Philosophers sometimes like to talk about “technological affordances” — basically, the possibilities of action that a new technology affords. Twitter’s affordances include the capacity to destroy one’s enemies without leaving the platform or otherwise breaking a sweat. This is the phenomenon of “offence archaeology” — digging around in old tweets or other social media presences for outrageous-seeming snippets in order to quote them out of context and so wreak havoc upon their owner.
The most recent prominent victim of his own employer’s search function is Twitter’s former Head of Trust and Safety, Yoel Roth, a man with the sort of hubristic job title that almost guarantees its owner’s involvement in a scandal sooner or later. Apparently settling old scores, this week new boss Elon Musk picked up on a tweet of Roth’s from 12 years ago as well as an extract from his PhD thesis, and used both to try to insinuate a sinister connection with Twitter’s prior failure to eliminate child sexual exploitation from the site.
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Generally speaking, the revelation of supposed malfeasance by some internet sleuth has an archetypal drama that never gets old. There’s a shiver of pleasure at the spectacle of an unmasking, as well as a feeling of suppressed gratitude that it’s happening to someone else and not you. The age of the quoted text doesn’t matter, nor what its author was trying to say to whom, nor when, nor why. As an observer, you get the social world’s permission not to care about these things in the slightest because nobody else seems to care about them either.
Most often, such acts of excavation are the domain of vengeful Madame Defarge-types on the Left, seeking to do away with enemies and rivals by launching accusations of sexism, ableism, transphobia, and so on. But social conservatives are now also in on the game, and their current weapons of choice are accusations of “grooming”, paedophilia, and other conspiracies of the sexually deviant, mostly aimed at those in the LGBT world, loosely construed. Roth is a gay man, and this is the discourse into which his tweets and PhD extracts have been assimilated by some on the Right. He is now reported as having been forced to flee his home due to threats.
But to a sober eye, the extracts highlighted by Musk establish nothing like what has been implied. The first was a tweet of Roth’s asking a question — “Can high school students ever meaningfully consent to sex with their teachers?” — and linking to a Salon article discussing a teacher being charged for having sex with an 18-year-old student, despite the legal age of consent in the US state concerned being 16. Asking spicy-sounding ethical questions like this, and then giving anticlimactically vague answers — as does the article in question — is a staple of moral and legal philosophical prose, and hardly a reliable guide to nefarious authorial intentions.
Roth’s thesis extract looks even more boring. After acknowledging that the gay social media platform Grindr “may well be too lewd and too hook-up-oriented to be a safe and age-appropriate resource for teenagers”, he apparently tries to deal responsibly with the fact that teenagers are on there anyway by insisting that the platform continue to be held legally liable, and that it “craft safety strategies” with which to “safely connect queer young adults”. In other words, this is a perfectly standard approach to real-world problems, acknowledging that a social duty to protect the vulnerable persists even where individuals cannot be stopped from doing things that put them in harm’s way.
The real story is that conservatives were already angry with Roth for something else entirely. Earlier this month, he pinged Republican radars via his appearance in the so-called Twitter Files. The emerging picture seems to confirm what many disaffected users have long suspected — that, in the pre-Musk regime, senior employees such as Roth controlled which bits of information and which people could or could not be visible on the platform, in relatively arbitrary ways, though mostly skewed towards Democrat interests. For those already frustrated with what they see as excessively ideological moderation practices used covertly to support questionable politics, previous partisan tweets of Roth’s quickly established him as a promising candidate for this month’s two-minute hate, and the search function did the rest.
Whether or not Twitter moderation has been biased and censorious in the past (it has), establishing the raiding of PhD theses and other juvenilia as a precedent in the sexual culture wars spells trouble for LGBT people in general. For what conservatives caught up in the ecstasy of denunciation may be missing is that these days, entire academic disciplines are structured to produce people who look to the untutored eye like sexual deviants but in fact are not. In some academic fields, it’s practically mandatory to argue that traditional sexual norms are problematic in some way and probably should be dismantled.
That isn’t indicative of Pasolini-style levels of rampant debauchery in the academy, so much as of the fact that many academics are socially awkward geeks, hoping that by pontificating edgily about sex they might look cool. In writing incomprehensible paragraphs about non-standard sexual practices, they get to pose simultaneously as political dissidents, freedom fighters, social justice activists, and deep philosophical thinkers, bravely dismantling the status quo, one mention of an orgy or fetish at a time. Others are simply doing it because, over time, disciplinary norms in this direction have mindlessly developed, and now it’s as good a way as any to attract attention in the jobs market. We should read most taboo-busting academic arguments not as confessions but as performances — often carried out by relatively junior and pedestrian strivers, trying to play the career game in a highly competitive market, and who have no time for sex, even assuming they could get any. Read against relevant comparators, Roth’s thesis extracts about Grindr seem unusually responsible and moderate.
Conservatives are also wrong that the impetus towards sexual taboo-busting within institutions is coming from LGBT people in particular, let alone that it’s mostly coming from LGBT people intent on corrupting minors. It’s true that social experiments like Drag Queen Story Hour in libraries or extremely graphic sex education in schools are often initiated in the name of the mythical “LGBT community”, but that’s not to say that most of them like it. In practice, it’s just as often heterosexual missionary-types doing the organising, enthusiastically seeking out what they consider to be progressive causes for the purposes of guilt expiation and social media likes.
The fact is that most of the material fuelling so-called groomer discourse is coming not from appetites for illicit sex, but for social approval, and from straight people as much as anyone else. Though it’s true that most instigators would describe themselves as queer, it should also be remembered that this is a category that anyone at all can access, as long as they say the magic words “I’m queer”.
This is not to say that there is nothing to see here — quite the opposite. As radical feminists point out, the ravages of the extremes of male sexuality upon women and children become invisible once filed under positive-sounding headings such as “sexual dissidence” and “freedom to be yourself”. There doesn’t have to be any conspiracy here for it to be true that queer culture puts women and children at risk, albeit mostly inadvertently rather than on purpose. There are plenty of examples already in the public domain of bad male actors profiting from the dismantling of traditional ways of separating the sexes, for instance. And there will be many more in future, unless responsible progressives stop believing in fairy tales about male sexuality — or even just admit that, as in Red Riding Hood, wolves can sometimes dress up in grandmother’s clothing.
I see no real sign of any dawning realism, though. Instead, both sides seem locked in a terrible dynamic: the more lurid the accusations from the Right about grooming and the moral corruption of children, the more the Left splutter about how such accusations could only be motivated by racism, homophobia, or transphobia. Meanwhile, the latter’s myopic refusal to acknowledge a more complicated picture than “all criticism is bigotry” further empowers predators to take advantage of weakened safeguarding structures — whereupon their cases will be seamlessly recycled into the Right’s rhetoric, as further evidence that LGBT people are basically a problem for a sane society. And if they can’t get real cases of predation? Well, as the Roth case demonstrates, many are prepared to just make them up.
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