There's been a lot of to-do in the UK blogosphere this week about the nature and extent of online bullying, particularly towards women. The fact that women online can find themselves on the receiving end of disgusting sexual and sexist abuse (and over the top threats in general) is not a new thing, but the particular focus on articles by and about feminist bloggers is attracting attention in a way it hasn't before.
And that is generally good for people to know about. We all know and talk about "trolls", of course, but rape and death threats are a whole 'nother level. The fact that this happens, has been happening to a lot of people for years, raises the question of just how (in an online culture that widely endorses freedom of speech) to handle these things.
I've had a lifetime of bullying. As someone who wore glasses, was two years younger than everyone in my year, had terrible acne, and was a nerd in a way that was not and will never be cool, I'm sure you can imagine. There was one particularly nasty little piece of work who told me (when I was about five) that his goal every day was to make me cry. This usually involved bodily knocking me over onto the ground, usually while I was carrying something. Even in photos from high school, I had skinned knees and elbows courtesy of this little thug. We were at school together for ten years. I knew the teachers knew, and no one ever said a word about it.
As an adult, because what I write about offends pretty much everyone, the cycle has renewed. What I write is controversial and I'd be an idiot not to think people will react. And when bullies react they always go for the low-hanging fruit: your sex, your appearance, your family. Religion, race, orientation. The hooker thing. Whatever they can get. Life is unfair. Anyone who tells you different is selling something.
There's a lot of crap online, some of which I've confronted people over, but the vast majority of which it would just be too time-consuming to care about. There is a reason I don't have blog comments, a well-publicised email address, or an easy-to-locate physical address. The internet thrives on communication and interaction; that's no reason to assume there should be unfettered, complete, and full intrusion at all times. Weirdly, there are people who are the targets of bullying who still seem to think that if they exercise their ability to block or ignore the haters, that "the trolls win". Um, no. The trolls won because they stole yet more of your time and energy. And managed to convince you that if you refuse to interact with them, you're the one who's in the wrong.
But it also means that because the bar is raised so significantly, the people who do manage to get in contact are considerably more worrying than, say, a random comment on a blog. There is, of course, a special moment that comes the first time you get a posted death threat, or the first time a package is delivered to your work from someone banged up in a foreign prison. (Pro tip: don't open it.)
As a for-instance, I was contacted this week by people who now live at an address where I resided in 2006. They received a package in the post addressed to me. It is bizarre to think someone is trawling places I have lived in order to pass on things I don't want and certainly don't need. I told them to throw it away, because seriously, what the hell? Even if it's well-intentioned and not a piece of human waste in a bag, the sender does not, repeat, DOES NOT have any business stalking people like that. It's intrusive, it's scary, and there are a surprising number of people who think they are entitled to interact with you at all costs and will suddenly turn weird and threatening when you don't happen to agree.
"Should" things be different? Yeah, but I live in the real world. It is horrible to be sitting in your own house afraid of a knock at the door. And it's just as horrible to be flinching at shadows. Block and ignore if it's a flamer or time-waster, and save real ire for the people who might actually try to do you harm. If sieving one group from the other is something you have trouble with, The Gift of Fear is highly recommended.
If you are someone who gets threats, online or in meatspace, there are resources available to help. Use them! Bristol, for instance, had a good team dealing with online threats (while I was living there, anyway) - I found the police very helpful. Scotland's harassment laws have finally been strengthened to include online harassment, not just physical confrontation. These are positive things that will hopefully become the norm everywhere someday. But not without the public knowing about, and using, them.
So the thing about bullying is, where you are in fear of someone attacking, for goodness' sake go to the police.
Where there are not resources for handling online threats, you should talk to the police, not just your 'safe spaces'. Not just social media. There's a line between catharsis and whingeing and I'm not sure it's even a particularly thin line. Twitter is useful for sharing some kinds of information, but it does not change the world. Blog comments can be an interesting source of opinions or moral support, but they do not change the world. If the police and law don't help you, use that to whip up public sentiment to pressure the people in power to make a change. Do what the online bullies can't do: get out from behind the computer. But don't not try. And don't tell me a hashtag is going to magically fix bullying.
And now the other thing about bullying. One of the often overlooked aspects of this discussion is that shit rolls downhill. In real life and online too. Very often, people who are themselves bullied can exercise less-than-great judgment of when they are also adopting the rhetoric and action of belittlement and abuse.
As hated as I was at school, there was someone who was hated more. You maybe recall me writing about a childhood friend with spina bifida? Yeah, we weren't friends to begin with. Owning up to the fact that I'd joined in when bigger, more threatening, more popular people taunted her simply because it took their attention off me was hard to do. And the excruciating moment when she acknowledged my apology? Well, I'd never felt so low in my life. Never felt so low since.
So I'm not trying to diminish what's happening in the feminist blogosphere. Real people are getting horrible things said to them. They are talking about it, which is good. This is an interesting conversation and one that needs to be had: when does disagreement become trolling, when does trolling become a threat, and when threats happen, what is the best thing to do about them? Hopefully that will lead to actually doing something about it.
But let's also remember that there are women and bloggers in that milieu whose attitude towards sex workers, trans people, female 'slebs - all of whom have been getting this treatment for yonks - perhaps could be considered to contribute to that atmosphere. Like the Burchill quote people seem to like so much about shooting prostitutes. Level-headed criticism of the sex trade it ain't. If you promote the jokey murder imagery, don't be alarmed if people are surprised when you call foul.
It's all part and parcel of labelling other women as unwomen. Sure, call out rape culture... but don't be unaware of a parallel hate culture you may unwittingly be contributing to.
Does that excuse the people who make rape threats or post others' addresses online in an attempt to frighten and harass? It does not. Obviously, people who do that have gone far beyond common or garden trolling. But have they perhaps been egged on a bit? Have we perhaps played our own part in blurring the line so such people think what they're doing has no consequences? I think on some level we all have. It doesn't mitigate the criminality of actual physical threats, but it does make it hard - very hard - to play the sympathy card.
Am I above all this? Am I fuck. Like I said, I have been bullied. I also have been the thoughtless asshole saying nasty stuff about people who probably didn't deserve it. It is a hard thing to admit to, much less understand why anyone does it. People and their reasons for doing anything? Pretty complicated. But maybe part of the motivation is to distance ourselves from people even more reviled, even more unlikeable. To cushion the difficulty other people have with us by pointing to the freakier freaks. To keep that shit rolling downhill.
The internet is not "other people online" independent of our own contributions. It is made of us, and what we do online.