The thing about intimidatory silencing tactics?

Sometimes they work out exactly as the malicious arseholes want them to, grinding people down until they feel the need to stop speaking out for a while, so that they can cut down on the abuse that they receive, and start to feel safer and happier again.

When that happens, those of us who still have some spoons left in our uppitiness bank (at least right now) need to speak up on their behalf, and let the malicious arseholes know that we see what they did there, and we’re not going to pretend that it didn’t happen. We will keep gathering evidence and talking about these patterns of intimidation, we will keep on picking up the ball when one of our activist mates needs to drop it for a while, we will keep on growing the size of our team, and yes we do know how to tag-team. The cyberbullies cannot silence all of us simultaneously.

It’s not only online, either. Cyberbullying is just an extension of the intimidation tactics directed at women simply for breathing in public. First Dog On The Moon has a great webcomic about the sort of thing ordinary women hear every single day from the cadres of festering gits when no non-gits are around to see (because plausible deniability is crucial to painting women’s testimony to their own life experiences as unreliable, the untrustworthiness of women being a long-running sexist trope).

The internet just allows more sexist bullies to intrude upon our notice in order to abuse us for daring to be visible. Just look back to the cases of Anita Sarkeesian and Kathy Sierra to see how much more often it happens to women who have the audacity to build an audience; since obviously women being listened to as if what they say might matter is an even greater disruption of the natural order than a woman who just wants to be left alone to get on with her daily routine.

Then there’s the various manipulative intimidation tactics involved in gaslighting, telling women that not only are we imagining how bad it is, but it’s all our own fault anyway.

Women are told all the time that if we were just “clearer”, if we were just more forceful in saying no, then men would back off. Any woman who has been abused by a total stranger, often with extremely threatening body language, for just saying “No thanks, I’m busy” or “Please leave me alone” knows that this is bullshit (if you don’t believe this happens all the time, please just ask a woman you know well to tell you her stories about the times that it has happened to her – older women might not see it so much any more, but they’ll remember). It only takes once for women to be very wary of “just saying no more clearly” to men who are strangers and therefore unpredictable – being polite and acquiescing to conversations that we’d really very much rather not be having is an attempt to keeps ourselves safe. The intimidation tactics of violently abusive gits make insincerity a necessary survival stratagem, and then we are blamed for not being clearer about not being interested – Catch-22.

[content note: description of harassment/verbal abuse/threatening behaviour] Via Stephanie Zvan, here is an account of what can happen after you say no clearly (n.b. the author UnWinona was physically unharmed, this time).

The point of this particular collection of links regarding intimidation tactics typically targeting women (but which are also commonly aimed at people of colour or with disabilities or non-heterosexual expression or non-gender-binary identity) is to show that online abuse is not a special case, as so many of the “grow a thicker skin, it’s just the internet” crowd want us to believe. These overt hostilities and micro-aggressions are just part of the spectrum of traditional social dominance behaviours proven to be effective in maintaining the status quo.

But what exactly has made these techniques such effective maintainers of the status quo in the past? The historical fact is that sufficiently sustained intimidation was nearly always able to isolate the targets of these silencing tactics from like-minded associates, was nearly always able to prevent them building support networks capable of insisting on being heard. But technology has levelled the playing field.

As I’ve written before, the technology that gives cyberbullies a virtual bullhorn to swamp you with hate is a two-edged blade. It also gives their targets firewalls and filters to block and muffle their abuse, bullhorns of our own to keep on getting our messages out, and ways to organise ourselves that they cannot stop us accessing.

Today the status quo bullies managed to grind Jen McCreight down, at least for blogging, at least for now. But they haven’t silenced First Dog on the Moon down yet, they haven’t silenced UnWinona yet, they haven’t silenced Stephanie Zvan yet, and they haven’t silenced me yet either. Some of us may be silenced in the future, but it won’t happen to all of us at the same time, and it won’t happen before we encourage more voices to join us in speaking out, and it won’t happen before some of the currently burnt-out voices come back reinvigorated with even greater determination than before. We’re taking some casualties in the front lines, but there’s still plenty of voices left to keep on moving forwards.

Categories: ethics & philosophy, gender & feminism, social justice, technology

Tags: , , , , , , , , , ,

24 replies

  1. What’s that saying: first they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, and then you’ve won? Something like that, anyway.
    I’m incredibly sorry for the women who have become casualties. I don’t treat that lightly at all. But the war is continuing, and we’re going to win.
    Today I decided to resume blogging. I promise I’m not touting that; there’d be no point checking mine now anyway, it’s embryonic. I’m only saying it in agreement: we won’t all be silenced, there will always be voices, for every one that gets shut down there are two* that spring up.
    *okay, I’m making that up. Could be three. Could be ten! It’s a number greater than one, is my point.

  2. I got my first taste of the sorts of lengths some people will go to in order to shut down women’s speech on certain topics when I first started posting in, and then later in In both of these newsgroups, the majority of posters (well, the majority of on-topic posters in ssfa – that group got trolled to a fine fare-thee-well) bore usernames which were female-identified in Western society, and they were, as the names suggest, about being fat and not being even vaguely unhappy about this. was a cesspit. About two-thirds of a day’s postings at the very least were either trolls, or replies to trolls, and the trolls were very much of the “offended misogynist” variety. At least half the troll posts were taking the tone that the regulars of the group weren’t pretty enough to be considered fuckable by the trollers (the majority of whom had masculine-identified usernames); the rest were a mixture of the concern trolls who were only concerned for our health; the concern trolls who were only concerned about their tax dollars being wasted in the US health care system (those always gave me a giggle); the ones who wanted all the fat chicks to commit suicide en masse; the ones who were angry that we weren’t fuckable; and the ones who were extremely angry that we weren’t immediately rushing off to make ourselves as attractive as possible for them. I swear, I got most of my education about the arguments of the MRAs from the first plunge into ssfa, before I got the killfile really fired up.
    I also got my first taste of online harassment from posting to ssfa and ssfam – either in the form of offensive email replies to my posts, or as happened at one time, in the form of a concerted campaign by someone who called themselves “DAVE” and used throwaway Yahoo! email accounts to respond to any post I made to the moderated newsgroup with extremely nasty emails. The one which sticks in my mind was the time he sent me over 1500 lines of the same insult copied and pasted. It was an effort to get me to stop posting to the group.
    I did eventually wind up not posting to ssfam, but not through DAVE’s machinations – instead, it was because the ISP I was using at the time stopped carrying the group in their newsfeed.

  3. I saw Jen’s post this afternoon, and felt everything you describe above. Thank you for putting it all down.

  4. Hmmm. I’m writing a post now about Atheism+, which was discussed at our atheist meet-up the other day. It was generally civil, but there were tensions, with a few men coming up with the ‘hey we have a hard time too’ line, and a lot of frustration from the only really articulate [or I should say ‘willing to speak’] female in the group. Needless to say the men vastly outnumbered the women at the meeting. And now, on reading that Jen has been intimidated into silence, I can’t help but see or imagine something seething inside these guys, and that the civility is only a pretence.
    Really, though, I just find all this very, very bewildering.

  5. Good description of the Catch-22 situation, and how troll technology is a two-way street. I keep telling myself I’m going to go back to blogging, but then something like this always happens. I’m so over it.
    I’m so tired of men looking at my chest more than they look at my face (It’s a compliment!). Of the men who stop being my friend once they find out I’m a lesbian (what do you expect? Don’t you know men and women can’t be friends?). Of men who feel entitled to comment on a twelve-year old’s body, to see her as an object first and a person second (it’s just being friendly). Of the men who make rape jokes (lighten up). Of men who “accidentally” grope you in a situation that if you make a fuss then you’re the bitch (why didn’t you say something?). Of men who scream from cars (sticks and stones…). And most of all I’m so goddamn tired of the men who stand there and do nothing about it. Be my ally or GTFO.
    I’m just so tired. But I know if I want to help make the world a better place then I need to get back to speaking out. Maybe next week :P.

    • rainne, Eden, and sundry lurkers considering wading back into the cyberfray,
      consider taking some first steps in that direction under HaT’s sheltering wing by submitting a guest post or three to us? That way you would not have to moderate the threads yourselves.
      You would only see the replies that are deemed acceptable content by our moderation team, so while there may well be some dissent published, you will definitely not see the hateful abuse. In rare cases we disemvowel a particularly nasty comment and publish it for the purpose of demonstration, but we’d always run the disemvoweled text by our guest posters first to check whether that’s OK.
      Our moderation team can handle it. It’s always easier to cope with abuse that’s not aimed at oneself – we have the luxury of distance and can point and laugh at it instead. So please, if you’re burning to write something but reluctant to put it up in a blog of your own, do consider pitching it to us here instead.

  6. I’m not sure whether this actually is related, but there’s an article at The Conversation today:
    Hate Mail and Cyber Trolls – the View from Inside Public Health
    I find it interesting because it’s a male writer talking about the level of online harassment he’s received for writing about public health matters. It doesn’t address the gender component of harassment that tends to get dealt out to female writers who speak up on these same topics, and nobody’s raised this in comments as yet (indeed, most of the commenters appear to be male, or are at least using masculine user names).

  7. Thanks tigtog 🙂 I will definitely think about it.

  8. I’ve been a longtime lurker here, but have only made sporadic comments. I put my online shyness down to some previous horrid experiences online (on a BtVS forum) and the silencing I face from many of the working-class bloke types in my circle of friends. But no more. I’m so very sick and tired of wonderful brave online voices being barraged with hate. So I’m going to start commenting here and in the other spaces I frequent with a view to maybe creating a little online space to join my voice to the wonderful cacophany of feminist voices online.
    Thankyou for this space, for your work, and your wonderful voices.

    • Kirsty, welcome to the feminist cacophony! I’m currently working on a post full of newbie tips for social justice bloggers (well, any woman on the internet really, since cyberbullies can and do go after knitting bloggers) on managing their inbox, their moderation software and their social media configurations in order to filter the festering gits into “read later” folders, so that the gits no longer have control over when one sees their bile. It’s taking away their virtual bullhorn that intrudes upon one whenever they choose to roar into it, and turns their campaigns into little hisses of background noise. I did a post on it a while back, but it needs updating with a few more basics that should be known right from the start of setting up one’s blogs and social media accounts.
      SunlessNick, absolutely yes. And this is what you see in genuinely socially-awkward but well-meaning men (and women) – they’re anxious about making people uncomfortable already, and are super-likely to back off at top speed. Some genuinely oblivious types don’t get typical body language hints to stop talking, and can be rather tedious about telling their anecdotes instead of anxious about their effect on others, but in my experience these folks back off readily at the usual social escape clauses (excuse me I’ve got to talk to a friend I just saw over there, sorry I need to take a bathroom break, sorry I’ve got a headache and need to be alone for a little while etc)

  9. Women are told all the time that if we were just “clearer”, if we were just more forceful in saying no, then men would back off.
    If the men in question gave a crap about not bothering or harassing, but were genuinely terrible at telling when they were, then the logical course for them would be to – absent specific evidence to the contrary – always assume they were being a bother. And therefore back off at the drop of a hat. And therefore need less, not more, forcefulness.

  10. Thankyou for the tips, I’m not the most tech-savvy person so it all helps. I think for the most part I feel like I have a few spare teaspoons at the moment and want to put them to use.

  11. I’ve been online doing stuff for 8 years now. I know that a lot of the legal stuff thrown my way is to try and shut me up. It hasn’t worked. I also get a lot of hate mail, comments on my blog, attacks on twitter (One dude there only ever calls me The Child Killer), I’ve been hacked, had a wealth of gossip, outright personal attacks based on utterly incorrect information on wellknown blogging sites which otherwise pretend to be all about anti-bullying and “fairness” for women, I’ve had death threats.
    I deal with it by ignoring it. And so far so good. It’s stopped apart from the occasional douche who feels they simply must get their brilliance off their chest and into my inbox. The scary times have been the publishing of my address in concert with death threats. My local police said in order to have threats addressed I must print them out and attend the station with them. Seems kinda pointless if you want to trace someone, huh.
    Ignoring is awesome. I recommend it.

  12. Janet, thanks for sharing your post. I do quite a lot of ignoring as well, although I’m also a fan of those moments when the hatespam produces those outpourings of contemptuous clarity which can enable one to deliver devastating deconstructions. Although of course one doesn’t have to respond directly the hatespammers to demonstrate how one is refusing to be silenced.

  13. That’s … something else. So not only do feminist bloggers have to seriously think about each post they make and what kind of backlash it might generate and whether they’ll be able to deal with that, they have to notify their family and friends, too???

  14. Her Dad is belittling her by standing up for her? What a complete load of codswallop.
    Further on trolling – the person whose dead mother was mocked, which is just appalling, tweeted that the PM should get a noose for her 50th birthday. Nice. That hasn’t stopped people from defending him and saying that other people can’t take a joke. So yep, if you are female and trolled you have to harden up. If you are male and trolled OMG call in the police and tell the PM (the one you suggested a noose was an appropriate gift for) that she must do something about it.

  15. Mindy @ 19 – an apology is all good, but really its only his future behaviour which will illustrate whether he has actually learnt from his experience or just doesn’t like being on the receiving end.
    Unfortunately in the recent public debate I think that trolling and cyberbulling (and even stalking) are getting presented as the same thing. And the direction that some of the proposed solutions are heading are not too encouraging either – its not going to be long before someone in the government or opposition decide that they can create a law to ensure that everyone must use their real name on the internet or must at least divulge that real name to the social media sites. I’m already hearing a lot of “they should be able to track down who said that on Twitter” by public figures.

  16. @Chris, yes lets make it really easy for people to be bullied. Public figures need to update their understanding of social media, it seems that some people have no trouble at all tracking down people from their profiles so that they can bully them in real life. [from what I have seen, haven’t experienced it personally thank FSM]

  17. Chris @20 – if the notion that “legal names” are the only valid ones to be used on the internet comes about, I foresee a lot of work for the registrars for things like legal names (is that Births, Deaths and Marriages?) I, for one, would be getting my legal name changed to something like “John Smith” as fast as I could. Possibly with “Megpie71″ as a middle name.

  18. Megpie71 – fortunately that sort of thing will not be necessary no matter what the government legislates. If totalitarian middle east governments can’t track down the identity of twitter users who don’t want to be found what hope has the Australian government?
    Mindy – I would guess that those cases where non public figures do get tracked down to their real identities and addresses/phone numbers occur simply because they have themselves published too much identifying information if really they want to stay anonymous. Mind you I’d still put thread or abuse I received via postal mail or phone in a totally different category to one received by email/twitter, especially when the latter is from someone I’ve never met in real life.
    Was rather interesting to hear on The Drum the other night an ex 7:30 reporter comment that they have a wall where they post up rants/abuse received from people who have watched their show. I’ve worked at places where we’ve had similar pin up boards – and this just as programmers with little public profile.

  19. I think this is an interesting case to consider:
    Basically Deveney tweeted “You want I kill him?” in a twitter conversation about Newman and ended up with a police visit after Newman complained.
    Whilst I think it was unwise of Deveney to tweet something like that, I wouldn’t really consider it to be a death threat, or incitement to do so. And the response seems to be a waste of police time. We don’t always need a legal/police response and I think in this case either Newman ignoring it or because Deveney is a public figure replying saying that they think that sort of statement is inappropriate (ie a social sanction) would have been better.

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