Pathologizing disagreement is an intellectually dishonest way to cope with challenging arguments.
The MTR blog is fast becoming something of a shrine to the work of prolific and award winning blogger Meghan Murphy. Here’s her latest, from Canada’s Globe and Mail.
Meghan Murphy is a Vancouver writer and journalist and founder of the website Feminist Current.
Talk about “safe spaces” has been spreading amid a high-profile series of incidents at universities in North America and Europe, leading many to argue that today’s students need to develop thicker skins. These debate-free zones are presented as a way of protecting individuals from potentially traumatic experiences, but the reality is much more pernicious – and the issue extends far beyond campus politics.
We’re not talking here about the kinds of private spaces that allow individuals to organize, heal or meet among themselves on their own terms. Female victims of rape and abuse, for example, need access to “safe spaces” that are free from men and abusers. People of colour should have every right to meet privately among themselves. These are basic tenets that marginalized groups ascribe to when struggling against systems of power. But these are limited, designated spaces – it’s another thing altogether to appropriate wider public places or events, college campuses and public social-media forums, such as Twitter.
As a feminist, I understand that ideas and words are not harmless. But the recent pushback hasn’t targeted people pushing racist or misogynist doctrine. Instead, people are arguing that the very act of questioning positions they consider to be “right” constitutes hate speech. Academics and journalists, even ones who are advancing long-standing feminist and anti-imperialist arguments, are finding themselves blacklisted because their ideas challenge a liberal status quo.
There are a number of recent examples from the prostitution debate alone:
English journalist Julie Bindel was removed from a London panel discussing a documentary about a prostitution survivor because of protests by groups that want to legalize the sex industry. (Ms. Bindel advocates for the Nordic model of law, recently adopted in Canada but opposed by many mainstream feminists.)
After Pulitzer-winning journalist Chris Hedges wrote an article condemning the sex industry as “the quintessential expression of global capitalism,” the organizer of a Vancouver conference about “resource capitalism” was threatened with a boycott if the journalist’s keynote speech – scheduled for delivery Friday night – was allowed to proceed.
Feminist comedian Kate Smurthwaite’s show at Goldsmiths, University of London, was cancelled last month due to complaints about her position on prostitution. Ironically, it was free speech, not prostitution, that was to have been the focus of her show.
The Cambridge Union was asked to withdraw its speaking invitation to feminist icon Germaine Greer, who was accused of “hate speech” because she said she wasn’t sure she believed transphobia was a thing.
It’s not just campuses, though, where people are using the “safe space” concept to silence those they disagree with. The Block Bot is an online incarnation of “safe space” – it’s a website whose service aims to protect Twitter users from “trolls, abusers and bigots.” Put aside the point that any Twitter user can already block anyone they wish at any given time – the way the application has been put into effect shows that its professed purpose does not match its actual impact.
Rather than weeding out users who aim to harass or threaten, the application seeks to compile a list of political dissidents, labelling users who step out of line with a variety of slurs. I myself was added to “Level 2” for expressing polite disappointment that a sexual-assault centre had taken a position in favour of decriminalizing the purchase of sex.
Thousands of others, including noteworthies such as New Statesman deputy editor Helen Lewis, physicist Brian Cox, evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins and feminist activist Caroline Criado-Perez, are listed on the Block Bot – guilty not of trolling, harassing or abusing but of having opinions “blockers” disagree with. The entire site, as a result, has recently faced libel warnings.
What’s troubling about efforts to silence those whose beliefs we find distasteful is not just the implications of censorship and libel, but the dishonesty of it all.
Claims that particular conversations or debates will cause us to “feel unsafe” are, in these contexts, little more than an excuse to shut down dissenting points of view. It puts those dissenters in the awkward position of having to dispute their accuser’s mental stability or claims of emotional trauma instead of allowing them to respond to the real issue: political disagreement. You can argue with someone who says “I want to ban this particular speaker from a panel because I disagree with her position,” but it’s more difficult to challenge someone who says “This person makes me feel unsafe.”
Pathologizing disagreement is an intellectually dishonest way to cope with challenging arguments. It certainly doesn’t support critical thinking.
It also creates a culture wherein people are afraid to express dissenting opinions or question the party line. This is ironic, because many of those under threat of being silenced are people who are speaking out against abuse, harassment and violence. While some may hold “controversial” opinions about how best to do it, they are just that – controversial. Throughout history, our heroes and radicals have held controversial opinions. How often do tepid opinions and fearfulness change the world for the better?
It’s time proponents of this kind of “safe space” start being forthright in their accusations. It’s okay to disagree, but not to frame differences of opinion as abuse. Those working to silence the disagreeable might imagine the day they question peers themselves, then ask whether they are prepared to choose between silence or blacklisting.
Activist speaks out about mock twitter account, rape, death threats and police inaction
By Caitlin Roper
Earlier this year, Germaine Greer argued that women now are worse off than ever, citing the proliferation of pornography and the level of harassment and abuse directed toward women on social media as evidence. I tend to agree.
For a feminist campaigner like myself, threats of violence and rape have become part of the territory. I am used to being called a bitch or a slut (or worse) by unidentified men online for expressing an opinion. I’ve been singled out by Men’s Rights Activist group A Voice For Men after writing a piece on the media’s bias against women. I am no longer surprised when I receive unwelcome sexual comments from men online about my body or to let me to know they are masturbating to my image. I am no longer shocked when I receive rape threats while campaigning against sexual violence. And no, the irony is not lost on me.
So it came as no huge surprise when I received rape threats this week for publically sharing a petition against rapist Ched Evans. I received tweets calling me “rape bait”, “f*ck meat”, a “bitter whore”, “cum slut” who “likes it rough” and “spreads without thinking” and warning me to “start prepping my anus”. While these comments would never be accepted in the offline world, women are expected to just ‘deal with it’ online.
However, this time I decided to go to the police when I found a copy of my twitter profile offering sex to men on the Internet. It was so close to identical it even fooled me, and I initially thought my account had been hacked. My profile picture had been sent to an online community sharing images of women for masturbation purposes. My twitter bio had been updated to include graphic descriptions of sex acts I would perform for men, inviting men to follow me, “the biggest slut in Australia”. My website was changed from collectiveshout.org to a pornographic website. Various tweets were sent out in my name, asking men to “f*ck me” and claiming that I enjoyed being raped.
I was gripped with panic. There were so many thoughts running through my mind as I watched tweets going out in my name soliciting some men I knew, and others I didn’t.
I reluctantly went to the police station. As many women know, abuse and threats against women online are not regarded as a priority. My colleague Talitha Stone received international media attention when she was targeted with thousands of rape and death threats after criticizing Tyler the Creator’s songs. (See here, here and here). His lyrics include ‘rape a pregnant bitch and call it a three-way’. Tyler’s 1.7 million twitter followers went after her. One tweet to Talitha threatened to ‘cut her tits off’. A student from a Melbourne Catholic boys school shared her home address with the angry mob. He was out by one street.
Local police sent Talitha home with a stack of cyber-safety pamphlets.
Another colleague went to the police after one man described how he intended to mutilate her body and dissolve it in acid. The police officer suggested that the internet was “not a very nice place” and maybe she should stay off it.
Yet another colleague had to explain to police, who thought she should just go offline forever (despite the fact that the vast majority of her work was done there) that it was actually an offence in the Commonwealth Criminal Code to use a carriage service (e.g. the internet) to make a threat. The police seemed unaware of this fact.
These threats are criminal. They are designed to erode any sense of safety and security and to keep women in our preferred place. As Anita Sarkeesian from Feminist Frequency observed, Elliot Rodger used the Internet to make threats preceding his violent killing spree. How many other men, including unstable ones, feel supported if not justified in their hateful attitudes by an online culture of misogyny?
When I reported the man who was pimping me out online, the officer at my local police station suggested, “Maybe you should use a more plain picture.” As if my standard portrait shot was somehow ‘asking for it’? From my experience, how I look is irrelevant. I’ve been called both “fat, ugly and bitter” and “f**ckable”. Regardless of the headshots women use, men will target us if they feel so inclined.
Women and feminist campaigners in particular, are increasingly being targeted, abused and intimidated online. Caroline Criado Perez was pursued relentlessly for her campaign for more equal representation of women on bank notes. Anita Sarkeesian of Feminist Frequency continues to be attacked for her educational videos highlighting the sexist and one-dimensional depiction of women in video games.
There is a pattern- women call for better treatment of women, they are vilified by men on social media who perceive this as a threat and feel the need to silence their voices. They believe if they can make us fearful enough, we will stop doing our work and stop challenging systems that privilege their rights and interests over ours. They are wrong. We just get back to work.
The man who targeted me has been identified. His name is Nader, he is 25 and lives in California. He has been linked to at least eight different twitter accounts he uses to abuse women, including survivors of sex trafficking. In fact, the first rape threats he sent me came from the fake account he had created of yet another feminist campaigner he had been targeting.
He is so brazen about his incitement to rape me, so sure he is untouchable, he barely even tried to conceal his real identity. Unfortunately for him in the course of harassing countless women on twitter, he left a trail leading to his name, image, phone number, email address, Facebook page and pictures of him exposing his erect penis which he had previously circulated on one of his trolling accounts.
Copies of Nader’s threats and his personal information have been supplied to the LAPD, to Penn State (listed as his school on social media) and to Australian police, to be referred to a California branch of the FBI. I am also aware of complaints against him from women in Sweden and the UK. This has not stopped Nader.
To their credit, Twitter acted quickly to suspend the fake account once I had verified my identity with photo ID. However, the victory is only short lived. Once an abusive account is suspended, there is nothing to stop the user simply signing up for a new account- immediately. Why has Twitter failed to shut these abusive accounts down permanently? What is stopping them from flagging the email addresses of users who continue to use their service as a means to threaten women?
What is Twitter’s response to victims? Contact the police. What do the police say? Contact Twitter.
There is a common assumption among police, and perhaps the wider community, that if men are threatening women online the solution is for women to go offline.
“Why don’t you just close down your account?” asked the officer taking my statement. I explained how I used twitter in the course of my work for a non-profit organisation to share our campaigns with a broader audience. She pressed further, “But why do you need to use it?” as if it was somehow unreasonable for me to believe I had as much right as anyone to access social media without threats.
My experience with the police illustrates widespread cultural attitudes that place the responsibility to prevent crimes of violence with victims instead of perpetrators. Just as campaigns to reduce sexual violence have traditionally focused on women, advising them how to ‘not get raped’ rather than calling on men to treat women with respect, in an online scenario, the onus is again on women to bear the burden of responsibility for men’s abuse. What did we expect, thinking we could use social media and have an opinion? We kind of brought it on ourselves, didn’t we?
Whether it is rape, domestic violence, abuse or online threats, telling victims to modify their behaviour is a fruitless endeavor- the power to prevent men’s violence against women lies completely with (surprise!) men.
I have encountered too many men on twitter who dish out vile abuse and threaten rape, confident they are doing so with impunity, with a firm belief that they will never be held accountable for their crimes. That’s been true, so far.
The silver lining is that I have had the privilege of connecting with strong, incredible women online. These women are dedicated to challenging attitudes and institutions that promote and profit from sexism, exploitation and men’s violence against women, despite the emotional toll. (Believe me, there is a real emotional toll to doing this work.) These are the women who stand with me and other women time and again in the face of ugly threats and misogyny, bonded by our shared experiences of victimisation and our refusal to be silenced. Together we are unstoppable.
This is an extended version of an article which appeared inThe Guardian last week.
It started, ostensibly at least, with an online debate about Ched Evans – a British soccer player who escaped fame but found notoriety after his conviction for rape in 2012. Last month he was freed from jail. Evans, just 25, wants to play soccer again. To that end, he released a video professing his innocence and describing the incident as regrettable but “consensual” infidelity. An online petition opposing his reinstatement to the professional leagues attracted more than 150,000 signatures.
One of those signatures belonged to Caitlin Roper, a feminist activist based in Perth. Quickly, the debate inflamed the world wide web and became a conflagration of sexualised threats. Roper was targeted. “In a way, given the nature of my work, I’m somewhat used to abuse and threats from men online,” she tells me. “You have to try and disconnect from all of it emotionally, you put on a brave face and get back to work. As the threats kept coming, though, I felt my anxiety levels rising. There’s a sense of panic, and I think that’s the point. These men think if they threaten us with violence then we will be forced to stop campaigning against the objectification of women. They want us to be scared.”
Roper’s aggressor established a fake Twitter account under her name. He adopted Roper’s profile picture, and in the hour before it was suspended, published personalised obscenity. The following examples are graphic, but representative: “Hi I’m Caitlin Roper, as a professional prostitute…” and “I sell my wet panties #anal #porn” and “Hey!! It’s me Caitlin, just wanted to let you know I’m a rape loving little whore”. There are many more. From other accounts, the man harassed different women: “You’re a fucking whore and a slut” and “Perhaps when one day a random man rapes you, you will rescind your ignorance.” There are hundreds of messages like these. Read more
At an event in Amsterdam recently, I was ordered by a woman on the stage to take the hand of the woman next to me, who happened to be 76-year-old Hedy d’Ancona, and tell her she was beautiful. This would be more conducive to her self-esteem, apparently, than reminding her that, having served as a minister under two Dutch governments, as a member of the European Parliament, and as chairman of Dutch Oxfam, she was immensely distinguished and I was honoured to be sitting next to her.
Read full article here (including her take-down of the Dove ‘real beauty’ marketing campaign. Greer could have added Dove parent company Unilever’s diet products, cellulite creams and skin whitening creams and its sexist Lynx brand also!)
See also my piece in the Sunday Herald Sun a couple of weeks ago where I argued it was time to replace ‘Love your Body’ campaigns with a ‘Love your Mind’ campaign.
“Apocalypse” and “Cage Fight on Crack!” – these were two of the many twitter predictions for Monday night’s ABC Q&A, with myself, Germaine Greer, Barnaby Joyce, Paul Barry and Joe Hildebrand on the panel.
Another person predicted Germaine Greer would rip the arms off Barnaby Joyce and beat the rest of the panel with them. There was also a request for mud and pillow fights.
None of these eventuated – probably a source of great disappointment for many.
Here’s a picture of Germaine Greer, Tony Jones and me, with my friends Pateenah and Kiara, after the show. And below that, Julie Gale from Kids Free to be Kids.
And here’s the show if you missed it
I also did an interview with ABC ACT 7.30 Report last Friday. You can view it here:
Off to Melbourne for our first official launch of Big Porn Inc tomorrow, with Clive Hamilton doing the honours and a number of contributors speaking. It’s at Readings, Hawthorn, 6pm for 6.30pm. No need to RSVP. Look forward to saying hello to any readers of the MTR blog who can make it.
Antoinette Jones – Principal – Mitcham Girls High School
“Intelligent, passionate, brilliant, fearless… I could not recommend her more highly”
Dr Michael Carr-Gregg
“You continue to reset my shock meter…”
“As a teacher and parent I recommend all parents, in fact all people, to attend a talk by Melinda- it will open your eyes and awaken your subconscious.”
Heather Douglas – Parent – Pembroke School
“Melinda’s presentations to our parents, staff and full day workshops to students was inspirational, transforming the attitudes and thinking of all involved”
Paul Teys – Principal – Hunter Valley Grammar
“Melinda Tankard Reist’s presentation to Middle and Upper School students at Pymble Ladies’ College was absolutely brilliant!”
Justine Hodgson – English Faculty, Pymble Ladies’ College
“Melinda Tankard Reist has had a transformational affect on our school.”
Ms Stephanie McConnell, Principal – Turramurra High School
“Melinda Tankard Reist is at the forefront of helping…educate the public on the link between pornography and violence…” – Di Macleod, Director, Gold Coast Centre Against Sexual Violence
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“This powerful and humane book is a breakthrough…Big Porn Inc shows us we are poisoning our own spirits.” – Steve Biddulph
“A landmark publication” – Clive Hamilton
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Ruby Who? is the sweet and innocent story of a little girl’s adventure in re-discovering her identity. Ruby wishes for so many things and dreams of being like others. Will she end up forgetting how to just be herself?
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