If you’ve logged onto the Internet recently, chances are you’re used to seeing progressives in the role of victim. In addition to its sexist undertones, Gamergate has largely been a right-wing movement, an explosion of cultural reactionary sentiment against feminist criticisms of female representation in video game content and culture. Even the derisive term used by Gamergaters for their online critics, social justice warriors (SWJ), is a sneering reference to their progressive social agenda.
As SJWs continue to make headlines for their confrontations with trolls and harassers—the most recent example, Alanah Pearce, garnered attention for the laudable decision to report the misogyny of several of her teenage harassers to their mothers—the same liberal online activists who speak out against Gamergate are being faced with one of their most important tests.
Enter Ashley Rae Goldenberg, an economics major at George Mason University, who posted a controversial limerick about the shooting of Michael Brown on her popular right-wing Tumblr blog, Communism Kills, last month:
There once was a thug named Brown
Who bum-rushed a cop with a frown
Six bullets later
He met his creator
Then his homies burnt down the town
This is—without question—an incendiary poem. As an outspoken critic of Darren Wilson’s defenders and the systematic racism in America’s legal system, I absolutely disagree with every aspect of Goldenberg’s political argument, and while I understand the value of comedy in commentary, I personally find the verses extremely distasteful.
At the same time, no offense could have justified the backlash Goldenberg received. “Members of the SJW community have threatened to rape, burn, torture, and murder the Goldenberg family,” writes Maggie Lit of CampusReform.org. “In addition they have published the family’s address, their credit card and phone numbers, called for Ashley’s expulsion from GMU, and insisted all other schools deny her admission; threatened arson against the family’s property; and have written personal attacks on Ashley’s appearance, declaring she needs plastic surgery and assuring her she is ‘never getting laid.’” One commenter called her a “nasty ugly fuck face cunt” and promised to “rape ur stupid shit fuck daughters decapitate them and send you their butcher bodies.”
Another wrote that Ashley’s doxing and harassment were “consequences of your behavior.” A third simply remarked that if she was “gonna act like a bitch you gonna die like a bitch.”
Goldenberg, who I befriended through an ex-girlfriend, shared some particularly nasty ones with me:
According to a Pew Research Center survey from earlier this year, one out of every four women between the ages of 18 and 24 have been stalked or sexually harassed online. As Amanda Hess put it in Pacific Standard, “these relentless messages are an assault on women’s careers, their psychological bandwidth, and their freedom to live online.”
While Hess was referring specifically to feminist political and social critics, this experience is shared by conservative women like Goldberg; this even applies to women without well-known political views at all, such as the ex-wife of the man whose right to posting threatening and violent lyrics online about her is under review by the Supreme Court right now.
When Goldenberg wasn’t being subjected to sexism, she was also treated to a great deal of anti-Semitism as well (in full disclosure, I am also Jewish). “There was quite a lot of ‘Where is Hitler when you need him?’” she recalled. “There was also a black nationalist with a blog titled ‘Social Justice’ who agreed with a Nazi blogger about hating me for being Jewish.”
Because so many Tumblr users are progressive, Goldenberg has experienced this kind of backlash before, albeit not at this level. “A lot of people don’t like me by virtue of me being a right-wing individual [on Tumblr],” she explained. “And, increasingly, doxing has become a tool used to try to silence people who dissent.” One commenter cited her conservative views as “the reason people hate white people,” while another called her a “racist capitalist pig” and insisted she “deserves to be punched in the face.”
Goldenberg may be the most recent conservative to experience mass online harassment, but she isn’t the only one. Milo Yiannopoulos of Breitbart reported receiving a syringe in the mail, presumably in response to his articles supporting Gamergate. (Editor’s note: Yiannopoulos was the founder of the Kernel, an online magazine the Daily Dot has since acquired.) Nor is the targeting of conservatives in any way a new development: Back in 2012, two conservative Internet pundits were harassed by anonymous callers who reported phony crimes to send police to their houses. Later that same year, actress Stacey Dash from the teen classic Clueless reported significant Twitter harassment after she endorsed Mitt Romney’s presidential candidacy.
If one wishes to condemn sexist harassment, bigoted language, and ideological bullying when they target progressives, it is logically and morally necessary to take the same stance when the right is targeted as well. Even though many are understandably appalled at Goldenberg’s poem, if progressive Internet activists fail to defend her as they would a feminist attacking Gamergate, they will expose within themselves a deeply unflattering double-standard.
On a philosophical level, the issue of trolling raises intriguing questions about human nature. What allows people to feel justified in being deliberately malicious toward others simply for having a different opinion? How are some able to go to such extraordinary lengths, even violating entrenched social taboos, just to inflict real emotional injury on people they’ve never met—or, perhaps even more disturbingly, how is anyone able to do something like that casually?
While we’re as far as we’ve ever been from resolving these profundities, we should at least be as consistent as possible in curbing this uglier side of human nature.
Photo via Kristin Schmit/Flickr (CC BY 2.0) | Remix by Fernando Alfonso III