Words Aren’t Magic

So let’s talk about This Shit Right Here (that’s an archive.today link), in which technology consultant Jeff Reifman accuses Geek feminism blogger Leigh Honeywell and advice columnist Captain Awkward of harassment.

Last November, Reifman wrote a lengthy post about his relationship with an ex who eventually asked him to stop contacting her, then threatened to get a court order when he did not. He used her as an example to decry what he called ‘cutoff culture,’ and to suggest that women who want to cut exes out of their lives have an obligation to find some kind of ‘compromise’ to make sure their ex’s emotional needs are met.

Leigh and the Captain, both feminist activists, called him out. The Captain did so in this excellent post breaking down the entitlement and abuser-logic in his arguments. Leigh called him out on twitter. He wrote something in public; they challenged it in public.

Reifman then sent Leigh an email that prompted her to publicly and privately tell him never to contact her again.

So he wrote a blog post in which Leigh is very easy to identify to trash talk her for ‘harassing’ him, implying that it’s a a violation of Double Union’s Anti-Harassment Policy for her to call out his enormously-creepy behavior towards an ex who’d asked him to leave her alone (including publicly hashing out his relationship with said ex with roughly as much care for hiding her identity as he showed for hiding Leigh’s).
The Geek Feminism Code Of Conduct contains a section on things we specifically don’t consider harassment:

The Geek Feminism community prioritizes marginalized people’s safety over privileged people’s comfort. The Geek Feminism Anti-Abuse Team will not act on complaints regarding:

  • ‘Reverse’ -isms, including ‘reverse racism,’ ‘reverse sexism,’ and ‘cisphobia’ (because these things don’t exist)
  • Reasonable communication of boundaries, such as “leave me alone,” “go away,” or “I’m not discussing this with you.”
  • Refusal to explain or debate social justice concepts
  • Communicating in a ‘tone’ you don’t find congenial
  • Criticizing racist, sexist, cissexist, or otherwise oppressive behavior or assumptions

I wrote that section because people on an axis of privilege have a nasty tendency to appropriate social justice terminology (like privilege and harassment) and twist it around to serve their own point of view. They treat these words like magic incantations, as if it’s the words, rather than the argument, that convinces people.

Words are not magic incantations. They have meanings. Using a word without understanding its meaning just because you’ve seen other people successfully use it to convey a point is magical thinking.

Sometimes, the people who employ these words as magic incantations mistake other people’s refusal to engage for a victory–they must have successfully turned social justice sorcerers’ magic words against us, because we won’t argue with them anymore. Reifman himself engages in a version of this fallacy when he armchair-diagnoses his critics as ‘triggered’ rather than recognizing that their anger is a natural reaction to his demands for free emotional labor. The truth is more mundane: most of us are not interested in teaching reading comprehension to people whose comprehension is willfully limited to concepts that support their privilege.

This is the email that led Leigh to publicly tell Reifman to leave her alone:

From: Jeff Reifman
Date: Mon, May 12, 2014 at 11:03 PM
Subject: Responding to your tweets
To: Leigh Honeywell
Cc: [redacted mutual friend]

Hi Leigh, I don’t know if you remember meeting me – but I think we met
at Elysian, I’m actually close friends with [redacted mutual friend]. I saw your
tweets and your medium note and thought I would reach out.

I noticed that the comment policy on your blog asks that commenters be “
non-discriminatory, friendly, funny, or perspicacious” … I’m super
open to a discussion about this as long as comments are civil and
constructive. I would hope you would tweet as you wish others to
publicly comment on your blog.

Using the word shitbag … and repeated mentions of “fuck” both on
twitter and on medium doesn’t represent civil discussion very well.

the feedback I’ve received from the cutoff essay has been overall very
positive – but sometimes it triggers people … and I’ve now, only
twice, received attacks like this – you’re the second.

I’m open to talking about it – especially if you want to highlight
specifics … but I ask that you be civil and constructive …[sic]

Jeff Reifman

Translation: Tone argument, demand for free emotional labor and education, tone argument, tone argument, lurkers support me in email, tone argument.

You’ll notice that he CC’d a mutual friend of theirs. Then he went and wrote this follow-up post, using barely-pixelated avatars and so many direct quotes that Leigh and the Captain are laughably easy to identify. So for all his thinky thoughts about ‘shaming,’ he clearly has no problem with trying to shame people who call out his extremely inappropriate behavior.

Too bad he’s trying to do so with magic incantations.

13 thoughts on “Words Aren’t Magic

  1. Annalee Post author

    Here at Geek Feminism, we’re big believers in ‘cutoff culture.’ So if you want to use our platform in ways that violate our comment policy, we’re going to cut you off.

    Pay special attention to the section on ‘adding nothing to the conversation,’ and note that we are not hosting any discussion of Reifman’s ex’s personal life.

    (note: the original version of this post contained a reference to ‘cargo cults.’ Tim Chevalier pointed me to an article about how the concept of cargo cults is inherently problematic. With apologies to anyone I hurt by employing racist, lazy shorthand, I’ve removed the reference to cargo cults from this post).

  2. Gutter Theatrical

    Yeah, the meat of his answer is that he acknowledges he disrespected his ex’s boundaries but that’s OK ’cause 1. he got issues, 2. we don’t know the whole story (even though he told it in abundant detail FOR the purpose of his readership understanding it), 3. his peers do it, and 4. boundaries are blurred lines ya know. He also backpedaled in circles around his problematic points, like affirming that of course he doesn’t believe people owe him a response, he just expects it anyway and writes biblical soft-spoken rants when they deny him one.
    Those are, again, all creepy, red flag behaviors, which is what he was called on for to begin with. It went completely over his head.

    But what irks me the most about the whole thing, is precisely the soft-spoken, lengthy answer, dripping with mea culpa. He continues to blame virtually everything, from “wounded, angry activists” to the whole of feminism, to reckless readers, to mob mentality, for collectively failing to understand his point. He does so by affirming to be on the home team, and to understand where their misconception is coming from (a presumption he gets to make about us, but not we about him), thus condescendingly detracting from his complete dismissal of every criticism, which he avoids actually tackling by making accusations in return (a.k.a. derailing).
    To an incautious reader, that would look like a perfectly reasonable response (the reason why benign sexism and manipulative abuse is so insidious and difficult to deal with, after all, is that it comes in a friendly package).

    He goes about relationships as if they were civic procedures, as if there were communication protocols you’re required to follow should you wish to cancel your subscription to a person. It’s not that hard a concept to grasp. Both parties decide of their own will to share their experience, if one decides that’s no longer wanted, they stop and pull out. Period. End of story. Friendship is not a duty, and my god, certainly not something you “win” at the end (WTF was that part about?).

    For a guy who’ so hellbent on healing and understanding, how about understanding that some people’s healing includes cutoffs, and that yes, ignoring the cutoff (be it after 6 days or 6 months or 6 years) IS entitlement, ’cause you’re putting your hurt above theirs.

    Maybe you really didn’t mean to hurt them, maybe it wasn’t even anything you did, it’s something the person’s going through right now, it doesn’t matter, it’s their choice to cut relations and there’s no 10 thousand worded reasoning that makes it OK to intrude on that.

    1. Annalee Post author

      Yes. Writing is sometimes hard, and you’re never going to be able to write something that works for all of your intended audience. But when a whole lot of people are having a negative reaction, it is the height of arrogance to assume they must all be recovering from trauma and reacting to that instead of to the actual words he wrote.

      There is a constant in all of the interactions with that post, including the many, many negative ones. That constant is not a particular brand of feminism, or a certain community. It’s certainly not trauma. The constant is the post itself. And if that many people are really failing to understand what he was trying to say (I don’t think we were–we understood perfectly; he’s just backpedaling), then perhaps the problem is with the text, not the interpretation.

      1. kevinmcclear

        The other constant is confirmation bias. One poorly worded but seemly heartfelt positive comment from a reader who feels validated by his thoughts will confirm his perceived status more effectively than a dozen well researched, well sourced, elegantly phrased and coherent rebuttals.

      2. gnureads

        Yeah, exactly. He thinks everyone who disagrees with him is traumatized? Gimme a break. He’s a sexist and he doesn’t even know it. Insisting that everyone except for an abuser is responsible for their recovery and actions, denying that the right to cutoff is essential for women considering the _epidemic_ of violence against women -says everyone has the right and then promptly argues against it, saying that people do it for the wrong reasons, as if all dudes have a great reaction to rejection, but most importantly, it hurts _him_- and then resurrects the angry feminist stereotype for good measure, pretending he’s concerned about the cause and not personally hurt or anything. If you’re so angry, feminists, us nice men might give up on you, since our help is contingent on your tone and whatnot. Thankfully, we have self-esteem. No, thanks for your manipulative, conditional kindness! Anger is healthy, anger makes change!

        1. Annalee Post author

          Yeah. The thing about questioning the ‘reasons’ someone enforces a boundary is that demanding someone have a reason that is acceptable to him is still reserving the right to set their boundaries for them.

          Men are socialized to believe that access to women–our attention, our emotional labor, our very bodies–is an entitlement. Only in that context can denying a man that access be seen as extreme or violent. The notion that most cutoffs are uncalled-for is rooted in the entitlement that they should be called-for; that ‘yes’ is the default from which women need a reason to deviate.

          As far as angry feminists? Yeah. It’s a neat trick to refer to perfectly legitimate criticism as ‘harassment’ in the same post that he argues that feminists need to be more conciliatory. If the only way to be nice enough for him is to agree with him, it’s no wonder he thinks feminists have an image problem. Tone argument all the way down.

          It’s not our job to make room for allies. Real allies make room for us.

  3. Hazel

    He does not seem to have had any problem with Doctor Nerdlove’s takedown of the very same article. I can’t imagine why. Really, I cannot think of a single reason.

    1. Annalee Post author

      It looks like he made one offhand reference to Dr. Nerdlove in his section on how the internet ‘piled on.’ But remarkably, managed not to single him out with an accusation of harassment, or quote him so extensively that anyone can tell who he’s talking about.

      You’re right, that’s a real head-scratcher. What could possibly make Dr. Nerdlove different from Leigh and the Captain?

  4. Leah

    What’s especially disturbing about the email to Leigh is that he’s clearly trying to control the conversation, and Leigh, just as he was trying to control his ex, and the terms of their non-relationship, after they had broken up. Under all the faux-civility, he’s clearly infuriated that he can’t do so, in either case.

    1. The Truffle

      He’s also trying to get the last word in vis a vis Emma. One of the more telling details:

      “The overuse of cutoff has become a power center in modern breakups. As my counselor mused, ‘The one who cuts off, wins.’”

      This isn’t about “dialogue.” It is about trying to “win.” Breakups aren’t about power plays or winning. If a person says, “Stop contacting me,” she’s not interested in a power struggle with you. She simply wants you gone. Deal with it.

  5. mssunlight

    It’s the false dichotomy that gets me. You either have positive things to say about his essay or it is triggering to you. He seems to preclude the possibility that people might actually just disagree. It’s a pretty vile rhetorical trick, in my opinion.

  6. Suzanne

    My favorite part may be when he excoriates his critics for calling him entitled, but then goes on to explain — twice — why he felt “entitled” (his term) to make contact with Emma again.

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