Something which has been happening for a very, very long time has recently been brought to light on Twitter: The internet is a magnificent thing, full of knowledge, full of ideas, full of people. It can also be a source of vast distress when you find yourself at the receiving end of cyber threats, harassment, bullying and “trolling”. In the last week or so, feminist writer and campaigner Caroline Criado-Perez has been receiving copious amounts of rape and death threats from Twitter users, after she finally won her campaign to have prominent women featured on British bank notes. Sometimes up to 50 rape threats an hour. A couple of people have been arrested over the threats, and still others persist, posting threats, as well as suggestions for her to shut up. Apparently, a woman with an opinion is a heinous thing.
She refused to shut up, and instead decided to talk back, make noise. Her Twitter time line currently consists of things she has retweeted, including many of the threats which have been sent her way. The “trolls” (whose reasons for this bullying vary from what they perceive to be ‘harmless fun’ to darker, conscious efforts to shut a woman up by intimidating her) have assembled, as they are unfortunately wont to do whenever feminist issues are discussed.
This isn’t a single-platform issue. Just this week, after I posted my disgruntlement at another misogynistic “Women are shitty drivers” status posted on Facebook, three men I know, who are for all intents and purposes educated men for whom I had previously carried plenty of respect (who, in their minds, were ‘just having a go’ or ‘making a joke’ or ‘taking the piss’) decided to hijack my thread by flooding it with inane comments, jokes and statements – 118 comments within the span of 30 minutes. It was just as I predicted and while it was happening, although annoyed, I found myself fascinated by the accuracy of the pattern which I had observed from a distance so many times before on social networks and online fora. These men had the intelligence not to threaten me; their tactic was a different one: “troll” the thread until the initial argument devolved into ridicule – until it was made clear to me that I had “no sense of humour” for finding misogynistic jokes offensive; that if I didn’t like it, I should turn a blind eye and ignore it or dismiss it as idiocy.
“You could have dismissed my status and ignored it, but you didn’t,” I argued. They had no response to that but “Sand in vaginas” and “I am sexist – I love sex”. When I finally pointed out their action was quickly spiralling into harassment (note how I said harassment, not “sexual harassment”), they got very defensive very quickly, saying “…if [I] HONESTLY believe that all the above piss taking can remotely be considered to be on the same level as the forced abuse of a woman, [I’ve] got [my] priorities short circuited.”
Because to society’s eyes, it’s only harassment if you sexually assault a woman. That’s where we draw the line. Ganging up on somebody and attempting to shut them up for having an opinion, no matter how “light-heartedly” it is done, when said person is blatantly disapproving and uncomfortable with this, is not viewed as harassment.
By all means, had they been open to a proper conversation with me on the topic, I would have been happy to comply. It was the reason I first posted the status. I believe in the importance of discussion above everything. Alas, it was not so.
Don’t get me wrong – I am not trying to put my experience on a par with that of Criado-Perez’s. I am aware that the men who hijacked my Facebook status had no conscious intention to intimidate me or threaten me. Perhaps they even thought they were being entertaining or clever. I am under no illusions – I would not dream of equating inane comments with rape threats. Nor do I bear a grudge against the men in question; I am aware in their minds they might have thought I would “go along with the joke”. Except I didn’t find it funny, so I didn’t.
But it’s hard to deny that the two are both (very different) symptoms of the same societal problem: change makes people uncomfortable. Feminism has been around a long time, but men have held power even longer than that, and women have been taught to be silent and “let it pass” for even longer. A paradigm shift is never easy and without struggle.
But another thing is happening on Twitter which makes me believe in humanity and gives me courage for the future. People have been watching the drama against Criado-Perez unfold, and have started to get irked by it. And just as a group of trolls can rally, so can a group of decent human beings.
Last night, on Twitter, writer Caitlin Moran stated she would be silent on Twitter today (save for the occasional “#TwitterSilence” tweet), in a show of solidarity with Criado-Perez. A number of other celebrities, including Derren Brown, Louise Brealey, Amanda Abbington, James Rhodes and Amanda Palmer promoted the message and stated their intent to participate in the Twitter Silence. This spread like wildfire, with the consequence that #TwitterSilence has been a trending topic for hours.
And I have decided to participate. Why? Isn’t silence giving the bullies what they want?
It would be if we were leaving Twitter permanently. This, however, is just for the day. It is SOMETHING you can do, if you want to do. The tag promotes conversation and rest assured that we will all be back on Twitter tomorrow, talking even more loudly, to even more people, to show that harassment and threats are not acceptable anywhere.
Already it’s being dismissed and criticised as a futile campaign. And yet, it’s trending, and the net is filled with blog posts about it – some positive, some not. One day of silence for a hell of a lot more days of discussion? Yes, please.
I look forward to seeing how this plays out. I believe in the power of change, and I believe in the power of human decency. I believe in not being forced to find something “funny” or to “loosen up” if I don’t want to.
Will you join?
Independent – ‘Twitter faces boycott… after rape threats’
Helen Lewis’ reason for silence
Suzanne Moore’s reason for silence
Caitlin Moran’s blogpost explaining the silence
More by Caitlin Moran
Twitchy’s coverage on the story
Twitter improves its measures