Saturday, May 31, 2014

Yes, #YesAllWomen

This request disquiets me.

First is the matter of it being completely, idealistically ineffectual. It's not going to work. From what I understand of the kind of misogynist who is said to be targeting her (and I am thankful that I have never experienced that kind of targeted abuse), once they've latched onto someone, they won't let go until they get bored or want to or move onto another target. Web-based misogynistic abuse is so heinous because of its irrationality. There's nothing that someone in its crosshairs can do to stop it because it's not really about her. Shutting up certainly won't stop it. Ceding ground won't stop it. And offering the substitute hashtag, #EachEveryWoman, is creating more space that will, in time, also be invaded by trolls. Will the conversation continue to flee from shelter to shelter?

Second and more important is the fact that it cuts very much at the heart of the kind of text Twitter has become.

Twitter is text and it is public text. It is conversational text, to be sure, and because of that, special consideration is due when we are interacting with people. I would even go as far as to say that we should respect the wishes of people who want their names or identities left out of a conversation. But ultimately Twitter is text. Tweets and hashtags are text. They can be quoted, read, interpreted beyond the intentions and wishes of their authors.

This is just the most recent and perhaps most extremist and far-reaching attempt of tweeters to control the reach of the tweets they write. Concerns about taking tweets out of their conversational context or their social ecosystem are valid, but it is the very nature of interpreting text that offers the solution: Anyone who cites tweets, like anyone who cites any text, has a responsibility to cite it correctly and in context, as with any other text.

The creator of #YesAllWomen wrote text. She is its author and her intentions no longer matter as we who receive it read it and modify it and find value in it, use it and, yes, even misuse it. I am currently in the process of translating a work of literary non-fiction written by a living author, a completely extraordinary experience for a medievalist. When I first met him to discuss the project he said to me, just as we were finishing up our conversation: "Don't take liberties with my text." For a long time, the admonition haunted me, even to the point where I found myself translating quite literally, adhering to Spanish syntax at the expense of English readability, all in the name of not taking liberties. The possession passed and I realized that I don't take liberties with text anyway, not out of respect for authors but out of respect for the texts themselves.

I don't know who created the #YesAllWomen hashtag. And it doesn't really matter. The text that crystalized around it was useful, interesting, cathartic for me and for many other women.

The idea of someone trying to retract a hashtag that has taken on a life of its own is antithetical to the kind of discursive community I understand Twitter to be: not top-down and completely democratic. If people are willing to play ball, then it cuts at the heart of the idea of a movement being bigger than one person and devalues the already shaky notion of hashtag activism. The whole point of something going viral online is that it's out and replicating in the world. It's not a single host person's anymore. I'm troubled by the groupthink of people who — for all the right reasons of compassion and empathy and wagon-circling — are so quick to fall into line and shut up. The creator of #YesAllWomen is getting women to shut back up because she said so. Wasn't that what people were tweeting against?

Some scholars speak of anonymity as an aesthetic choice in the Middle Ages: a deliberate and complete separation of author and text that recognizes the collaborative nature of texts that borrowed and adapted, by convention, both with and without citation. The #YesAllWomen creator's request makes sense in a discourse where people place value on taking credit for who created one hashtag or another, as if it were proprietary and as if that kind of credit were a sort of credential. This kind of request makes sense in a Twitter framework that places value on proprietary information rather than on one that functions as a set of glosses or marginal notations or dialogue.

Let the author remain anonymous, but let the text live on.


Edited June 1, 9:30 pm, to add:

These two tweets, which randomly showed up next to each other in a search for the new hashtag, #EachEveryWoman, illustrate the problems with this shift: The first uses both hashtags to ensure inclusion in the discussion, while the second uses the new hashtag to share a farcical Onion article making fun of the situation.

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