Tough conversations, like those on rape, can happen because of and in spite of the Internet.
On various social networks in the final weeks of 2012 I was unfollowed, blocked and called everything from an “assclown” to a “rape apologist.” But that’s not what gnaws at me as I continue to reflect on the drama that unfolded last month.
My repeated efforts to Skype with said name-callers and even with some disappointed friends were all denied. My attempts to listen, learn and perhaps find some common ground all fell flat. “No,” some said bluntly, while “What’s there to talk about? [Insert Article Name] sums up all my thoughts” and “Why would I want to do that?” were the more common responses. “I live in Thailand but am willing to wake at any hour to have a conversation with you,” I told each person individually. Nope. Case closed. On one particular occasion a “No” Tweet came in while Law & Order SVU’s opening line buzzed out of my TV: “In the criminal justice system, sexually-based offenses are considered especially heinous.”
Within every Shakespeare Seminar course I teach for Ottawa University there grows a dynamic discussion about what “soliloquy” means and how it shapes Hamlet, Macbeth and drama in general. We often uncover parallels between then and now, between Shakespeare’s work and Modern Family, for example. “Soliloquy” literally means “talking by oneself,” but we go deeper into why a writer chooses this method. Of course it can be to reveal and progress the narrative, but the root of good soliloquy is conflict. Most often the words of a soliloquy are released under specific conditions: when the theater audience/reader are privy but other characters in the piece are not (or at least are not intended by the speaker to be). This leads to communication glitch and therefore conflict – the element that keeps the audience engaged even if they’re in disagreement amongst each other or with the characters. The conflict can result in total hilarity, death or the grays between, but the outcome doesn’t change the nature. It still was conflict purposefully crafted by the writer.
I’ve been thinking lately about how Internet writings – be it tweets or well-written essays – can easily get spun into a soliloquy whereby the curtain is manipulated to exclude certain characters or certain voices or certain words or even the certain feeling of a lack of control present in all worthwhile conversations. Huge issues fit into tiny tweets and then are put into familiar little boxes with neatly tied bows and just like that, a conflict that shouldn’t be pulsates with swelling. Attempts at virtual conversations have against and within them the very elements that make for great conflict. This is frustrating beyond belief. This is beautiful beyond belief.
I’ve taught online college courses for nearly four years, so I’ve watched and even found myself tangled in the conflicts that can arise when meaningful and difficult conversations are had purely through the silence of typed and usually asynchronous text. In the online classroom each post is more of a monologue and meant to be shared with a specific and known audience. In terms of pure textual conversation, this is ideal, but even it can contain a load of problems that can only be remedied by picking up a telephone and working through things. Hearing another human’s voice, feeling their presence of listening and feeling that synchronous energy can at times feel like a miracle amidst text-based conflict. So it’s easy to see then how on Twitter, for example, where thoughts on the whole are usually less crafted and more compacted, and the audience is far less specific and far less known, even the most honest attempt to begin a tough conversation can quickly escalate into, well, what silent little soliloquies throughout the history of drama have been meant to do. Only now we’ve got millions of them swirling around and into each other in all their glorious and problematic silence.
To be fair, the topic of rape is tough to discuss via any form of communication and everyone has their own level of comfort and willingness. Some choose to avoid the conversation entirely or do so only in private areas and with those to whom they are closest. It’s fair to say that others might be okay to share a few things on social media but that their line ends there. This is all fine, commendable even. But in these virtual worlds of text it has become far too easy to throw out a highly opinionated and even hurtful remark, draw a line in the proverbial sand and then completely shun anyone who dares to approach it. And when an influential person does this it can quickly become an unwritten rule – the only way to talk about something. And so we have important conversations simply being repeated rather than built upon. Broken records spinning of the same old voice saying the same old things. Progress isn’t made by what we put after the hashtag; it’s made by everything we put before it.
Meaningful and important discussions are then completely warped into silly memes that are revered but of no benefit to anybody.
In the physical classroom, for example, I’ve never not worked out a conflict through a face-to-face conversation. In the online classroom, I’ve never been unsuccessful at working out a conflict through a phone call. I can say the same with my friends, peers, potential business partners, etc. The Internet community, of course, is wholly different, but reaching out and connecting beyond the limits of Twitter or even email can be of tremendous benefit, necessity even, to people who are engaged in similar conversations and generally agree on nearly every issue anyways. Speaking on the phone often greatly highlights the latter.
But so too is there a serious danger when those who have created their personal rules on how to talk about rape try to belittle or otherwise shame those who don’t take the same prescription.
An incredibly rare post from GMP, a post attempting to learn from the mind of a rapist, was equated with condoning rape. Hence assclown. Hence rape apologist. It’s the same leap (and it is quite a leap) latched onto by writers from Feministe, The Independent and several other blogs. They’re following the directions on the label. But who created the label? Who shaped the directions? When the how of a conversation is prescribed and manipulated before it even begins we are setting ourselves up for a conflict that has no chance at being resolved, a conflict that leads to no further insights.
Enter fiction. With prescribed rules on how to talk about rape we end up gleaning the majority of our insights on the topic from some fictionalized TV – Law & Order: SVU, CSI, etc. Countless shows and movies and books open with or otherwise contain a fictionalized rape and then we follow, we rearrange our lives and our sleeping schedules and even our meals so we can follow. It’s no wonder many of the most watched shows in history contain rape. It’s no wonder shows containing rape have the highest ratings. As humans we are drawn to the mixture of violence and sex, but so too are we wanting to learn. What’s inside the mind of a rapist? What’s a rapist like? Why did they do it? How did they do it?
It’s out of interest that we ask, but it’s also for armor. The more we know the more we can protect ourselves. Still, are the hundreds of shows around the world that are highlighting rape or a rapist’s point of view called rape apologists or attacked for their use of fictionalized rape in order to roll in the cash? Of course not, it’s fake. Sometimes it’s easier to pretend the fake is real rather than to know the real is real.
Something sad happens each time we pull the curtain on important global conversations and instead reach for our remote. Remote. Control.