Friday, November 11, 2011

Be Nice & Grow A Thicker Skin

There's been a lot of talk about on-line abuse lately. I think it all started with the brilliant S E Smith's post On Blogging, Threats & Silence, then there were posts at Geek Feminism, Hoyden About Town and others. In the last week or so, there's been a load of UK newspaper and blog coverage of the highly threatening on-line abuse of women writers and bloggers (round up of British articles and posts here). Yesterday Louis Bolotin pointed out that disabled people are often victimised on-line in much the same way. I know from my friends that LGBT writers and anyone who writes about race is subject to the much same kind of thing, tailored to the appropriate bigotry.

Lots of silly things are said in response to these kinds of complaints. Much of it is along the lines of “If women complain about something happening to women, they are implying that nothing bad happens to men and men are to blame for everything.”

Certainly, men experience on-line abuse but much of it is very different in nature and women can't speak for men's experience*. Meanwhile, on-line misogyny is a uniquely equal-opportunities form of hatred; few of the writers above were naïve enough to imagine that, from behind the mask of anonymity, nasty women who hate other women won't take the opportunity to use the sexualised and violent language which isn't so readily available to them off-line.

However, I wanted to focus on two common and contradictory pieces of advice that are given to women and others in the fact of on-line abuse.
  • Be Nice and
  • Grow a Thicker skin

Be Nice

There is an argument that women who experience on-line abuse just need to be nicer. In the comments threads under the posts and articles about this, there were frequent references to certain writers' tone, or the fact that a writer has said once something a bit strong or little mean about a particular group, a politician or another public figure. Of course, some of these writers had said silly and provocative things, but none of it came close to the abuse they had received. Even women victims of domestic violence are sometimes advised not to wind their partner's up, not to nag, not to show any anger or be difficult. For a very long time, our models of femininity have involved an element of passivity and infinite tact. It is ladylike to say nothing or only speak very calmly, to choose words very carefully and to try and take into account everybody's needs, desires and point of view.

Now, I've received very little abuse here, and as well as the other factors (chiefly low traffic and an extremely well-mannered and physically attractive readership – the latter point being irrelevant to this, but it happens to be true), one reason is that I don't often write when I'm angry. I'm not angry very often in any case, but when I am, it kind of shuts me down. Now, there are a few things to say about that.

The first is that one of the reasons I get relatively low traffic is that I don't write when I'm angry. When a person or an organisation or the government do something totally outrageous, I don't often have the strength to respond to events as they happen. People who have their finger on the pulse and express themselves with great passion are far more readable to greater numbers.

On the one hand, this means there's nothing forced or vitriolic here – some people with their finger on the pulse like to apply pressure to the jugular vein of debate. On the other hand, this means that I don't produce stirring polemical posts which can change people's minds about a subject and stir them into action. I mostly write about things that I am trying to understand, which is interesting to some people, but it doesn't stoke any fires in any bellies. It shuffles the embers about, at most. And people like their belly-fires stoked. The big, important bloggers are highly polemical bloggers. They get worked up about stuff. Their readers get worked up about stuff.

And so when readers disagree with what these bloggers say, they tend to get cross. This part is inevitable; if you contradict a view people are invested in, you may meet a few receptive ears, but you're going to make smoke come out of others (the anatomical metaphor thing has become a bit of a compulsion, sorry). What is not inevitable is that once enraged, people should respond with personal abuse, sexualised insults and threats. That's not inevitable at all, but it happens more often to people who are not afraid to put anger and passion behind their words.

On the whole, people who disagree with me have always done so politely – even on big sticky subjects like abortion or euthanasia. But that's not because I'm doing anything better (or worse; I'm not ashamed of my place in the blogosphere) – I'm doing something completely different. Political debate and social reform need impassioned voices. That sometimes means crossing over the line from what some people regard as being nice

There are some people who are affronted by women and other marginalised people speaking up. These include inadequate men for whom the supposed inferiority of women is a comfort and who hate for that to be challenged. Women who are themselves invested in a particular version of womanhood – especially, but not exclusively, motherhood – can be among the most vicious critics of women who have different ideas or behave very differently. As Nicky Clark discovered, even expressing an opinion about language can get a woman accused of being a bad mother. S E Smith received violent and sexualised abuse just because she wasn't keen on Glee.

Grow a Thick Skin
or If you can't stand the heat, get back to the kitchen.

A thick skin is overrated. A thick skin involves some acceptance that others will mistreat you, which in turn requires mistrust and cynicism. It is not a healthy thing to toughen up in the face of abuse – it's not good for your mental health or your humanity. When others are against you, the trick is to keep a hold of yourself, your sympathy and sensitivity. Those things are virtues, and ones which are in no way incompatible with strength, courage and so on. You need strength and courage to remain sensitive to other people's feelings and to keep your faith in other people.

Everyone who writes on-line gets abuse, they say. One commenter – probably more than one, I didn't get that far down the threads – even suggested that everyone gets the same abuse, but women's hormones and genes made them react differently. Ha ha.

This is another impossible message about femininity. Women overreact, so when a woman complains about mistreatment, whatever she says happened, she must be overreacting – if she's not lying out of malice or the need for attention. This is less likely to make women shut up than the Be Nice message, but it is more likely to keep women silent about their bad experiences – especially shocking private experiences like sexual harassment and violent threats. Anticipating the assumptions of others, no woman wants to speak out and be seen to overreact.

I don't believe that the world is full of over-sensitive people, but everyone has different squidgey bits; we squeal when poked in different places. So if someone is poked in the knee and squeals, when your knees can bend around the wrong way without so much as a twinge, you might think they're being a wimp. I have known a few people who claim to be very difficult to upset, but usually they just have rather novel sensitivities (not that I go about poking at people to find out what upsets people, either metaphorically or literally). A truly over-sensitive writer objects to any criticism or debate at all. Ordinarily sensitive writers object to abuse. That's utterly reasonable.

People who are genuinely impervious to the opinions of others are lost to the rest of us. They're dangerous, frankly. Some public figures, including writers, have had to come to terms with the idea that some people will always think they are scum. But people who are not afraid to upset anyone? Terrifying.

* Another reason I don't get much gendered abuse is that while there's a lot of personal information on here, it's spread out, and lots of people landing on a random post have almost no information about me. So I have had comments questioning the length of my penis, assuming I have one, and assuming I care.


Never That Easy said...

So well thought out: your breakdown of the two top 'options' so routinely recommended to people in that position (usually women, but certainly other minority groups as well), clearly shows that there are no real options at all. Neither of these is a good choice; neither of them puts the responsibility for the abuse and vitriol where it belongs: On the people dishing it out.

StrangeFruit said...

I don't like to go online because of the abuse people like to show me, and I'd rather be offline. Your words made me feel better.

Anonymous said...

Squidgey bits- snort! Hope that doesn't hurt your feelings :)
I say no to any abuse ! While I adore disagreement that is a different thing entirely than disrespect..... As always - excellent post.

Scriptor Senex said...

As a victim of on-line abuse - principally aimed at my disability - I used to get very upset. Perhaps I have grown a thicker skin because now I just feel sorry for the abuser - after all, they are obviously far more menatlly disabled than I am physically disabled.

Actually, as I wrote that I realised it wasn't true - I don't just feel sorry for them, I still get upset. Must go and ask a Rhino how he grows his skin...