It would be nice if online harassment, through twitters and comments on articles and maybe the occasional email, was something we could ignore as “Anonymous people sure are jerks, but who cares”. They add nothing of substantive discussion, and they have no ability to effect us in any way outside these anonymous comments. It should be a badge of honor, and then you move on and engage your actual opponents and correspondents with only their good faith arguments.
And yet that is a lie. This toothless bullying still hits very hard when you receive it. Our brains are not set up to casually filter out vile trash. And there’s the additional fact that women publicly online receive this much much more than men do. Maybe ten times more, maybe a hundred more. It’s simply that a man will receive a trollish comment of his work telling him to kill himself, and so will a woman. No, the woman will receive more of them, they will also contain rape jokes, stalking jokes, and criticisms of her appearance, and the apparently popular “shut up and make me a sandwich”.
Seriously, it’s a widespread phenomenon that women who write things on the web get told to go make a sandwich. How is it that anyone thinks that is compelling? But also how could anyone not be worn down by the constant flood of those responses? (Especially when society has inculcated in you the constant suspicion that maybe your looks are what matter the most, etc…)
It’s a real asymmetry. And it seems way out of proportion to any other gender dynamics in our culture. The differences between how men and women are treated in academia or politics or professionally are real, but they tend to stay subtle, under the surface, with only occasional eruptions of the id (like “legitimate rape”). And then there’s this coursing river of trash that is going full throttle at one gender and not the other, with no apology or masking it.
So, what is to be done about it? Whenever I see this phenomenon discussed (and I wish I could say it was infrequently, but it’s not, but the "DepressionQuest" news story seems the latest bubble of it), people talk as if pursuing proper treatment of women – respectfully, listening compassionately, egalitarian policies – will osmotically slow down that river of filth too. That if good liberal guys serve as proper role models, hopefully other guys will convert. I really don’t see it. The people responsible for the non stop verbal abuse comments are people I have no knowledge of. I swear, as a cisgendered, white male, who has integrated into many diverse American contexts, I have never heard someone express any language like this. I heard a guy once call someone a bitch in anger and everyone got shocked. That’s about it. Who the hell do I need to talk to (or yell at, or punch) to get them to stop sending extreme anonymous comments. How could I have any more sway over such people than anyone reading this? What can we do even as a group?
(I don’t mean to make this simply about me. This problem has many aspects, and is responsible probably for a “barricades mentality” for any female or minority public figure that others can not entirely understand. If anything, I'd encourage my female friends who are reading this to speak up about their experiences, for I feel they get the chance to do that all too rarely. There are many coping strategies to deal with this torrent of abuse, and ways we can talk about being compassionate to those who suffer from it constantly. But is there anything at all we can do that we think will stop or slow the torrent. Things that we think will actually have a direct result, and aren’t just hoping good will in one area leaps the barrier to good will in others.)