See Infra

Digging at the confluence of culture and everything else

Tag Archives: #YesAllWomen

Parallel Invaders

Mary Karr has published an extraordinary piece about the entirely too common experience of sexual assault.[1] Karr:

[H]e grabbed between my legs with a meaty claw, big as a waffle iron. He also called me the “C” word with breath that stank of beer. Then he passed on into a sandwich shop with his buddy. [H]e wasn’t dope sick or a flat-out loon.

In case you haven’t been on the receiving end of this sort of assault, you should know the primal physiological response it evokes—in this woman, anyway. The stomach drops, as if you’ve been shoved backward from a skyscraper and are flailing through space. Time dismantles. […] Inside, the Grabber, as I thought of him, was waiting in line to order a sandwich. He was fine; I was the one with the problem.

Please, read the whole thing.

I don’t understand the fear of women in their full #YesAllWomen totality feel. I can’t – I grew up in the parallel universe where the sexual assaults of the real world are invisible, more fantastical than ghosts or gremlins. A universe where all sexual overtures, even of the gross sort, seem welcome on some level. Karr corrects:

One pal joked, “Oh, yeah, try it,” suggesting that for men, any sexual overture is welcome. I asked how he’d feel if a fellow weighing three-forty cornered him somewhere isolated and manhandled him. Suddenly this struck him as way more sinister.

This reframing, alone, doesn’t let us understand the fear or see the real universe from our parallel existence. But I think we can begin to glimpse it by imagining these overtures not only as coming from a rough, gigantic man[2] but that he is one of countless rough, gigantic men. That there are nothing but rough gigantic men, the ninety-some percent of the human species sexually drawn to you. Some of who are quite decent! But they look the same as the other ones or maybe better. Karr:

a voice rose from the sidewalk. “What’d he do?” It was a man on a rectangle of cardboard you might normally step around.

“He grabbed […] my private zone!” [I said. He] jutted his jaw out, saying, “He cain’t do that” with such fire that I started dialing 911. […] My new friend on the cardboard said, “Go, go, go!” and I started to trot. They broke into a sprint, outpacing me right off.

There also needs to be action with our empathy. The heroes of this story are Karr and the man with nothing but a cardboard home and a sense of righteousness who helped her. The Grabber is the obvious antagonist, as is the system that will fail to end the Grabber’s threat. But I keep thinking of the Grabber’s friend. He, I think, is the true villain of the tale.

There are two ways to exit the parallel universe where men exist without fear of sexual assault. One is to be forcibly wrestled into the real world by the sudden visibility of assault. To have your loved ones become the victims and seeing the world their eyes, or worse, becoming a victim yourself.[3] The other is to catch glimpse of the assaulters as they pass from our world to the real one and back again. They alone among parallel men can transit between worlds – doing their damage and then hiding among the good parallel men still none the wiser. They alone know how to erase the borders between worlds, to seduce us into their conspiracy, that we do not know enough of the real world to see something when their mask slips. They alone among the parallel universe men know we live in is fiction because they help create it.

Of course, our world is better. So we need to bring the women here, where sexual assault is as fantastical as ghosts and gremlins. We need to make our world the real one, freed from the malignant influence of a horrific parallel universe where men destroy women with word every word and every touch.[4] It is our duty to stop the parallel invaders we have been fooled into thinking are friends.

Yesterday, I announced that “all that I am” was in preparation for fatherhood. I hope you begin to gauge the full meaning of “all”.

Footnotes

[1] If you think the numbers are inflated, I challenge you to find a number of sexual assaults you would accept as reasonable.

[2] Especially ones with the impudent swagger of the never-punished.

[3] The double invisibility of male sexual assault victims is beyond the scope of this essay.

[4] The full strategy for how good men can stop bad men is way beyond the scope of this essay. But spoiler: it involves norms and cultural thinking.

Emergent Evil, Perspective, and Responsibility

In these last couple weeks, I’ve been circling around a recurring theme of the complexities of responsibility for evil. When we talk about particular evils that are in the world, the stakes and baggage tends to cloud up our discussions, so I’d like turn to the weightless world of video games as a venue to examine evil and who is responsible for it.

In video game design, there is a lot of talk about designing games with emergent gameplay instead of curated gameplay. Curated gameplay is what most people think of when they think of a video games: game designers provide a top to bottom engineered experience, scripted to suit the beginning, middle, and end of the game’s story. When you play, say, Mario Bros., you run through the same levels, interacting with the same enemies, entering the same castles where your princess is still not available for rescue. Emergent gameplay, on the other hand, occurs when designers create a set of game mechanics and rules, and player interaction with those rules and each other causes complex game systems to emerge.

A particularly interesting example of emergent gameplay occurs within EVE Online, a MMPORG best described as a nightmarish combination of multiplayer Sid Meier’s Pirates! in space! and Microsoft Excel. Within the EVE Online game space there have emerged complex societal and financial transactions, specialized roles, and factions made entirely of players creating their own norms and behaviors, without the benefit of the computerized game to enforce them.1 That’s pretty amazing, but it comes with an enormous amount of bad, anti-social behavior, even virtual crimes. Players will often find their in-game avatars killed for the amusement of other players, have their assets stolen by supposed friends, and a whole host of advanced predation. It isn’t just virtual reputation and blood, sweat, and tears at stake either, virtual in-game cash is sufficiently fungible to turn into out-of-game currency.

The game designers respond to all of this predation by smiling and disclaiming responsibility.2 Perhaps this is disingenuous. After all, the designers of EVE Online chose to create a mostly lawless environment, and then they encouraged players to take advantage of it. Surely then, they have some sort of responsibility for the predators they enable. But, wouldn’t there also be a special sort of responsibility, perhaps even an intervening one, for the predators who take advantage of that lawless environment? Aren’t the designers of EVE Online less responsible for the emergent predation that they could not have foreseen compared to the ones they foresaw or even encouraged?

When I criticized Ta-Neisi Coates’ Case for Reparations, I focused on his vague, even incoherent, description of the reparations themselves. This incoherence stemmed from his treatment of the different sorts of predation he cataloged. From slavery, to redlining by Federal Housing Administration (FHA), to contract sellers, to rogue grand juries to lynchings, Coates never paused to dwell on the diversity of bad actors, treating sovereigns and mob members alike. When the contract sellers preyed on Black families in North Lawndale, was the city of Chicago (or the FHA, or the realtors or…) curating that evil, or did it emerge?3 The Case for Reparations clearly demonstrated that the FHA directly and maliciously harmed Blacks with redlining, and redlining gave rise to an environment where predators thrived. It is not clear however, that contract sellers were cultivated or merely emerged as an unhappy accident.

Emergent evils were at work in a different way during Elliot Rodger’s lethal rampage on a UC Santa Barbara sorority. Rodger was apparently spurred on by his misogyny and frustration with his “involuntary celibacy”. Rodger’s evil was emergent, doubly so. There is little doubt in my mind that Rodger was mad, but his madness filtered through a cultural substrate, colored, glossed, and tweaked by the particular sorts of horrors our society produces at its fringes.4 Just as the paranoid take unconscious inspiration from the news and TV shows to imagine themselves the unwitting stars of reality television, Rodger’s rage was stewed in misogyny and a toxic sort of masculinity. In response to Rodger’s attack on women, many women went online to share their perspectives and experience using the hashtag #YesAllWomen 5 The common thread that emerged throughout the tweets was an overwhelming sense of fear of predation by men. Not all men, but not any particular man or group of men either.

The Rogers of the world are not the fault of Patriarchal video-game-of-life designers using the Rogers of the world as their victim-assailants on women.6 The appearance of such a design is illusory, the result of invisible strands of culture taking hold as they tug, shift, and channel ideas, even with the supposed puppet masters of our society. The commonality of experiences do not indicate a commonality of cause, a conspiracy of predation. To what degree are the Rodgers of the world and other threats to women emergent and what to degree are they curated? That is the sort of question that doesn’t get answered much by those advocating social justice, and while I have plenty of uncharitable guesses as to why, the fairest explanation seems to be that from the victim’s perspective, whether predators emerged or were curated is pretty unimportant. The victimization happens either way, and whether implicitly or explicitly, social justice advocates are advocating on behalf of victims.

It does matter whether the threats from men described in the #YesAllWomen tweets were emergent or curated, and it matters whether the contract sellers emerged or were curated. Not just because that will shed light on who the villain, if any, of the tale is. If social justice advocates speak for the victims, and lawyers speak on behalf of the accused, it leaves the rest of us as third parties. Paying attention to whether evils are emergent gives an accurate and precise description of the how and why of the problem at hand. If you’re in the business of making the world a better place, an accurate and precise description of a problem puts you a well designed and implemented machine away from solving that problem.

That problem has to be solved. Both #YesAllWomen and the Case for Reparations drove home experiences held in common that have infected the very warp and woof of the daily life of too many people. Emergent evil is not satisfying theory of those crimes, and it is not meant to be. To recognize emergence is to recognize that very few are actually guilty. In fact, emergence can produce good as well as evil, so it also denies us many heroes. But if a theory of emergent evil denies an illusory justice for victims, it does not deny that there are victims. Abraham Joshua Heschel once said that “[f]ew are guilty, but all are responsible.” Emergence denies guilt, but it does not absolve us of our responsibility.

Footnotes