In 1966, French structuralist Mary Douglas defined dirt as “matter out of place.” How offensive we find matter depends on context: a smear of gravy at the side of a plate can be quite welcome—down the front of our shirt, not so much. Context is important. As with matter, so with words. Mouse can mean a small rodent or a means of controlling a computer. Despite this ambiguity, few people would struggle to understand you if you asked them to use the mouse when seated in front of a laptop.
This kind of contextual effect has been exploited by the comedian Stewart Lee, who has convincingly demonstrated that the degree to which an audience will laugh at superficially puerile humor—the notion of doctoring a road sign for the village of Shilbottle to read Shitbottle—can be modulated merely by the number of times the same gag has been made in succession: the gag quickly becomes tiresome, but eventually circles back to being funny again. Whether we judge Shitbottle hilarious or irritating is, therefore, determined by the context preceding the joke. We can find a more prototypical example in Father Ted, in which a series of improbable events results in the protagonist’s living room being liberally decorated with Nazi memorabilia. In this case, the fact that the context is a comedy show, rather than a documentary, is the salient point. Even without the laughter track, the ludicrousness of the scene would indicate that it’s OK to laugh at the offensive material, even if we don’t find it funny. When Frankie Boyle says that he hopes an individual will get cancer, why are many of us neither upset nor alarmed? Probably because this kind of pronouncement is generally preceded by a horde of similarly crass outpourings that together signal that he’s not being serious. Surely no one would take Boyle’s words at face value, even if they read a transcript of his act?
As I write, Warwick University has just allowed two students to return to the institution. These students had received ten-year bans for their involvement in a private online group chat, which, according to media outlets, “threatened rape.” Google and you will find the screenshots that were eventually passed on to the university. Representative comments include “Sometimes it’s fun to just go wild and rape 100 girls,” “I reckon she should be fingered vigorously by her own dad to teach her a lesson” and “I’m going to go all 1945 advancing soviet army on her and rape her in the street whilst everybody watches.” Some of the numerous similar comments have been tagged with emojis, including laughing and winking smileys. While reading the story, my heart almost stopped when I noticed that, without exception, the media I read (e.g. the BBC and various online versions of national newspapers) are running stories about student rape threats. According to the media, students are being allowed back to university despite having threatened to rape women, and women at the university fear for their safety when some of the perpetrators of the threats return in September.
Something is very wrong when the obvious interpretation—namely that these young men were indulging in deliberately crass and offensive interpersonal humor—apparently cannot be spoken or printed. Do I find any of it funny? Not at all, but that is entirely beside the point: the exchanges were not intended for my amusement. Nor, in fact, were the messages intended for the edification of anyone outside the private group, but were screenshotted by a whistleblower, before eventually being made public. Is the content likely to offend many people? Undoubtedly, but perhaps not the members of the group chat themselves. To draw on Mary Douglas, is the real problem with these words that they ended up in the wrong place? In other words, had these exchanges remained in their intended place—a private conversation—how many people would have been upset or offended?
I am not defending these asinine jokers or suggesting that they have done nothing wrong. In fact, in order to understand what’s going on here, we should examine exactly what they might have done wrong. For, although this matter has implications for the lay population’s freedom of speech, it has even more worrying ones for journalists’ and publishers’ obligations to speak the (journalistic) truth. The nature of the evils supposedly committed by the young men is not quite so obvious when one considers that they communicated with each other under the reasonable expectation that their chat would not be made public. Let’s imagine that the messages had remained private—what harm would have been done? If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?
Some might argue that these messages further the propagation of rape culture and that the individuals themselves would be more likely than otherwise to sexually harm women after engaging in these exchanges. That’s certainly plausible, but are there actually reasonable grounds for believing that these kinds of exchanges might make men more dangerous to women?
In fact, there might be: findings show that men who already believe that women are inferior to men and are subsequently exposed to sexist jokes report an increase in hostile sexism and acceptance of rape myths, and even express that they would be more likely to commit rape if they could get away with it. These results should give pause to those who casually dismiss the chat group’s exchanges as harmless banter. However, the harmful effects of exposure to sexist jokes only apply to those who have a pre-existing belief that women are inferior—men who do not hold that view, even those who are benevolently sexist (women are better organizers than men; women are better at cleaning and cooking than men), are unaffected by the potentially worrying consequences of sexist jokes. Also, perhaps men with misogynistic traits simply feel more comfortable being honest about their beliefs after experiencing some sexist jokes in the absence of accompanying opprobrium—this seems at least as plausible as the authors’ conclusion that hearing only four sexist jokes (e.g. How many men does it take to change a light bulb? None, let her do the dishes in the dark) makes men significantly more likely to rape women. There are also a number of methodological problems with these studies, which are beyond the scope of this article. Although it would be premature to conclude that sexist jokes make men more dangerous to women, the fact that there are at least some data consistent with this notion provides grounds for discouraging such behavior. But not at all costs.
If there is such a paucity of convincing evidence to support the idea that misogynistic talk breeds misogyny, why is this view uncritically accepted in so many mainstream media circles? The most obvious answer might be that the causal connection is simply self-evident to many people. A comparison with views on violent films and computer games might be instructive. It seems highly plausible that violent media would make people more violent: so the late twentieth century witnessed many high-profile campaigns to ban video nasties and shoot ’em ups. Psychologists went looking for links between screen violence and aggressive behavior and found them: all manner of aggressive and violent markers increased after participants engaged with screen violence. However, more recent and thoughtful research has examined whether such changes are long-term. It turns out they are not: kids calm down once the game is over. Recent reviews of the effects of violent computer games not only fail to find links between playing such games and violent behaviors, they even suggest that playing such games may lead to decreases in long-term violence. Just because something sounds plausible doesn’t make it true.
While there is no clear-cut evidence that the men’s chat was inherently harmful, the emotional effects on the women who were referred to in the chat exchanges were clearly harmful. One of them told the press, “We were humiliated, as if for sport. These boys were my friends—like my brothers. And they destroyed me.” There can be little doubt that the revelation of close friends having made such comments—whether meant seriously or not—would be upsetting and a gross betrayal for many women. The details of the relationships between the men and women involved are rightly opaque, for privacy reasons, but the horror of some of the women involved at the return of the disgraced men to the university should surely be taken seriously. However, are the men themselves the only bad actors here? What about the whistleblower, who chose to show the screenshots to the targets of the comments? Our feelings about the whistleblower will likely differ depending on whether we assume that the men were credible dangers to women or immature boors. If the former, then the matter should have been reported to the police, in addition to informing the endangered parties. If the latter, then, however well-intentioned the whistleblower was, the most unambiguous harm would have been avoided if he had not exposed the chat.
This isn’t to say that blame for this sordid matter lies at the feet of the whistleblower—not at all—but to raise the question of how best to respond in such cases. If my neighbor makes a racist joke about the postman and I tell the postman what he said, the postman will surely be saddened. If I had not done so, he wouldn’t have felt that way. Reducing the postman’s threat from racism must involve talking to the neighbor or, if matters are more serious, involving the authorities. The public naming and shaming of the individuals involved in the group chat essentially commits them to living under a lifelong cloud, their public shame fully visible to would-be employers, friends and significant others. This is surely at least as blameworthy as privately joking about rape. If the whistleblower was motivated by the belief that Warwick was not responding to the matter strongly enough, so much the worse. This is vigilantism. Bypassing the law to ruin people’s lives when we do not like their behavior is to be actively discouraged.
But let’s imagine that the whistleblower had only sent the screenshots to Warwick University’s vice chancellor, leaving the power to determine the chat group’s fate squarely in the hands of the university. What could the university authorities have done? The men had broken no law and no sensible person could interpret their words as a credible threat without additional, corroborating information. The university has not made a statement as to why they originally imposed bans on the students or why all but one of the bans have since been overturned. It is also unclear if the non-returning student attempted to overturn his lifelong ban.
Perhaps, we should not only discourage people from engaging in misogynistic online chats, but encourage them to use WhatsApp and Messenger as if, to update an ancient adage, they were writing in the plain sight of all people. I leave the reader to ponder the implications of this advice.