The sort of message certain kinds of trolls send on the Web, one of the milder ones. These are misogynistic trolls. They abound on the Internet as anyone reading feminist blogs knows, as do other kinds of trolls.
The image of the usual trolling I have in my mind goes something like this: There is a group of friends, sitting around the fireplace, sipping their favorite drinks while arguing politics or life or telling jokes. Then a person walks in, sits and defecates on the floor and walks out again. Or starts vomiting into the fireplace. Or jumps up and down while demanding attention to the big green bogey he or she just produced from the flared nostrils. It's an odd image, especially because the usual advice is to ignore trolls. They want attention, and by refusing attention you will make them go away. Which leaves us all sitting next to a pile of steaming turds and watching the vomit crackle in the fireplace. It doesn't really work, that ignoring, even in the case of ordinary trolls.
But a misogynistic troll is not your usual run-of-the-mill troll. He (or she, but that is rare in my experience) will not just poop on the floor or puke in the fireplace; he will try to kick you or throttle you or at least urinate on you. Now that is much harder to ignore while calmly sipping the hot chocolate with cinnamon.
And what happens when the fragile borders between the cyberspace and the meatspace are violated? When these scenarios I imagine might become real? The Kathy Sierra case tells us one possible scenario, and I have learned of many others during my few years in the blogosphere. The laws concerning Internet harassment are in their infancy. We need such laws, desperately, and we need to take any threats seriously. This is not Second Life. This is the only one we have.
Sara Robinson on Orcinus has an excellent post on the secondary effects cases like Sierra's might have on female bloggers. She quotes Joan Walsh of Salon:
And on and on it goes: Is Sierra another woman silenced by vicious online sexism, or just a wuss? Were the threats of violence real? Or is she the real bully, organizing a "lynch mob" to win her blogosphere battle?
I avoided writing about the mess for a day or two because I had mixed feelings about it. Ever since Salon automated its letters, it's been hard to ignore that the criticisms of women writers are much more brutal and vicious than those about men -- sometimes nakedly sexist, sometimes less obviously so; sometimes sexually and/or personally degrading. But I've never admitted the toll our letters can sometimes take on women writers at Salon, myself included, because admitting it would be giving misogynist losers -- and these are the posters I'm talking about -- power. Still, I've come to think that denying it gives them another kind of power, and I'm trying to sort that out by thinking about the Kathy Sierra mess in all its complexity.
The Broadsheet thread about Kathy Sierra was in many ways worse. Not about writer Lynn Harris, thankfully, but about Sierra, as well as women posters who came to her defense. This is how it got started:
Anyone on the internet is subject to all sorts of threats. It has nothing to do with being a woman.
The lady is a loser
Ms. Sierra also fabricated some of threats. This has been proven and established.
That poster pointed to Chris Locke's "Rageboy" blog as evidence Sierra was lying, but in fact Locke didn't claim she fabricated the threats; he merely insisted he's not to blame. And on it went. A charming Broadsheet regular told a woman who disagreed, "Trying [sic] verifying rather than just opening you fat piehole and spewing bile," and later, "Now I know you are a fattie and single." It was a petri dish of online misogyny. We left it unmoderated as a science experiment. And I feel a little sick now that I've read the whole thing. Yes, sick.
So what is the answer?
I'm left with a lot of my initial reaction: Attitudes toward women have improved dramatically just in my lifetime, but still the world has too many misogynists, and the Web has given them a microphone that lets them turn up the volume on their quavering selves, their self-righteous fury, their self-loathing expressed as hatred of women. And yet, mostly, women on the Web just have to ignore it. If you show it bothers you, you've given them pleasure. Life is too short to think about Broadsheet trolls.
But it coarsens you to look away, and to tell others to do the same. I've grown a thicker skin. I didn't want skin this thick. And what does it mean that women writers have to drag around this anchor every time they start to write -- that we reflexively compose our own hate mail, and sometimes type and retype to try to avoid it? I can honestly say it's probably made me more precise and less glib. That's good. But it's also, for now, made me too cautious. I write less than I would if I wasn't thinking these thoughts. I think that's bad. I think Web misogyny puts women writers at a disadvantage, and as someone who's worked for women's advancement in the workplace, and the world, that saddens me.
I added the emphasis to the last paragraph, because it speaks about the longer-term effects of unrestricted misogyny on women writers in the cyberspace. It is the reason why I started this post several times and always ended up scrapping it; why I took out the initial threat I had chosen as the title and replaced it with something milder. It is the reason why even now I don't really know if I should push the Publish-button. It is what makes the stakes of honesty quite different for some of us. And it is also something almost invisible for those who are not women writers or feminist writers.
Joan Walsh mentions elsewhere in her piece that she believes misogynistic trolls to be quite rare on the Internet, and I agree that they are probably not that common. But they do seem suddenly more common for all of us bloggers who don't habitually interact with them in our real lives. It is a very different thing to know, in the abstract, that there are men who reallyreallyreally hate women (or at least feminist women) than it is to receive a personalized missive from one of them.
The question that dances in my mind right now is what it is that has emboldened (hah! I waited long to find a use for that fashionable verb) the misogynists on the Internet, for emboldened they seem to me. Sara Robinson suggests that cyberspace is not viewed as the public street where such acts of violence as some misogynists carry out would not be allowed. She thinks that the cyberspace has become a war zone:
But if you read her blog, it's obvious that Sierra's attackers weren't adhering to anything like the town square behavior code. (To make the point: if a gang of men had surrounded her and threatened her with rape and murder on a city street, she could have called the cops and had them put away for a long, long time.) Instead, everything about these attacks suggests that those responsible assumed they had a war zone exemption, which suspends accountability for even the most extreme forms of violence against women. Which tells me that, somewhere in their minds, these guys no longer recognize the Web as a community, or the women they meet there as legitimate and equal members of that community. Instead, they see it as a battlefield, where violence is the expected norm. In this imaginary war zone, any woman who's out in public without male escort has already forfeited any claim to dignity or life.
Where did they get this idea? Sierra's blog was a downhome tech blog, not a political free-for-all. Her readership was largely male, and she'd served them well for over four years. The vast majority of men would never allow themselves to be seen treating a woman (or anyone, for that matter) this way in public; but these guys figured they could brutalize her, in broad daylight in front of hundreds of other people, with impunity. Why?
Most likely, it was because the men who put up the most heinous comments were right-wing authoritarian followers (RWAs), whose high-social-dominance (high-SDO) leaders given them permission to unleash their violent impulses, and encouraged them to direct it toward high-profile female targets. They did it because someone they regarded as an authority figure told them that the community rules don't apply any more. America is a war zone. The President has told them so. Their leaders have given them the formal go-ahead to behave accordingly. And that has very specific implications for how they're allowed to treat women they see as standing outside their own in-group.
Perhaps, though I feel pretty uncomfortable with Robinson's initial buildup to this idea where she appears to regard domestic violence against women as somehow still more acceptable. My own suggestion for an explanation would be the existence of new hate sites on the Internet, sites, where a man hating women gets validation and approval and the license to hate more publicly. These sites make lone individuals into groups and the conversations within those groups never self-correct in the direction of less anger. Rather the opposite. Many of the misogynistic trolls give such sites as their home addresses; the places where they feel accepted. Joan Walsh's advice about ignoring these trolls and their commentary may in fact embolden them more under this scenario. They go home to their misogynistic-brethren-in-arms, get all riled up and then attack feminist blogs and sites and what happens? Nobody argues against their views. Victory!
I call these trolls misogynistic rather than anti-feminist though of course they are always the latter, too. But most of their anger is aimed at women in general, women, who just won't stay in their proper places and quiet, women who aren't always available, women who won't give them sex or clean clothes or eternal devotion. A recent study (pdf) suggests that just having a female-sounding username is enough to multiply the number of malicious messages one gets on the Web by a factor between six and twenty-five.
It is odd that while I am writing this post a discussion goes on about the recent New York Times article which advocates for more civility on the blogs. The general consensus on the liberal and progressive blogs is that the article simply tries to stifle debate by focusing on the use of "fuck" rather on the substantive criticisms and righteous anger of those who use that word and other similar ones, and that the traditional media better clean up their own stables of the Coulters and Becks and Limbaughs and Imuses first. Because it was those people who started the incivility and who changed the climate.
Now, I can see the point of those criticizing the article and I can agree with the content of that criticism completely when it comes to reining in political speech. But I am also a feminist blogger, one of those walking in the twilight, and I think of that piece of research and then I wonder if some of the guys writing about their right to free speech would say the same if they had my experiences or those (much more frightening) of other feminist bloggers I know of. They very well might, I have no way of knowing. But what I do know is that women participating in Internet discussions have an extra hurdle to face and in that sense our freedom of speech might already be curtailed. Unless we all hide behind the handle "John" and avoid any topics which irk misogynists.