Friday, February 21, 2020

Conservative Whisper Networks?

To add a layer of context to my last post, what got me thinking about whisper networks and power this week was a column by the conservative (but anti-Trump) New York Times opinion writer, Bret Stephens, in which he describes people who are afraid to publicly express their support for Donald Trump for fear of reprisal from angry liberals as "Trump's whisper network."

Based on the number of "secret voters" who voted for Trump in 2016 but denied doing so to pollsters, Stephens anticipates that this "whisper network" could swing the 2020 presidential election to Trump again. He argues that the intolerant, angry condemnation by "snickering moralists" on the political left of anyone who expresses the slightest sympathy for Trump is only driving potential anti-Trump voters into "Trump's whisper network." He concludes that there is only one way for the Democrats to defeat Trump in 2020, that is:
By treating Trump voters with respect. By asking why so many of them wound up in his tent to begin with. By acknowledging that not everything that’s said in a hush is shameful, and that not everyone you disagree with is a bigot. By listening, not denouncing; empathizing, not ridiculing; understanding, not dismissing.
Whisper networks ought to have no place in the land of the free.
Implicitly, this is a ringing defense of "good communication" (acknowledging, listening, understanding) as against the abuse of cultural power by the intolerant left to silence and oppress Trump sympathizers, which not only is wrong (violates their freedom of speech) but also is ultimately self-defeating as it only feeds the growth of Trump's whisper network. Trump supporters, the victims of abuse by liberal "snickering moralists," just like the victims of workplace sexual harassment and abuse, are empowered by their whisper network, but ideally there would be no need for either oppressed group to resort to such a means of empowerment, Stephens implies.

To bridge the very wide gap in this analogy, Stephens opens his column with praise for the "honesty" and "courage" shown by the author, Katie Roiphe, in her 2018 Harper's Magazine article, "The Other Whisper Network: How Twitter feminism is bad for women." While she welcomes the #MeToo movement against workplace sexual harassment and abuse, Roiphe is critical of its excesses, including its vitriolic intolerance of anyone who questions those excesses. Women who voice criticisms of #MeToo are subjected to harsh condemnation by "Twitter feminists," with the result that many women with similar views are effectively silenced:
For years, women confined their complaints about sexual harassment to whisper networks for fear of reprisal from men. This is an ugly truth about our recent past that we are just now beginning to grapple with. But amid this welcome reckoning, it seems that many women still fear varieties of retribution (Twitter rage, damage to their reputations, professional repercussions, and vitriol from friends) for speaking out—this time, from other women. They are, in other words, inadvertently creating a new whisper network.
It would be naive to interpret these uses of "whisper network" as merely broadening the meaning of a term or innocently drawing an analogy. The rhetorical purpose in both cases is something like to pull moderates away from radicals on the left or in #MeToo by pricking the liberal conscience with accusations that the radicals are perpetrating a form of oppression not unlike the very forms of oppression that their movement ostensibly opposes. The issue resembles the disputes about tactics that often go on between movement radicals and moderates. In this regard, Roiphe's appeal to members of a movement she basically supports is considerably more credible than Stephens' pitch across the yawning left-right divide in US politics. Both, however, tend to dilute the meaning of "whisper network" by distracting from its primary pragmatic context, in effect, changing the subject.

Another context for Stephens' argument is the recent tendency of conservatives to challenge the power of the left on university campuses and elsewhere by appealing to liberal values of free speech and diversity, stretching the meaning of the latter term to include "intellectual diversity" and "political diversity." Using liberal arguments to empower conservatives. Nevertheless, they are sometimes good arguments.

Thursday, February 20, 2020

Communication, Power, and the Whisper Network

We can think of communication and power as two opposite ways of getting things done with others. The way of communication is for people to talk about a situation, come to an understanding of what needs to happen, and voluntarily coordinate their efforts to get it done. The way of power is for those who have power to use it to get what they want by controlling the behavior of others, whether through force or threat, legitimate authority (owner, boss, judge, priest, parent), incentive (money, favors), or sheer personal charisma (rock star, guru, demagogue). (For now, we won't go into into theories of power, a vast subject.)

The distinction between communication and power is invoked when parents are advised to talk with their children, or bosses with their workers, or stronger nations with weaker ones, to work out problems instead of using their power to compel compliance. It's a useful distinction for promoting more peaceful, cooperative, humane ways of living together though communication. It's also an idealistic distinction that considerably oversimplifies the actual relations between communication and power. As usual, I don't propose to give up a valid ideal but do want to understand its limits and possibilities in a complex reality. Consider, for example, the whisper network.

The term "whisper network" refers to an old communication practice that recently has gained prominence and taken new forms in the context of the #MeToo movement. Here is a definition from Wikipedia:
whisper network is an informal chain of information passed privately between women. It is typically a list of powerful people in an industry alleged as being sexual harassers or abusers. The information is often shared between women by word of mouth or online in private communities, forums, spreadsheets, and crowd-sourced documents. The stated purpose of maintaining these lists is to warn potential victims of "people to avoid" in their industry. Whisper networks also purportedly help victims identify a common abuser and come forward together about a serial abuser. (, retrieved February 18, 2020)
Based on my research, I think this definition puts too much emphasis on the idea of circulating "lists" of abusers. That happens, of course, but the practice more broadly is to share information about abusers and provide social support for victims through informal networks that could also be described as gossip networks or "the grapevine."

I used Google and Twitter searches to learn something about the recent history of this concept. A Google Web search on "whisper network" (in quotes) produced about 160,000 hits, so we know it's out there in circulation. People are talking about it. Running the same search on Twitter year by year, moving backward from 2019 to 2010 revealed that "whisper network" was not used in its current sense much before 2014. I found no clear examples on Twitter before that year; and a Google Ngram search found no instance of the phrase in books published between 1800 and 2008. It is a new concept. The hashtag #WhisperNetwork has appeared only since 2018, mainly to promote a popular novel of that title by Chandler Baker; but "whisper network" (no hashtag) often appears in tweets with the hashtag #MeToo. It is a concept that has gained impetus from the burgeoning #MeToo movement against sexual harassment and abuse.

Much of the "whisper network" Twitter traffic in that first year of 2014 referred to "Workplace Harassment, Reporting, and the Whisper Network," an online article by Jennifer Wong in which she narrated her own experience with a serial workplace harasser named "Leon" whose behavior continued unpunished for years and victimized numerous women in a certain unnamed workplace. Wong explained the importance of the "whisper network" for combating this widespread problem:
The ‘whisper network’ – if you’ve worked in an office, you probably know it. There are two sides to that network. One is destructive and full of gossip, one is empathetic and fiercely protective. I’ll focus on the latter side and its importance in supporting those undermined in a working environment. The ‘whisper network’ creates a safe haven to discuss problems and prejudices experienced, warn others of harassers, and bolster camaraderie.
Even years beyond my experience of being harassed, anytime I divulge my story to coworkers (new or old), I find that they have their own stories of sexual harassment to share. The prevalence of sexual harassment in our workplaces constantly shocks me. However, the more women who are willing to share their experience, the bigger this ‘whisper network’ becomes. This can lead to a powerful, underground circle of empathy and safeguards.
As an aside, although I don't know how the term "whisper network" originated, I would hazard the guess that it was created as a play on "WhisperNet," a service introduced by Amazon in 2007 to provide internet access for downloading books on early versions of the Kindle e-reader. The phrase "Me Too," which went viral as #MeToo in 2017, appears to have been first used publicly on social media by the sexual harassment victim and activist Tamara Burke in 2006. As the #MeToo movement emerged, "WhisperNet" was available for coining a clever new name for one of its communication practices.

So, what does this have to do with communication and power? If communication and power are opposite ways of getting things done with others, then the whisper network is a great example of the communication way. It consists of women getting together to share information and support each other to address a shared problem. And, of course, the problem in question, sexual harassment and abuse in the workplace, is an equally great example of the power way of getting things done as men abuse the power arising from their gender privilege and workplace status to get what they want by manipulating or coercing women.

Looking even just a little more closely, however, we see a more complex relationship between the whisper network and power. If communication is the whisper network's method, after all, power is its purpose: empowering women to combat an abuse of power. (A Google search on <"whisper network" and empower> returned 43,000 hits; while Chandler Baker's novel has been criticized for trivializing the #MeToo movement by turning it into "an empowerment fantasy.") 

More generally, getting things done with others through communication perhaps always occurs in some sort of power context where the "getting things done" part impinges on others or faces opposition. And the use of power, of course, typically involves some use of communication, for example for the purpose of "grooming" potential victims of sexual harassment or abuse.

One takeaway is that we can distinguish communication from power conceptually but perhaps can never entirely separate them in practice, even if we would want to do so, at least sometimes. I say "perhaps" to acknowledge that the point has been illustrated but not yet proven. We have barely scratched the surface of this issue.

Sunday, February 9, 2020

The Attack on War Metaphors!

Whether or not communication is really a kind of warfare by other means, we often talk casually as if it were. Take the title of this blog post, for example. My topic is literally criticism of the way we use war metaphors to talk about communication, but instead of titling this post "criticism of war metaphors" I did what many headline writers would do. I spiced it up by using a war metaphor ("attack") that calls up the conceptual metaphor, ARGUMENT IS WAR.

My use of a war metaphor to describe criticism of war metaphors was intended to be ironically funny (note the silly exclamation point!), but this feeble attempt at humor may be easy to miss.

Maybe that's partly because metaphors of war and violence are so common in everyday metatalk we hardly notice them. "He blew up the meeting!" "She shot down his plan!" "We'll battle it out!" Any situation that involves opposition or even exerting effort can be framed metaphorically as a war. Public discourse is full of war metaphors: "The war on cancer!" "The battle against climate change!" "We'll fight to the death for affordable health care!" "Trump lashes out at (fill in the blank)!"

Critics worry that as our image of communication is influenced by constant exposure to these violent metaphors, our communication actually becomes more vitriolic and warlike in general. This criticism of the overuse of war metaphors is nothing new. Sociolinguist Deborah Tannen's popular 1998 book on the subject was titled The Argument Culture: Stopping America's War of Words. Tannen described "a pervasive warlike atmosphere that makes us approach public dialogue, and just about anything we need to accomplish, as if it were a fight." She went on:
The argument culture urges us to approach the world--and the people in it--in an adversarial frame of mind. It rests on the assumption that opposition is the best way to get anything done: The best way to discuss an idea is to set up a debate; the best way to cover news is to find spokespeople who express the most extreme, polarized views and present them as "both sides"; the best way to settle disputes is litigation that pits one party against the other; the best way to begin an essay is to attack someone; and the best way to show you're really thinking is to criticize. (pp. 3-4)
It can be hard to talk about argument without using war metaphors. In their book, Metaphors We Live By (1980), language theorists George Lakoff and Mark Johnson showed that our concept of ARGUMENT is systematically structured by the conceptual metaphor, ARGUMENT IS WAR. (By the way, the convention of writing metaphorical concepts in ALL CAPS comes from Lakoff and Johnson.) Noting everyday expressions like "your claims are indefensible," "I demolished his argument," and "I've never won an argument with him," Lakoff and Johnson claimed that these expressions are more than just a metaphorical way of speaking because the war metaphor literally structures the concept and practice of argument in our culture. As they wrote,
It is important to see that we don't just talk about arguments in terms of war. We can actually win or lose arguments. We see the person we are arguing with as an opponent. We attack his positions and we defend our own. We gain and lose ground. We plan and use strategies. If we find a position indefensible, we can abandon it and take a new line of attack. Many of the things we do in arguing are partially structured by the concept of war. (p. 4)
"Partially structured" is a key qualification. If our concept and practice of argument were totally structured by the concept of war, there would be no distinction at all between argument and physical combat, and there would be no way to talk, for example, about the logical difference between arguments from authority and arguments from personal experience. We can also use different metaphors to talk about argument. For example, we "construct" arguments and "buttress" them with evidence so they won't "fall apart." This is the conceptual metaphor, ARGUMENTS ARE BUILDINGS (Lakoff and Johnson, p. 46). We can also think of arguments as games, rituals, and other relatively peaceful sorts of things. However, the predominance of war metaphors is undeniable.

Is this really a problem? Can talking about communication in metaphors of war and violence actually make our world more warlike and violent? Tannen's description of the argument culture and Lakoff and Johnson's theory of conceptual metaphors both seem to suggest that war metaphors are a contributing factor. 

If violent language is part of the problem, then language reform might be part of the solution. Peace linguists like the Brazilian scholar Francisco Cardoso Gomes de Matos advocate "humanizing" language education--teaching ways of speaking that promote nonviolence and human dignity. 

Promoting peaceful language sounds like a good idea, but language reform efforts should be based on a realistic understanding of how metaphors work in communication. A recent review of the academic literature on war metaphors concludes that they can have positive as well as negative consequences depending on how they are used and in what context. Talking about a "war on climate change" or a "war on cancer" can be an effective, easily understood way to structure people's thinking and motivate action on an issue:  
We have argued that war metaphors are commonplace in public discourse in part because they tap into basic and widely shared schematic knowledge that efficiently structures our ability to reason about any situation involving opposing sides (at any level of abstraction). What’s more, the vivid emotional valence associated with war can quickly activate a sense of urgency and anxiety, which may motivate further action under some circumstances (at least in the short term). [...]
However ... there are potential dangers with the war framing. It may be ineffective or even harmful in some situations, for instance, for cancer patients with no hope of survival, or if framed in an overly negative way or emphasized over a long period of time. The war framing may also work well in some cultures but not in others. Therefore, our final suggestion is that communicators should be prepared to articulate the specific ways in which the target domain is like a war, and the ways in which it is not. If needed, they should be ready to replace the war frame with a different metaphoric message. (Flusberg, Matlock & Thibodeau, 2018, p. 11)
Although war metaphors can be ineffective or harmful in some situations, the available evidence doesn't show that the use of war metaphors is making society more violent or contentious in general.  To win the battle against communication that promote hatred, violence, and literal war, we must find the right targets to attack. We must hunt the devil.


Flusberg, S. J., Matlock, T., & Thibodeau, P. H. (2018). War metaphors in public discourse. Metaphor and Symbol, 33(1), 1-18. doi: 10.1080/10926488.2018.1407992

Lakoff, G., & Johnson, M. (1980). Metaphors we live by. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Tannen, D. (1998). The argument culture: Stopping America's war of words. New York: Random House.

Sunday, January 12, 2020

Is Communication the Solution to War and Violence?

War between the US and Iran, which recently seemed imminent, has been averted for now. Longstanding tensions between the two countries recently escalated through a series of provocative acts by both sides, culminating in the January 3 assassination of an Iranian military leader, Maj. Gen. Qassim Suleimani, by a US drone strike near the Baghdad airport. Fears that this event would precipitate all-out warfare receded after January 8, when Iran's military response to the assassination turned out to be relatively mild (a nonlethal missile attack on US bases in Iraq) and the Trump administration chose not to retaliate. While the immediate threat of war has thus receded, the US-Iranian international conflict is far from resolved and will go on in various forms, including low-level violence that could easily escalate again. How to resolve the conflict remains an open question.

US public discourse during the crisis brought out classic pro-war (hawk) and anti-war (dove) positions among various more nuanced pragmatic assessments of policy, tactics, and the unfolding situation. Hawks believe that Iran must be prevented from obtaining nuclear weapons at all cost and only military force will do the job. Doves are opposed to war for various reasons including doctrinaire pacifism, anti-US-imperialism, and a pragmatic belief that the conflict can and therefore should be resolved diplomatically, rather than by force, to avoid a costly and destructive war.

My own sentiments are with the pragmatic doves, but my purpose here is not to defend a position on US policy toward Iran. As a communication theorist, I want to reflect on the metadiscourse that develops in this and similar situations for what it can tell us about the relationship between communication, war and violence in general. A commonplace belief among idealistic liberals is that communication is the better alternative to violent conflict. In this view, war and violence arise from breakdowns in communication and can be avoided by good communication. This is an attractive ideal but unfortunately very simplistic.

A realistic ideal of communication as an alternative to war and violence has to account for certain complexities, which I hope to take up in a series of posts. For example, the relationship between communication and violence is complex. As the New York Times columnist David Brooks pointed out during the recent crisis,
[Nations] use violence as a form of communication. A nation trying to maintain order will assassinate a terrorism leader or destroy a terrorism facility. The attack says: “Hey, we know we’re in a long-term conflict, but let’s not let it get out of hand. That’s not in either of our interests.” The attack is a way to seize control of the escalation process and set a boundary marker.
Violence can be used as a form of communication to avoid war. This may not be the kind of communication we ideally want, but it can work. Further troubling the distinction between communication and violence, some theorists have argued that communication is inherently violent and warlike, however much we might wish it otherwise. We'll take up this argument and related ideas about power, violence and communication in future posts.

Another complexity we'll need to address relates to the idea that to serve as an alternative to violence, communication must be clear and avoid "mixed messages." In the recent crisis, both the Trump administration and the Iranians were criticized for their "mixed messages," even though they succeeded in deescalating the situation, if only for the moment. Is the best communication in conflict situations always clear, or is there a legitimate role for ambiguity, paradox, or even misinformation?

Monday, March 2, 2015

Does Martin Heidegger's Antisemitism Invalidate his Phenomenology?

Writing in the current issue of the online journal, TripleC - Communication, Capitalism and Critique, Christian Fuchs claims that it does, but I remain skeptical.

Heidegger's antisemitic and pro-Nazi views are well known though seldom mentioned by scholars who cite his important philosophical works on the phenomenology of dasein or being-in-the-world, including his critique of technology.  The recent publication of Heidegger's Black Notebooks, which contain blatantly antisemitic passages, has revived the debate on his status as a philosopher. Should someone who held such repulsive beliefs continue to be celebrated as one of the greatest 20th century philosophers?  Can the philosophy be separated from the man, or is the philosophy itself inextricably involved with the underpinnings of Nazi ideology?

These are good questions to which I don't pretend to know the answers. Being interested but no authority on the matter, I read Fuchs's article in search of insight. I found it highly informative as an introduction to the debate, although finally unconvincing on the main issue.

Fuchs concludes that scholars in the field of communication and media studies should stop citing Heidegger's writings on technology because his philosophy is essentially tainted by Nazi ideology. Fuchs, a leading exponent of Marxist critical theory, has other reasons for rejecting Heidegger's critique of technology. As he writes, "a major problem of Heidegger’s approach is that it is not a political economy, but merely a phenomenology of technology" (p. 70).  In other words, Heidegger sees modern technology as a distorted, inauthentic way of experiencing the world but ignores what Fuchs regards as the fundamental role of capitalist ideology in producing that distortion.  This is a valid critique as far as it goes. It shows that phenomenology is insufficient for the purposes of a critical social theory, but it does not invalidate Heidegger's phenomenology on its own ground.

Where does Nazi ideology enter the picture?  Here I find a striking lack of direct evidence that the philosophy is essentially tainted. Fuchs spends a lot of time quoting other scholars who agree with him without examining their evidence in detail. He also spends a lot of time quoting passages that betray Heidegger's offensive views but do not necessarily link them to basic premises of his philosophy. Fuchs does argue that the two are linked but the arguments are slippery. Heidegger's philosophical writing is abstract and poetic and he only quotes non-Jewish poets (which proves nothing). His philosophical writing never renounces Nazism (which is not same as positively implying or being implied by it). In Being and Time and The Question Concerning Technology, Heidegger critiqued aspects of modernity that passages in the Black Notebooks can be read as claiming are products of a Jewish world conspiracy, but the philosophical critiques themselves contain no reference to a Jewish conspiracy, so the imputed link is spurious or at best conjectural. Even if Heidegger somehow used his philosophy to rationalize his antisemitism and totalitarianism, that would not prove any necessary link between the two. No doubt, Germans in those days rationalized their antisemitism and Nazism in all sorts of ways. Even Christianity does not imply antisemitism, though it can be taken there, just as Marxism has been used to justify a totalitarian system that I am sure enlightened Marxists like Fuchs would deny that it implies. How does Heidegger's hermeneutic phenomenology imply antisemitism?  I don't get it.

Saturday, March 1, 2014

Still Getting Started

As expected, it is taking me some time to get going on this blog. A year plus of  challenges and changes, busy with lots of projects, and this one has had to wait. I've been active on Twitter, touching on themes I'm excited to begin exploring here in longer form. Meanwhile, I'm struggling with the Blogger interface, don't especially like the design of this site so far, and have no idea what (if anything) "{meta}discourses * web" (the Google Site associated with this blog) will end up looking like. The idea has been to recreate some version of my old "<meta>discourses" website (which I need to take down very soon, so it may be gone by the time your read this), but that site is not just badly neglected but totally obsolete and may not be worth recreating in any form. Another source of confusion is that I have two Google profiles, one associated with my gmail account and the other, newer one associated with my account. This blog is with gmail, my new home page is with, and I have two Google+ homes. How to coordinate my two Google selves and avoid confusion is driving me batty at the moment. Funny result is that I have been getting emails from Google asking "Do you know Robert Craig?" Well, yes and no! Suggestions welcome.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Getting Started

This site is under construction and progress will be slow for a while. Eventually it will replace my much-neglected static website now hosted at the University of Colorado ( Here I will blog about communication in society, commenting on issues in theory and practice. I will also post resources useful to scholars, students, or anyone who wants to learn more about communication theory. The vision is to participate in the general metadiscourse (the discourse about communication) and to cultivate something of a community around this interest.