Thursday, 26 May 2016

How we talk about the problem of online abuse is important

Identity politics is a controversial subject. I've been shouted down and had an awful lot of criticism and insults hurled at me for expressing my opinions in the past, but I'm going to have another go at it regardless.

On May 26th The Guardian ran a piece entitled "Research reveals huge scale of online misogyny" illustrated with a crudely doctored picture of a group of shouting men saying "Look out!" and "A woman's about to have her say" captioned with details of a study showing that over 80,000 women on Twitter had been called "slut" or "whore" in a three week period.

The article went on to detail cross-party collaboration between the Blairite Labour MP Yvette Cooper, the disgraced expenses scamming former Tory minister Maria Miller, the new Labour MP Jess Phillips and the former Lib-Dem MP Jo Swinson (who lost her Dumbarton seat in the 2015 SNP landslide).

What the headline, subheading, image and image caption and introductory paragraphs completely left out was the fact (grudgingly admitted in the fifth paragraph) that the majority of people abusing women by hurling online insults like "slut" and "whore" at them were actually other women!
Repeated use of the word misogyny by Demos and the Guardian to describe an appalling tide of online abuse that is mainly perpetrated by women against other women is clearly misleading. It shows an unwillingness to break out of the identity politics driven narrative that online abuse is mainly nasty men hurling gender specific insults at women in order to shut them up. They clearly continued this charade even when their very own evidence showed that the majority of gender specific insults hurled at women are hurled at them by other women.
Instead of simply labelling all of these insults by women against other women as misogyny, surely it would be more useful to actually ask why so many tens of thousands of women across the world consider it acceptable to call other women "sluts" and "whores"?
To illustrate how ludicrous the Guardian/Demos stance is; if all gender specific insults hurled at women by other women are categorised as misogyny, then surely it stands to reason that all gender specific insults by men against other men ("dick head", "wanker" "creep" ...) should be categorised as misandry? Is a guy a misandrist man-hater if he calls me a "dick head" because he hates my political opinions? Of course he isn't. He's just too inarticulate to argue against what I say which makes him so angry and frustrated that he bashes some insulting words into his keyboard.

There is no excuse for online abuse. It doesn't matter if it's men abusing women, women abusing women, women abusing men, men abusing eachother, or abuse towards or by transgender folk, it's all unacceptable.

Efforts to compartmentalise all abusive comments against women as misogyny are not helpful at all, especially if the majority of cases actually appear to be perpetrated by women against other women.

Misogynistic abuse is a real and very serious problem and more needs to be done to combat it, but making the numbers look more damning by lumping in every instance of a teenage girl calling a female rap star a "slut" because the rapper had a big Twitter spat with some ex-boyband singer doesn't make the case against online misogyny more compelling, it makes it significantly weaker.

The teenage girl isn't tweeting abuse at the female rapstar because she hates women and wishes to see successful women like the rapstar intimidated and repressed, she's doing it because she's too inarticulate to express her anger coherently, and because she thinks she can get away with it.

The root of the problem isn't the fact that most of the people who receive the worst online abuse are generally women (the evidence indicates that this is definitely the case). The fact that high profile women tend to get the worst of the abuse is one of the symptoms of the problem, and it's a lot more complicated than the misleading Guardian/Demos "misogyny" narrative. The actual root of the problem is twofold.

The first problem is that there are an awful lot of people who are so bad at debating that they consider insults, abusive comments and threats to be legitimate tactics, rather than open displays of their weak debating skills and childlike propensity to snap into tantrum-like rages. This problem is exascerbated by celebrities who resort to insults, abuse and threats at the slightest provocation.
The LBC pundit Iain Dale calling Paul Mason a "twat" on Twitter (after Mason dared to question the neoliberal orthodoxy a bit on Question Time - which is normally a closed neoliberal talking shop) is a great example. Not only did Iain Dale resort to blatant abuse at hearing political opinions he didn't like, he then actually had the utter lack of self-awareness to start whinging about the "abuse" he was getting as a consequence of writing an abusive comment. When celebrities feel free to behave like this on social media, it's absolutely no wonder that ordinary social media users feel entitled to behave in similar ways.
The second problem is that people will continue slinging abuse as long as they feel that they can get away with it. It doesn't matter if it's horrible misogynistic blokes hurling abuse and threats at successful women, women slinging gender specific insults at other women, orchestrated online bullying campaigns by teenagers against their peers, people abusing the mentally ill and using mental health terminology as insults, homophobic or transphobic abuse, racism, or whatever. The perpetrators feel they can behave in these appalling ways because they don't suffer any negative consequences for it. In traditional community environments people who flip into slinging insults, appalling abuse, and threats of rape or other physical violence at the slightest provocation (or simply because they hate women, ethnic minorities, homosexuals, the neuro-atypical ...) would soon be ostracised by the community, but on the Internet they roam free, with only a tiny minority of the worst offenders ever being held to account for their disgusting behaviour.

There is no denying that online abuse is a big problem, however compartmentalising it into different strata of abuse so that gender specific insults against women are "misogyny" (even if most of this abuse is actually perpetrated by other women), and making it somehow a distinct and more concerning problem than other forms of online abuse is a really misleading and counter-productive approach.

Reducing the problem of online abuse to crude men vs women stereotyes in some appalling identity politics parade is a distraction that sidesteps the main problems, which are that a lot of people (both men and women) are so inarticulate and emotionally unstable that they flip straight into slinging insults, abuse and threats at the slightest provocation, and that these people feel empowered to continue behaving in this appalling manner because they suffer no negative consequences when they do it.

Until the root causes of the problem are addressed, it won't matter which way the abuse is compartmentalised (misleadingly or not), because the problem won't be going away.

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