Recently, a pickup artist visited Australia. He wanted to run a workshop on ‘the art of seduction’ and he promoted his techniques among those who wanted to learn them. Somebody looked into the ideas he was promoting and was appalled. They wrote an article and told their friends and social media went into frenzy. The reaction was justified. His ideas were appalling. He had figured out that women in certain societies were uncomfortable saying ‘no’ to a man. His method was to treat the absence of a ‘no’ as a ‘yes’. He would push, pressure and convince vulnerable women into compliance. His outraged critics pointed out that this amounted to a form of coercion, something akin to rape. He was enforcing rape culture. People organized. His name was pasted all over social media and the news. A protest was called for and venues were pressured and, eventually, buckled. He came, but had no-where to speak. There was a social media cheer. He was a vile human being who spouted terrible ideas. We won! As a feminist there was a part of me that was satisfied with this outcome. But it troubled me. The more I thought about it, the more troubled I became. I think in the long run, this wasn’t a win. We all lost.
This event got me thinking about the way we deal with censorship. Once upon a time, not so long ago, we used to have a powerful sense of morality. We told people what to do and how to be. We ‘knew’ what made a good society, a good woman, a good man or a good child: the moral things. We censored things that challenged those ideas: the immoral things. Certain behaviours and materials that encouraged those behaviours were deemed dangerous – as if by challenging our existing moral ideals, society would fall apart.
How silly we were. Looking back, all of that seems quaint. The popularization of psychology and the dismantling of the traditional colonial structure showed us that what we thought of as essentially moral was only a construction. One of many, and not any more right than any other. So, we don’t do that (as much) any more. But that doesn’t mean that we’ve stopped censoring. Now, we have a different approach.
Today we live in a world of competing ideas. We are more networked and connected than ever before. Go online and you’ll find a million ideas, a million identities and a million ways that you can behave. The logic goes: as long as we don’t hurt people, it’s all fair go. But some ideas aren’t as good as others. And some of those ideas scare us with their utter badness; racist rants, vilifying stereotypes, misguided, ignorant or malicious calls to violence towards people, property and the state. That is the target of our new censorship. Having learned that telling people what to do is not effective, we are increasingly afraid that people will be exposed to the wrong idea and it will stick. This brings us back to that pickup artist.
The pickup artist found a glitch in the system. There’s a series of expectations about men, about women and they way the two interact. It is based on a history and it is based on culture and it is based on ideas we see in film, music and other media. The man is meant to be ‘hard’ and assertive. The woman is mean to be ‘soft’ and submissive. Historically, the man is also meant to be respectful and protective and the woman is meant to be… aside from pretty, not very much at all. These are Victorian society ideas. They’re out-dated, sexist and generally wrong, but they still operate today. The pickup artist figured out that if you drop the protective and respectful bit and enact the ‘hard’ and assertive bit, women would not speak up. Women send hints, and they will resist but only within the out-dated framework. Women are often still uncomfortable saying “no”. Women are enacting the old ideal and they expect the man to do the same. Press them enough and, eventually, they will comply. That is the logic of his ‘game’.
He has pointed out a serious social issue. But instead of focusing on that, we focused on him. He is exploitative, opportunistic, misogynistic and generally repugnant – it is easy to hate him. But he isn’t the problem. Our attitudes and ideals of men and women are. As social media posts and the calls to ban him mounted, I realized that hardly anyone was looking at the issue he had pointed out. We saw him as a glitch and an opportunist, someone taking advantage of women and the rules of society. But is he the only one to figure out these rules? Does kicking him out or shutting him up deal with the problem?
By focusing on him we have done two things. 1. We glossed over the obvious social problem behind it all, allowing maladaptive norms to roll on unscathed, as he took the brunt of our outrage. 2. We have given credibility to his outrageous ideas by not engaging with their underlying principles. We chose to talk about him, not his ideas, in the process we learned nothing. We got together as a community and we censored him and his ideas. We could have taken them apart. A public discussion could have served as a lesson, to be aware of this kind of exploitation of societal loopholes. In becoming aware of his trick, we would have ruined his ‘game’ and his business. In the process, we all would have learned something about ourselves and about the societal rules that we follow. He would have lost and we would have won.
He had to cancel his workshop and he lost money. But the amount of publicity that he received is worth millions. The men who worshipped him have not been exposed to a counter-argument. By censoring him we have added to his ‘mystique’: “look at the outrage he caused, there must be a secret he knows that society doesn’t want us to know!” I’m sure that his career is far from over. His method works because we never took the time to address all that it implies. In censoring him, we failed to engage his ideas. We empowered them and we missed a chance to empower ourselves. In the end, we all lost. In the future, I hope we do better.