On Spiked Brendan O’Neill writes:
“… it seems to me that internet trolling, particularly the vile sexist stuff, is an unwitting by-product of the cultivation in recent years of a stringently emotionally correct society.
…In response to such linguistic stricture, such moral straitjacketing, some men, usually sad fucks, are going to seek out a space in which they can let their id go crazy and scream out certain words or thoughts – ‘cow!’, ‘slut!’, ‘rape!’, whatever. The emotional slovenliness of the trolls is in direct proportion to the suffocating emotional correctness of society at large.”
If by ‘emotionally correct’ and ‘moral straitjacketing’ he means taboos, I’d agree. I’d also agree that defensive advocates too often resort to theatrical outrage and manufactured controversy which censure expression rather than explore the sentiment.
But there may be a different angle to these distressing and frightening outbursts. In my line of work we sometimes refer to education in terms of ‘threshold concepts’.
A threshold concept may be seen as a crossing of boundaries into new conceptual space where things formerly not within view are perceived, much like a portal opening up a new and previously inaccessible way of thinking about something. (Land, 2013)
I know it isn’t a good idea to deal lightly with theories, and the social world is different from formal educational settings but – with that in mind and this being just a blog – I’m sometimes drawn to thinking of feminism (and other isms close to my heart like veganism, anti-racism) as founded on threshold concepts. One example might be the idea of indirect discrimination. Another might be the distinction between intent and effect, or the person and the act. Another might be the notion of non-human animal sentience. And by way of comparison, in physics, heat transfer; in economics, opportunity cost; in accounting, depreciation. All of these are ‘threshold’ because they are core beliefs without which it is impossible to develop or deepen an understanding. Their apprehension is transformative, requiring the knower to abandon familiar, taken-for-granted perceptions or (in the social world) norms and begin to think like an anti-racist, or a feminist, or an anti-speciesist.
Not always a comfortable or straightforward experience, you might guess. Perkins (2006) sets out five kinds of ‘troublesome knowledge’ which interfere with threshold concepts, summarised by Land,
“…knowledge might be troublesome because it is ritualised, inert (unpractised), conceptually difficult and complex, counterintuitive, alien or tacit, because it requires adopting an unfamiliar discourse, or perhaps because the learner remains ‘defended’ and does not wish to change or let go of their customary way of seeing things.”
As Richard Palmer points out (2001) learning can be deeply unsettling, leaving you bereft of your illusions. “The quicksilver flash of insight may make one rich or poor in an instant”. There’s a sense of loss, sometimes even grief. It’s then easy to become ‘stuck’ in an insecure ‘liminal’ state between relinquishing the old perceptions and acquiring the new ones. I frequently perceive this unsure state in myself, and in many reticent observers of the recent debates on feminism and immigration – the ones who don’t bring up the subject and who discuss it cautiously. There’s a mimicry of understanding, but it isn’t an authentic way of thinking. In this liminal state they’re incapable of defending a principle against the sacreligious attacks that Brendon O’Neill is trying to explain (not that they are merely sacreligious – I take them more seriously than he does).
I wonder if the liminality also brings a vulnerability to societal power relations in the form of competing threshold concepts. Perhaps – thinking about the Twitter rape threats – the liminality is so unpleasant that some people spasmodically throw it off and rebound back to the comfortable world view they held before, decisively sealing this by expressing their vitriol against the people they perceive represent the concept they rejected?
Well, I’m out of my depth.
Daniel Dennett writes in his book Intuition Pumps (2013) that:
“…philosophers should seriously consider undertaking a survey of the terrain of the commonsense or manifest image of the world before launching into their theories of knowledge, justice, beauty, truth, goodness, time, causation, and so on, to make sure they actually aim their analyses and arguments at targets that are relevant to the rest of the world.”
Fair enough, but it relates to a pre-liminal settled knowledge and doesn’t relate to liminality, which is disorientated and bereft of commonsense. Ray Land makes some suggestions which for good reason assume students and teachers – but in any case he views threshold concepts as markers rather than tools.
I’ve reached the bottom and the end.
Incidentally, the recent mainstream media coverage of the stem cell burger with little or no discussion of cruelty indicates that views about animals are depressingly – or to use Perkins’ term – ‘defended’.
Dennett, D (2013). Intution pumps and other tools for thinking. London: Allen Lane.
Land, R (2013). Discipline-based teaching. In Hunt, L and Chalmers R (2013) University Teaching in Focus: A learning-centred approach. London: Taylor and Francis.
Palmer, RE (2001). The Liminality of Hermes and the Meaning of Hermeneutics. http://www.mac.edu/faculty/richardpalmer/liminality.html
Perkins D (2006). Constructivism and troublesome knowledge. In Meyer J and Land R (2006). Overcoming barriers to student understanding. Threshold concepts and troublesome knowledge. Oxon: Routledge.