As I noted in an earlier post, preparing for a seminar on privacy and surveillance has given me the opportunity to learn more about any number of aspects of the topic – in this case (again) the feminist critique of privacy. To recap: on this argument, which is most commonly associated with Catharine MacKinnon (see the abortion chapter here for a succinct, 10-page version), privacy manages to be very bad for women under conditions of structural sex inequality. Because women are socially unequal, “privacy” manages to protect men, but not women. Wife-beaters, for example, get to hide behind the veil of privacy in the home to shield their conduct from scrutiny: “a man’s home is his castle.” (MacKinnon then answers the obvious question: why does patriarchy support abortion rights? The answer is that the availability of abortion removes the one last obstacle men faced in the complete social domination of women: the possibility of undesired pregnancy. So abortion rights justified on privacy grounds (as opposed to equality) end up being tools of patriarchy. But that’s a different conversation)
MacKinnon’s argument is a lot more subtle than it usually gets portrayed as being, but it’s vulnerable to some obvious objections. For example, Jena McGill, writing out of her experience working in battered women’s shelters, points out that privacy is the thing that women who make it to the shelters need most of all. If they don’t get it, their abusers are very likely to kill them and their children. One way of interpreting the implications of this point is to say that the value of privacy for women depends on where it’s claimed; once women leave the traditional patriarchal household, privacy suddenly becomes a lot more important as a concept.
Something of the same dynamic is at work, I think, in the (most recent) appearance of violent pornography in the comments at feminist website Jezebel.com:
“For months, an individual or individuals has been using anonymous, untraceable burner accounts to post gifs of violent pornography in the discussion section of stories on Jezebel. The images arrive in a barrage, and the only way to get rid of them from the website is if a staffer individually dismisses the comments and manually bans the commenter. But because IP addresses aren't recorded on burner accounts, literally nothing is stopping this individual or individuals from immediately signing up for another, and posting another wave of violent images (and then bragging about it on 4chan in conversations staffers here have followed, which we're not linking to here because fuck that garbage). This weekend, the user or users have escalated to gory images of bloody injuries emblazoned with the Jezebel logo. It's like playing whack-a-mole with a sociopathic Hydra”
Anonymous comments are of course a very good example of a privacy-enhancing technology, and it seems to me that the problem validates both MacKinnon’s and McGill’s points. On the MacKinnon side, the usual defense of anonymous comments is that if you eliminate them, you shut down discourse. This is an important point, not only for free speech reasons, but because of course the marginal often need anonymity to avoid reprisal. On the other hand, as David Banks at Cyborgology notes, it’s really a question of whose discourse gets shut down, and anonymity in this case is in the “service of attention,” and that favors whatever power structure is hegemonic – in this case, the trolls and the technical and coding structures that enable them. So privacy in conditions of patriarchy is bad for women, because it enables (virtual but not for that less reason any less real) sexual violence.
On the McGill side, what the community at Jezebel most needs is privacy from the trolls, because the trolls are trying to destroy that community by making it unsafe and traumatic. When women complain, they’re told toughen up or to expect the abuse. Sarah Wanenchak summarizes the problem:
“Emotions are weaponized, the damage they do is dismissed, the people who have been hurt are dismissed, the entire thing is done – rather effectively – in the interest of making space unsafe for certain people and punishing them for having the gall to be there in the first place, and finally the possibility that maybe this isn’t necessarily how it has to be is foreclosed upon”
The Jezebel columnists wrote as part of an effort to publicly shame Gawker (which hosts Jezebel) into doing something to address the problem, and in that lies, I think, at least one important take-away that complicates the MacKinnon/McGill way of framing things. The technology creates a lot of affordances, but these can be changed and modified. Latour gets a lot of flak for proposing that we take seriously the idea of non-human actors, but it seems particularly apt here in the context of privacy. It’s standard enough to say that some technologies are privacy-enhancing or privacy-diminishing, but that only makes sense in very specific social contexts, and the technology is very much a part of those contexts. Hence Latour emphasizes that you can’t explain our moral systems without including sociotechnical ones, and the theoretical separation of “society” and “technology” creates problems downstream. In the present context, “misogynist-with-anonymous-comments” is a different kind of actor from either “misogynist” or “anonymous commentor” in the same way that Latour shows that “man with gun” isn’t just the aggregation of “man” and “gun.” In other words, we need to be looking at the interaction between privacy, social norms, and the socio-technical systems.
In a context of sex inequality, the technologies of the house and of anonymous commenting risk contributing to further damaging the already marginalized, particularly when those technologies are given the social and legal imprimatur of positive values like privacy. These technologies create new kinds of actors: “wife-beater behind closed doors” is more than the aggregation of “wife beater” and “house.” In other contexts, the technologies of the house (in the form of a shelter) and anonymous posting (as a feminist practice, calling out, for example, workplace harassment) serve to empower the disadvantaged. Some of the Jezebel community have proposed engaging the trolls in an effort to change the social context. That’s admirable. I also don’t think it will get them very far (if nothing else, a vast body of evidence confirms that trolls love the attention, and view it as a reward for their obnoxiousness. Hence DNFTT as a maxim), because it treats the trolls as separate from the sociotechnical system that facilitates their behavior. Anonymous commenting is part of the actor that is the “Internet troll” just like the “private house” is part of the actor that is a wife-beater (I’m leaving aside social and legal norms and other variables here for the sake of brevity, but obviously those are part of it too). All of which is to say that changing the architecture of the system to stop the trolls – a “tech fix” – is more than merely a tech fix. It changes what kinds of actors can appear on the site.