The notorious comment is free (part 1)

// 14 June 2008

As Jess posted on Wednesday, I joined a conversation with her, Jessica of feministing, Kira of the Guardian Women’s Pages and Jemima of the techy space at the Guardian this week about ‘women on the net’. Caitlin Fitzsimmons’ write-up is a great start, but isn’t able to do the full conversation justice, so I thought I’d write out some of what I’ve been reflecting on in more detail. I had so much to say though that I’ve had to split the post into three!  A full podcast of the event is available here.

Part 2 of this series is here, and Part 3 here.

Participation can hurt
My first experience writing for Comment is Free (cif) was slightly traumatic. The level of personal abuse in the comments was so high that I felt emotionally attacked and drained as I participated. I felt particularly harassed because the attacks were about my gender, race and religion (as opposed to people just calling me stupid, say). As a result, I took a significant break between that first post and my next post.

The existence of rampant misogyny, racism and Islamophobia on cif is no secret. When I chose to write a second piece for cif I did so in the knowledge that I was likely to face a similar level of abuse. I therefore only took the decision when I felt that I had something I wanted to post that could benefit from an airing on cif – when my political agenda made it expedient. And I did it when I knew I would have time and energy to troll through the comments; I knew I would have to read through abuse to get to the content-relevant contributions.

Other women who write on the net face this choice too. Writing and engaging on blogs is emotionally costly. This has to be weighed against any benefits. For me, working at Fawcett and campaigning on issues of race and gender mean that when I write for cif (which I do in my Fawcett capacity), I will be covering topics that make me a target for abuse. My decision to write or not write for cif then becomes tactical: what will I gain by blogging on cif? And is this worth my professional and emotional time and energy?

Race matters

As a woman of colour, I face the threat of a different kind of misogyny than white women bloggers face. As a woman of colour writing about race and gender, I am putting myself at particular risk: if I were writing about, say, phones (?!), I could perhaps be expected not to face racism and sexism online, or at least not as much. Race matters both in terms of the writer and the content of the writing.

I have chosen not to provide a picture for my profile on cif because I didn’t want to offer more fodder for the sexist racists and the racist sexists to work with. To my mind, the absence of the picture means commenters are at a bit of a disadvantage. Do I kid myself that not knowing what I look like means that readers have to evaluate my writing with more consideration? That they can’t just say, ‘well, she’s just a ___’ because they don’t know if knowing what I looked like would tell them that I’m clearly not a ___?

Maybe I should do an experiment. Change my profile pic as I post different pieces and see if the nature of the comments changes. One day be in hijab writing about Muslim women, next day in full piercings and perhaps looking like I have a shaved head but still writing about Muslim women. Or post the same article under two authorships – one copy under me, and another under, say, Jess or a male blogger. Or both! Then we could really establish whether race or gender gets the rawest deal (as so many people are – ridiculously – trying to compete about, but I digress).

Photo by The Sizemore McCabe Project, shared under a Creative Commons license

Comments From You

Shea // Posted 14 June 2008 at 9:21 am

I’ve noticed this on Cif. Any piece by Cath Elliott attracts hoards of misogynist idiots and its worse for women of colour. Bidisha gets tons of crap because she is a woman of Indian origin. But the irony is the arguments put forward in alot of female cif pieces are the same or similar to those in male ones ( by Ally Fogg for instance) but the male commentators never get anything like the same. I’ve stopped reading comment is free now, it just seemed pointless. The collective nastiness rendered any reaonable debate impossible. I hope you can change this, its long overdue. (Loving the batphone idea by the way).

Anne Onne // Posted 14 June 2008 at 12:05 pm

I’m loving these CiF posts, so much so that I’m going to read them again and again.

To some extent, it chimes with that I feel about feminist blogging in general. The oppressed get so much more crap online, especially if they are talking frankly about their experiences, and it just makes you want to evaluate each thing you say or do, for the likelihood of getting an abusive response. It means that the daily fear and alertness we need for real life has to also be poured into online, and it’s tiring. To be honest, the hostility and the seeming futility play a big role in my own decisions of what to do, where to comment etc.

That’s why I’d reccommend to pro-feminist men, or men geting started in feminism an interesting experiment. Particularly if they’re also white, cissexual, heterosexual and middle class.

Try writing generally feminist comments, under a ‘female’ name. You don’t need to pretend you’ve gone through all the things women face, since that’s unfair. Just say whatever you would normally say. This works less on feminist sites, so try CiF, or anywhere else on the net… If you couldn’t see the hostility See if you get the same reactions you normally do. Notice the hostility that is suddenly directed at you because you present as being female. This would probably work if you took on a name that was obviously foreign, or otherwise hinted towards being a POC, non-Christian or LGBTQ. The privilege we have in real life is something we can’t take off, but online, if you really want to see how someone with less privilege is treated, it’s fairly easy to use a different username. And you don’t need to actively lie about your experiences in order to get hassled, seeing as women and POC bloggers don’t need to be talking about their experiences to get hassle, but simply talking about gender or race.

Actually, when I first started commenting on the net , a loooong time ago, the anonymity of the net gave me great comfort, because if you wished, people could have no idea what you look like, or what gender you identify as, or anything else.

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