Monday, April 02, 2007

Virtual Hate Crimes

by SaraThe Kathy Sierra episode has been weighing on my mind over the past week. While there's been some excellent commentary on it (Joan Walsh's take at Salon, which I quote below, may be the best of the bunch), I'd like to take a bigger step back, and look at the episode in the context of what we know about misogyny, hate crime, and authoritarianism.

What happened to Kathy Sierra is a hate crime. Let's be very clear about that. Sending death threats via the Internet is a criminal offense. And a hate crime, by definition, is a crime that's committed with the intent of "sending a message" that will intimidate an entire group, and change their behavior in ways that will ultimately marginalize and silence them. Whether or not Sierra would actually be able to use hate-crime law in a court case is a matter of jurisdiction; but by the definition and intent of hate-crimes law, that's what this was. Sierra was threatened because she was a woman -- and the purpose of the attack was to silence any woman who dares to raise her voice in a blog.

It's not news to anyone that misogyny is alive and well on the Web; but what we're reckoning with now is both the number and the ferocity of the men who seem committed to silencing strong female voices in this medium. The Sierra debacle has prompted concerned bloggers, both female and male, to stop and consider the totality of its sheer pervasiveness. Walsh describes her moment of epiphany:
Once I joined Salon I started receiving the creepiest personal e-mails about my work. Anything I wrote that vaguely defended President Clinton or criticized his attackers, in particular, would get me a torrent of badly spelled e-mail, often from Free Republic readers and posters. There were themes: A significant subset tended to depict me in a Monica Lewinsky role, often graphically. Like Kathy Sierra, I endured too many references to "cum" in those e-mails. I'll forgo other details for the sake of brevity and discretion.

But it was hard to know for sure how much had to do with my gender. David Talbot was regularly attacked by wingnuts as a Clinton "butt-boy," so it was impossible to say it was all about my being a woman. It still seems that when a man comes in for abuse online, he's disproportionately attacked as gay -- and if he is gay, like Andrew Sullivan, who wrote a column for us for a while, his hate mail at Salon is likely to be comparable to mine: heavy on sexual imagery and insult, sometimes bordering on violence. Yuck. I couldn't see into anyone else's in box to be sure if the abuse I was getting was disproportionate, but I suspected it was. Mostly I just ignored it.

When Salon automated its letters, ideas that had only seen our in boxes at Salon were suddenly turning up on the site. And I couldn't deny the pattern: Women came in for the cruelest and most graphic criticism and taunting. Gary Kamiya summed it up well in a piece on overall online feedback, noting "an ugly misogynistic aspect" to the reaction to women writers. One thing I noticed early on: We all got nicknames. I'm "Joanie," Rebecca Traister is "Becky," Debra Dickerson is "Debbie" and on and on. There are lots of comments about our looks and sexuality or ... likability, to avoid using the f-word, a theme you almost never see even in angry, nasty threads about male writers. Most common is a sneering undercurrent of certainty that the woman in question is just plain stupid; it's hard to believe we have jobs at all. (But then, since a woman is, unbelievably, the clueless, incompetent boss of Salon, it makes a certain kind of sense.)
Hate crime is a low-level form of terrorism designed to disenfranchise, stifle, and ultimately remove certain people from the public sphere by forcing them to erect imaginary boundaries of fear in their own heads. It causes people to change their behavior, shrink their horizons, and stop participating fully in their own lives. Suddenly, there are places -- the synagogue, the clinic, downtown after dark, professional conferences, the comments threads that form the living rooms of their own online homes -- that they can no longer approach with a feeling of acceptance, belonging, and safety. Walsh notes that the hate mail she gets has definitely had this effect on her own writing, and that of her other female writers.
But it coarsens you to look away, and to tell others to do the same. I've grown a thicker skin. I didn't want skin this thick. And what does it mean that women writers have to drag around this anchor every time they start to write -- that we reflexively compose our own hate mail, and sometimes type and retype to try to avoid it? I can honestly say it's probably made me more precise and less glib. That's good. But it's also, for now, made me too cautious. I write less than I would if I wasn't thinking these thoughts. I think that's bad. I think Web misogyny puts women writers at a disadvantage, and as someone who's worked for women's advancement in the workplace, and the world, that saddens me.
Sierra herself has come to similar conclusions. From a BBC report:
Since describing the campaign against her, [Sierra] has been shocked to discover that cyber-bullying is widespread.

"As well as around 900 comments on my blog and hundreds of comments on other blogs, I have received around 300 personal e-mails and about 70% of them say they have been through a similar thing," she told the BBC News website.

Among the messages is one from a blogger Ms Sierra described as "far more prominent than me" who has been avoiding industry conferences because of persistent online threats.
Men have always used the threat (and, too often, the actuality) of violence to keep women in line. Perhaps we were naïve to think that Web culture would somehow be any different. But what we're seeing in the Sierra episode also violates some essential meat-world community norms in ways that we should find particularly disturbing.

Back in the bad old days, in most Western cultures, abusive men were protected by a sweetheart deal with the rest of society. The line was clear, simple, and firm: Within the privacy of your home, you could abuse the women of your household in any way that pleased you. That was your right as lord of the castle. As long as you kept it behind closed doors, the community would take your word over hers about what happened, and look the other way rather than notice her bruises. A man's right to abuse women was absolute and protected -- as long as he kept it out of the public eye.

But -- and this was the catch -- if a man abused a woman in public, where other people would be forced to acknowledge the brutality, all bets were off. Once there were witnesses, it became everybody's business. Of course, the sanctions focused less on the welfare of the victim, and more on society's perception of the perpetrator: a man who lost emotional control in front of others lost status and deniability (from then on, those bruises might be noticed after all) -- and was at risk for losing his job, his money, and his freedom as well.

There was, however, one place this contract didn't reach. In war zones, even "civilized" men were excused from any accountability for their actions towards women. In wartime, even "civilized" nations have regarded the public rape and slaughter of women as just another act of war.

And that's what concerns me here. Metaphorically, the Web is analogous to a public street or meeting hall, and most of us adhere to the same social conventions that we'd use in real-world public places. Women may get whistles and cat-calls (which are every bit as annoying online as they are on a city street -- and, fortunately, as ignorable as well); but by and large, we reasonably expect that men will let common courtesy govern their interactions with us.

But if you read her blog, it's obvious that Sierra's attackers weren't adhering to anything like the town square behavior code. (To make the point: if a gang of men had surrounded her and threatened her with rape and murder on a city street, she could have called the cops and had them put away for a long, long time.) Instead, everything about these attacks suggests that those responsible assumed they had a war zone exemption, which suspends accountability for even the most extreme forms of violence against women. Which tells me that, somewhere in their minds, these guys no longer recognize the Web as a community, or the women they meet there as legitimate and equal members of that community. Instead, they see it as a battlefield, where violence is the expected norm. In this imaginary war zone, any woman who's out in public without male escort has already forfeited any claim to dignity or life.

Where did they get this idea? Sierra's blog was a downhome tech blog, not a political free-for-all. Her readership was largely male, and she'd served them well for over four years. The vast majority of men would never allow themselves to be seen treating a woman (or anyone, for that matter) this way in public; but these guys figured they could brutalize her, in broad daylight in front of hundreds of other people, with impunity. Why?

Most likely, it was because the men who put up the most heinous comments were right-wing authoritarian followers (RWAs), whose high-social-dominance (high-SDO) leaders given them permission to unleash their violent impulses, and encouraged them to direct it toward high-profile female targets. They did it because someone they regarded as an authority figure told them that the community rules don't apply any more. America is a war zone. The President has told them so. Their leaders have given them the formal go-ahead to behave accordingly. And that has very specific implications for how they're allowed to treat women they see as standing outside their own in-group.

The transmission belt Dave writes of carries not only ideas from the extreme right to the mainstream; it carries behavioral norms as well. The targets may have been limited to politicians and political blogs at first; but the now the stated targets include liberals, the educated, minorities, and (increasingly) women. And the venues are expanding, too, to include places far outside the original arena.

Given that, it seems possible that Kathy Sierra may have been collateral damage in the right wing's continuing escalation of hostilities, both in the real world and on the Web. Years of acrid bile form Coulter and Malkin and Rush have corroded the tenuous bonds that keep these people civil, and given overt sanction to outrages that any serious civilization would regard as barbaric. It's hardly surprising that all those years of misogynist hate speech from the right have congealed into eliminationist threats against a woman who did nothing more than show her face in virtual public.

Which leaves us with the question: What can we do? Tim O'Reilly points out that:
"The fact that there's all these really messed-up people on the internet is not a statement about the internet. It is a statement about those people and what they do and we need to basically say that you guys are doing something unacceptable and not generalise it into a comment about this is what's happening to the blogosphere."
Dave and others who've worked against real-world hate crimes have told us that RWA followers only turn violent when they believe their actions are sanctioned by their leaders, and express unspoken community norms. While female bloggers will no doubt have a great deal more to say about those norms in the months ahead, the sad fact is that RWA followers won't hear any of it, because they have no respect for women. It galls me to admit this -- but the only way the message will get through is if it's delivered in an authoritative baritone command voice. They need to hear, in no uncertain terms, where the boundaries of civilization lie. And they need to hear it from other men.

Misogyny has always been a core piece of authoritarianism; and so many of the issues feminism addresses -- sexual violence, silencing women's public voices, respect for female authority -- depend, utterly and completely, on how effectively we can identify and reduce the authoritarian impulse in our culture. When women like Joan Walsh and Kathy Sierra are tempted to stifle their voices or hide their faces to shield themselves from a never-ending onslaught of male rage, we all feel a measure of exhaustion at how very far we have left to go.

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