The Disembodied Standpoint; or Why I Don't Take Certain Parts of the Leftwing Blogosphere Seriously and You Shouldn't Either
So I haven't been following #mooreandme closely, because as I've stated before I don't think twitter phenomena are things that really happen, but apparently there's been a dustup in certain quarters based on Sady Doyle's protest over Michael Moore posting bail for Julian Assange. There are a few points I would like to make about this whole crop of nonsense that to me underline my general larger refusal to take those certain quarters seriously.
Point 1: It is fundamentally unjust to draw conclusions about the criminality of a person's actions based on news reports.
This is why I don't take people like Kate Harding, Sady Doyle, Jessica Valenti, and, for that matter, Naomi Wolf seriously. All of these people are very worked up and personally invested in the underlying issue that's been brought into the spotlight by the charges against Assange. I respect that. Rape is a serious matter and our culture has a lot of work left to do in treating it as seriously as we should. That said, however, there is a reason why determinations of facts are left to trial courts, be they judges or juries, in our legal system. The reason is that the only way to make sure that a fair determination of what those facts really are is to give both participants in a series of events that have given rise to criminal charges a full opportunity to present all their evidence to a neutral third party who then has the responsibility of figuring out whether or not the evidence adds up to what the state says it adds up to. The point here is that prosecutions and criminal charges are actions by the state, not actions by individuals. The larger point is that no matter the relative power of men and women in social structures as they currently exist, arguments about the varying levels of power in a situation like this are like arguing about which of two dwarves is taller while they're standing in front of André the Giant. No matter which of the dwarves is taller, it doesn't change the fact that André can pick either of them up with one hand and drop kick them across the room if he decides it's in his best interest to do so.
The bottom line here is that it is fundamentally unfair to anyone to make assumptions about what they did or did not do based on a review of the evidence as presented at the distance of remove provided by news coverage. To the extent that everybody involved in this fracas is doing that—and as far as I can tell given my cursory reading of the various blog posts, to quote Jesus & the Sex Pistols, "no one is innocent"—they all need to knock it off, take a deep breath, and stop projecting their own pet political causes onto the bad behavior of famous people. Put another way, everyone commenting in the media on the specific facts of this particular case is full of shit because nobody knows what really happened.
Point 2: I feel like a broken record on this, but consent is complicated and weird and people need to stop treating it like it's a simple thing to figure out.
As people who know me are well aware, where issues of sex and morality are concerned I think consent is a really bad determiner of what's ok and what's not ok. Consent works for legal determinations of guilt and innocence because it's something objective that extrinsic evidence about a person's state of mind can be used to determine, and a fair legal system often needs extrinsic evidence to make objective determinations of fact. However, when you're not sitting on a jury and are engaging in armchair determinations of whether or not someone is scum, consent is a really poor determiner because in life where we aren't talking about levels of state intervention in the bedroom, a lot of the time negotiating the ethical facts of a sexual encounter is far more complicated than a simple determination of consent (which itself is not all that simple, see point one above) can establish. The facts here, whether they amount to rape or not, do establish one thing with absolute certainty: Julian Assange is a piece of shit who is fully as creepy as he seems from a distance.
How can I say this so unequivocally having just said that everyone speaking about this at the remove of the media doesn't know what really happened? I can say it easily. There are certain undisputed facts here. No one denies that Julian Assange had casual sex with his alleged victims and that he did so both not knowing their sexual histories, and without them knowing his, and he did so without any concern for adequate protection for safety on his own insistence. Quibbling about whether it was because he didn't want to wear a rubber or it was a broken rubber or whatever doesn't change the fact that that's only something an asshole does. Does it amount to rape? Who knows? Is he scum one way or the other? Absolutely. That level of disregard for the bodily integrity and safety of another person within the sticky and complicated intimacy of a sexual encounter is reprehensible whether or not it rises to the level of a crime or not.
The bottom line here is that defending Julian Assange against criminal charges in any way does not amount to a comment on his character. He's creepy, gross and he did wrong. To the extent that they were participants versus victims, the women whose claims led to these charges at the very least had sex with a piece of shit. While their taste in men may be questionable and they may have made some bad decisions, that's the most you can say about them. Charging them with being tools of the state effort to suppress Assange, which undoubtedly exist, goes well beyond whatever minor assessments of their judgement or intelligence that justified by the undisputed fact that they made the questionable decision at some point to have sex with Julian Assange.
Point 3: A Bail hearing is not a criminal trial. That's important, so I'm gonna say it again: A bail hearing is not a criminal trial.
Posting bail for someone is not a statement about one's belief in the guilt or innocence of the accused. As far as I can tell, the only person involved in this "controversy" who understands this fact is Michael Moore. All of the criticisms of his choice to post bail for Assange start from the assumption that his doing so is somehow an expression of belief in Assange's innocence. Nothing could be further from the case. Bail in the common law system recognizes the fact that the state does not have the power to restrict the liberty of non-criminals and prior to a trial accused persons being not yet criminals, the only interest the state has in controlling the liberty of such a person is to assure their appearance at criminal proceedings. The term itself arises from legal French, in which it means something like "guardianship" or "control." Bail money is what a magistrate determines is necessary to insure that an accused will appear at trial. This is old stuff, dating back to the thirteenth century. The state hasn't had the legal authority to hold a person for no reason for a long long time.
This means that Michael Moore's decision to post bail is not at all an expression of Moore's confidence that Assange did nothing wrong. As I understand the comments I've seen him make on the subject, he absolutely thinks that the charges against Assange should be taken seriously by everyone and that the women who are the alleged victims should be taken seriously. More importantly, I think he recognizes that false accusations of rape are relatively infrequent (although exactly how infrequent is debatable). What his posting of bail says, however, is not that he thinks Assange is necessarily innocent, but that he is willing to invest in a certain amount of trust that Assange if released will continue to cooperate with authorities and show up in court. And this because it's also clear to everyone that the way this matter is being prosecuted is not as a result of the charges of the alleged victims, but rather are in large part determined by the fact that many state actors want to hamper Assange's work. Full stop, end of story, goodnight Gracie, and they all lived happily ever after.
So then what's with the criticism of Michael Moore? Well, never mind that I have a sneaking suspicion that much of the criticism of Moore stems more from the fact that he's a fat guy than that in the past he's shown a propensity for hyperbole, and leftwing critics are just as happy exercising their anti-fat bias as are the right. What seems really at issue here is that it's given a certain segment of the leftwing blogosphere to once more try to get some attention for their cause which, as always, is much more about their own collective borderline personality disorder than it is about any real concern for justice.
Point 4: The Disembodied Standpoint is a bane on leftwing politics and it harms us all
I call it the disembodied standpoint because most of the time when I see this particular kind of behavior, it's generally sourced in some sort of watered down and overblown version of standpoint theory. You can see a fair amount of this in the transsexual rights blogosphere's occasional internecine fights with liberal feminists, a lot of it comes out of critical race theory and its racism requires power mantra, and then there's a general malaise among certain commentators without a particular political allegiance (Glenn Greenwald comes most immediately to mind), but who never-the-less seem to be mistakenly operating under the same delusion. The disembodied standpoint is a trump card, a full deontological stop that shuts down discourse and brooks no compromise.
Standpoint theory is a controversial view of the world primarily foisted upon the intellectual world by philosophically naive sociologists who see cultural norms as more influential on the assessment of facts than they probably are. It's uncontroversial to the extent that it's pretty obvious that a person's life and experiences inform their interpretations of the world and how it works. That said, the conclusion that is too often drawn as a result of this fact that observations drawn by members of an oppressed social group based on experiences unique to that group cannot be challenged by concepts of reason and rationality because those are mere cultural norms of the dominant groups and are therefore not entitled to the privilege that reason and logic are generally accorded. The result of this conclusion is a kind of quasi-relativism that is often abused, particularly on the internet, by people who are unwilling to admit that their ideas just don't make any sense. The disembodied standpoint then is the position taken by those who abuse this relativism to insert themselves and their pet issues into matters that are only peripherally related to those issues. The standpoint is disembodied because it takes place in the realm of public discourse which is increasingly one that takes place through the pure informational medium of the internet, a place where none of the essential characteristics of our embodied existences are present. As a realm of more or less pure ideas, this results in a short circuiting of discourse because it becomes impossible to communicate about ideas when the rules of reason, which are the grammar of communication about ideas, lose the deterministic control on meaning that they have always had in the past. Without meaning, there is no discourse, and the result is a narcissistic game of emotional oneupsmanship in which no actual communication or progress is possible. QED.
The disembodied standpoint, then, is nothing more than a game people play to satisfy needs that have nothing to do with the stated goals of political equality, a value widely shared by all of us on the left. When people engage in it, they are putting their own desire for attention and the dubious value of being centrally involved in the drama of controversy ahead of the actually valuable goal of achieving greater political equality through the modes of public discourse made available by representative democracy. This goes some way to explain why those operating from the disembodied standpoint seem to be acting in a way that is so counter productive to making real political gains for the causes they claim to care about. In fact they don't care about these things. If they did they would let their own fevered egos take a backseat to the tactics and strategy necessary to advance their aims. Because they don't do this, and the #mooreandme dustup is a paradigm case of this not happening, it is clear that they are in fact an enemy of social justice because their selfishness is a hindrance to achieving even the basic level of respectful discourse necessary for anything at all, let alone building the coalitions of likeminded persons necessary for democratic political change.
These people are not our friends. In their own language, they are not "allies" of political liberalism and it's time we stopped listening to them.