Most days when I turn on my computer I am offered wisdom on what would make me less angry about the treatment of women and girls, the issue I most care about.
This can be summarised as ‘MTR really needs a good f**k’.
And that’s a mild offering.
I receive, through twitter, email and my blog threats of violence and sexual abuse. Explicit descriptions of what a man (anonymous, though identifying as male) would like to do to me. And a couple of death threats. Some people have tried to post child porn in the comments section of my website.
I am asked to send in pictures for ‘arse’ or ‘boob’ appreciation societies.
Of course I am not the only one. Online vilification happens to many women who are subjected to a virtual gang bang. If we protest we are told we have no sense of humour. Rape threats are just for LULZ, don’t we know?
In the last week I have received so much e.hate I have had to disengage. I am told to ‘block the bullies’. I don’t have that many hours.
It’s not that I don’t expect strong reactions to my strongly expressed views. If I were thin-skinned I’d hardly put out a book titled Big Porn Inc: Exposing the harms of the global pornography industry. I’d be writing about puppies, kittens and fluffy bunnies instead.
But there is so little engagement with or critique of my arguments. Instead, aggression and intimidation seem to have become generally accepted as a legitimate means of making a point, especially since the advent of new media forms.
It’s the wild west. All the norms and expectations of civil discourse have gone. Social media lacks the inbuilt filtering system of traditional media.
This corrosive behaviour contributes to a narrowing of public debate because many don’t want to participate when they are eviscerated in a savage online environment.
I propose that we try to work out decent ground rules. We tell children that sticks and stones will break our bones, but words will never harm us. We know that it is not true, that words can harm.
Consider the “word crimes” of blackmail, invasion of privacy, sexual or racial intimidation and harassment, conspiracy, extortion, libel, fraud, misrepresentation: all are areas where harmful speech is entitled to regulation and redress. All are areas that give us principles on which to formulate ground rules for social media communication.
No one has a right not to be offended, but everyone has a right not to be harmed by others whether in actions or words. Do no harm is a universal precept.
Also published in the Sunday Age Jan 22, 2012