’re criticizing the opposition for doing the same thing, as if that were a bad thing. Clark may have a point, of course: there is something about a sports culture that encourages people to brainlessly choose “teams.” That the tendency exists is not a reason to accept it. Particularly when the people choosing “teams” (and slandering the other side) are trusted providers of news.
As to the second part, no one thinks Moore is knowingly defending a rapist. It is precisely the problem that Michael Moore has chosen to believe—on precious little evidence, and with real consequences to women who may have been raped—that Assange is innocent. The inevitable corrollary to that belief is that the accusers are liars. That’s a dangerous and damaging mindset because it perpetuates an environment where people can “believe” (as if this were something that happened in a vacuum!), at random, and in the absence of due process, that women who have been raped are liars, just because. As Clark says, “we must choose our words carefully.” Men in powerful media positions should be doubly careful.
How #MooreandMe Has Helped Change Discourse On Twitter and Elsewhere:
Case 1: Naomi Klein
Case 2: Andrew Sullivan.
Watch Andrew Sullivan (and his readers) learn a little about what does and doesn’t constitute consent. He started by posting this reader who “cut to the chase“. Here’s an excerpt:
It seems unlikely to me that anyone would include a situation that did not include an explicit ‘no’ under the category of rape, but then I’ve learned that feminists often believe things that I find impossible to imagine.
That reader wanted to know whether the words “no” or “stop” had ever been uttered. If they hadn’t, there was no way this could be considered rape. This reader is–I have no doubt–a rational, concerned citizen. It’s just that s/he hasn’t given this any thought.
Andrew Sullivan followed that up with two other comments from readers. One is a litany of excuses:
It’s possible she said stop and he didn’t hear it (how quiet is your sexual activity?). It’s possible he heard a “no” but confused them with all the other “no’s” that were of a very different sort. [Editor’s note: WHAT?!!] It’s also possible that no one was aware that the condom was broke until afterwards (although from what I’ve heard, that’s not true). Of course, it’s also possible he heard her say no, understand what she meant, ignored her, and continued to have intercourse against her will.
The other clarifies why this conversation needs to be had–and why the reader who “cut to the chase” missed the chase by a mile:
I’m a longtime reader, but this is my first time writing in to respond to a post. The reader you quoted saying that “It seems unlikely to me that anyone would include a situation that did not include an explicit ‘no’ under the category of rape, but then I’ve learned that feminists often believe things that I find impo`ssible to imagine” hasn’t cut to any chase at all, unless you count a crabby and ill-defined crusade against feminism. Any serious consideration of rape shows that he’s way off-base. I’m a law student, and I can tell you that American rape case law includes plenty of examples of rape without an explicit “no,” including but not limited to victims who are minors, mentally incompetent, drunk, drugged, coerced, or, as in one of the actual charges against Assange, asleep.
Andrew Sullivan gets it, and Patrick Appel corrects the coverage. Read today’s post.
Case 3: Keith Olbermann
After considerable hostility, Keith Olbermann acknowledged that he shouldn’t have retweeted a link containing questionable information regarding one of the accusers. In fact, he remembered on December 21, 2010 that he had already Tweeted an apology on December 7, 2010.
Case 4: Michael Moore
It started here (link contains video of the Keith Obermann/Michael Moore interview on Julian Assange):
It ended here, on the Rachel Maddow show:
As you’ll see from this rushed clip — transcript’s coming — Moore said he’s concerned that there’s a “concerted attempt” to stop Wikileaks and others who are trying to tell the truth about what he calls America’s six wars. As for the charges against Assange, Moore noted that he helped start a rape-crisis center in his hometown of Flint, Michigan, and said the charges against Assange should be fully examined.
“Every woman who claims to have been sexually assaulted or raped has to be, must be, taken seriously. Those charges have to be investigated to the fullest extent possible,” Moore said. “For too long, and too many women have been abused in our society , because they were not listened to, and they just got shoved aside. . . .So I think these two alleged victims have to be taken seriously and Mr. Assange has to answer the questions.”
This is what should be happening.
To conclude, this portion of John Humphrys’ BBC interview with Julian Assange:
Q: Does put up with you mean having you in their beds?
JA: Of course on occasion, I mean I’m an adult man, but women have been generous to me over many years.
Q: In what sense?
JA: You know, in a sense of assisting me with my work, caring for me, loving me and so on. That is what I am used to. So this particular episode in Sweden came as a great shock. The personal shock of having people you’re close to doing that, actually much harder to deal with, in a much greater feeling of betrayal than all of these political disputes I have with United States and being sued by banks and so on. Much harder to handle.
That feeling of betrayal is much harder to handle. It’s enlightening to think about how #Mooreandme dealt with it. Sady Doyle, my hat’s off to you.
The Guardian: 10 Days in Sweden: The full allegations against Julian Assange
BBC: Transcript: The Assange Interview
Naomi Wolf and Jaclyn Friedman Debate Assange Rape Case on Democracy Now
Keith Olbermann’s Apology
The Michael Moore Interview With Rachel Maddow, 12/21
Robert Stacy McCain: You Buy The Ticket, You Take the Ride.
Mediaite: Michael Moore’s Comments On Julian Assange Rape Allegations Spark Outrage.
Salon (Alex Pareene) Keith Olbermann “suspends” Twitter Account Over Assange Furor
Zunguzungu: If you’ll pardon the presumption…
Kate Harding: Some Shit I’m Sick of Hearing Regarding Rape and Assange
Mediaite: Keith Olbermann Refuses to Correct Treatment of Rape Allegations...
Behind the Blue Sky.
Scarleteen: Why We Don’t Always Know
Feministing: Keith Olbermann Responds ….
Andrew Sullivan: Sady Doyle gives Michael Moore and Keith Olbermann...
Hay Ladies: Who Will Rape Me?
Pandagon (Amanda Marcotte): Moore and Me Continues
WashingtonCityPaper: Test Case: You’re Not A Rape Victim Unless Police Say
Juridikbloggen: Open Letter To Mr. Michael Moore (from a Swedish lawyer)
Open Letter to Naomi Wolf (by silentkpants)
Fugitivus: Love for Sady, Love for Survivors
Freudian Slip: Rape Matters
StudentActivism: Naomi Wolf Misrepresents the Facts of the Julian Assange Rape Allegations. Again.
Spilt Milk: Who Hears You When You Speak About Rape
Wayne Myers: Assange and Wikileaks: The Best Way To Frame Someone Is For Something They Actually Did.
CrooksandLiars: Why Assange and WikiLeaks have won this round
StudentActivism: The Death of the CIA “Honeypot” Theory
Kate Harding: MooreandMe Day 7: Keith Olbermann’s Got Questions
BoingBoing: Julian Assange: “I’m Not a Player, I Just Crush A Lot.”
AnotherFeministBlog: You May Have Noticed…
AlterNet: The One Thing You Won’t Find in the Wikileaks Cables: Concern for Women
LeakingKettle: A Mother’s Plea: Julian Assange No Criminal
[Edited: As per Tao’s correction in the comments, I’ve removed one of his Tweets.]