When people choose to take on misogyny in their work, they've got to be prepared to brave the hate from the vilest of bigots.
The New Statesman’s Laurie Penny is an important journalistic voice on gender issues. She recently wrote a long column railing against the culture of online misogyny that she sometimes feels personally threatened by in the way of anonymous comments. Referring to a fellow writer who has also been on the business end of such anonymous comments, she says, bitterly: “By daring to be a woman to be in public life, Mary Beard was asking to be abused and harassed and frightened, and so is any person who dares to express herself whilst in possession of a pair of tits.”
The implication is that we should be shocked and outraged that fire-breathing trolls lurk around anonymous comment threads and we should not “stay silent as misogyny becomes normalised” Wait…what? Surely that was a misprint. Misogyny is not becoming normalised, misogyny is perhaps the most normalised prejudice in all of modern global culture.
The women who write about these issues for mainstream audiences are invaluable sources of subversion in this depressingly slow to evolve section of the social sphere but it’s more than a little ridiculous that Penny should dedicate more than two thousands words to publicly asking the enemy for quarter.
This isn’t Better Homes and Gardens. Penny is leading a battle for civil rights that women have waged, often alone, for hundred of years. On the other side are some of the vilest and most hateful bigots alive who, due to wider societal prejudices, are still able to masquerade as decent folk. Did she expect reasoned argument when she started taking pot shots at them?
They turned fire hoses and dogs on African American civil rights marchers in the sixties and seventies. How dare any writer worth his or her ink flinch when the bigots bare their teeth in an online forum? Penny, and indeed any woman who “dares to express herself whilst in the possession of a pair of tits” is what Hunter S. Thompson once called a ‘professional brick thrower’.
That is, someone who is dedicated to fighting against the grain of a scared and complacent society. The ideas she lobs onto the unexpected populace are not supposed to make people feel warmly towards her, they are supposed to point out hard truths. In that she succeeds to varying degrees, but she needs to own the fact that figurative bricks thrown through figurative windows tend to heartily piss people off.
The difference between real writings on social justice and the ones that just pay lip-service to the idea is that the latter make everyone feel good about themselves while the former point out that there are those who should be ashamed. Every time a writer puts fingers to keys in the service of social justice she or he has to be willing to wager their own well-being on every word because those who stand explicitly or implicitly against social justice are going to lash out. If these people don’t feel threatened by an article then the journalist has not done their job.
It’s not possible to ban hateful speech on the internet and even if it were, it would not solve the problem, but just cover it in the flimsy façade of euphemism and political correctness. To pretend to have struck a blow for women’s rights just because people are no longer voicing the sentiments they carry within them is a very easy, but for that reason very insidious form of self delusion.
Remember when many Americans predicted a post-race country with the election of Barack Obama? Five years down the line and race is perhaps a bigger question than ever before despite the fact that it is arguably spoken about less. These types of problems don’t disappear by taking them out of the public eye.
It’s not my intent to tell any woman who is the target of hate speech to ‘suck it up’ because the very phrase trivialises the fear and vulnerability that such speech provokes. Anyone who has been berated, insulted and threatened for their work in a public space knows that it is unpleasant like few other things in this world.
However, it’s also my belief that the bitter truth of being a woman who is at all interested in writing about women’s liberation issues is that you don’t just need to be smarter, braver and more resilient than everyone who will doubt you (and there will be many), you need to be ten times smarter, ten times braver, and one hundred times more resilient.
So I would humbly ask Penny and those fine women like her not to show their fear even if they are justified in feeling it. When the bigots begin to throw punches, take them or dodge them and punch right back even harder. They want you to feel weak and alone and scared but remember that you are none of these things.
Your words inspire and influence and give courage to others. If they start to employ the filthy language of their prejudices it’s because you already have them scared and vulnerable and you need whip the bastards even harder.