Why is the colour blue like arguments on Twitter?

Instead of throwing around words like "mansplaining", we should try to understand each other's experiences - which are as unique as our individual perception of colours.

I happened to be reading up on qualia, recently. For those familiar with the term, please forgive my short and inevitably inaccurate explanation of this deeply complex philosophical concept. Qualia are those personal experiences which depend on subjective perception to such an extent that knowledge of them cannot be properly shared.

A common example of a quale, is the perception of saturated colour. Colour does not exist objectively and independently of our perception of it. The cone photoreceptors in our eye send a message to the brain, depending on the wavelength of light reflected, and we interpret that as red, or blue, or whatever. There is, however, no way to confirm that what I see as blue is what you see as blue. Try to explain blue to a person who was born blind and you will find it is impossible without resorting to analogies which rely on other sensations, or referencing other colours or other things which are “blue”.

Pain is also a quale. Imagine explaining the sensation to an alien race which has never felt – and is incapable of feeling – pain. This doesn't mean your pain isn't real, of course. It just means that, like so many other things, it is a singularly personal experience.

These unshareables are an important component of what makes us who we are. And since it is a philosophical impossibility for us to feel things as someone else does, communication is the only viable route to try and explain them, to foster empathy. I believe this is precisely what empathy is; an openness to information (and a willingness to understand it) which allows one to approximate what blue might look like through someone else's eyes.

This brings me to the recent debate about Twitter abuse, the possibility of censorship, misogyny, silence and speaking out. I have long felt that one of the biggest obstacles to understanding each other, to empathy, is the attempt to aggregate our qualia; to generalise about what is universally offensive and try to define it on behalf of an entire group. Each abuser is an individual with their own agenda, their own motivation and their own baggage. Each recipient of abuse, ditto.

It is entirely true to say I haven't walked a mile in a woman's shoes. Except for a few months in 1989 when I was trying something out. But each woman's journey is different, as is each man's. Nobody has walked in anybody's shoes. We are uniquely alone in our perception of the world around us. I was dismayed as I watched the debate somehow mutate from how to deal with abuse on social media – together – to how all men hate and want to hurt women.

Granted, there are shared experiences which might make it marginally easier for a woman to explain her colour blue to another woman. But it is still a mammoth task and it still just empathy, not actual shared perception. And it doesn't mean it is impossible for her to find a different common frame of reference which might allow her to explain her colour blue to a man. Trying to do so is incredibly worthwhile, not only for the explainee, but also the explainer. Each time we struggle to find the right words to describe our qualia to someone, it facilitates the next time someone struggles to explain theirs to us.

I read Dan Hodges' blog on modern feminism, and it is a good example of the knots into which we tie ourselves, when we try to generalise. He puts forward a world view in which men in general somehow get together and decide - or instinctively know - how to react to women in general. I have never gone up to stranger and broken the ice with “so. . . you have a penis, too”. Except for a few months in 1991 when I was trying something out.

Some of the reaction to Hodges's blog was equally disappointing – it was dismissed as “mansplaining”. A quaint little term with a very nasty subtext, meaning that anyone with a particular chromosomal combination could not possibly have anything of value to offer. The very same narrow-mindedness which kept women oppressed for millennia.

This world view of them-against-us simply doesn't tally with my perception. It is not the blue I see. I have felt many things hinder, annoy, anger or threaten me at one time or another. The possibility of gender equality has never been one of them. I welcome it. I fight for it. I stand shoulder to shoulder with my sisters, my mother, my nieces, my girlfriends, my female colleagues and cannot wait for it to come. To be told, quite consistently, “no, really, you want to rape them” is deeply upsetting.

I was similarly dismayed to see people I admire lay into each other on the subject of whether silence was the right approach. So far as I could see, nobody forced anyone to be silent as a protest. Some people decided, based on their experience, their colour blue, that it was an appropriate response and did it. Others decided to talk about inspiring women. Others decided to ignore it altogether and not allow abuse to derail them from normality. I say hurrah for them all. Why must it be one-size-fits-all? It is completely within our gift to allow each other freedom of expression.

The other day, someone accosted me on Twitter and wrote: “Muslims left alone would still be living in caves, Africans in trees and Arabs in children.” This gentleman was crystal clear about his intent to offend and upset and effective at expressing it. To him, I am the troll. Then, just as I was about to type something, someone else replied to him about “Arabic numerals”, someone else said to that person they were “actually Hindu”, a third person butted in etc. On top of the people (men and women) hurling abuse (to men and women) with wicked intent, why must we troll each other with oneupmanship?

The only true distinction I can see is between people of both sexes willing to put in the hard graft to understand each other and those who are not; those who want to evolve and those who do not. They are the only two clear camps I can discern. And they are fluid, as perception is. The idea that all those people who want to go forward are prevented from being effective allies for each other, based on what is between their legs, seems daft to me. It seems small-minded and antiquated. It seems to exclude fifty percent of shades of the colour blue from the palette.

Technological advances and increasingly shared linguistic and cultural experiences mean we are very close to an era where we might actually be able, all of us, to communicate with each other. Perhaps, even act in tandem. This will not have occurred since we were a small tribe of a couple of hundred homo sapiens in Africa, 195,000 years ago. I can hardly fathom it. The ability to share information across our entire species. It is a prospect that the “establishment” is terrified of. Anything is possible. Wouldn't it be tragic if we fucked it up because we went into it with a penchant for misunderstanding each other's uniqueness? Especially when, ironically, that solitude of perception and our need to share it is the only thing we all truly have in common.

Maybe #TWITTERSILENCE should become something we shout, when everyone needs to take five, calm down and get some perspective. 

What do you see?

Greek-born, Alex Andreou has a background in law and economics. He runs the Sturdy Beggars Theatre Company and blogs here You can find him on twitter @sturdyalex

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New Times: David Runciman on networks and the digital revolution

The digital revolution has had two profound effects on how power is distributed – both of which squeeze the state's power.

Left-wing political parties exist to use the power of the state to rectify unjust distributions of power in society. What has gone wrong with this project? First, the political parties bit. Established parties everywhere are struggling to seem relevant to most people’s everyday concerns: they look increasingly like the tired relics of a more hierarchical age. The exception, of course, is the current Labour Party, which has opened itself up to become the biggest mass-membership party in Europe. But the trade-off has been to move away from seeing the acquisition of power as its primary purpose. These days parties can only really draw people in by offering to be vehicles for the expression of political resentment and disenchantment. But that is no way to rectify the causes of their resentment; neglecting the challenge of power usually ends up making things worse.

However, this is just a symptom of the wider problem, which is the changing nature of power. Technology lies at the heart of it. The digital revolution has had two profound effects on how power is distributed. First, it has empowered individuals, by providing them with unprecedented access to information, tools of communication and the means of expression. This is power exercised as choice: we all now have multiple ways of registering our likes and dislikes that never existed before.

Second, the digital revolution has empowered networks, creating vast new webs that span the globe. Some of them, such as Facebook, are close to being monopolies. We end up joining the networks that other people have joined, because that’s where the action is. This gives a small number of networks an awful lot of power.

Both of these developments are deeply problematic for the power of the state. The proliferation of choice makes citizens much harder to satisfy. Many of us have got used to micromanaging our lives in ways that leaves government looking flat-footed and unresponsive, no matter how hard it tries. At the same time, states face global networks that they have no idea how to control. International finance is one of these: money is information and information now has too many different ways to flow. States are getting squeezed.

The paradox is that the same forces that are squeezing the state are also giving impetus to left-wing politics. There are huge imbalances of power being created in networked societies. The monopolists are hoovering up money and influence. Personal connections count for more than ever, now that networked connections have become ubiquitous. Education is turning into a way of pulling up the drawbridge rather than moving up the ladder. One temptation for the left is to assume that the evidence of injustice will sooner or later outweigh the disabling effects of these social forces on the state. That is part of the Corbyn gamble: hang around until people are sufficiently pissed off to start demanding social-democratic solutions to their problems.

I don’t think this is going to happen. There is nothing to suggest that popular dissatisfaction will find its way back to the state as its best outlet. It will be channelled through the networks that are making the life of the state increasingly difficult.

The other temptation is to think that the left can achieve its goals by bypassing conventional social democracy and channelling its own ambitions into network politics. This is the other side of the Corbyn gamble, or at least the view of some of the people who have attached themselves to him: a new politics is coming that uses digital technology to mobilise fleet-footed networks of activists who can generate change without going through the cumbersome and time-consuming process of winning general elections. That also looks pretty wishful to me. These networks are just another vehicle for expressing personal preferences. They don’t have any means of changing the preferences of people who think differently. You need to win power to do that.

The state’s power is being squeezed by networks of empowered individuals, but these networks don’t have the kind of power necessary to do the redistributive work of the state. What is the left to do? It needs to try to find value in the fact that the state is not just another network. The right does this instinctively, by talking up the state’s security functions and championing ideas of sovereignty and national identity. But that does nothing to address the deleterious effects of living in a modern networked society, where we are swamped by personal choice but impotent in the face of corporate and financial power.

Rather than trying to harness the power of networks, the left should stand up for people against the dehumanising power of Big Data. The state isn’t Google and should not try to pretend to be. We don’t need more choice. We don’t need more efficiency of the kind that digital technology is endlessly supplying. We need protection from the mindless bureaucratic demands of the new machine age: the relentless pursuit of information, regardless of the human cost. There are limits to what the state can do but it retains some real power. It still employs real human beings; it educates them and provides them with welfare. It should do what is in its power to make the work tolerable and the education meaningful, to provide welfare in ways that don’t leave people at the mercy of faceless systems. The left needs to humanise the state.

At the moment, too much energy is being spent trying to humanise the party. We are told that people are tired of robotic, careerist politicians; they want unspun versions of people like themselves. But robotic politicians aren’t the problem; the coming age of robots is. While the party tries to feel more comfortable with itself, the effects of a networked society are running rampant. Acquiring the power of the state is still the best way to fight back. It doesn’t matter if that has to be done in an ugly, mechanised, artificial way, by careerist politicians with whom we wouldn’t choose to spend our personal time. Better an ugly, artificial politics than an ugly, artificial world. 

David Runciman is a professor of politics and the head of the department of politics and international studies at Cambridge

This article is part of a New Times collection of the future of the left. Read the other pieces here.

 

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times