Online Harassment Is the Missing Piece in Discussions of “PC” Culture

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Harassment of women who share their opinions online are so common, pervasive, and frightening that it’s practically irresponsible to talk about “infighting” on the left, particularly around identity politics issues, without understanding that broader context. This morning, Michelle Goldberg published a painful but important piece in the Washington Post about the way Gamergate-style threats and harassment have chased many prominent feminist bloggers out of the public sphere, or at least made them consider quitting. The reporting-heavy piece describes a sort of PTSD that being heavily trolled inflicts on writers, sometimes until they leave the Internet.

In 2013, the pro-choice activist Jaclyn Munson wrote about going undercover at an anti-abortion crisis pregnancy center. Soon a stalker was sending her death threats. They scared her so much, she started sleeping with the lights on. A year ago, exhausted and depleted, she largely gave up writing online, deleted her Twitter account and now plans to go to law school, which she hopes will let her work on the issues she cares about in a safer, less exposed way. “It was just becoming really emotionally overwhelming to be on the front lines all the time,” she says.

Goldberg focuses primarily, but not exclusively, on prominent white feminists in her piece. This is unfortunate since her point holds for the larger community. It’s common knowledge that women of color and queer women who are prominent, powerful voices on social media and blogs get the same, if not worse, cruel and violent harassment on a regular basis.

It’s a mistake to separate the “tail-chasing” fights between progressives which have been bemoaned by Goldberg herself (in a piece called “Feminism’s Toxic Twitter Wars“), Jonathan Chait, and others without understanding that this is the climate in which everyone who calls herself a feminist — on either side of a given intra-feminist debate of the week — is operating.

At the same time, the problem isn’t just facing outspoken feminists or even only women who address gender issues or sexism. It faces any woman with a strong following or persona online. Today, the Daily Beast published a piece on how Serial “truthers” have begun to doxx and harass the women involved in or blogging about the blockbuster podcast. Not unlike the early stages of Gamergate, they are convinced that weird sexual desires and fetishes have to be the explanation for women’s opinions about the murder case Serial revisits. And on Salon, a writer describes criticizing American Sniper and getting harassed by so-called patriots documented and dissected her abuse:

But in my case the negative messages were also delusional and aggressive—in almost the exact same ways that I had described “American Sniper.” And that’s the part that is really fascinating. Of the negative messages almost all included some sort of faulty reasoning—false binaries, false analogies, misattribution, illogical cause and effect, and more. And many of these also included aggressive tendencies—sexism, racism, insults, epithets, bullying and attacks on my training and profession.

While the writer of the Salon piece, Sophia McClennen, was willing to analyze her own harassment with statistics and achieve emotional distance, this kind of approach can be difficult when it’s your daily life for days, months or years. Jill Filipovic gave Goldberg some incredibly honest insight about the toll trolling has taken on her:

“I doubt myself a lot more. You read enough times that you’re a terrible person and an idiot, and it’s very hard not to start believing that maybe they see something that you don’t.” She also finds it harder to let her guard down. “I have not figured out how to spend all day steeling against criticism — not just criticism, but really awful things people say to you and about you — and then go home and 30 minutes later you’re an emotionally available, normal person.”

A reality I’ve personally dealt with on a minor scale is that being trolled is an incredible killer of patience, optimism, and trust. When people are tweeting at you all day, calling you names and denigrating your appearance, it becomes harder to distinguish the well-meaning allies from the genuinely hateful enemies. It makes it more likely that you’ll snap at responses or ignore feedback from within your community, too, even if they’re couched as constructive criticism. It also means the people who are asking genuine questions won’t get the responses they want from you, because who has the time or the patience to respond to borderline mansplaining, for instance, when a constant feeling of genuine threat to one’s safety hovers above the keyboard?

This doesn’t mean that genuine disagreements among feminists are solely a result of everyone being edgy and in bad moods due to trolling. Not at all. These debates always existed, long before the Internet. Nor does it mean the important work that more marginalized groups do in calling mainstream feminists to task for being too white or capitalist-friendly or heteronormative should be dismissed.

Instead, it means that patience and dialogue, collaboration and “good faith” and offering people benefit of the doubt — which are all excellent values in a vacuum — are also provinces of the privileged, particularly online. And in this case, that privilege means being able to express your opinions in public without being assailed by an angry mob. So when we read pundits in major magazines demanding a discussion of censorship, a lack of safety online, and the political erosion of free speech, we can’t limit the discussion to the occasional blowups that happen among and between progressives and mostly result in lessons learned.

We also have to talk about the verbal assaults that women, queer people, and people of color face every day, even if it’s not as juicy a story because it’s so pervasive.