Facebook, lolcats, and matters-of-concern

So an unexpected thing happened recently: my Facebook-ing practice rather drastically changed. Primarily I used to use Facebook as a place to post interesting links to things worth reading – new research and reports on social trends for good or ill; or a particularly insightful piece of political analysis; or something about a new bit of technology that has interesting implications for living. Whatever it was, the implicit understanding was that I wanted my friends to read it and see what I saw of value in the story.

But for some reason I’ve almost entirely stopped doing that now. Why?

The thing I spend most of my time doing on Facebook now is, perhaps unsurprisingly, arguing. The number of “serious” conversations I’ve gotten into on FB over the past few months is a bit embarrassing. Almost always they’re about religion, or religious attitudes and behaviours towards women, gays, minorities, etcetera and occasionally they are with strangers, but usually they’re with ‘friends’ or at least acquaintances. Why this sudden change? I’m begging to think that perhaps it’s because, for all my linking and leaving the ‘evidence’ out there for people to find, many people just haven’t been noticing or have not taken it on board. My ‘links’ don’t seem to be having the desired effect.

At the same time as this, I’ve shifted away from using actual pictures of myself as profile pictures to alternatively using baby photos, memes and photos of famous individuals – Fidel Castro, in particular. I’ve also changed my display name to ‘Comrade Ben Abraham’, a thing that started as a joke but which seems to fit within this same pattern.

So am I a Facebook activist? Not quite. Rather than activism I’d like to connect my practice with a different (and newer) tradition addressing Bruno Latour’s matters-of-concern. A practical demonstration is in order. The comments thread at the bottom of the piece I wrote for Gamasutra responding to the ongoing conditions of inequality in game development (and criticism) is a fantastic example of where the new battles are being fought.

Presented with incontrovertible evidence that sexism is produced through unequal wages (just one powerful example, and one with much ‘hard evidence’ – or so I thought!) many commenters decided not to accept my matters-of-fact that ‘sexism exists’ and that ‘it’s a really big deal’ and instead attempted to debunk my position. Reading through these comments I began to deeply empathise with and understand Latour when he expressed his doubt and fears in his excellent paper, ‘Why has critique run out of steam?’, saying:

Remember the good old days when revisionism arrived very late, after the facts had been thoroughly established, decades after bodies of evidence had accumulated? Now we have the benefit of what I call instant revisionism. The smoke of the event has not yet finished settling before dozens of conspiracy theories begin revising the official account, adding even more ruins to the ruins, adding even more smoke to the smoke.

To see that in action, one needs only glance over the comments. The very first commenter, one Robert Ferris, says:

Alison Croggon’s claim that “It’s just a fact…you can just take it as read that if there’s a woman’s name attached to something it will attract less notice” makes no sense. You can’t simply take judicial notice in a societal discussion. You must back it up with something, because (as with the wage study above) you will either gain a weapon to bludgeon people into action, or (and, yes, this is a real possibility) you will learn that your premise is wrong.

Oh dear. Apparently Croggon’s ‘facts’ aren’t really facts at all – they need revising. Curiously enough, he goes on later to state some of his own facts, but we’ll ignore that. After all, the point of all this analysis is to come to the realisation that it’s never about the facts themselves as it’s all rhetorical anyway. It’s about winning the argument and (in the process) feeling okay about the way women, or gays and lesbians and transgendered persons are treated. Because the facts are on my side and blow the rest of it.

Latour again, expresses the frustration with this new form of strategic critique, saying:

What has become of critique when my neighbour in the little Bournabbais village where I live looks down on me as someone hopelessly naïve because I believe the United States had been attacked by terrorists? Remember the good old days when University professors could look down on unsophisticated folks because those hillbillies naïvely believed in church, motherhood, and apple pie? Things have changed a lot, at least in my village. I am now the one who naively believes in some facts because I am educated, while the other guys are too unsophisticated to be gullible….

He goes on to connect the same action with the long and storied history of paranoia that is conspiracy theories, and says that the same explanatory action is at work behind the debunking:

…after disbelief has struck and an explanation is requested for what is really going on, in both cases again it is the same appeal to powerful agents hidden in the dark acting always consistently, continuously, relentlessly.

After my ‘naïve’ believe in sexism is exposed, the explanation is offered: I am out to destroy the very foundation of western democracy!  Mr Cheng Ling explains it all:

This article is incredibly flawed, but more than that, it’s hilarious. The arms-behind-the-head coolness of Mr. Sensitive Pony Tail Man, telling us all how horrible we are and how we can all be great like him. All we have to do is everything he says. Ben, thank you for epitomizing everything wrong with Western society.

What a stunningly powerful critique, even if it is utterly inaccurate (I haven’t worn a pony-tail by choice since I was 16!) but the point is that my sinister motivation is all the explanation this commenter needs for why I am so ruthlessly attacking his privilege. So he turns my own tools – critique! – back upon me.

So what’s our next move in this arms race of critical weaponry? We can hardly move back to naïve facts, indeed as Latour says, “The question was never to get away from facts but closer to them” by showing how constructed so-called-facts really are. A lot of effort has gone into the production of even something as simple and plainly matter-of-fact as 1+1=2. Think of the great history of mathematical proof, of mathematical teaching institutionalising this most basic piece of knowledge and disseminating it around the world to children and adults alike…

So how do we win this argument for the side of good? Latour again:

Critique has not been critical enough in spite of all its sore-scratching. Reality is not defined by matters of fact. Matters of fact are not all that is given in experience. Matters of fact are only very partial and, I would argue, very polemical, very political renderings of matters of concern and only a subset of what could also be called states of affairs.

And how do we reach these matters-of-concern? How do we uncover (if that’s the appropriate term, as it has about it the whiff of the sceptical debunker) states of affairs? Perhaps we shouldn’t talk in terms of ‘uncoverings’ at all, and instead in terms of aesthetics, or commitments, or of imperatives, or even ethics? Latour recognises this:

My question is thus: can we devise another powerful descriptive tool that deals this time with matters of concern and whose import then will no longer be to debunk but to protect and to care, as Donna Harraway would put it? Is it really possible to transform the critical urge in the ethos of someone who adds reality to matters of fact and not subtract reality?

To return to my Facebook practice as an example – I think this is something that I am trying to do with my new habits. My use of memes and pictures of Castro and all my strenuous efforts at arguing (politically, tactically and rhetorically!) with friends is some attempt at getting to a place where I can deal in matters of concern (or states of affairs). Christian McCrea has been doing this since at least 2009, when he was banned for Faceholing. What does it mean to find abandoned groups with no admins left, and rename them counter to their original purposes? It’s dealing with matters of concern. It’s more aesthetic than it is science; more ‘play’ than it is ‘fun’; it’s serious but at the same time… it’s hard for people to take you at your most polemical when your display picture is a cat.