Irrational Animals: a neuroscience take on the news

RSS

CAPITAL LETTERS, affectedly boisterous sex, little girl voice: internet feminists all write the same. This is a problem

The perils of Groupthink - Martha Gill's "Irrational Animals" column.

"Oh, men, why are you like this?" Photograph: Getty Images

I’d call myself a feminist, so I’m happy to note that feminist commentary, at least online, is becoming fairly easy to spot. You don’t need to read the arguments, you can just scan for SUDDEN OUTBURSTS OF CAPITAL LETTERS, AS IF CROSS, BUT IN A CUTE WAY, LIKE A CHILD. This is often accompanied by anthropomorphising the commentary (this column often finds itself, as if by magic, rooting through the fridge at 3am), affectedly boisterous descriptions of sex (I’ve been known to shout, “Is that the best you've got?” when in the throes), talking to groups as if all of them were right there in the room (oh, men, why are you like this?) and fun references to gin and/or cake.

Now, there’s nothing wrong with showing your writing influences - but when you write as a tribe that's a sign that you think as a tribe, and when you think as a tribe common sense starts to go out the window.

A couple of months ago a University in Colorado published some guidelines on how to minimise your risk of rape. The list was short and practical, and when it went up there was an immediate outcry across several social media sites, during which it was asked repeatedly why the message wasn’t “don’t rape” or “rapists are the ones to blame”, rather than “don’t get raped”. The response was so dramatic that the list was removed almost as soon as it went up, amid apology.

An almost identical episode happened last year over West Mercia Police's "Safe Night Out" campaign, which involved posters advising women how to avoid rape. A number of feminist websites, including the F-Word, picked up on it, and a prolonged and angry Twitter barrage followed. In the end West Mercia Police too, took down the posters and apologised.

The point the online commenters had been keen to make is that nothing excuses rape, and of course they're right.  But excusing rape is a very different thing from lowering the risks of rape. A number of things can lower the risks of rape – and these are things worth knowing about. The Safe Night Out campaign was never presented as a debate-framer, it was just some anti-crime info. Do we really need to couple every piece of “avoid being a victim of crime” advice with the rider “also, don’t commit crimes, crimes are illegal, and if anyone’s to blame for crimes, it’s definitely the criminal”? It's odd, not to say worrying, that these two concepts have become so muddled together in the case of rape that safety advice is being compromised. How did this happen?

My guess is that it's something to do with people moving as a group. Economists talk about the phenomenon of “groupthink” – the kind of thinking that happens when peer pressure cancels out a realistic appraisal of other viewpoints. Groupthink is never a good thing. One of the most notorious examples of its results is the US military’s failure to prepare for the attack on Pearl Harbor. The Americans intercepted Japanese messages which stated explicitly that Japan was arming itself to launch an attack. But such was the power of shared illusions and rationalisations that the group consensus became, despite having the Japanese messages in front of them, that Japan would not attack. Officers, afraid of facing social scrutiny, did not raise objections.

In this case it seems that the feminist response to advice about rape has been so rehearsed that it always produces the same response. (Ironically, the "knee-jerk" is probably one of the more effective manouvers with which to fend off an approaching attacker. Well, we'll never know now).

Perhaps its true that journalism can only have an effect on the world when everyone shouts the same thing at once. But if we’re going to move as an team we have to think about how we are steering. That generally requires a system of checks and balances – and that means making room for a few dissenting voices.