When you pop on social while in line for your vaccine or a boring meeting, are you afraid you might get trolled? Are you worried what harassers might appear simply because you stated your need for safety or condemned violence? Do you hesitate before hitting send on a post you know might light up your feed?
Online safety is as important as safety IRL, and for women, increasingly hard to come by. Death threats and sexual DMs are bad, but often the “minor” things men say online that fly just under the radar (for other men) are worse.
Language is subtle. When #45 was asked at the 2020 Presidential debate to denounce White Supremacists–instead of “Stand down.” he went with “Stand back and stand by.” Not quite the same tune (or whistle).
We have to get loud. Be direct. Per Sara Soma, founder of Everyone’s Invited, (an online platform documenting survivor stories), “Rape culture is real.” If our society sanctions the repeated assault of women, women will never be equal in the workplace. Full stop.
Let’s change the narrative — call a thing a thing. Rape is rape (not sexual misconduct). Racism does not equal “bias”. Why defend violent mass murderers, ever? After Atlanta, women were enraged. I saw far fewer outcries from men. Hence, I originally posted on LinkedIn, “You’re not emotional enough,” and I wrote:
Stop bullies, online + IRL.
Kill the filibuster and then AR-15s.
Ban all semi-automatic weapons.
I’ve had enough of this: we all have.
Seems fairly straightforward, no?
I imagined a gun owner might get annoyed, or maybe a Trump Troll. Fortunately, no one made me afraid (that day).
The thread was not devoid of problems, however.
A man (on a job search, no less) commented with “a different perspective.”
Now I ask you, dear reader, what was your instinct seeing this? Did you think “This is such a minor comment; why are we even talking about it?”
“Sure, it’s annoying but the world is filled with annoying bro know-it-alls.” “Ignore it.”
That is precisely how White Supremacy and Patriarchy persist. It’s why we must discuss it. Do not let him off the hook. Did I need him to weigh in, just to let me know his views existed? Not really. Mansplaining gun violence is a no-no but I will skip all nine ways he was wrong. Check out the full post here.
First, dismissing all haters is not the answer. “Ignoring a troll can carry just as dear a price as provocation,” (Don’t Feed The Trolls, And Other Hideous Lies, The Verge 2018) Online hate seems distant, but ignoring little comments can be dangerous, like tiptoeing by a sleeping giant.
Second, we need to make the hate visible, not bury it. We must collectively educate and condemn it. As Daryll Paiva (He/Him/His) says “Racism and bigotry live in dark spaces and people can’t learn from each other in an inbox. I prefer to keep it on the board.”
Like the Washington Post tagline, Democracy Dies in Darkness, misogyny thrives in it. Ignoring racism, bigotry, sexism, misogyny, and harassment won’t make it go away. When we hide it or minimize it, we are telling victims: learn to live with it.
As Alisha Haridasani Gupta pointed out in Misogyny Fuels Violence Against Women. Should It Be a Hate Crime? “…so much harassment — the uncomfortable staring, the catcalling, the lewd gestures, the public masturbation — is seen as simply normal nuisances that women have learned to put up with.”
In the Times piece, experts noted the importance of calling out the harm, no matter how insignificant it seems. Caroline Criado Perez, author of Invisible Women: Exposing Data Bias in a World Designed for Men concurred. “We need to get better at sweating the small stuff.”
Words have power. When men simultaneously refuse to acknowledge murdered women and change topics, it signals that violence is permissible. We cannot look the other way. “Keep it on the board.”
If we don’t acknowledge wrongdoing the perpetrator feels impervious to consequences. Every time they say something egregious or disrespectful, and we pretend it’s “fine”, it feeds their power.
When a threatening tweet isn’t challenged, women receive a clear message: Society and our community feel we are not worth the trouble. Women should “lighten up.” A coworker presents your ideas as his own on zoom.“ Just let it go!” We chalk it up to one more thing we have to deal with, like our periods.
The third reason not to skip over this minor stupidity? If we ignore it, we perpetuate patriarchy: Women’s ideas are easily dismissed. Belittling us does not matter. We don’t count.
A Black woman can start a press conference with simple pleasantries and still be utterly disregarded when she speaks. If we “let it go” we accept that it’s ok for men to ignore us. So, Women continue to share our traumas, to bring attention to a truly pervasive problem; we won’t be ignored.
Most tech companies, like society at large, favor economics over ethics. Timnit Gebru, well known for her brilliant ethical tech research, knows this all too well. She is now infamous (ironically) for how Google forced her out unethically (of a job well done).
On a recent panel, Timnit and Joy Buolamwini (Coded Bias), discussed their experiences with toxic tech bros. Joy shared how she was told when she arrived at M.I.T., there would be a lot of math. Timnit called this “technological gaslighting.” (Every woman in the virtual room went YES!)
As with sexual harassment in the workplace, the online erasure of women’s voices is subtle. Similarly, these “small” incidents are more easily dismissed by both algorithms and moderators.
Social media companies are all profit; screw people. Did you know if we flag a comment as racist or sexist, the report usually comes back in favor of the harasser? “We found this does not violate our rules.”
This “technological gaslighting” is more like “algorithmic gaslighting.” Even the code meant to keep us safe mocks our humanity, and again, targets Black and Brown women. Joy’s take is much more poetic: AI, Ain’t I a Woman.
What we hear: LinkedIn doesn’t care if you feel violated; just deal with it, again. It happens to me at least once a day.
Those who amplify racism, sexism, or misogyny know, a LinkedIn troll will undoubtedly try to banish us first: “Take it to Facebook.” (Hot tip: I am not on Facebook––toxic tech bros of the worst degree).
Have you seen Zuckerberg interviewed by AOC or Representative Joyce Beatty? His feigned cluelessness and smug face: he could care less about civil rights violations or safety online. We see how much “Big Tech” respects women in Congress.
Unfortunately, the onus still remains on us, how we “want to deal” with it. We play moderator––more unpaid, emotional labor. We “get” to decide. Flag it, or not. Engage, or not. Call for backup, or go it alone.
Weighing the risks, we choose to speak up anyway. We bring up White Supremacy even when we know trolls will come out of the woodwork to “check” us, policing our words like they police our clothing. “Stop talking about race or gender so much. This is a ‘professional’ platform.”
Try to disagree and reply to point out any not-so-hidden sexism? Men cannot resist the urge to come back and assert dominance. They get uncomfortable, because “not all men” and change the subject. If we point out racism, (White) people get uncomfortable.
Dare to double down on our original post? We’re gaslit for our “overreaction.” Another trick of the patriarchy–ignore the problem by focusing on our tone or anger, rather than our words or the issue at hand.
When women get upset, men feel we’re challenging their manhood. Their discomfort leads to a rise in their anger. To regain control and take the power back we get shushed; they hang up.
How often do you have to repeat things ad nauseum just to be heard? We have to get loud. And why shouldn’t we? Why aren’t we allowed our volume and our anger and our feelings?
Imagine trying to be heard while simultaneously fearing the risk of being seen as too loud. Instead of “amplify[ing] melanated voices”, how about white people (including me) shut up and listen to Black women? Stop focusing on getting women to speak up; focus on shushing men.
How are we the threat? We barely have the “right to choose” anything.
Currently, we don’t choose who tells our story or where it’s told. We don’t even decide when or how it’s told unless we take back the words and speak up more often. We have to write, publish, create, and post more. And, we have to do this in spite of constant threats.
The way I see it, women are damned either way. Calling out sexism and racism isn’t really a “choice”––it’s self-preservation. If you can choose to stay quiet, either you’re in imminent danger (and likely a woman) or you have some level of privilege (a likely a man).
If every time you go online you feel nervous wouldn’t you be pissed? We practically live online now. Of course we have rage; lots of it. Who wouldn’t be angry with so little control every day?
And so, my “choice” remained: Do I sweat his comment or keep scrolling? Do I pretend it’s “fine” knowing it’s really not?
After some debate, I decided to respond to this “nice guy”— though in my gut I knew what was coming. His comment was full of hidden harms, but no “reportable” offenses. Maybe if I was careful enough he’d “get it”? I took my time to politely craft a response. I hit reply with a sigh, so much energy expended.
Women know: when we start speaking up, we risk even more psychological safety (re: Rose McGowan or Dr. Blasey Ford). I learned this as I got louder condemning White Supremacy. Madison Butler (my friend and colleague) has dealt with the worst of online harassers just existing online. As a Black queer woman, simply saying “Don’t be racist” brings all the haters to her feed.
Madison and I co-founded Rage to Rainbows to fight haters on social media. It’s how we channel energy from increasingly terrible cyberbullies (Madison’s most of all). We won’t let trolls dictate our ability to speak our minds.
Ultimately when logging on, or off, you do you. The pounding in your chest after reading a lude DM or death threat is not virtual. You don’t owe anyone an explanation or justification of how you handle cyberbullies. Time and energy are precious.
Speak up, cautiously. Give yourself healthy boundaries dealing with harmful comments. Consider taking our pledge on Rage 2 Rainbows for your sanity and safety.
Flip the script. Say the thing, even when your inner critic says you’re making too big of a deal. You’re not.
If you’re a “good guy”, call them out. Do not minimize bad behavior; normalizing violence only allows it to continue. Language should not shame or blame victims. You may get through to someone and show them the error of their patriarchal, sexist ways. You might get lucky. Just don’t get your hopes up.
Previously Published on medium
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Image by Author with a Tweet from umair haque