The “What Happens on the Internet Stays on the Internet” Myth
I’m sure by now everyone has heard about the shitstorm going on between some feminists, the skeptic community, and Reddit users regarding a particularly nasty outpouring of misogyny on a recent r/atheism thread. If you don’t know what I’m referring to, you can read about it here and here; both are great articles and I highly recommend going and reading them. For those that don’t want to go read two other articles right now (though you really should), here’s the quick rundown: a 15 year old girl posted a photo of herself holding up a book by Carl Sagan she was given for Christmas by her very religious mother. It seemed she was happy that her mother had been open-minded enough to buy her that book and she wanted to share it with the atheist community on Reddit. Sadly, rather than garnering supportive or even worthwhile comments, her post was bombarded by a grossly long string of comments from male users regarding her appearance, her attractiveness, and her role as a female being a placeholder for dicks. That’s right. Oh, and then there were the hundreds of rape
threats “jokes”. As if all of that weren’t bad enough, these comments were all upvoted until they were the first to appear on the thread.
Naturally, many people were upset by this and some wrote blog posts about it. The whole experience has convinced me even further to just stay away from Reddit so I don’t have to deal with the overwhelming number of misogynist assholes that like to talk about raping women “for fun”; of course, my response may not be the most productive in terms of changing things for the better. Over at Pandagon, Amanda Marcotte talked about why commenters such as these must be opposed. She argues that it’s important for users on sites like Reddit to speak out against commenters like these and downvote them into oblivion. Most self-identified feminists are pretty good at doing this already, but it’s a call to allies as well. As people in the community have pointed out before, there is often a lack of women in skeptic/atheist gatherings and spaces, be they ‘real’ or virtual. Thus, it makes sense for the men in these communities who genuinely DO want to see more women there to speak up and shame their ‘bros’ for making such offensive and vile remarks in the first place.
Sadly, often when feminists complain about something, in this case, rampant sexism in the online atheist community, they face responses along the lines of, “you mean people on the internet are mean??? Who knew?! /sarcasm” and “It’s Reddit/Twitter/Facebook/the internet — what did you expect?” This is usually quickly followed by directions to quit being such a sissy/wuss/woman, grow a thicker skin, and get over it (or get out). Responses such as these imply that the people trying to shed light on sexism are just hyper-sensitive cry-babies. They’re also usually devoid of any analysis of power relations; in other words, you’ll hear that “men get called names too”. While this may be true, there is a difference between being called an asshole in a heated debate and being bombarded with rape threats because you dared to commit the crime of speaking while female.
Another common response that leaves me scratching my head is the sarcastic “Yes. All places on earth should be equally safe and welcoming for all. But the reality is, there are jerks on the internet.” I’ve personally been told that a radical feminist article I linked to on Facebook was “hilarious” because the author had the gall to describe the goal of working toward a future with no rape. The FB commenter referred to the author as delusional for talking about a “magical land with no rape.” What I take from comments such as these is that we’re somehow wasting our time talking about sexism because it exists and that’s just “reality.” What’s really amazing is that this sort of comment will often come from the same people who claim it’s not *really* sexism because men get called names too.
The other issue I take with this “it’s the internet — what did you expect?” argument is the idea that the internet is some free-for-all virtual land that has nothing to do with “real life.” I’ll grant that people are often emboldened by the feeling of anonymity they have behind a computer screen and will say things online they might not say to another person’s face. Does this mean that going online magically turns otherwise decent people into raving misogynistic/homophobic/racist/ asshats? Or does the anonymity of the internet simply reveal a side many people keep hidden in their daily lives due to the stigma of being labelled a flagrant sexist/racist/etc? What I mean to say is that the jerks of the internet don’t suddenly cease to exist because they go offline. Would many of the commenters from the r/atheism thread feel comfortable making their “jokes” to that 15 year old girl’s face? Hopefully not, but that’s likely due to a basic awareness of social mores and political correctness that would condemn such open misogyny. The fact that these commenters felt comfortable saying these things at all reveals a disturbing level of internalized sexism and hatred of women.
While reading through the hundreds of comments on blogs responding to this r/atheism-sexism explosion, I even came across one lovely person that suggested the beauty of the internet is the very thing that made those men so quick to tell this girl how they would like to rape her — its anonymity. This commenter suggested she could change her name, never post any pictures of herself again, and the whole episode would be forgotten (and they were serious). THIS is the problem we are fighting against. It is not reasonable to expect anyone who isn’t a straight, white, able-bodied, cis male to hide their identity in order to avoid being harassed on the internet! So, while I’m not going to join Reddit in order to challenge the sexist jerks there, I will continue to call out sexism (and any other -isms) I come across on the internet and elsewhere. When sexist comments are left unchallenged, the people making them take that silence as tacit agreement. It’s time to stand up to injustice, no matter what form it takes. I am not satisfied with a world where I should “expect” rape threats from random internet users and you shouldn’t be either.
**Update: Here’s a related meme I quite enjoy.
Categorised as: Uncategorized