Trolls are not the most depressing part of this week’s twitter storm

// 31 July 2013

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This week, MP Stella Creasy must feel she’s slipped down the rabbit warren into an alternative universe – though one with fewer despotic queens than Alice’s wonderland.

Not because she’s been targeted by a virulent misogynistic online community – we’ve all known it exists for a while now.

Not because an unknown number of that community have organised themselves in an unprecedentedly strategic way to systematically single out and intimidate individual women with incredibly grotesque threats of sexual violence. I’m sure that unlike others surprised by this tactic, Stella has long understood that rape is not about men’s “need” for intimate relationships but is a form of violence used to subjugate women.

Not even because the only reason for Stella and Caroline Criado-Perez being targeted is not even a demand for equality – but for a paltry 25% of banknotes to show a woman as a historical figure of note (well, maybe a third if you factor in that no-one except tradespeople, tourists and criminals have £50 notes). Hell, the Bank of England’s choice of woman from this successful campaign could hardly be less controversial – a romantic novelist is not exactly flying the flag for radical feminism. The incumbent Elizabeth Fry is far more radical.

The real wonder in this Twitter-storm is the amount of time and effort Stella Creasy is having to spend painstakingly explaining to apparently well-educated and respected commentators that it’s not ok for a group of men to repeatedly threaten to rape her to death at a specific time and place. That it’s online, and – so far- there’s not been a documented case of the online misogynist trolls acting out a sadistically violent murder, seems to confuse several otherwise reasonable people. An accepted rule of thumb to answer ‘is it ok on twitter?’ is ‘how would you feel if someone did the same at the next table in the pub/ on the train?’. The best exchange I saw debating this test was between two male journalists (apologies for the very approximated quoting, it’s impossible to find things on twitter once the moment’s gone)

First guy: “my taxi driver leans out the window & shouts ‘nice arse’ at a woman. Should I report abuse in real life?’

Response: “No, but if he gratuitously threatens her with gang rape for voicing an opinion then you probably should’.

The troll campaign itself should silence those critics of the banknotes campaign, who said ‘why are you bothering with banknotes? what about FGM/ Malala Yousef/ other ‘serious’ matters?’ The trolls show beyond doubt that women’s representation in the public sphere is clearly something a vocal minority find high challenging, and is therefore even more important (NB: critics of the ‘no more page 3’ campaign, take note! This stuff does matter). The police reaction is also heartening and – hopefully – a sufficient deterrent to any potential trolls thinking of dabbling. That Twitter has made a swift turn around from blocking the women’s accounts to ‘taking these matters extremely seriously’ is proof that Stella and Caroline have won the argument.

But frankly, I’ve found this whole affair incredibly depressing. Depressing as these are intelligent adults with a reasonable amount of life experience arguing that ‘freedom of speech’ should allow people to drive women out of the public space, with many even directly advising Stella and Caroline to ‘take a break’ from voicing their opinions to avoid this abuse. And depressing as, however brave and determined Stella and Caroline are to keep participating in public life, there will be others watching and thinking ‘I’m not going to stick my head above that parapet if that’s what women have to deal with.’ After all, if someone tells you they are going to attack you in your own home at 6pm, who can honestly say they wouldn’t be looking at their watch come 5.30pm, however unlikely you judged the risk to be? To use the Caitlin Moran test for sexism*, that’s a personal price men (in the democratic liberal West, at least) don’t have to pay for participating in political life. And one that society as whole needs to say is not ok for women to pay either.

*Do men have to put up with this shit? No? Then it’s sexist.

Image by Cali4beach shows an array of Troll dolls and is reproduced by kind permission under a creative commons license.

Comments From You

Leapingminnow // Posted 1 August 2013 at 3:34 pm

Although as you say, the police reaction has been ‘heartening’ and Twitter has been more supportive, this didn’t happen before Caroline Criado-Perez was interviewed on Woman’s Hour where she had the chance to explain how poor the response had been from both parties. Bad publicity seems to have more pull than just doing the right thing.

sianmarie // Posted 2 August 2013 at 9:24 am

I agree with everything in the post, but can we not call Austen a ‘romantic novelist who did little to fly the flag for radical feminism’ ?

Austen’s novels are bitingly satirical, funny, and yes – romantic. Her books showed the restrictions on women’s lives – P&P as one example is all about how women have no financial independence, how marriage is the only option available to them and the impact that has on women’s futures. The fact she can make these points in gorgeous, easy to read prose that has continued to appeal to men and women for 200 years is bloody impressive. Characters like Lydia are also fairly controversial – how many other 19th century heroines can you think of who spot a guy, fancy the pants of him, and jump into bed with him with no real ill consequences? It’s pretty radical.

I know this post isn’t about Austen but part of the nasty reaction to the campaign for women on bank notes from all sides has been a casual dismissal of her and really, that’s not cool. She was an amazing writer whose books have survived better than many of her male contemporaries and that is something i, as a feminist, want to celebrate, not deride. She probably wouldn’t have been my choice but hey, we’ll still be reading her books in 200 years.

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