Ideological Trench Warfare

Tactically speaking, much of World War One was an unnecessary dog’s breakfast. Massive advances in weapons technology allowed guns to kill people from huge distances. Military tactics and troop mobility were unable to keep up with with these advances, however, and this led to huge armies digging into the ground and the years-long stalemate of trench warfare was begun. No territory could be taken without huge casualties, each side simply dug in, pointed guns and fired whenever the other side attempted to cross no man’s land.

We have entered a similar tactical position in the culture wars.

The battlefield on which these new wars play out is the internet – the new military technology is social media. Our tactics and intellectual mobility haven’t been updated to cope with this new field of conflict.

People have dug in on both sides.

This is because while our cultural technologies have advanced (the internet, massified entertainment), our tactics for debate seem to be dated. We yell at each other, dig in and take intransigent positions, and we do it in a way that is so public.

And news media fuels this by reporting on the flash points in a breathless way. The issue is less that programs like Andrew Bolt’s narrow-cast to their small base of supporters (though they do), but that more mainstream news programs no longer report nuance. I saw a discussion on Sunrise the other morning in which a complex argument about tax reform and inequality being made by Bill Shorten was reduced to “so you just want to increase taxes on people” by the presenter:


There was no mention of the relative incomes brackets of different groups, no consideration given to the fact that tax relief for the poorest would be offset by tax rises for the very wealthy. It was all or none, yes or no. Simple, binary, and stupid.

Thus we have war breaking out between two sides, as soon as someone pokes their head up they are sprayed with enemy fire. Think of Yassmin Abdel-Magied, who copped the most mindless hate campaign because people couldn’t be bothered taking the time to stop and think. Think of the savage arguments between Men’s Rights Activists and Feminists, which probably have a lot of common concerns sitting beneath the surface, and who could actually benefit less from a zero-sum game approach and more of a co-construction of a brighter, happier, healthier future. No ground is taken or conceded.

As time has gone on, both sides have staked out very clear ideological terrain, they circulate savage propaganda about the other, and then they spray fire into the no man’s land in the middle of the internet.

The documentary The Red Pill is a classic example of this.The film reports a female journalist’s ‘inside view’ of the Men’s Rights movement. It’s fairly anodyne stuff – a lot of men complaining about job loss, feeling like violence against men isn’t taken seriously enough, and that men are discriminated against in elements of family law. There are problematic aspects, of course, such as interviews that gloss over the violent acts of interviewees, and the convenient setting aside of the overrepresentation of women as victims of domestic violence. Problematic, yes. But this is a small film, which not many people would bother seeing. It’s not Avatar.

Screenings were heavily protested by progressive and feminist activists. At the University of Sydney, where I work, Socialist Alternative and a range of other groups protested screenings loudly, and sparked counter-protests and trolling from ‘conservative’ groups and men’s rights activists.

The furore over The Red Pill was utterly pointless. This boring film wouldn’t have rated a mention but for the notoriety granted to it by progressive protestors. Anybody who would have chosen to watch this minor, unheard of film would go in with preconceptions that would be met (men’s rights activists identify their struggle, see evil women, whatever, and progressive feminists see evil men’s rights activists being misogynists, whatever).

Without the protest that broke out, there would have been no media attention. Nobody would have heard of the film, and it would have been buried in some back catalogue on iTunes for sycophants to watch or hate-watch.

But instead we get this eruption of conflict, rage, protests, online arguments, episodes of Hack, etc. Was a single mind changed? Did we make any progress? No. We just tore up more ground in intellectual no man’s land, and left with a bit of shell shock. No ground taken, no ground conceded.

Debates cannot go on like this! We must update our tactics.

I have friends who don’t mind social media being an echo chamber, or who prefer to mark people with whom they disagree as self-evidently wrong (rather than just mis/uninformed, or mis-recognising the causes of social problems). If we are genuinely committed to changing minds, then we need to engage coherently with people with whom we disagree.

It’s just not good enough that people say “men’s rights activists are just wrong”, or that “identity politics is terrible”. It’s head in the sand stuff that perpetuates these nasty debates. Of course there are positions that are wrong. Of course some of the rhetoric and beliefs that come out of these movements is hateful and appalling. But what actual good is being done by screaming this at them?

For those of us who identify as progressive, we need to recognise the way our beliefs are shaped by culture – and how social influences hugely impact our values and attitudes. Our understanding of the world, and our place in it, is a product of a huge array of socially-constructed knowledge. The fact that someone mis-recognises the cause of their job insecurity as being the fault of migrants doesn’t make them stupid, and telling them that they are racist, is pretty rarely going to change their mind.

And guess what – that argument is deeply unpleasant. Nobody feels good at the end of it. It’s a sledge-fest, not a discussion.

What suggestions can I offer? I think first that our default position should stop being to assume the worst of people. And this goes for both sides. MRAs need to stop assuming feminists ‘hate all men’, that’s a ridiculous burlesquing of a political desire to address inequality and unfairness towards women. And feminists need to stop assuming men’s rights activists are automatically wrong, that they don’t have some legitimate concerns (even if they do have some positions we fundamentally disagree with).

Second, I think we need to start asking more questions and to be genuinely curious. Why do people believe the things they believe? What evidence can they provide to support this belief? Is there any truth to these things? Are there other factors that either side hasn’t considered? Rather than dismissing things out of hand, we have to take the time to learn more about the opposite view.

And thirdly, we need to slow down and think, rather than head into these arguments screaming that our opponents are ‘just wrong’. They may well be wrong, but there has been a bunch of research lately that shows that people seem to dig in further when someone challenges their views in this blunt way. It polarises debate more – it doesn’t solve anything.

In short, we need more intellectual mobility (and you might even say ideological mobility). Tanks and air power helped break the stalemate of WWI. If we are to take no man’s land, we need to be faster, smarter, and more flexible. We need to understand the tactics of those we disagree with, and we need to recognise that soldiers on enemy lines are people too – they have desires and beliefs that are often conditioned by propaganda (and we have the same).

And when we win, we all still need to live together – so concessions and care are necessary for a better world. Otherwise we’ll be back in the wars all over again.

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