Defending the indefensible

Today it became clear that in the course of a work-related Facebook conversion IndieStatik founder Josh Mattingly decided to ask a female game developer if he could kiss her vagina. And some other things that she decided she didn’t feel comfortable sharing.

Mattingly has apologised, which is a good call, to say the least. He says he’s going to get started on AA and therapy, which is great. It’s awful that his mental health issues have contributed to him harassing someone, and it’s entirely excellent that he’s taking responsibility for it and using it as a wake-up call to get help.

But away from his personal response, there’s been an unhappy sideline on Twitter today, with David Jaffe as its poster boy, in questioning the developer’s behaviour, and asking why she didn’t ‘shut him down’ or tell him, confrontationally, to stop before he escalated. Why she ‘let’ him make more than one crude sexual comment. Implying that it’s somehow her fault for not stopping him, rather than his fault for continuing; implying that silence is consent.

This is bullshit.

I wrote last week about how online harassment is a professional issue – how when people abuse minorities online they are often doing so in a professional context, not merely a personal one. McWilliams was in a professional space here, talking to a professional contact; the idea that she could confront him with absolutely no repercussions for herself is a cosy and pleasant one, but not necessarily a realistic one.

Even if it were, the idea that there’s a ‘right way’ to respond to abuse like this is completely wrong-headed. A lot of interactions with harassers turn unbelievably ugly when they’re called on their harassment. Ignoring it and maintaining a calm front can be the best way of de-escalating. Not everyone is happy or comfortable with showing that they’re upset to someone who’s potentially trying to upset them in order to get a thrill. Blocking is not always an option, especially in a professional context. And – let’s be clear – the point at which anyone would have to resort to blocking or shutting down is the point at which the harasser has already crossed the line. No response of any kind is going to negate that.

Mental health issues don’t excuse you from behaving well towards other people. A lot of people live with depression without sending people unpleasant messages (hi!). Depression doesn’t absolve you from responsibility, and it certainly doesn’t turn this situation around to put McWilliams in the wrong. Mattingly seems to be trying to own his actions and apologise. The people who’ve tried to defend him by attacking his victim’s responses should probably follow his lead.

We work here: online abuse is a workplace issue

When harassment or threatening messages are characterised as “just the internet”, it’s doubly frustrating. On one hand, that’s a glib way to deny the reality of the harm caused and emotions experienced by the people on the receiving end. On the other, it assumes the internet is something you can switch off if you want – a harmless unreality that’s an optional extra, and not part of your real life.

The reality, however, is that many people on the receiving end of online abuse are being abused at work. The internet is not just a place of play and recreation; it’s also a work environment. Journalists, community managers of all kinds, marketers, and any number of other professionals cannot do their jobs effectively without the ability to access social media, and to speak freely there without being harassed for their presence.

Amanda Hess, in a long and excellent piece on women, harassment and the internet, speaks to this problem and a few others. She points out that online abuse, arguably, constitutes employment discrimination, as it discourages women from pursuing work online as well as causing significant distress to those who do and who are harassed in return.

Those who have reason to expect harassment are discouraged from promoting themselves and their work. They may employ particular strategies to protect themselves that aren’t necessary for those who are less likely to be abused, and that may hurt them professionally. (An illustrative example: I didn’t use my own image in profiles anywhere online for several years, because I was keen not to have my appearance used as ammunition, positive or negative. During that time I had more than one conversation with male social media journalists, seemingly unaware of these issues, who told me not using my own photograph was unprofessional.)

The prevalence of online abuse manages to put minorities who work online at a disadvantage in two ways: either they moderate their behaviour to be safer but take professional consequences, or they do not moderate their behaviour and risk more severe abuse. Either way there is an extra cost to working online, which is currently borne entirely by those on the receiving end of systematic harassment.

In addition to those employment issues, Hess also speaks about her experiences with police, and the fact that keeping track of her stalkers has cost her money. The police response to Twitter abuse is, in her account, frequently to tell her not to use Twitter. If your job requires you to use Twitter, or your work’s success relies on your personal ability to promote it, this advice is impossible to take without harming yourself economically and professionally.

Increasingly, for many careers, social media is not a space where participation is optional.  “Just ignore it” doesn’t work and isn’t appropriate when a customer in a shop starts yelling abuse at a retail worker. It’s not appropriate online either. We work here.

Why I’m not participating in today’s #twittersilence

First, let me be absolutely clear. I support the stated aims of those people participating in the Twitter boycott today, and I do not think my own speech contradicts them in any way. More than one person participating has said, in as many words, that this is about people reacting in a way that works for them. The only implication that those speaking today are somehow crossing a picket line has so far come from broader critics of the boycott, and not from those taking part. It’s a straw man, as is anything that points to this post as saying that the boycott is pointless or purposeless or useless. Again, to be clear: I do not believe that.

The Twitter silence has the potential to be an excellent embodiment of the freedom-of-speech dichotomy that turns up in a lot of arguments about hate speech. When you fail to enforce punishments for those who abuse, threaten and harass others, you aren’t protecting free speech – you’re permitting their victims to be silenced. Those people going quiet on Twitter for a single day are drawing attention to that fact – and that’s worth doing. I hope that, as Helen Lewis says, this moment of silence leads to a larger conversation.

But silence isn’t my choice. I’ve not been silent for any cause; I’ve always believed my voice has far more power than the lack of it, even for a day. I’m viscerally aware, too, of the power dynamics in this form of protest: you can only effectively participate in a silent boycott if you have a platform large enough that people will notice your absence.

It may be true that widely-followed, well-known people get the most abuse; it is in my experience also true that this problem has a very, very long tail, of people with a few dozen followers getting a little abuse, one troll, perhaps a violent-sounding stalker or two. It’s also true that trans people, people of colour, and disabled people – among other groups – tend to get an astonishing level of abuse as well; I have not been silent in support of those people either, in part because the people I’ve seen react against this type of hate speech have not been in a position where silence was a sensible protest.

Those people who don’t have a megaphone to put down can’t effectively use silence as a weapon, and it’s unlikely that this will be an effective path for them to get the recourse available to Hadley Freeman or Caroline Criado-Perez. Twitter and – in the case of actionable posts – the police are far too slow to respond to those people famous enough or articulate enough to demand it. But to those people who are not, they fail to respond at all. I don’t see how my silence today would change that – though I can understand why those participating hope that their critical mass will help to change policies and approaches both at Twitter and within law enforcement. What I can do is use this opportunity to highlight it in my own way, and to call for better approaches from Twitter and for the police to enforce laws that already exist.

Silence from me on a Sunday doesn’t mean much in any case – normally, these days, it means I’m off in Marrickville with a bunch of my friends playing tabletop games, forgetting that the internet exists and escaping for a while. It is pointless to protest by refusing to participate in something you don’t normally participate in anyway. And I have had an uneasy relationship with silence since I started writing under my own name online – a consistent awareness of the potential consequences of speaking, which ends up becoming a sort of self-censorship, a partial silence. Something I wrote two years ago, in reaction to Helen Lewis’s reporting on abuse, remains true (though I would use the word ‘people’ now, because it’s not just women dealing with this shit):

I’ve seen people argue that women should be stronger, should just suck it up and deal with it, as though silence about abuse is not a form of partial silence. I’ve seen people say women aren’t being silenced, because of all these women who are not silent, as though all women speak about the same things and measure risk and reward the same way, and as though there’s no gradient between silent and outspoken. I’ve seen suggestions that women should only write on moderated sites – presumably sites they don’t moderate themselves – as though restricting the venues of our speech doesn’t amount to silencing. And I’ve seen people say pseudonymous environments are bad for women because of harassment, when some of us find them the only places we can speak without worry.

All of those arguments are bollocks.

Now, as then, the best thing I feel I personally can do is to speak out – to put myself, directly or otherwise, in the firing line. To do so knowing that not being silent is still one of the most daring, distressing, dangerous things some people can do online, and that people with far fewer resources and more to lose than I are speaking up, every day, and refusing to let credible threats and floods of violent abuse prevent them.

I remain one of the lucky ones, because I only have to deal with pictures of dismembered fetuses and outright threats of rape every few months or so, rather than every day. Gender-based slurs and harassment should not be an occupational hazard for female journalists, any more than they should be a condition of open internet use for anyone who dares to differ from the English-speaking world’s white straight cis currently-not-disabled male default. Some people can use silence as a weapon against this state of affairs. I can use speech.

Is online abuse increasing, or are we just less tolerant of it?

A thought that follows on from yesterday’s post about Twitter and freedom of speech: it’s easy, I think, to see all the anger and distress caused by online abuse and come to the conclusion that it’s a growing problem. That social spaces online are increasingly hostile to women and other minorities, and that such incidents are increasing in both frequency and severity. In short, it’s easy to think that things are getting worse.

But I don’t believe that’s true. Social spaces online have historically always been fairly unpleasant places to be a visible minority, with notable exceptions. Usenet wasn’t a fun place to be openly female. Neither were early IRC channels (a/s/l and all). Parts of 4chan and Reddit still aren’t. But as online space has become easier to enter, easier to use, more important and less socially obscure, a broader section of society has colonised it. I learned when I was about 12 that you don’t admit your gender online, if you’re female; it’s less than three months since I first felt comfortable using a real picture of my face as my avatar, knowing what that can open you up to.

The evolution over the last couple of years has been that more women and other minorities feel safe enough online to be visible at all, rather than hiding behind the default masculine assumption that comes with anonymity and some pseudonymity. The target pool for abuse is larger, because more people are unafraid to simply be in public.

At the same time, the backlash to such behaviour is more visible and more outspoken. Abuse and threats are increasingly seen as unacceptable. That means more visibility for particularly reprehensible abuse, where a decade ago it would have been more hidden and harder to speak out against. The availability heuristic means people are more likely to overestimate the frequency of abuse now as opposed to abuse years ago, because they can think of more recent visible examples – not necessarily because it’s more frequent, but because it’s more frequently spoken of. It also means that social norms are changing for the better.

Maybe this is too optimistic a take. But I’d like to believe so.

On silence

This week, Helen Lewis-Hasteley posted at the New Statesman the words of seven women speaking about the abuse they’ve received online. That’s spawned a huge conversation, a #feministwishlist hashtag and a lot of other posts, much of which Helen’s rounded up here.

I think I was 12 years old the first time someone on IRC told me explicitly what they’d like to do to me, sexually, then swore at me when I told them I wasn’t interested. I learned, fast, that if I wanted to be taken seriously or heard at all – if I wanted to ensure that random, entirely unsolicited, often threatening sexual advances wouldn’t happen – I’d best pick a male name, online. Or at least be gender neutral. Being female meant I was fair game. It sometimes seems that in 15 years not all that much has changed.

I have maybe half a dozen online pseudonyms I’ve used at various times. There’s one in particular I’ve been writing, commenting, talking under since I was 12. Nowadays I don’t use it much, now I speak under my own name here and on Twitter, but when I’m not pseudonymous I speak about different things. I’m mindful of what I’m saying, not just for what it is but also for the reaction it might provoke. If someone wanted to track me down, it would no longer be particularly hard, with this open identity.

I am lucky, and often thankful, that the pseudonyms I use have never – as far as I know – been linked to me. I won’t repeat the abuse I’ve gotten under those other names, because I barely had the spoons to deal with it the first time round and I’m damned if it matters what the exact words were, anyway, and because it could open floodgates or let people link those identities to this one.

And in deciding that, I know in my bones that I’m setting myself up to be dismissed, to have my experiences belittled because I choose not to share them explicitly, to be called a liar or worse; that’s the kicker, you see, that eventually you know in your bones what could be coming, so you self-censor.

Some women speak and continue speaking, whether they are abused for it or not. For some women, who speak and are abused, the price for speaking is too high and silence is the only choice that lets them protect and care for themselves. For others, the existence and the experiences of those women is enough for them to decide, consciously or otherwise, that the risks of speaking will always outweigh the rewards.

And for some, like me, a partial silence descends.

I weigh words. What’s safe, given how easy I would be to find in real life, and given what I can cope with on a given day. How much of myself to reveal while pseudonymous, which details to fake and which to hide. It is laughable to suggest that identity online is uncomplicated in such circumstances. Either I can be myself, or I can speak without fear. I am uncomfortably constrained in both skins.

This is how bullying works. It’s how hate speech works. The abuse doesn’t even have to be directed at you personally – just so long as people are being torn apart for having a characteristic that you share, you may welll be worried about being torn apart for the same reason. Not just women, either – the mental health blogging community is 99.9% pseudonymous, for instance, with very good reason.

I’ve seen people argue that women should be stronger, should just suck it up and deal with it, as though silence about abuse is not a form of partial silence. I’ve seen people say women aren’t being silenced, because of all these women who are not silent, as though all women speak about the same things and measure risk and reward the same way, and as though there’s no gradient between silent and outspoken. I’ve seen suggestions that women should only write on moderated sites – presumably sites they don’t moderate themselves – as though restricting the venues of our speech doesn’t amount to silencing. And I’ve seen people say pseudonymous environments are bad for women because of harassment, when some of us find them the only places we can speak without worry.

All these arguments are bollocks. And I’m bored of hearing them. And maybe saying so will put me in danger, maybe it’ll mean a threat or a few abusive tweets or maybe just an argument I’d rather not have to have. But I’m fed up of being told how we ought to moderate our behaviour. All these options just end up with us being a different sort of silent. I’d like us to be free to speak.

Maybe it’s just me. But somehow, after this week, I doubt it.