Over the past several weeks, there has been a flurry, even a frenzy, of discussion of sexism in media. This is a fantastic thing! The more people who hear the message about the crap our world puts women through, the closer we get to establishing egalitarian social norms.
Unfortunately, whenever women speak up on the Internet, a wave of hatred and bigotry rises up to try to silence them. But praise be, lately we’ve seen people fight back. Feminist Frequency has been chronicling the attacks trying (and failing) to crush her Tropes vs. Women video project, using it as an opportunity to raise awareness of the problem. The hip-hop video blog Ill Doctrine put up a post taking the sexist dudes to task. And more besides (see the Media Roundup section).
Flipping through responses to these voices shouting the trolls back down, though, I spotted a trend that makes me mad as hell. It’s an argument that keeps springing up like an ugly mushroom. It goes something like this:
Stop making such a big deal about these trolls. They just want attention, and you’re giving it to them by putting their attacks in the headlines. Besides, they’re not really sexist anyway; they just do whatever it takes to get a rise.
In other words, “Shut up and let the trolls do their thing. Don’t make a fuss or fight back. There’s no sexism here, move along.” Here are ten reasons this is a load of bullshit.
It ignores the fact that contemporary trolling has tangible consequences. If today’s trolling consisted only of nasty comments on videos and blog posts, there might be a certain sense to following the now common adage of “don’t read the comments!” and proceeding with your life. But the sorts of concerted attacks experienced by Jennifer Hepler of Bioware, Anita Sarkeesian of Feminist Frequency, and others don’t fit that profile. They involve denial-of-service operations disrupting access to the targeted individual’s Web sites and work. They involve vandalism of Wikipedia and other information resources that people might try to use to learn more about the person and their ideas. They even involve efforts to breach security and gain confidential information like addresses and phone numbers. You can’t make an attack like that go away by ignoring it–at a minimum, you need the help of network administrators and site moderators to restore legitimate traffic and repair damage. More realistically, you also need to draw notice to the situation by informing your audience why they couldn’t access your site yesterday. These attacks may be attention-getting measures, but they’re not only attention-getting measures. They’re also tactics intended to disrupt the targets’ livelihood and ability to sustain an online presence, and at times threaten even their physical safety.
It blames the victim. If you say to a sufferer of online harassment, “quit giving the trolls all this attention! That’s what they want!”, you are telling the target of the attack that they are the one at fault. That if they just kept their mouth shut, things would be better. That to fix the situation, they should grow a thicker skin and not let trolls’ words and actions affect them. You know what would also make things better? If the trolls didn’t pull this shit in the first place. Put the blame where it lies: on the ones causing the harm.
Without pushback, we lose the chance to bring something good out of the horror. The “Tropes vs. Women” Kickstarter raised tens of thousands of dollars more than Sarkeesian ever expected to achieve, in no small part because the story of the harassment against her went viral. Bloggers, Facebook users, and even major news outlets informed people of the situation, driving more traffic to the project. Now Sarkeesian can go bigger and better with her work, producing more content with higher production values. Does that make the original trolling okay? No. Even if it turned out that the trolls wanted her to succeed all along and this was their way of helping, that makes them villains of the ends-justify-the-means variety, not heroes. But if people had followed the “don’t give the trolls the attention they crave” advice and kept quiet about the attacks on Tropes vs. Women, the project would not have received as much mindshare or funding as it has. Speaking out about Internet bullying rallies people to defend against it, doing positive things that help counteract the hate.
Trolling isn’t funny. Saying trolls do this because they think it’s amusing, or because some audience of theirs thinks it’s amusing, isn’t much of a defense. Nor does it support the idea that these people “aren’t really sexist.” You know who finds coordinated, relentless denigration of women funny? Misogynists! Usually this argument goes with some tortured dodge saying that the content of the insult is immaterial. Trolls use the attack they think will get a rise out of their target, whether that’s a slur on gender, race, weight, or whatever else comes to mind. It’s not sexually motivated, it just happens to be convenient to use that angle of attack, so it’s not sexist. To that I say this: right-thinking people struck by the impulse to make an attack on someone’s gender recoil from the idea. They realize, “Ugh, that’s not cool! I shouldn’t say that!” If you get such a thought, and you go through with it thinking it’d be funny, YOU ARE BEING SEXIST. Not caring that your actions contribute to making the world a toxic, hurtful place for women is sexism, no contest.
Ignoring doesn’t work. It seems like such a reasonable, nice-person piece of advice, the sort of admonition you’d tell your kids. Don’t pay attention to the bully, and he’ll go away! But it’s not true. The advice treats trolls as individual bad apples getting individual kicks, while in reality, it takes a whole social support network. One troll does not a bombardment make: it’s the coordinated effort of trolly cliques that makes the worst nastiness happen. And there’s quite enough back-slapping and high-fiving among those circles that they don’t even need your reaction to get their rocks off. Might they be a little disappointed if you don’t get angry? Sure. But they’ll still encourage each other with their screen-grabs and so forth, and keep on doing what they do. Far better to work to create as wide and pervasive a social environment as possible wherein these things are not acceptable. If the trolls don’t have a welcoming crowd of twerps ready to join in the dogpile, their efforts fizzle. But simply turning the other cheek doesn’t bring that about. It takes shaming and signal-boosting, and communities upholding better ideals than those of the punks.
If we stay silent, we miss out on insights that get silenced or erased by the bullying. Related to “something good out of the horror,” if we roll over and pay no mind when a troll attack happens, often the trolls win. Blogs go dark. Public figures retreat from the Internet. Worthwhile information gets buried under the vandalism. If, instead, we rally behind the target of the attack, show our support, and fix the harm publicly and defiantly, there’s a better chance that the victims of harassment will feel the love and stick around to keep sharing their thoughts. Some will still recede, and that’s understandable and no one’s fault but the trolls’, but showing people they have a support system improves the odds.
The more you say a thing, the more you believe it. Religions know this. Schoolteachers and professors know this. Hate groups know this. Repetition is reinforcement. Even if we grant that trolls don’t buy in to the vitriolic ideas they spew from the start, they’re still immersed in it. For each of those YouTube comments or defacing Wikipedia edits, these people reach down deep into themselves to find the most gruesome hate speech they can think of. Does anyone really think that a person can make a hobby of that kind of thinking, going through that bottom-dredging process as part of their daily entertainment, and not have it leak into the rest of their psyche? Do we really believe that never colors their thoughts or actions outside of their time spent befouling the Internet? I don’t.
Nobody cares what your intentions are. You could be launching your litany of slurs to score a win against feminism, for the lulz, or to resurrect Cleopatra. That’s no excuse. You’re still making the world a suckier place for the rest of us, and we’re not going to put up with it.
“It’s just for the lulz” is a perfect smokescreen for actual misogynists to hide behind. Yet another reason I don’t buy the “they aren’t REALLY sexist” line. Asshats are human beings too, human beings who crave the approval of the people around them. Bit by bit, the world is becoming less tolerant of sexism, racism, homophobia, and so forth. If you’re someone who buys into those attitudes, that’s a scary thing! You can’t air your hatred in public and expect to get away with it all the time. Trolling provides a means by which people can put their ugly beliefs on full display and get applause. And in those situations where they do get called on it, they can duck behind the “I don’t believe those things, I just said them to get a rise” dodge. A little too convenient, I’d say.
And lastly, presented without further comment:
Between two groups, one spewing hate and initiating destructive attacks, and one stepping up to say the hate is not okay, do you really think the LATTER is the one that ought to shut up?