Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Enough is enough: no more rape threats

My, but it has been a long time since I last blogged, hasn’t it? But here comes a subject that I can’t say nothing about, even if it isn’t directly related to this blog, or even to me. You see, I’m not a woman. I am, however, a man who was brought up to treat strangers with respect.

As such, I have always been disappointed at the amount of trolling on the internet: there seems to be a class of people who have nothing better to do all day than say nasty things to people they have never actually met. My method of dealing with this, and my advice to others, has always been to quietly delete it and not give the trolls the attention they deserve. Up to a point, I stand by that advice. But only up to that point.

It works for low level trolling, the pathetic attempt to elicit a response from somebody by throwing stupid and vague insults at them. Refuse to rise to the bait, and they go away.

The point beyond which a response is demanded is when specific threats of violence are made, especially when they involve sexual violence and especially when they are made in such numbers that actual debate is no longer possible. Even if those threats are not at all credible (and most are not), they are deeply intimidating. The problem is, especially with such threats and insults directed by men at women, that they are often made with the assumption that the victims should put up and shut up; ignoring them is exactly that, and exactly what the perpetrators want.

I don’t know if the problem has only recently got suddenly much worse, or if it has always been bad. This is because only recently have some of the victims started kicking up a fuss. Are they kicking up a fuss in response to increased trolling, or because after years of silence their patience has finally snapped?

In Britain, this has become a hot topic recently. It first hove into sight on my personal horizon with reports about Professor Mary Beard, a professor of classics who has presented some TV shows about Roman history, and who voiced some opinions of her own on the subject of immigration. People — I should say men — who disagreed with her expressed their disagreement not with reasoned argument, but with nasty comments about her appearance and, yes, threats of sexual violence. Professor Beard’s tactic has been not to shut up, but to retweet some of the offending comments. In one recent case, one of her followers offered to send her the troll’s mother’s address, upon which the troll removed the offending tweet and issued a profound apology, thus neatly fitting into the classic stereotype of the internet troll.

This isn’t the only case, and in the last few days the issue has really hurled itself at the top of the agenda. When it was revealed that, in one of the neverending redesigns to British banknotes, Elizabeth Fry would be replaced by Winston Churchill, meaning that the only woman on British banknotes would henceforth be the Queen herself, a certain Caroline Criado Perez successfully campaigned for one of the other banknotes to feature a woman (in a few years, we can expect to see Jane Austen on the £10 note). All well and good, but Ms Criado Perez was immediately subject to a torrent of vile abuse, about one abusive tweet every minute for a sustained period. But she refused to shut up about it, and so ensured that it would become news, and even the police, hitherto reluctant to get involved in policing the internet (for all kinds of reasons, not least the difficulty and time involved in tracing anonymous tweeters) investigated and have started making arrests.

Then a Member of Parliament, Stella Creasy, spoke up in support of Ms Criado Perez, and was herself subject to similar abuse. Meanwhile, another MP, Claire Perry, made some comments about internet pornography and found herself the target of abuse as well.

The thing is that these instances go beyond just unkind comments and pubescent crudeness. We’re talking about threats that are graphic enough to be actually illegal, and certainly far too graphic for me to want to repeat them here. And whole armies of men are standing on the sidelines, cheering on the trolls and talking about “free speech” and “it’s just a joke”.

Except that it’s not just a joke. Rape isn’t a laughing matter, and some professional comedians really need to be taught the difference between “edgy” and “offensive” (yes, Mr Jimmy Carr, I’m looking at you). The oft-repeated justification that every good joke is bound to be offensive to somebody may be true, but this doesn’t mean that everything that is offensive is a good joke.

My intention here is not to try to point the finger of blame at anyone, but there comes a point where any reasonable person has to say that things have gone way too far and we need to stop. There is quite simply no justification at all for anyone to threaten physical or sexual violence, even “as a joke”. The intention is very obviously to use intimidation and harassment to silence women with strong or unpopular views.

I live in Germany, where any time an extremist right-wing organisation demonstrates, a counter-demonstration of angry local residents, determined to show that they will not tolerate such views, is hastily organised. In once case not far from here, a local priest ordered the church bells to be rung to drown out an inflammatory speech at a right-wing rally.

Journalist Caitlin Moran has suggested that people should boycott Twitter for a day in protest, but it has been pointed out that if such a boycott worked, it would leave Twitter to the trolls, exactly what they’re trying to achieve.

No, we need the opposite. I’m not usually one for online protests, changing all my avatars to show my support for this, that and the other, mostly because I feel them ineffective. That’s because the issues, such pressuring the US Congress to pass a certain law, aren’t affected by what happens online. I always consider it a lazy way to appear to be active without actually doing anything.

But here is an issue that is actually online to begin with, and it relates directly to how people use social media. The message we are trying to convey is directed specifically at online users and hosts.

There have been real life demonstrations by men against domestic violence. So I think men need to demonstrate online against online violence. Rather than leaving it up to the victims, who, when they speak out, are accused of “whining”, it is men who should be standing up and saying: “Enough is enough: we will not allow our mothers, our sisters, our wives, our girlfriends, our daughters to be treated this way.”