On Satire, Paul Elam and his “Bash a violent b***” gambit
I started writing these articles (and hope to continue doing so) to explore different levels of literacy, emergent in digital media. I did it with the alt-right and their use of memes over here, and did with video games, and how technological advancement helped in shaping the poetics of a particular genre or writing style, over here. I think it’s important, for anyone who aspires to understand communication and art in our current digital state, to inspect the nuisances in the building blocks we use to create meaning.
That being my purpose, I usually try to take some distance from the moral aspects of my subjects (although, to be fair, I did paint the alt-right as an artistic movement just to see if I could piss some alt-righters off (in an attempt that somewhat mirrors those who began labeling them as “nazi LARPers”), and I don’t pretend to hide my enthusiasm for video games). I trust that whoever reads what I write has their own moral compass, and try to provide the tools for people to make their own informed choices, by explaining the situations from this perspective.
That being said, today’s topic touches on a subject a little bit too close to home for me to avoid at least a little disclaimer, Intimate Partner Violence. I have worked in the past with feminist and non-feminist youtubers, in a project to raise awareness on male problems, particularly on this subject. While I do agree that intimate partner violence against men and boys is a topic too often downplayed, I don’t agree with Paul Elam’s take on the subject. I will make myself clear on this point further on, because I’m not going to condemn the guy here, but to analyze his post and how its content interacts with a broader context and with the emotional reaction of its readers to create meaning, and tackling the issue head on would be nothing but virtual signaling out of said context.
So, for those not in the know: in 2007 Jezebel released an article on non-reciprocated partner violence, making light of Intimate Partner Violence against men. Three years later, on 2010, Paul Elam responded to this article with an article of his own, where he declared October “Bash a Violent Bitch Month”, which he has been editing and updating at least until 2015. The internet did what the internet does best, and outrage ensued. Paul Elam stated that the article was a satire, to which the internet answered “not funny, dude” in more colourful ways. To this day, the article is quoted as proof of the misogyny within the Men’s Rights Movement.
One thing to understand is that meaning cannot be derived from Elam’s text as an independent entity, since it is basically a commentary on other text, Jezebel’s article. That article itself, like I said, was a comment on a piece published by Psychiatry News titled “Men shouldn’t be overlooked as victims of partner violence”, which itself commented a study by the CDC that stated that 71% of the perpetrators of non-reciprocal partner violence were women.
I will quote now, directly, from the Jezebel article written by Tracie Egan Morrissey, since it will be important to understand the dialogue between hers and Paul Elan’s article:
“So basically that means that girls are beating up their BFs and husbands and the dudes aren’t fighting back. (…) we decided to conduct an informal survey of the Jezebels to see who’s gotten violent with their men. After reviewing the answers, let’s just say that it’d be wise to never ever fuck with us.
One Jezebel got into it with a dude while they were breaking up, while another Jez went nuts on her guy and began violently shoving him. One of your editors heard her boyfriend flirting on the phone with another girl, so she slapped the phone out of his hands and hit him in the face and neck… ‘partially open handed.’ Another editor slapped a guy when ‘he told me he thought he had breast cancer.’ (Okay, that one made us laugh really hard.)”
The writer understands the meaning of non-reciprocal partner violence, since she does explain to us what it means: that girls are beating their BF and the dudes aren’t fighting back. The reaction to these data is empowerment (“it’d be wise to never ever fuck with us”) and celebration (“that one made us laugh really hard”).
Elam’s response starts by stating the context of the piece: the fact that October is domestic violence awareness month, the fact that domestic violence is often framed as mainly a women’s issue, and the fact that his own piece will be a response to Jezebel’s article. It is five paragraphs in that he starts proposing October to be “bash a violent bitch month” and then goes on the highly hyperbolic tirade on what this means. And he’s quite precise on the relationship he wants to establish between “bash a violent bitch” and self-defense in the face of a one-sided aggression: “we used to have a name for people who only hit those that they knew wouldn’t fight back./Bullies./And we all know that bullies are cowards. Put a hurting on one and they go find someone else to pick on every time. It’s what cowards do.”
So, to sum up, we have one article in Jezebel that normalizes non-reciprocal violence against men, and one by Paul Elam that advocates for self-defense in the face of this issue. But if the meanings are crystal clear, about the objective of each piece, why does then Paul Elam refer to the piece as satire? Well, that’s not about the content, but about the style.
Let’s start by a simple shift about what we’re talking about when we mention satire. Satire does not necessarily need to be funny. They are not always meant to make you go “haha”, even in an uncomfortable way. Paul Elam’s, for example, is specifically built to irritate.
Luckily for me (since it saves me the time of researching this aspect myself), Elam himself points this out in one of the updates of his original piece, by calling it a Juvenalian satire, and quoting Wikipedia to state what he means by this:
“Juvenalian satire, named after the Roman satirist Juvenal (late 1st century — early 2nd century CE), is more contemptuous and abrasive than the Horatian. Juvenalian satire addresses social evil through scorn, outrage, and savage ridicule. This form is often pessimistic, characterized by irony, sarcasm, moral indignation and personal invective, with less emphasis on humor. Strongly polarized political satire is often Juvenalian. Also see: Satires of Juvenal.”
And the way he goes to execute this satire, is by the hyperbolic tirade I mentioned on the last part. It’s expressed thusly:
“I’d like to make it the objective for the remainder of this month, and all the Octobers that follow, for men who are being attacked and physically abused by women — to beat the living shit out of them. I don’t mean subdue them, or deliver an open handed pop on the face to get them to settle down. I mean literally to grab them by the hair and smack their face against the wall till the smugness of beating on someone because you know they won’t fight back drains from their nose with a few million red corpuscles.
And then make them clean up the mess.”
The images used by Elam are needlessly violent, and in there lies the satire. Again, not a satire to make you laugh, but to make you repulse. There is certain gloating in the way he describes quite graphically the hair grabbed, the face against the wall, and the nose bleed described by the metonym of “a few million red corpuscles”. Especially in that last image, there is a certain literary craft, used to create distance with normal, journalistic speech.
In that gloating, however, is that we can actually draw a parallel with Jezebel’s article. What Jezebel’s writer does from content (celebrate unidirectional violence), Paul Elam exercises through style. This is how he denounces the violent content he wants to call attention to.
But, like I mentioned at the beginning, the internet did what it does best: outrage against Elam. Was he too stupid to realize that these were the reactions that his words would get? To answer that, we need to understand that in rhetoric, styles are means to create an effect.
Let’s start, once again, from the top.
The very first article we discussed was not the one from Jezebel, but the one from Psychiatry News. This article discusses that men should not be overlooked as victims of domestic violence, since they are 71% of the victims of non-reciprocal violence, according to a study by the CDC. The problem with this number, and with any attempt to shed light over the problem of male victims, is that it contradicts the most common paradigm under which we understand and build policies about domestic violence: the Duluth wheel of power and control. Mainly because, for everything the wheel can explain about abuse, it is deeply gendered, and supposes that men are unilaterally the perpetrators of violence, while women are always the victims. The policies built to combat domestic abuse based on the wheel (from the disparity in numbers of shelters that accept men, to priority to arrest the male even when he’s the one making the call to the police, the disparity in results on family custody cases, and the men forced to admit that they are batterers in denial before receiving any kind of help) are based on the prerogative that men historically, systemically, constantly and personally oppress women. And every number that presents men as relevant victims challenge that notion.
I’m not a psychic, so I’m not going to try to guess why Jezebel’s writer’s reaction to this information was what she wrote. But be it because she was trying to disregard the numbers with contempt, or because she’s unable to understand their relevance from a feminist perspective, the article changed the point of view from the male victim to the female perpetrator, basically normalizing the behaviour by painting the fact as something to be proud of. It downplayed the violence, it presented it as justifiable, as something that the men affected had coming and was a matter of laughter. It trivialized the matter, and its relevance.
Paul Elam did something quite clever: he took his own outrage at the invisibility of this issue and put himself as a visible center of scorn. And this is where all the pieces start fitting together. He pushed for an emotional reaction, through his style, on the subject of violence against women. But there’s a logical lock that you must go through when addressing the article in detail: there is no way to condemn his article, and not condemn Jezebel’s, unscathed. You can say that violence is wrong, no matter to whom it is done, but then the questions of why wasn’t any outrage at Jezebel’s article, having three years in advance before Elam’s reaction. If you say you didn’t know at the time, it proves an MRA point: that there is not enough consciousness of males as the victims of violence. If you say that violence against men is not that big of a deal, you are purposely ignoring what started these series of articles: the CDC’s finding that in 71% of the cases, non-reciprocal violence is a problem with male victims and female perpetrators, a number that was not challenged by any of the articles in question. Which, of course, proves another MRA point: that people purposely ignores violence when it is done to males. The same goes if you say that Paul Elam is advocating for violence against women, you’re conflating hypothetical self-defense violence with the celebration and normalization of real violence. And so on.
The clever thing is the use of outrage that, I’m pretty sure, he knew he would provoke. It pushes the issue into the discussion. It discredits those that present only one side of the issue while, ironically, using them to spread awareness. It uses our natural drive to justify our emotions to force us into MRA talking points. It is a powerful logical lock, that can only be understood if we take perspective from our own emotional reactions.
Conclusions and Disclaimer
I started this article by saying that this series of articles that I’m writing here on Medium are aimed at discussing literacy on digital media. I chose this article particularly because I wanted to explore provocation as a tool for discourse, of how its semantic elements are not independent from other discourses, and how it creates meaning through dialogue between at least two texts, and the binary nature of the subject (violence between men and women) made it easier to explain.
I also said I would disclose my own views on the subject, given the controversy of the topic, and I’d like to make a little disclaimer to my disclaimer in that regard: there’s a fine line between being honest about your opinion and proselytizing, and that’s a line I’m not interested in crossing at this point. What follows is an oversimplification of my experiences and views, in that sense.
I used to be a feminist, for at least six or seven years. During that time, I got a job writing video games and, where I had autonomy on the IP we were working on, I made sure that the product passed the Bechdel test, that it included a single mother as a protagonist, had plans of outing a character as gay to give proper representation, I challenged damsels in distress tropes, and I’m even a little proud of having conflated love potions with date rape drugs before seeing it anywhere else. In IPs where I didn’t have control, I tried to avoid conventional tropes or to subvert them. It was not much, but it was my little grain of sand.
But even back then, I knew that feminism, like everything else, was tied to Sturgeon’s law. And that’s ok: everything is tied to Sturgeon’s law. I didn’t criticize it back then, because I thought the good widely outweighed the bad. But the more I digged into some issues, the more feminism failed to explain them or was detrimental to the causes they were tied to.
To sum it up, I think feminism has a big problem of otherizing men, which becomes alarming when it mixes with mental health and you consider that males suicide three to five times more than females. I think feminism has a big problem of blaming the victim when it comes to issues that affect mostly males, which can be crystallized in the phrase “patriarchy harms men too”. And these extend to problems that affect men regardless of race, religion and sexual orientation, like cancers that affect men, war casualties, drafting, paternal rights, reproductive rights, prison policies, violent crimes, the aforementioned suicide rate, homelessness, etc. I think that for all its talk of understanding things in a spectrum rather than a binary logic, and focusing on systems, it’s trapped in a binary understanding of power and privilege that deals with absolutes: men have it, women don’t. Yes, even intersectional feminism deals in duality: white over PoC, cis over trans, heterosexual over homosexual and, of course, men over women. And, for all its talk about Toxic Masculinity affecting men for not talking about their feelings, they are often chastised by feminists for trying to talk about their issues.
I wouldn’t call myself an anti-feminist, but I think feminism can’t explain all these things. It can’t explain why, if there is a wage gap, and women don’t receive any kind of privileged protection, most of the homeless population are men. Or why, if the traditional gender role of a man is to be violent as a way to exert control over women, the number of non-reciprocal violence is so highly stacked against them. And I do believe that there are other ways to understand these things, but the criticism necessary for feminism to be able to explain them would require a genuine revolution inside the movement, and the people offering the alternative explanations not often call themselves feminists.
As a survivor of domestic violence, I learned that focusing only on the aggression of one sex against the other, only helps the abusers. The Duluth model and campaigns of awareness that focus exclusively on male to female violence not only leave heterosexual men underrepresented, uninformed and vulnerable, but also gay men (21.5%) and lesbians (35.5%). And awareness is critical to be able to recognize the problem before it gets out of hand. As are, of course, policies that can equally protect all these groups and their children.
I don’t agree with Paul Elam in his presentation of self-defense violence (and on other topics, but this is about the particular article and I’m not interesting in analyzing every work put up by the guy in this level of detail). Yes, I think that protecting yourself is justifiable (for any gender), but I think that pushing someone non-violent into violence is another form of violence committed against that person. They don’t secretly crave for permision to be violent. It is something that the person must do, against their will, to survive or prevent harm, but the real solution is being able to sever any contact with the abuser.
I hope that clears up where I stand in all this. And if you think I’m wrong, or have doubts, you are always welcomed in the comments.