Writing while female: the very real threat of online harassment and how it’s held me back

Author’s Note: This essay was originally published on Hamilton and Griffin on Rights, a site run by Professor Marci Hamilton and Professor Leslie Griffin, which is dedicated to the healthy separation of church and state and the rights of women and children (specifically surrounding childhood sexual abuse). I encourage you to check out the site and the amazing work these women are doing. It is currently the only legal blog that has the majority of content authored by women, and you can find my writing there on the last Tuesday of each month. This post has been republished with permission. 

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Last week, one of my blog entries, “How I’m Learning to Break My Silence and Fight Racism” was picked up to be republished by Thought Catalog. I was thrilled for the exposure and hoped that it would potentially lead to new blog followers. But truthfully, I was also apprehensive — the potential for a hostile comments section terrified me. This would be my first time diving into the world of anonymous commenters. Up until this point, I’ve held a strict publishing policy: I only allow my work on websites where the comments sections have full names attached to each commenter, such as those powered through Facebook.

Why do I have this policy, which holds me back from fully pursuing my writing? Fear. Fear of online harassment. Fear of being ripped to shreds and denigrated. Fear of doxxing, stalking and threats. Fear of being treated like I’ve seen so many of my fellow female writers treated.

Lately, as I find my voice and my writing takes flight, the question of dealing with online harassment seems to be more of a “when,” rather than an “if.” It appears that a woman can only rise so far before she is at risk. From my observations, just about every female writer I follow on Twitter deals with online harassment or abuse in one form or another. Some are subject to truly disgusting and terrifying behavior. Lindy West, who often writes on feminism, was featured on This American Life to share her story of an online harasser who created a Twitter account posing as her deceased father, just to hurt her. He later apologized (the first time West had ever received an apology from a “troll”), but the experience was still distressing. Ragen Chastain, a size-acceptance blogger who writesDances with Fat recently shared a particularly harrowing account of her online harassers creating hate websites devoted to her demise, trying to sabotage her sponsorships and speaking engagements, and even going so far as to stalk her and her family in-person at an Ironman event she was competing in. Anita Sarkeesian, a media critic who foundedFeminist Frequency, became the target of an online harassment campaign over her video series “Tropes vs. Women in Video Games,” which examines gender tropes in video games. The harassment has been so disruptive to Sarkeesian that she has had to vacate her home, and even cancel a speaking engagement amidst the threat of a mass shooting.

And it’s not just female writers that dare to write about controversial topics like feminism, body acceptance or racism who are targeted. Mia Matsumiya, a professional violinist, has amassed more than 1,000 lewd and inappropriate messages online, which she’s sharing on Instagram to fight back. Chicago sports anchor Julie Dicaro has spoken out about being harassed and threatened with rape simply for sharing her professional opinions while female. Just look at the Twitter replies of any famous or even noteworthy female and you’ll see a litany of disgusting, graphic and insulting comments. By my observations, social media is a verifiable minefield for women to navigate, no matter what kind of work they do or opinions they share.

So it was with great apprehension that I allowed Thought Catalog to publish my piece. The essay had gotten mostly good feedback from the WordPress community, and my own Facebook friends, but I had no idea what to expect when it came to the anonymous commenting world of Disqus. What awaited me did not disappoint. My piece garnered 45 comments, most of which were racist, some of which were misogynist, and pretty much all of which were downright bizarre. Upon reading them, I felt my heart quicken and a lump rise in my throat, especially as I saw a few commenters using my full name. Thankfully there were no threats or outward insults, yet my impulse was to immediately regret my decision to go against my no-anonymous commenters policy.

After giving myself a few moments to calm down, I was able to talk some sense into myself. I realized that if I allow my voice to be silenced, then I am letting potential harassers win before they’ve even struck. By creating policies around what they might do, I’m giving these pathetic people more power than they deserve. I’m holding myself back both personally and professionally and letting fear be my guide, rather than what feels right to me. Besides, even if I can protect myself from nasty comments sections on my articles, there’s really no stopping anyone from harassing me elsewhere on the internet, so my policy is actually moot. If the only shield I have is my silence, then it’s not one I’m willing to bare any longer. I will not acquiesce that women should be seen and not heard.

I took a few deep breaths, closed the tab on my browser, and vowed to myself to stop obsessing over the words of others. More importantly, I vowed not to let hate win — not today, not tomorrow, not ever again.

Why “PC culture” is actually a good thing

Author’s Note: This essay was originally published on Hamilton and Griffin on Rights, a site run by Professor Marci Hamilton and Professor Leslie Griffin, which is dedicated to the healthy separation of church and state and the rights of women and children (specifically surrounding childhood sexual abuse). I encourage you to check out the site and the amazing work these women are doing. It is currently the only legal blog that has the majority of content authored by women, and you can find my writing there on the last Tuesday of each month. This post has been republished with permission. 

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There has been much talk lately regarding the ills of “PC Culture.” Comedians (mostly older and male) complain that everybody is too sensitive and easily offended these days. College academics claim they’re terrified of their liberal students and repelled by the idea of offering up trigger warnings in their classrooms. Journalists posit that political correctness is ruining colleges all together. Even President Obama has weighed in, and he too thinks that many college students are being coddled.

Most of the arguments against so-called “PC culture” can be summed up by the words of Jim Norton, who wrote in Time that “Western culture as a whole has become an increasingly reactionary mob of self-centered narcissists who all have their own personal lines drawn in the sand,” and “I choose to believe that we are addicted to the rush of being offended, the idea of it, rather than believing we have become a nation of emasculated children whose only defense against an abyss of emotional agony is a trigger warning.”

While trigger warnings, discussions of microaggressions and hashtag activism may be on the rise, I’d argue that this shaking up of the status quo is actually a good thing. I think what we’re seeing is not an emergence of “victimhood culture” but a rising up of marginalized voices. Social media has given us an extremely powerful tool to express ourselves and share our experiences. We can now communicate and connect with others in ways we never dreamed possible two decades ago. As Megan Garber at the Atlantic wrote,

“And now we have Facebook and Twitter and WordPress and Tumblr and all those other platforms that take our daily doings and transform them into media. Our newest communications technologies are also, by default, technologies of exposure. We are, tweet by tweet and post by post, becoming slightly less invisible to each other—and revealing ourselves, through the Internet’s alchemy, not just as individual collections of experiences and identities, but also as human systems. By sharing who we are, intimately and mundanely, we are making ourselves visible and readable to each other in ways we have never been before. We are participating in a voluntary anthropology of unprecedented scope and scale. We are opening our minds to each other, saying, directly and publicly: ‘This is what it’s like to be me.’”

For many people, especially the oppressed, this ability to communicate with the entire world is empowering.

Not only is sharing our stories empowering, but it also builds empathy. It helps us grow and learn and understand others. It may not be easy to for us check our own privileges, but it is absolutely necessary for growth. Like just about everyone else on earth, I have said some offensive, hurtful and downright embarrassingly racist and misogynistic things in my lifetime. But thanks to so-called social justice warriors, every day I’m learning. By reading blogs, tweets, and Facebook posts from my friends who’ve generously shared their experiences, I’ve educated myself on #BlackLivesMatter. As a result, I’ve started to confront my own biases, and have begun calling out racism when I see it. Not only that, but I feel more informed and sure of myself when talking to my minority friends. I don’t feel policed because I can’t make insensitive jokes anymore. I’m glad I’m no longer underhandedly offending my friends and acquaintances with my ignorant remarks. Besides, jokes are a lot funnier when everyone standing around you can laugh at them, rather than being hurt.

Critics of “PC culture” claim that it stifles discourse and causes people to walk on eggshells, ultimately suppressing both creativity and progress. However, a recent study from Cornell found just the opposite. The authors split college students up into two mixed-gender groups to brainstorm business ideas for a restaurant on campus: one group was instructed on a PC norm and the other was not. The group operating under the PC norm actually generated more novel ideas: “Departing from the assumption that normative constraints necessarily stifle creativity, we develop a theoretical perspective in which creativity in mixed-sex groups is enhanced by imposing a norm to be politically correct (PC)—a norm that sets clear expectations for how men and women should interact with one another. We present evidence from two group experiments showing that the PC norm promotes rather than suppresses members’ free expression of ideas by reducing the uncertainty they experience in mixed-sex work groups. These results highlight a paradoxical consequence of the PC norm: A term that has been used to undermine expectations to censor offensive language as a threat to free speech actually provides a normative foundation upon which demographically heterogeneous work groups can freely exchange creative ideas” (bold added for emphasis).

I know that I have sat silently in groups at work or school when I had ideas to share, simply because I did not feel my thoughts would be welcomed. I’ve also been shouted down by men who felt that their ideas were inherently more important than my own. I can only imagine how many brilliant minds have been hampered in the same vein.

Sure, sometimes political correctness can be taken to the extreme, and I have to admit that I’ve rolled my eyes at certain grievance-airings on the Internet. But I’m not the arbiter of what somebody else finds offensive and I’m certainly not oppressed because others choose to share their offenses openly. I can only navigate the words of others with an open mind and heart, and comfort myself in knowing that I am doing the best I can to understand.

So forgive me if I don’t see “PC culture” as the end of reason or the suppression of free speech. I see marginalized voices speaking up, and finally being heard. I see people reaching out to one another, connecting, empathizing, and saying, “me too!” I see humanity sharing experiences, learning and evolving with one another, and seriously considering our own words and actions.

I see progress.

Why I Hid Over 100 People from my Facebook Newsfeed

I’ve never been one to defriend people on Facebook. It seems so final; so cruel. “You didn’t make the cut.” Although, every couple of months, I see someone on my feed dramatically announcing that it’s time to cut back: “Spring cleaning,” they say. “Time to get rid of the deadweight,” they say. “See those of you who matter on the other side!”

All of this hoopla is inevitably followed up with a “Congratulations for still being my Facebook friend!” a day later, as though we were ever really worried. As though we feel deserving of a congratulations for still having the privilege of being included in their apparently miserable newsfeed. (Side note: I can’t help but notice that these same people, going off about being SO-DONE-WASTING-THEIR-TIME-WITH-THE-BULLSHIT, are also most likely to post meaningless drivel. And partake in vaguebooking — they LOVE them some vaguebooking, right? Sigh. I digress.)

Anyway, I’ve always seen defriending is a callous act. Like saying, “I no longer choose to be connected with you, even in a superficial way.” Because, let’s face it, most of our Facebook friendships are NOT meaningful. We’re holding on to a memory of a person that maybe once meant something to us, or maybe didn’t. We’re being polite. We’re “friends” because we’re obligated to be; there’s a social contract in place. We’re “friends” because we grew up together. We worked together. We played basketball together. We had peripheral friend groups in college and kind of hated each other, but didn’t want our beef to blow up into a massive group-fued. Plus, hello, stalking?!

We all have our reasons.

Perhaps I don’t defriend as a policy because the ONE time I ever did, that person happened to see me out running errands and MOTHERFUCKING CONFRONTED ME. I kid you not. And speaking of social contracts, somebody needs to tell homegirl that when you’re defriended and you see that person out on the streets, you save face by deflecting eye contact and getting the fuck out of there! Have some pride, woman! Instead, Ms. Ex-Friend waltzed right up to me and said, “why did you defriend me on Facebook? You have like, over 1,000 friends. Do you hate me that much?”

I didn’t have the heart to tell her that, while I don’t hate her as a person, I do hate everything she stands for. And seeing her spew not-so-thinly-veiled hate on my feed is just not what I’m about. It kills my morning mojo and leaves a sour taste in my mouth. I didn’t tell her this, of course, because SOME OF US actually abide by unwritten social contracts ahemmm. I apologized to her, and said it must have been a clerical error. Thankfully, she didn’t know what that meant (and good thing too, because frankly, that was a terrible excuse), and she blindly accepted my half-assed excuse.

That day, I vowed to stop defriending people, because I couldn’t stand the fact that I had hurt someone with the stupid click of a button.

Also, because I’m a sucker with too many feels, who honestly believes that people can change any time. I always, always see the best in people, and think their brightest day is just around the corner. “Maybe she’ll come to her senses and realize that racism is a real thing that she’s perpetuating and stop posting these hateful memes.” (Yes. I truly believe this after school special shit. Who’s the REAL idiot in the scenario? I’ll let you be the judge.)

After that confrontation, I tightened up my privacy settings, created a “limited profile” group, wherein folks couldn’t see my statuses and I couldn’t see their stupidity clogging up my feed. It was a win-win.

But I’ve been noticing recently that my feed is a verifiable circus of idiocy, ignorance, misogyny, racism, and overall hate. And the worst part is that all of it is masked in “humor.” And I’m using “humor” very lightly, because what these people post is generally not fucking funny at all. Inappropriate, offensive and subversive views CAN be funny, sure. But if you’re going to express those views, they better be hella funny. Louis CK-level funny. Pineapple Express-level funny. Exposing-a-layer-of-irony-I-never-even-knew-existed-level funny.

Instead, I get THIS on my newsfeed:

abusememe

Good one! Domestic violence is SUPER funny.
When do you take this show on the road?!

Not to mention the truly trashy drama/airing of dirty laundry, the bitching, the vaguebooking, the bragging, the image crafting, the ignorant political posts, the oversharing. The memes. Every 5 minutes with the memes.

And the worst part is that I found myself swept up in it all. I became part of their drama. I was gossiping to my real life friends (mutual “friends,” of course) about my fake Facebook friends. Like THAT was deserving of our time. It became like my own sick reality TV show. I couldn’t stand these people, but I couldn’t look away.

Last week, I was talking with an old, dear friend about my fascination/anger with so many on my newsfeed. I finally acknowledged, for the first time, how much time and energy I was wasting paying attention to and arguing with these people, or… abstaining from arguing with them (which for me, can sometimes be even more of an energy suck). Then, my friend said the words that changed my view of my Facebook feed forever:

“The worst part is that every bit of energy spent on them is taking away from other things.”

Other things, like: being a good friend/family member, socializing, reading, exercising, playing banjo, writing, making the most of the incredible city around me,  or even just… I don’t know, actually relaxing without mindlessly scrolling.

I was letting their hate and their unhappiness (or excessive happiness) with their own lives drag mine down.

I hid over 100 people from my feed the next day. I’m continuing to hide folks on a daily basis. What’s left? A much shorter, and more pleasant newsfeed. My sanity. Just a little more time in my day.

I’m happier and less stressed, and those who truly matter to me (or at the very least, are a value-add to my Newsfeed) are still there. And I’m rooting for them, for real. Plus, I don’t feel like I’m missing one thing.

I highly recommend lightening your load by hiding, not defriending, the deadweight on your feed. Your body and mind will both thank you as your cortisol levels simmer down, and you remind yourself of what’s important.

And on the off chance one of those hidden should ever confront you for “never liking their posts” on the ‘book?

There’s always the old clerical error excuse.