Last week I listened to NPR’s “On Point” episode about the #MoreThanMean video that went viral on YouTube. If you haven’t watched the video, I suggest you take a few and do so, but be warned that the language is vile and offensive. To summarize, the video consists of men reading actual tweets that two female sportscasters have received. If you’re at all familiar with the world of online harassment, especially of women, you can imagine some of the awful things these tweets contain. There are lots of mentions of violence, particularly rape, and even some threats. As the listener discovers in the podcast interview, some of the tweeted threats were so specific and disturbing that the authorities were contacted.
Unfortunately, this isn’t news to anyone familiar with the Internet. It’s frighteningly common for women online to receive messages, tweets, emails, etc saying they should be beaten, raped, or killed. All this for saying something men disagree with, or sometimes for just existing. In the case of the women in the video, they are being harassed simply for working in a male dominated field. It’s deeply disturbing to me that the first reaction to women existing in a typically male space or women voicing an unlikeable opinion is violence. It’s even more disturbing to me that the reaction to this violence is so lacking.
In the podcast interview the women starring in the video discussed the reactions they typically get when they speak out about this violent harassment. Most often they are told that they should “suck it up” or “have a thicker skin” or “ignore the trolls” or that they “shouldn’t be so sensitive”. Other common responses run along the lines of “it’s protected under free speech”. When they went to the authorities to report threats that seemed credibly dangerous, the authorities told them there wasn’t much they could do until something “actually happened”.
I want to draw the line right here, right now. The answer absolutely is not for women to change how they are reacting to this harassment. The answer is to make the harassment completely unacceptable. The reason harassment like this continues online is because no one takes women seriously enough to stand up to this harassment. The harassment is treated as if it isn’t real because it’s unembodied words, written by a stranger, transmitted across wires and cables. Since the harassment “isn’t real” it’s up to women to ignore it, not men to stop saying it. Since we, as a society, haven’t asked men to stop saying it, they continue to spout this filth without fear of repercussions. It’s up to all of us, individually and as a culture, to let men know that it is not acceptable to speak to women this way.
Now for the free speech issue. I am a huge supporter of First Amendment. I actually even support the First Amendment when it protects hate speech. Unfortunately, that means that I also believe that the First Amendment covers this disgusting online harassment. So how can I say that this harassment should be stopped when I believe it counts as free speech and is protected by the First Amendment? Good question. I don’t believe it’s up to the government to protect the people from hate speech, which is essentially what online harassment is. I believe it’s up to society to let people know that this is completely unacceptable behavior. We should all be at our keyboards comment shaming the hell out of people who write this stuff. We should be speaking out against this harassment at every opportunity. We should be making men who type this garbage to women feel like the garbage people they are. I think we, as other users of the Internet, have the power to tell these men to shut their, metaphorical, mouths.
All that being said, there’s a point at which harassment becomes dangerous and the authorities need to take that seriously. If a woman feels that an online threat is scary enough to go the authorities then the authorities need to do everything they can to mitigate that threat. The fact that the authorities brush off these threats as not credible because they are online is sickening. These threats can be just as real as face to face threats.
The bottom line is we need to stop accepting this harassment. Women do not need to be tougher, they don’t need to just ignore the harassment, men need to stop harassing, and we need to make them stop.