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Roman philosopher Seneca suggested that “shame may restrain what law does not prohibit,” and the message might as well have been directed at anyone who writes, reads, and/or comments on Internet articles. It’s time that we apply this maxim to those who attack female writers online.
The doxing of Felicia Day highlighted the plight of women participating in online culture. Day, a star on the hit TV show Supernatural and an avid fan of video games, is well-known for her direct engagement with fans and love of talking about social issues. Although in the past she has been effusive in her self-identification as a gamer, she recently acknowledged feeling nervous about expressing that passion due to the systematic harassment of female gamers, who are just one segment of women online. Violence against female gamers has been thrust into the spotlight lately by a campaign known by its proponents as Gamergate. When she felt that she was no longer able to remain silent, she wrote a brief piece about it—and one hour later, she was doxed.
While much has already been written about Gamergate, there is a deeper issue here involving the disproportionate harassment of female writers online. Zoe Quinn, Anita Sarkeesian, Brianna Wu, and Jenn Frank are among the most conspicuous victims specifically pertaining to Gamergate, but there have been plenty of recent cases that have nothing to do with that controversy.
We can start with Caroline Criado-Perez, an English feminist activist and writer, who experienced weeks of harassment after her campaign for a female British historical figure to appear on that nation’s currency led the Bank of England to announce that they were putting Jane Austen on the 10 pound note. “If there’s one thing I want to come out of what happened to me,” she later wrote in an article for the New Statesman, “it’s for the phrase ‘don’t feed the trolls’ to be scrubbed from the annals of received wisdom.”
As she explained both then and later, the terror of having graphic descriptions of one’s own potential gang rape described to you can never be simply wiped away on the grounds that the abusers are likely not serious. “What are victims meant to do with that image, the rage and the horror that it conjures up? We’re meant to internalise it until it consumes us? Well, I’m sorry, but I’m not having that.”
Amanda Hess, a pundit who has written on a wide range of subjects for sites ranging from Slate and Wired to ESPN, has drawn attention to the rape and death threats that have become a staple of not only her career but the experience of many female writers, including herself. Like Criado-Perez, Hess has nothing but disdain for the idea that victims of this abuse should simply shrug it off. “No matter how hard we attempt to ignore it, this type of gendered harassment—and the sheer volume of it—has severe implications for women’s status on the Internet,” she explained in a column for Pacific Standard. “Threats of rape, death, and stalking can overpower our emotional bandwidth, take up our time, and cost us money through legal fees, online protection services, and missed wages.”
This list could go on indefinitely. Culture critic Sady Doyle has discussed similar experiences that she underwent for expressing opinions on subjects ranging from stand-up comedy to Game of Thrones. Indeed, while dryly observing that she’s “had it easy” by only receiving one explicit death threat and a handful of rape threats, she notes that her relative good luck can be viewed as fortunate only because harsher experiences are so common. Online harassment “is a gendered phenomenon,” she writes, “W.H.O.A. reports that, in 2010, 73 percent of cyberstalking victims were female.”
Mikki Kendall, a feminist culture critic like Doyle, regularly receives racist attacks because of her African-American heritage. “My experience has been both gendered and racial,” she recalled in an NPR interview. “I’m going to get called the B-word. I’m going to get called the N-word.” Feminist Jessica Valenti has been targeted countless times, from the spokesman for the Canadian Association for Equality (who actually encouraged his Twitter followers to harass her) to a law professor who wrote a post about her picture with Bill Clinton, titled “Let’s take a closer look at those breasts.”
As Danielle Paradis, a feminist social critic, told the Daily Dot, “On Twitter, speaking out against sexual assault or sexual harassment has caused men to stalk my profile, often for years, just to mock me. Sometimes it’s resulted in piling on.”
Gendered bigotry against women is widely considered to be “in bounds” by Internet commenters (whether they openly acknowledge it or not), and subsequently a demographic that comprises half of the total human population has to worry about receiving rape threats, death threats, and the harassment of angry mobs simply for expressing their opinions. This needs to stop, and while it’s impossible to prevent all forms of harassment from occurring online, we can start by creating a culture that shames individuals who cross the bounds of decency.
We can start by stating the obvious: It is never appropriate to use slurs, metaphors, graphic negative imagery, or any other kind of language that plays on a writer’s gender, race/ethnicity, sexual orientation, or religion. Not only is such language inappropriate regardless of one’s passion on a given subject, but any valid arguments that existed independently of such rhetoric should have been initially presented without it. Once a poster crosses this line, they should lose all credibility.
Similarly, it is never acceptable to dox, harass, post nude pictures, or in any other way violate a writer’s privacy due to disagreement with their opinions. While most people would probably agree with this in theory, far too many are willing to access and distribute this humiliating (and often illegal) content. Instead of simply viewing stories of doxing, slut-shaming, and other forms of online intimidation as an unfortunate by-product of the digital age, we should boycott all sites that publish these materials.
We must also cease a practice that I like to call Bobby Fischering, in reference to the legendary Jewish chess player whose likely mental illness caused him to espouse anti-Semitic views (e.g., a professed admiration for Adolf Hitler). Although neo-Nazis and other anti-Semites often cite Fischer to lend legitimacy to their opinions, common sense makes it clear that someone can be a member of an oppressed group and still internalize bigoted views about others within that demographic (including themselves) as well as other communities. The notion that receiving support from a member of an oppressed group immunizes you from charges of bigotry against that same group is spurious, and those who rely on such arguments should be ridiculed for doing so.
Finally, every personal attack against a writer must be done by someone who attaches his or her name to the charges and can, thus, be held accountable for them. This is almost certain to be the most controversial position espoused here, but it is also the most important. Online anonymity is only an asset when it’s used to comfort and protect individuals who wish to express opinions in a psychologically “safe” environment. Because personal attacks deny this same security to their targets, it is cowardly and unethical for those who engage in this kind of harassment to be able to do so without being held accountable. Anyone who harasses and attacks an online writer without attaching his or her name to their comments should be dismissed and, when exposed, shamed.
While these rules were created with Gamergate and other instances of online misogynistic harassment in mind, their application is hardly limited to those cases. For the Internet to fully realize its potential as a medium for exchanging ideas and cultivating debate, everyone who expresses an opinion online should be protected by the codes of basic human decency they convey. The law isn’t always able to protect victims of online harassment, but a culture that shames the perpetrators instead of merely acknowledging their existence can help wipe it out.
Photo via Gage Skidmore/Flickr (CC BY S.A.-2.0)
Matthew Rozsa is a Ph.D. student in history at Lehigh University and a political columnist. His editorials have been published on Salon, the Good Men Project, Mic, and MSNBC.