(Gender) Justice* and Via Negativa

I still feel a slight stranger to the social paradigm where nearly everything seems to be run as a media campaign; however, the collective attention grabbed by the HeForShe campaign seems an opportunity to exchange ideas.

A media campaign is a rather constrained form of expression. Substantial real content is thrown out to streamline the campaign. I wouldn’t really trust a media campaign to do more than get people thinking and talking. A media campaign creates an opportunity, but it really needs to ignite something else.

I watched Emma Watson’s speech (the really meaningful part of the campaign), added my name on the website, and used my Facebook and Twitter accounts to publicize the campaign. (Note: I expressly IGNORED the response of the “traditional” media. This is actually a wider personal strategy: the signal to noise ratio seems just way too low.)

I also read some criticism of the campaign and Watson’s speech. Some of it is valid: as I said above, I don’t trust media campaigns with very much – I think they are flawed and lacking in content. This is not the point! I probably never would have read the critics if they hadn’t written a critique. That is the whole point (intended or unintended) of a media campaign.

I get the impression that many media campaigns are just media campaigns, producing noise but no real response. (By the way, petitions are just a kind of media campaign directed at politicians). At the end of all this, I am asking myself what my personal next steps could be. What can I actually do, concretely speaking? It still isn’t at all clear. What is actually needed to fight injustice (in this case, specifically against women)? Part of my reason for writing this article is to hear your answer to my question: “what next?”

My thinking here (as in most of my thinking about probabilistic, philosophical, and practical problems) is inspired by Nassim Taleb (website, twitter) and contributors to his Facebook page.

My starting point is the observation that, in complex systems, solutions that work tend to be simpler than the problems they solve: otherwise, the ever-growing complexity causes problems of its own.

Injustice (in particular against women, but this article can and should be read more generally) is an extraordinarily complex collection of problems with causes diverse, hidden, and distributed (in the systems theory sense). Thus the above observation certainly applies.

By way of introducing the next idea, suppose you were a smoker. (I hope you aren’t, but if so, you are indirectly funding my present research studentship!) Stopping smoking is far more potent than any of the “positive” things (exercise, healthy eating, medications, …) that you could pursue. The generalization of this idea is the via negativa heuristic (see also Book VI of Antifragile) Roughly, the heuristic is: look first for the benefits from removing the harmful, rather than those from adding the beneficial (which encumber a system with more complexity and hence potential unforeseen problems).

I am pondering how this might apply to the present case. I happened to run across (again) the everyday sexism project (note: some of these stories make very harrowing reading). I also recalled Nassim Taleb’s experience in modifying people’s antisocial behavior by photographing them (but destroying the photos – it was being photographed that counted). This is via negativa because it is removing the perpetrator’s sense of immunity or anonymity. If the act of making people know they are being watched doesn’t work, then there is recourse to the law (in that case ONLY do I think retaining recordings is necessary and justifiable), and if the law can’t help, then the law must be reformed. As with any crime, I of course prefer that it didn’t happen in the first place.

This is exactly the kind of thing that I can make into a personal action strategy. Smartphones make it easier than ever to be a witness rather than a bystander.

Just for clarity, I would not expect to routinely make these recordings public (or share or even keep them). In the vast majority of cases I envisage them only as a tool for calling people out on a one-to-one level. Only in very serious cases would I consider sharing, even with law enforcement agencies. Then, only after a complete lack of success with the authorities (and their complaint channels) would I ever consider making the video public. Vigilante justice is not the point. And in any case there is no justice if the victim is harmed further.

The obvious next thought is: who is already doing this? This idea (in a way) just extends the everyday sexism project. If someone is already doing this, I would like to hear about it. Now is a good time to take advantage of the media campaign.

Just to make it clear, and to reformulate what I’ve already said above: I see this as only part of the solution**. I write primarily to invite further discussion.


* I use the term “(gender) justice” because

  1. as I mention elsewhere in this article, my comments can be read to apply to other types of injustice, and
  2. “gender equality” still strikes me as a term that is more than a little odd.

** Interestingly, I would argue that a very recent campaign, on Twitter as #SREnow, is in fact via negativa although it was not obvious to me at first glance. It is sold as extending and improving the curriculum for sexual health and relationships education; however it is really about debunking rampant misinformation obtained from other sources.

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