I wrote this originally for the great web site http://www.scotspolitics.com but the range of applications this has never fails to blow my mind. I wrote something similar for funk’s house of geekery too and I’m going to keep talking about this from now on. Some things are just wrong.
One of the down sides of being a vociferous fan of free speech is that you often end up defending things that are not really very good – overly-violent horror movies, poorly written music, badly done art – but all of that is more than worth the good stuff that freedom of expression grants. I’d go as far as to say that the internet has made things infinitely better and more complicated all at the same time.
Firstly, the good. The internet has been the greatest democratising force possible in terms of engaging people. An artist? A musician? Or even if you’re just someone who wants to comment on things, the internet has given everyone a voice, and for those of us lucky enough to experience it in all of its freedom, free speech has never been freer.
Sadly though, free speech online has a dark side, just as it does in traditional, non-internet culture. As the internet becomes more and more the miasma that hangs over everything written, read and thought, the dark side of free speech has become a weird, twisted funhouse mirror of what we all may have been familiar with. For example, the situation with Mary Beard illustrates the vicious poison that can be spewed all over the internet when internet anonymity meets general misogyny.
For those who don’t know, Mary Beard is one of the foremost classicists in the country – a lecturer at Cambridge and blogger for the Times Literary Supplement. Her books and TV appearances make her probably one of the best known academics in the country. She was invited recently to appear on Question Time; asked about the impact of immigration she, (as per usual for an academic) cited a report that showed the benefits of immigration outweighed the potential problems. Innocuous enough, you might think and so it may have been in a previous generation.
However, the now defunct web site Don’t Start Me Off decided that she would be their latest target. Rather than take issue with her ideas and point of view, the sites members directed a torrent of vitriol at her and her appearance. The abuse was foul, crude and sexual and completely unrepeatable here. Beard refused to let it fly and instead wrote about it on her own hugely popular blog and as a result of the attention it received the website was shut down.
Sadly, this is just the latest episode in a long list of women who have been subject to horrendous abuse and vile threats for the heinous crime of being a woman. Being female and having an opinion was enough to generate thousands of words of abuse. As Beard accurately and succinctly noted, the issue was that “a woman, 58 and looking it, saying what she thinks, against the grain, is explosive’ to some people, and through the freedom of the internet this punitive rage found its horrible outlet.
I said that what happened to Mary Beard was just the latest in a long list of depressingly repetitive episodes of women with an opinion being told to sit down and shut up. Not for saying anything wrong, but just because they were women. They can be subject to rape ‘jokes,’ online harassment, belittlement – and myriad other small and mean tricks to try to bring them down and shut them up. For those subject to it, it must be like death by a thousand cuts for your self-esteem.
Enough is enough.
I can’t begin to express my admiration for women who have used their public platform to call out these cowards who hide on message boards and fake names, but it shouldn’t just be down to them.
As a man and a feminist there is something so profoundly depressing to see these men (and it is predominately men) vent their anger and feelings of inadequacy on women in the public sphere. The sheer engrained misogyny has to be called out by the vast majority of men who are NOT terrified and infuriated every time a woman articulates an opinion about anything.
There will be some, no doubt, who think of it as their right to free speech to threaten murder and fantasise about raping whatever hate figure du jour they have fixated upon this week. Some have even claimed that the ‘block’ button on Twitter infringes their right to be heard, as if someone ignoring them is somehow equivalent to censorship. These cowards shouldn’t be censored; they should just be drowned out by other voices. Drowned out, not just by women who refuse to be cowed but by men too. Men who have realised what these trolls and rage filled people haven’t – that women are not men’s property, but equal, deserving of the same respect given to them and not belittled simply because they’re walking around with ladyparts.
I talked a few weeks ago about the internet as a new cultural frontier – a place where the rules of how and where and when we interact with one another haven’t quite been settled yet. It’s this fact that makes the internet such an exciting place to be, but it is also what has given rise to cowards and misogynists hiding behind avatars rather than learn how to deal with someone of a different gender. There will be a time when this kind of abuse, this hatred just won’t be acceptable anymore and the people who still do it will be thought of as we think of fanatics with megaphones in public spaces. However, if the latest incident has proven anything it is that collectively we need to move towards that day even sooner.