“Men have the power to stop online harrassment” — but do we really? And how?

Another instance has arisen of a female geek receiving threats and harrassment in response to criticism she’s made.  This time, the target was Janelle Asselin, after critiquing the cover of the Teen Titans relaunch.  Dr. Nerdlove has written up a summary of the shitstorm in which he calls out geek men — all geek men — for standing silently by and allowing this to occur.

If you don’t want to be tarred with the same brush as the cancerous assholes who target the women in our community, you need to speak up. Because this isn’t women’s problem. This is a man’s problem. It’s men who are the cause and it’s men who can and need to be the solution.

I agree with Nerdlove in one respect; the fact that this harrassment occurs — and that it’s so common in geek circles — is thoroughly unacceptable.  But here’s where I hit a problem with the post, and it’s a problem with a lot of posts about issues like this:

Marginalize these people. Isolate them. Excise them from the community – we don’t need them, we sure as shit don’t want them.

This kind of call-to-arms seems great — until one goes to actually put it into practice, and discovers that no real suggestions for how to do so have been made.  How exactly does one isolate or excise someone from the internet?  Short of physically imprisoning them in some way, one can’t.

Now, in real life, this sort of exclusion and social pressure tends to work.  And even in certain internet spaces, it can work — mainly ones in which posters are not fully anonymous, or have something invested in the identity they’re using.  And in those situations, Nerdlove and I are in agreement; if someone starts harrassing or belittling a female member of a community (well, any member of a community, really), we should tell them that they’re being an asshole and they should chill the fuck out.

But physical threats aren’t frequently made face-to-face (because, y’know, potential serious legal consequences).  Most of the threats and harrassment these women are receiving is online and anonymous.

See, we have the platform. We have the voice. We have the male privilege that says male voices have more impact, that we aren’t dismissed as easily.

But in this case, that’s largely false.  It might be true that among many people, male voices aren’t dismissed as easily as female ones.  But in a situation with total anonymity, that’s like saying that a cockroach is stronger than an ant.  Believe me, if my maleness gave me the power to stop people from being assholes on the internet, I would be using it — for my own benefit, if nothing else.

Let’s put this in concrete terms — suppose I decide, right this moment, to do everything in my power to “marginalize”, “excise”, and “exclude” the people sending threats to Janelle Asselin.  Well, first of all, I would have to find out who they are, which is a non-trivial task.  But let’s assume that I manage to do that.  My resources are a blog that has a lifetime total of 6,000 views, and a Twitter with 3 followers, 2 of which are bots.  So I can send them some nasty PMs, and get perhaps 2 other people to send them nasty PMs.

Truly I have struck a mighty blow for gender-equality this day.

Now consider the fact that most people — and by extension, most men — have fewer resources than that at their disposal.  I think this is why statements like Nerdlove’s “the men of the geek culture are all officially part of the problem” make people “bristle”, as he puts it.  It’s not because we’re being told to take action.  It’s because we’re being berated for not taking actions that we do not have the capacity to take.  And that’s during those times when any concrete action is suggested at all — which is pretty rare, honestly (it wasn’t suggested here, for example).

This pisses people off, but more importantly, it doesn’t help solve the problem.  In fact, it probably undermines our efforts.  Because if we berate and shame people for not stopping something when they don’t have the necessary tools to stop it, we are teaching them that success is impossible.  And when you teach people that success is impossible, they stop trying, and they stop even listening to you, because why bother?  And thus we alienate a lot of potential allies.

Now, a counter-argument is that while my actions might be irrelevant here, if we can get enough men to take those actions, they will help stop this harrassment.  But even this is probably false.  If someone is making anonymous rape threats, (at least) one of three things is likely true:

a) They have a thoroughly fucked-up sense of humor and enjoy upsetting people.

b) They are attempting to silence the recipient through intimidation.

c) They are a genuine psychopath.

In the first case, a lot of people yelling at them via text to shut up would actually encourage them.  In the third case, social pressure and punishment is essentially irrelevant to them.  In the second case, imposing a social price is made infeasible because of how internet spaces tend to work.  In meatspace, sure, speaking out against the assholes in categories (a) and (b) is effective, because the consequences of their actions follow them.  We can refuse to associate with them, we can tell them to leave in certain circumstances, etc.  They can’t just swap real-world identities and go on their way.  But when ditching those consequences is as simple as starting a new Twitter account, bitching them out accomplishes essentially nothing, and is possibly counter-productive.

And Nerdlove can tell me “fuck you” in response to those observations (as he does, verbatim, in his post), but that won’t make them any less true.

I understand the frustration and backlash against “don’t feed the trolls”.  But it’s worth remembering that “don’t feed the trolls” didn’t catch on because it was a good social norm — it caught on because it was the least bad of several bad options.

So, berating people for not using a power they don’t have clearly isn’t a good solution.  So what is the solution?  And here I’ve failed, because I don’t have a great solution, either.

One approach that might be promising would be to put public pressure on services like Twitter to start policing their users more thoroughly when it comes to threats — since threats aren’t free speech (an are, in fact, illegal), banning or IP-banning people who make them them would be appropriate, and might actually cut down on threats and harrassment.  And maybe that’s a place where men (and women) could make a difference by speaking out — Twitter, Tumblr, and Facebook are services, and don’t want to piss off their customers.

Unfortunately, even if we manage that, the threats have still been made and received.  It’s the only good suggestion I’ve managed to concoct so far, though.

Well, this post was a fucking downer, wasn’t it?  I don’t know, what do y’all think?

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2 Responses to “Men have the power to stop online harrassment” — but do we really? And how?

  1. kendradoty says:

    I think your points are well thought through and interesting to consider. The problem I’m having is what you propose people who witness these threats (I’m pretty oblivious to the exact situation you’re talking about), other than reporting to the service provider (ie. Twitter, Facebook) should witnesses not do anything? If so, what kind of message does that send to the recipient of the threat in the first place?

    • Hsere says:

      “other than reporting to the service provider (ie. Twitter, Facebook) should witnesses not do anything? If so, what kind of message does that send to the recipient of the threat in the first place?”

      That’s basically the dilemma I’m struggling with — clearly *something* should be done, but I don’t see many things that witnesses *can* do effectively, given the nature of anonymous online speech.

      Though you may have hit upon something; perhaps we should be less concerned with stopping the perpetrators than supporting the victim here. But then, supporting someone you don’t even know is a difficult proposition. And furthermore, it won’t really affect the fact that the threats have been received.

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