Dear Hurt Male Egos

A guest post from Linda Åhäll on a recent controversy. Linda is Lecturer in International Relations at Keele University. Her forthcoming publications include the textbook chapters ‘Poststructuralism’ in Security Studies: an introduction (3rd edition, Williams and MacDonald eds.), ‘Gender’ in Visual Global Politics (Bleiker ed.), and the journal article ‘Affect as Methodology: Feminism and the Politics of Emotion’ in International Political Sociology.


Dear Hurt Male Egos, if I may

I am poststructuralist feminist security studies scholar inspired by and indebted to the work of American philosopher and political theorist Judith Butler. I am also Swedish and have spent the autumn term on research leave in the Political Science Department at Lund University in Sweden where, regrettably, Butler has been dragged into an internal conflict about teaching practice by a Hurt Male Ego. A conflict then turned into a national ‘debate’ by a journalist with, in my view, an anti-feminist agenda: on how, supposedly, ‘Gender Studies is taking over Swedish universities’. A national debate then not only picked up, but seriously misrepresented, in international news media. The conflict and subsequent media attention is framed as a tension between gender mainstreaming policies on the one hand and ‘academic freedom’ on the other. But, above all, what has sparked my feminist curiosity is how a tiny number of people, in a twisted series of events, have managed to use Butler – one of the world’s most prominent feminist and queer theorists – for anti-feminist purposes.

For me, it all started when the Hurt Male Ego at Lund wrote an Open Letter addressed to Butler (‘Dear Judith, if I may’), posted on his blog. In it The Hurt Male Ego talked about a ‘Campus War’ and about ‘campus feminists’ as those infringing on his academic freedom. Crucially, the Hurt Male Ego refers to this incident about teaching practice at the Political Science Department at Lund University as ‘The Judith Butler Affair’ on his website, accompanied by photos of Butler. Some days later, the Hurt Male Ego changed the photo of Butler on his website to one where her face was replacing the (authoritarian) leader in the film 1984. Launching this update of the website, the Hurt Male Ego tweeted ‘Big Sister is Watching’. (He has since changed the photo back to a less provocative one.)

Ahall - Butler Big Sister is watching

Then, the Hurt Male Ego’s PhD Student at Lund University interviewed Judith Butler over email (maybe she knew who he was, maybe she didn’t). In that interview, Butler was asked to respond to the following question: ‘How do you regard having your work imposed on a university lecturer in the name of gender equality?’ She answered, understandably, that she was not in favour of having her work imposed by quotas. But, unfortunately, Judith Butler was misled in that interview. Because, in fact, as I explain below, the policy at the Political Science Department at Lund University was never about the enforcement of gender quotas. There is more to the story. (See also this where Butler clarifies that it would be a mistake to use her remarks about academic freedom as a critique of gender studies.)

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Critique In Hysterical Times

This is a slightly edited version of an essay that was published in The Black Book of FYTA, ed. Athanasios Anagnostopoulos & FYTA (Athens: Nefeli, 2017), 34-40, a collection marking the fifth anniversary of the conceptual audiotextual performance duo FYTA. It was written in February 2017 and revised in April. Think of it as bits of the year gone by. Thanks to FYTA for the invitation to write this, and to Jordan Osserman for useful chats.

In their performance/situation entitled ‘nEUROlogy’, presented at Geneva’s Bâtiment d’Art Contemporain in October 2015, FYTA attempted a far-right medico-theological resuscitation of the European project. The performance was staged in a confined room that FYTA describe as ‘something between the basement of a cult and Clockwork Orange’s reform clinic’—perhaps as apt a description as any of the contemporary European Union as seen from the perspective of its more disgruntled members. In Part I of this triptych, entitled ‘Eden’, FYTA assume the role of the high priests of the European right. Dressed in the red robes of cardinals, they stand before the altar of ‘Europe’, performing the rituals and incantations on which its very sustenance seems to depend. The soundscape of the performance in this segment is revealing in the way FYTA give voice to the utterly banal sentiments of xenophobic nationalists (‘Our environment is our home, our blood is what connects us to the soil, earth is our blood; when we defend our land we defend our blood’) against a disorienting musical backdrop of what sounds like Mongolian throat singing—as if to draw attention to the naturalisation of the arbitrary that is constitutive of all nationalisms. In Part II (‘The Garden’), Europe lies prostrate on a stretcher, covered by her flag. She might be dead, although the beep of machinery suggests life support. Here FYTA appear in the garb of medics who, even as they mill around the patient to no great effect, intone ‘we must remain free’. On the wall hangs a sign that reads ‘Rester Frei!’, the unfamiliar linguistic mashup seeming to gesture at the discontents of Franco-German alliance (or maybe this is just how the Swiss speak). Who killed Europe? On this question the cardinals are unambiguous: barbarians, cultural relativism, immigrants (‘how many people can you fit in the smallest of all continents!’), Islam. On the ground lies a pile of blood spattered posters—mass-produced, as if for a large protest—that read ‘Je suis Voltaire’. Beethoven’s ‘Ode to Joy’, the Anthem of Europe, ushers in Part III (‘Hell’). One thinks of the orchestra of the Titanic playing music to calm the passengers as the ship sinks.

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The Face Of Sexuality: Why Do AI-Generated Sexual Orientations Matter?

This is a guest post from Cynthia Weber, Professor of International Relations at the University of Sussex. Weber is the author of Queer International Relations: Sovereignty, Sexuality and the Will to Knowledge which has been the subject of a symposium on this blog, besides also being an occasional contributor to the blog. This text is based on comments presented at the 2017 European International Studies Association Annual Conference, Barcelona, on the panel ‘The Politics and Responsibility of IR in an Age of Crisis’.

A Stanford University study by Yilun Wang and Michal Kosinski that recently went viral repackages long discredited beliefs that a person’s face is scientifically readable for specific personality traits (also see this). The study claims artificial intelligence (AI) facial recognition technology can determine a person’s sexual orientation, with 16-30% greater accuracy than the human eye. The study analyzed more than 35,000 images on a US dating website of white, able-bodied, 18-40 year olds for ‘fixed’ (e.g., nose shape) and ‘transient’ facial features (e.g., grooming styles, weight, facial expressions). Researchers compared their AI-generated sexual orientations against sexual orientations researchers found from dating profiles, which researchers established ‘based on the gender of the partners that [website users] were looking for’.

LGBTQ advocacy organizations immediately labeled the study ‘junk science’. Social scientists will have little trouble understanding why. For example, the study’s sample is skewed in terms of race, age, (dis)ability, and location (online and in the US). Furthermore, the study’s coders failed to independently verify crucial information like age and the problematic category sexual orientation, which are things people regularly lie about on dating sites.

What may be less obvious to many reading the study are some of the other ways biases are created via coding errors or are written into the facial recognition algorithm. For example, the study restricts the range of sexual orientations, sexes and genders to neat yet inaccurate binaries: gay and straight, male and female, masculine and feminine. The study also mistakenly equates sexual orientation with sexual activity, even though people who have same-sex sex do not necessarily identify as gay, lesbian, bisexual or queer. And the study treats ‘transient’ facial features as if they are natural or ‘native’ to ‘gay culture’ and ‘straight culture’, rather than understanding them as performative acts that are highly dependent upon context. In addition to naturalizing culture, this move overdetermines how ‘gay’ and ‘straight’ are coded. For it fails to recognize that people who choose to go on a dating site will likely post photos of themselves that can be easily understood through sexualized stereotypes, which they may or may not perform in other on- and off-line contexts.

If there are so many problems with this study, why should any of us give it a second thought, particularly (IR) scholars, policymakers and activists? And why should this study be the focus of reflections on the politics and responsibility of International Relations in an age of crisis?

I have five answers.

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Right-Wing Populism, Anti-Genderism, And Real US Americans In The Age Of Trump

This is a guest post from Cynthia Weber, who is a Professor of International Relations at the University of Sussex. Cindy is the author, most recently, of Queer International Relations: Sovereignty, Sexuality and the Will to Power which was the subject of a symposium hosted by The Disorder of Things. 

The US satirical website The Onion recently ran a fake testimonial video featuring a remorseful Donald Trump supporter. The 2-minute clip is entitled ‘Trump Voter Feels Betrayed By President After Reading 800 Pages of Queer Feminist Theory’. The video features the character ‘Mike Bridger, Former Trump Supporter’, a middle-aged, working class, cishet white male from a small steel town in Pennsylvania. The balding Mike is shot in documentary talking-head style. Mike sits facing the camera, both so that his truthfulness can be evaluated by viewers and so that what US Americans will recognize as his iconic working-class garb is fully in view – dark tan zip-up jacket, olive-green button-down shirt open at the collar, white t-shirt visible underneath. Accompanied by slow music which sets a troubled, post-catastrophe tone, Mike tells his story.

‘I voted for Donald Trump,’ Mike tells us. ‘I voted for Trump because I thought he’d create a better America for everyone. But after reading 800 or so pages on queer feminist theory, I realize now just how much I’ve been duped.’

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‘You are fired!’ Towards the Hegemony of Neoliberal Hypermasculinity

This is the final post in a series of posts by several guest authors  for The Disorder Of Things symposium on Ali Bilgic‘s new book Turkey, Power and the West: Gendered International Relations and Foreign Policy, released in late 2016. In this post, Ali Bilgic responds to the previously published posts and makes some concluding remarks. The full series is collected here.

He is signing a document. Men standing behind him are all serious, looking over the shoulder of the one who he is performing the ceremony, a TV show par excellence. One of them passes the black folders; one after another, one signature after another. When he signs, his eyebrows rise a little, probably to see better. In this moment, it is possible to notice the blankness in his eyes that complements the expressionless face of the new Commander-in-Chief: there is no sign of affect in them, a staunch wall, like the one to be built on the border with Mexico, or the one in Palestine/Israel.

US President Donald Trump signs an executive order in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, DC, January 23, 2017.
Trump on Monday signed three orders on withdrawing the US from the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal, freezing the hiring of federal workers and hitting foreign NGOs that help with abortion. / AFP / SAUL LOEB (Photo credit should read SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images)

One expects he would abruptly say ‘You are fired’; one wonders whether he has learned and practised this masculine emotionless performance during his years in the world of entertainment: in a reality show where young men and women wildly competed against each other to prove themselves to the neoliberal finance capitalism. Otherwise, they are fired, they vanish, do not exist anymore, neither for the audience nor for the market. This kind of decision requires rational thinking; in other words, a solid emptiness, a wall.

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Of Malls and Mosques

This is the fourth post in a series of posts by several guest authors The Disorder Of Things on Ali Bilgic‘s new book Turkey, Power and the West: Gendered International Relations and Foreign Policy, released in late 2016. The full series is collected hereAida A. Hozic is an Associate Professor of International Relations at the University of Florida.

The publication of Ali Bilgiç’s book Turkey, Power and the West: Gendered International Relations and Foreign Policy in 2016 could not have been more timely. There are few historical moments in our recent history when politics of gender and race have been so forcefully pushed to the front and center of global conversations. Conflicts, refugee flows, uprisings, coups and counter-coups, populist blowbacks and rising authoritarianism – all seem to be written through, with, and over racialized, gendered bodies of men, women and children, justifying the persecution of some and advocating protection of others. Turkey, as the events (and the trail of bodies) of the last few years tragically confirm, sits at the crossroads of all these trends; civilizational cliché that it is the country where “East meets West” can no longer suffice to explain (and perhaps never could) multiple fissures and violent contradictions of its polity.

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The View from Elsewhere Turns the World Inside Out

This is the second post in a series of posts by several guest authors The Disorder Of Things on Ali Bilgic‘s new book Turkey, Power and the West: Gendered International Relations and Foreign Policy, released in late 2016. The full series is collected hereTerrell Carver is a Professor of Political Theory at University of Bristol, UK.

Ali Bilgic’s Turkey, Power and the West contributes in highly significant ways to three literatures not normally brought together. Firstly, foreign policy studies, approached from what – for Anglophone writers and readers – is a novel, de-centred vantage point. Secondly, gender studies and feminist research, using masculinity as a highly relevant and essential analytical ‘lens’. Thirdly, postcolonial perspectives, from which the East/West binary is reimagined and pluralized (which, quite naturally, plays into the de-centred approach to foreign policy studies).

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