A New Empathy

So now I’m an expert on porn.

Not exactly, but the phrase “Michael Munnik is a researcher at the University of Edinburgh” was uttered by a BBC presenter in an item about pornography. Very weird. And I’m going to tell you how it all came about.

First, the issue: you might have heard about Belle Knox and “the opprobrium, the censure, the outrage, the alarm” as some expert said once on BBC concerning this Duke University student and the job she’s taken on to support her studies. Not to mention the porn-viewing classmate who outed her. A friend had shared her ringing self-defense on xoJane through Facebook, and I read it from my comfortable vantage point as a cultural studies scholar who by the by was a young man once and has children who will, I trust, grow older some day. (In fact, it’s happening already. It’s happening all the time. We are shoe shopping for the walking two of them and groaning at the task.)

That post equipped me, then, to have something to say when this thing kind of burbled across my Twitter feed this morning.

Tweet from @deefinnerty


And because it is Twitter, that is exactly what I did. I said something.

Tweet from @michaelmunnik


It put me into a bit of a back-and-forth with one of the bloggers in the post, and that was fine. I didn’t realise the other account on the string belonged to a BBC journalist, so I didn’t imagine I was putting out my shingle or anything. Nonetheless, another BBC type dropped me a note, asked to get in touch. Things spiralled from there, and I ended up joining by Skype an international four-way on the World Service.

Not entirely out of context: earlier this week, my dulcet tones had also been on World Service airways, this time during a live taping of a group chat on the issue of Scottish independence, with the focus on Arab Scots. Here was something I truly felt I could contribute to: I had gotten word through my supervisor, contacted a producer, rushed to Waverley to hop a train, and joined about 50 people to talk about identity and Muslims and such.

As a former radio hand, it was actually really refreshing: watching the awkward theatre of live radio, presented on air as a fluid thing whilst strange things happen in front of the small assembled live audience. People are talking to you one minute, answering a voice in their ears the next, strange sounds erupt from all about, clocks take on great importance even as somebody is sharing a very impassioned and heartfelt story of their migration. For as long as the link is good, you can listen here: I even burble something into a microphone at the 53:00 mark, so I put my dog in the fight.

Today’s discussion was of another order. I don’t pretend to know a lot about porn, and I feel awkward expressing too many opinions about feminism, because I know how hotly contested the word is, so that people who would agree on many things will suddenly leap at each other’s throats because of the nuance or this statement or the implications of that attitude. It’s not that I don’t think these things are important, but I’m not a big fan of getting into fights with people to no good purpose (and yet here I am, on Twitter…) so I tend not to raise my hand, my voice, my head above the parapets too often.

But, as I said, I used to be a radio researcher myself. I was the guy calling people on the phone: “You wrote a column about X/are listed as an expert on Y/live on the same block as city hall’s plans for Z… would you mind speaking to us a little bit about it?” I depended on people saying yes–at the least, talking to us on the phone before 8:30 in the morning, though we always encouraged them to come down to the studio (“The quality of the sound and of the interaction is really much better when you’re there live.”) I remember booking Valerie Pringle, former breakfast show anchor for CTV, to talk about her book or something, and we decided to put her at the basement slot of 6:17. “She’s used to getting up,” my producer said blithely. She said no. “But you’re used to getting up,” I said not so blithely. She laughed and said no.

Now I know what was like for them on the other side of the phone. How your day is interrupted, how hard it is to get on with your work when you’re wondering when that journalist is going to call/e-mail you back with details/more questions/a confirmation. How ill-prepared you may be to speak publicly about the issue at hand. I tried to be the model helpful guest: give all the phone numbers. Answer messages promptly. Even slip in the odd radio jargon (“disco”=discussion) to assure her.

Certain things surprised me: I thought I would be offering my two bits for about three minutes in the midst of a lot of other people offering their two bits from around the globe on this most pressing issue. I did not expect to be one of four, alongside Washington Post columnist Ruth Marcus, blogger and divinity student Elizabeth Stoker, and author Meenakshi Reddy Madhavan, talking for half an hour. Observant readers will note I was the only male, and when I learned that, I worried even more that I would be made answerable for my reprehensible gender live on global radio; mercifully, this did not happen. Instead, it was a decent chat, as informed as perhaps it could be given that none of us are experts on porn. Against the others, I felt my reason for being involved was pretty low-bar: “This is Michael Munnik. He had something interesting to say.” But, then, that is the format of the programme.

So now I’ve had my say. I’ve been described as “of my university” by an august and reputable news organisation. If this peek behind the curtain causes you to doubt the authority with which things are uttered to you on the radio, well, we can all stand to be disabused of fanciful notions from time to time.

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