Trolls - the cute kind. Flickr/Cali4Beach, used under Creative Commons
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Laurie Penny on web misogyny: It's time to end the culture of online misogyny

It would be nice to think that the rot of rank misogyny was confined to fringe sites populated by lunatics. But it is found all over the web - and it's silencing its victims. Fighting it is not the same as censorship.

"There's nothing wrong with [her] a couple of hours of cunt kicking, garrotting and burying in a shallow grave wouldn't sort out." 

Like many women who have public profiles online, I'm used to messages of this sort - the violent rape and murder fantasies, the threats to my family and personal safety, the graphic emails with my face crudely pasted onto pictures of pornographic models performing sphincter-stretchingly implausible feats of physical endurance.

This one, however, was a personal message from Richard White, the owner of "Don't Start Me Off!", or DSMO. This was a racist, misogynist hate-site based in the UK, dedicated to trashing and threatening public figures. Last week, after Cambridge don and national treasure Mary Beard wrote about the "sadistic" abuse directed at her by the site, DSMO shut itself down.

“The misogyny here is truly gobsmacking [and] more than a few steps into sadism,” wrote Beard, bravely confronting what many other victims of online harassment have not felt able to say. “It would be quite enough to put many women off appearing in public, contributing to political debate, especially as all of this comes up on Google."

According to its creator, Richard White, a lettings agent from Sidcup who started Don't Start Me Off! "as a humour site to discuss issues of the day”, the site “is meant to be like a pub where people banter and try to be funny. It is not a hate site." He went on to claim that "We didn't allow certain words or people threatening to kill people." That certainly wasn’t my experience. Clearly, one man's 'banter' can be another woman's ceaseless, dispiriting catalogue of sadistic fantasies and homophobic abuse.

Don't Start Me Off! Was just one site. The attacks on Mary Beard, however, have focused public attention on just how viciously misogynist the internet is getting right now - particularly British-based sites, and particularly to women who are in any way active in public life. It doesn't matter if we're right-wing or left-wing, explicitly political or cheerily academic, like Beard. It doesn't matter if we're young or old, classically attractive or proudly ungroomed, writers or politicians or comedians or bloggers or simply women daring to voice our opinions on Twitter. Any woman active online runs the risk of attracting these kinds of frantic hate-jerkers, or worse. I’m not the only person who has had stalkers hunting for her address, and last week I needed a security detail after several anonymous trolls threatened to turn up to a public lecture I was giving. I could go on.

It’d be nice to think that the rot of rank misogyny was confined to fringe sites populated by lunatics. Unfortunately, not only are men like White clearly at least minimally sane enough to hold down desk-jobs, their school of misogyny has become an everyday feature of political conversation online, particularly in the UK. 

Here are just some of the things that have been written about me personally in the past few months in the comments section of the Guido Fawkes website, Order Order, a blog followed by politicians and journalists across the country, whose editors are considered part of mainstream political debate in the UK. These are a selection from the comments that the editors have not deemed worthy of deletion:

"I think she should have been given a glasgow kiss."

"Perhaps Sharia might be a good thing after all, if Ms Penny was not allowed out without a member of her Family and we did not have to look at her face, also we could stone her to death, my favourite though would be a Public Hanging or Decapitation, all judging by her views, to be acceptable behaviour. Perhaps she should be Circumcised, only sew up her mouth."

"Call me old fashioned bt this young lady shouid [sic] be whipped through the streets of London before being made to suck Ken Livingstones cock as people throw shit at the pair of them*."

 

When I’ve asked for such comments to be moderated, the men who run the Guido Fawkes site have sneered and called me ‘embarrassing’.

It's important to stress that people like Mary Beard and me are not outliers in having this experience, although some women do seem to be singled out to be made examples of. We are not even the only women to have been targeted in this way by the blogs I've mentioned. There are lots more hate-sites like this, more comment-threads full of vitriol and threats, and threats to hurt and kill are hardly less distressing when they don’t come with an explicit expectation of follow-through in physical reality. These messages are intended specifically to shame and frighten women out of engaging online, in this new and increasingly important public sphere. 

If we respond at all, we’re crazy, hysterical over-reacting bitches, censors, no better than Nazis, probably just desperate for a ‘real man’ to fuck us, a ‘real man’ like the men who lurk in comment-threads threatening to rip our heads off and masturbate into the stumps.

Perhaps a ‘real man’ like Richard White, who has now apologised to Professor Beard (and, late last night, to me - see below), although he has yet to apologise to Cath Elliott, to Josie Long or any of the other women who spoke out about his vicious misogyny. Nor has he apologised to the unnamed worker in the supermarket near his workplace, another object of this sad little troll’s Walter Mitty fantasies of femicide: “Some Chavs do indeed work,” wrote White on his site. “There is this great fat lump of make-up that sits in the Co-op opposite my office . . . if I thought I could get away with it, I’d drag her outside and kick her cunt so hard, my shoes would need a whole legion of cobblers to put them back together again.”

The idea that this sort of hatespeech is at all normal needs to end now. The internet is public space, real space; it’s increasingly where we interact socially, do our work, organise our lives and engage with politics, and violence online is real violence. The hatred of women in public spaces online is reaching epidemic levels and it’s time to end the pretence that it’s either acceptable or inevitable.

The most common reaction, the one those of us who experience this type of abuse get most frequently, is: suck it up. Grow a thick skin. "Don't feed the trolls" - as if feeding them were the problem. The Telegraph’s Cristina Odone was amongst many commentators to imply that Mary Beard should have done just that rather than speaking out this week. “Come on, Mary,” wrote Odone. “Women in public arenas get a lot of flak – they always have. A woman who sticks her head above the parapet. . . . is asking for brickbats.”

Asking for it. By daring to be a woman to be in public life, Mary Beard was asking to be abused and harassed and frightened, and so is any person who dares to express herself whilst in possession of a pair of tits.

It’s an attitude so quotidian that only when you pause to pick it apart does its true horror become apparent. I am contacted, not every day, but most weeks, by young women who want to build lives as journalists or activists but are afraid of the possible backlash. Every time I receive one of these letters, I get a lurch of guilt: should I tell them the truth? Should I tell them that sometimes I’ve been so wracked with anxiety by the actions of trolls and stalkers that I’ve been afraid to leave the house, that I’ve had to call in the police, that there’s every chance they might too? Or should I tell them to be brave, to take it on the chin, to not be frightened, because their fear, their reticence to speak, is precisely what the trolls want to see most of all?

I always hesitate over whether or not to speak about this. In fact, I've written and deleted this post that you’re reading several times. For one thing, I don't want to let on just how much this gets to me. Nobody does. It’s what the bullies want, after all. They want evidence that you're hurting so they can feel big and hard, like Richard White in his ridiculous Twitter profile picture, which shows him with beefy arms aggressively folded and his face obscured by a cross. Nobody wants to appear weak, or frightened, or make out that they can’t ‘take it’ - after all, so few people complain. Maybe we really are just crazy women overreacting?

And so we stay silent as misogyny becomes normalised. We’re told to shut up and accept that abuse of this vicious and targeted kind just happens and we'd better get used to it. Whilst hatred and fear of women in traditionally male spaces, whether that be the internet or the Houses of Parliament, is nothing new, the specific, sadistic nature of online sexist and sexual harrassment is unique, and uniquely accepted - and it can change. The internet is a young country. Its laws and customs are not yet decided. We don’t have to accept sexist hatred in silence any more. This week, with many victims sharing their stories of online harassment on the hashtag #silentnomore, the fightback began in earnest.

Right now, the beginning of a backlash against online misogyny is underway. Some people claim that this backlash is an act of ‘censorship’. Some website owners claim that promoting and publicising sadistic misogyny is merely respecting the ‘freedom of speech’ of anyone with a lonely hard-on for sick rape fantasies. That sort of whinging isn’t just disingenuous, it’s terrifically offensive to anyone with any idea of what online censorship actually looks like.

As I write, there is a real fight going on to keep the internet as free as possible from government interference, a fight to free speech and information from the tyranny of state and corporate control. Without going into it too much here, the internet is full of people who have spent their lives, risked their lives and even lost their lives in that fight. To claim that there’s some sort of equivalence between the coordinated attack on net neutrality and digital freedom going on across the world and the uninterrupted misogyny of comment-thread mouth-breathers doesn’t just take the biscuit, it pinches the whole packet and dribbles ugly bile-flecked crumbs into the keyboard.

The hypocrisy is breathtaking, brain-aching. These people talk unironically of their right to free expression whilst doing everything in their power to hurt, humiliate and silence any woman with a voice or a platform, screeching abuse at us until we back down or shut up. They speak of censorship but say nothing of the silencing in which they are engaged. I have even been told, with apparent sincerity, that using the ‘block’ button on Twitter to prevent anybody who has posted threats of violence against me is actually an attack on the troll’s freedom of speech - no apparent distinction being made between the right to express your views and the right to have your ugliest half-thoughts paid attention to.

According to the current logic of online misogyny a woman’s right to self-expression is less important by far than a man’s right to punish her for that self-expression. What appears to upset many of these people more than anything else is the idea that any woman or girl, anywhere, might have a voice, might be successful, might be more socially powerful than they themselves are - at least, that’s the message I get every time I’m told that I’ve got a lot to say for myself, and my silly little girl’s mouth could be more usefully employed sucking one of the enormous penises that these commentators definitely all possess**In 2011 I wrote that a woman’s opinion was the mini-skirt of the internet. Since then, the situation appears to have deteriorated, not just for women in public life but for women in public full stop.

The internet is a many-to-many medium. It gives readers and audience-members a right to reply to those writers and politicians who, in the pre-digital age, enjoyed the freedom to expostulate and make pronouncements without having to listen to their readers or listeners beyond the odd angry letter in the paper. And that’s great. I remain glad that I grew up as a journalist in the age of the internet; I am used to writing for an audience that is responsive and engaged, to listening to constructive criticism and acknowledging it where it’s appropriate. There’s a world of difference, however, between the right to reply and the right to abuse, threaten and silence.

Somehow we’ve lost sight of that difference. We’ve lost sight of it in particular in Britain, where the political conversation is rapidly sinking into a trough of spite-jousting, bullying and blinkered prejudice just when we most need it to be robust and compassionate. It needs to stop, and it needs to stop now. The time for silence is over. It’s time to take back the net.

---

* This commentator is quite possibly a seventeenth-century Burgher, in which case one wonders what he’s doing in the onanistic matrix of quasi-libertarian comment threads.

**I’ve always found this a curious misunderstanding of sexual engineering and online speech, in that it’s technically possible to administer oral sex and type at the same time. I wouldn’t advise it, though, especially if you make a habit of visiting the kind of conservative forums that can make you bite down hard in horror.

Update: Richard White contacted me yesterday to apologise, saying he had only received two formal complaints about DSMO in seven years and he had no idea its language "overstepped the mark". 

Editor's note, 30 January 2013: Laurie has posted an update to this piece on her personal blog, which can be found here

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

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Excitement, hatred and belonging: why terrorists do it

A new book by Richard English suggests that killing can bring its own rewards.

Like most questions about terrorism, why large numbers of people join terrorist organisations can only be answered in political terms. However terrorism may be defined – and disputes about what counts as terrorism are largely political in their own right – we will be ­unable to understand how terrorist groups ­attract members if we don’t consider the politics of the societies in which the groups are active. But terrorism’s appeal is not ­always political for everyone involved in it. Richard English, in his wide-ranging new book, highlights some of what he calls the “inherent rewards” of terrorism gained by members of the Provisional Irish Republican Army (PIRA). According to some former members, involvement in PIRA operations brought adventure, excitement, celebrity in local communities and sometimes sexual opportunities.

Terrorist activity also brought other intrinsic benefits. As one Belfast ex-PIRA man put it, “You just felt deep comradeship.” Or as another said, regarding involvement in the Provos: “Now I felt I was one of the boys.” Yet another reflected tellingly: “Although I was ideologically committed to the cause, for me, in many ways, being in the IRA was almost the objective rather than the means”; conspiratorial “belonging” and “comradeship” were, in themselves, rich rewards. Friendship, belief, belonging, purpose, community and meaning. One ex-Provo described his PIRA years as “days of certainty, comradeship and absolute commitment”. A bonus was that PIRA members’ actions could gain them influence and standing in their own communities; one ex-PIRA man reflected on how he saw himself after having joined the PIRA, in the simple words: “I felt important.”

English is a professor of politics and director of the Handa Centre for the Study of Terrorism and Political Violence at the University of St Andrews. He has studied political violence in Northern Ireland for many years and, for him, these inherent benefits are one of four ways in which terrorism can “work”. The other three comprise strategic victory in the achievement of a central or primary goal or goals; partial strategic victory, which includes determining the agenda of conflict; and tactical success, which may lead to strengthening the organisation and gaining or maintaining control over a population.

Understanding terrorism, English writes, requires taking it seriously: “treating it as the product of motivations and arguments which deserve serious, respectful engagement; and also assessing it as something worthy of honest, Popperian interrogation”. He is sanguine – surprisingly so, given the conflicts with which he is concerned – regarding the practical results such an inquiry might bring. Finding out how far and in what ways terrorism works has “practical significance” – indeed, its importance may be “huge”. As English makes clear, he “is not arguing that if we understood more fully the extent to which terrorism worked, then everything would have been fine in the post-9/11 effort to reduce terrorist violence”. He is convinced, however, that understanding how far terrorism works can greatly improve the struggle against it. “It does seem to me strongly possible that if states more fully knew how far and in what ways terrorism worked (and does not work, and why), then they would be able to respond much more effectively to it in practice.”

With all its caveats, this is a strikingly bold claim. It assumes that the failures of the post-9/11 “war on terror”, which no one can reasonably deny, were largely due to intellectual errors. But was it a lack of understanding that rendered these programmes ineffectual or counterproductive? Or was it that some of the West’s allies – Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and, more recently, Turkey – have been less than unequivocal in taking a stand against terrorism or may even have had some complicity with it? If so, it was the geopolitical commitments of Western governments that prevented them from taking effective action. Again, much of the current wave of terrorism can be traced back to the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Voicing a long-familiar consensual view, English criticises the US-led occupation for being “ill-planned”, leading to the destabilisation of the Iraqi security situation. But it is not clear that more forethought could have prevented this result.

If Western leaders had thought more carefully about the likely consequences of the invasion, it would probably not have been launched. With the regime and the state so closely intertwined, topping Saddam Hussein always risked creating a power vacuum. It was this that enabled al-Qaeda and then Isis and its affiliates to emerge, gain control in parts of the country and then project their operations into Europe.

Errors of analysis may have played a contributory role in this grisly fiasco. When British forces were despatched to Basra, it may have been assumed that they could implement something like the pacification that was eventually achieved in Northern Ireland. But the kinds of allies that Britain made in Belfast – and before that in the successful counterterrorist campaign in Malaya in the 1950s – did not exist in that part of Iraq. Like the overall programme of pacifying a country whose governing institutions had been dismantled abruptly, the mission was essentially unachievable. But this was not accepted by either the US administration or the British government. The invasion was based in ideological conviction rather than an empirical assessment of risks and consequences. In this case, too, high-level political decisions were far more important in unleashing terrorism than any failures in understanding it.

As has become the usual way in books on terrorism, English begins with his own definition of the phenomenon:

Terrorism involves heterogeneous violence used and threatened with a political aim; it can involve a variety of acts, of targets and actors; it possesses an important psychological dimension, producing terror or fear among a directly threatened group and also a wider implied audience in the hope of maximising political communication and achievement; it embodies the exerting and implementing of power, and the attempted redressing of power relations; it represents a subspecies of warfare, and as such can form part of a wider campaign of violent and non-violent attempts at political leverage.

This is a torturous formulation, not untypical of the academic literature on the subject. English tells us that his book is intended for readers in “all walks of life”. But the style throughout is that of a prototypical academic text, densely fortified with references to “majority scholarly opinion” and buttressed with over 50 pages of footnotes fending off critics. As a storehouse of facts and sources, the book will be a valuable resource for scholars, but its usefulness to the general reader is more doubtful.

The most interesting and informative of the book’s four main sections – on jihadism and al-Qaeda; Ireland and the IRA; Hamas and Palestinian terrorism; and Basque terrorism – is the one on Ireland, where English’s knowledge is deepest. Extensive interviews with people who had been involved in terrorist campaigns in the province led him to what is perhaps his most instructive generalisation: those who engage in and support terrorism “tend to display the same levels of rationality as do other people . . . they tend to be psychologically normal rather than abnormal . . . they are not generally characterised by mental illness or psychopathology . . . the emergence and sustenance of terrorism centrally rely on the fact that perfectly normal people at certain times consider it to be the most effective way of achieving necessary goals”. Terrorists are no more irrational than the rest of us, and there is no such thing as “the terrorist mind”. In many contexts, terrorism has functioned principally as an effective way of waging war.

As English notes, there is nothing new in the claim that terrorism is a variety of asymmetric warfare. The practice of suicide bombing has very often been analysed in cost-benefit terms and found to be highly efficient. The expenditure of resources involved is modest and the supply of bombers large; if the mission is successful the operative cannot be interrogated. The bombers gain status; their families may receive financial reward. (Religious beliefs about an afterlife are not a necessary part of suicide bombing, which has been practised by Marxist-Leninists of the Tamil Tiger movement and in Lebanon.) An enormous literature exists in which asymmetric warfare has been interpreted as demonstrating “the power of the weak”: the capacity of militarily inferior groups using unconventional methods to prevail against states with much greater firepower at their disposal. Understood in these terms, there can be no doubt that terrorism can be a rational strategy.

Yet there is a problem with understanding terrorism on this basis, and it lies in the slippery word “rational”, with which English juggles throughout the book. Terrorists are not always rational, he says; they are prone to overestimate the impact of their activities, and they make mistakes. Even so, what they do can be understood as rational strategies, and in these terms terrorism often works, if only partly. Here, English is invoking a straightforwardly instrumental view of reason. What terrorists do is rational, in this sense, if there is an intelligible connection between the ends they aim to achieve and the means they adopt to achieve them.

This means/end type of rationality typifies much terrorist activity, English maintains. But some of the ends achieved by terrorism are internal to the actual practice. “Inherent rewards from al-Qaeda terrorism might potentially include aspects of religious piety; the catharsis produced by revenge and the expression of complicatedly generated rage; and the remedying of shame and humiliation.” In this case, “hitting back  violently and punishingly at them [the US and its military allies] has offered significant rewards in terms not merely of political instrumentalism but also of valuable retaliation in itself”.

The inherent rewards of terrorism also include the expression of hatred. “The vengeful, terrorising punishment of people whom one hates, or with whom one exists in a state of deep enmity,” English writes, “might be one of the less attractive aspects of terrorist ambition. But it might also (perhaps) be one in which we find terrorists repeatedly succeeding fairly well . . .” Here, he may have understated his case. Killing cartoonists, customers queuing at a Jewish bakery in Paris and families celebrating Bastille Day in Nice will be a rational act as long as it succeeds in venting the terrorists’ hatred. Even if the operation is somehow aborted, the attempt to inflict mass death and injury may still serve as a type of therapy for those who make the attempt. If “hitting back at people whom one holds to be (literally or representatively) responsible for prior wrongs” can be rational on account of the emotional satisfaction it brings the terrorist, how can terrorism fail to work?

Clearly something has gone badly wrong here. Without mentioning the fact, or perhaps without noticing it, English has switched from one conception of rationality to another. Much of what human beings do isn’t the result of a calculation of con­sequences, but more an expression of their sense of identity. Philosophers describe this as expressive rationality, an idea they use to explain why voting in circumstances where you know your vote can make no practical difference can still be in accordance with reason. But is expressive rationality beyond rational criticism? In order to understand terrorism in Israel-Palestine, Ireland and Spain, English tells us, we need to understand the national context in which the terrorists act. This doesn’t imply “a comfortable acceptance of any single national narrative”, given that various terrorist groups “have done much to open such narratives to a very brutal interrogation”.

But is the terrorist narrative exempt from questioning? The reader might think so, as there is nothing in English’s account that fundamentally challenges the narrative of Hamas, for example. There is no discussion of the endorsement in the Hamas Charter of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, and no examination of the influence on Hamas’s policies of the delusional world-view that this infamous anti-Semitic forgery articulates. If this is a Popperian interrogation of terrorism, it falls short of the impartial critical rationalism that Karl Popper recommended.

An analysis of the intrinsic rewards of terrorism may be useful in considering the outbreak of Isis-affiliated ­terrorism in Europe. In contrast to that of the IRA, including its ultra-violent Provisional wing, this cannot easily be understood in terms of instrumental rationality. Even when compared with its predecessor al-Qaeda, Isis has been notable for making very few concrete demands. No doubt the present outbreak is partly a reaction to the jihadist group losing ground in Iraq and Syria. But as English suggests, we need to ask for whom terrorism works, and why. When we do this in relation to Isis, the answers we receive are not reassuring.

Nothing in human conflict is entirely new. There are some clear affinities between anarchist terrorist attacks around the end of the 19th century and jihadist “spectaculars” at the start of the 20th. However, there are also certain discomforting differences. Anarchists at that time made public officials, not ordinary civilians, their primary targets; they attacked state power rather than an entire society; and they never acquired a mass base of supporters and sympathisers. Bestowing identity and significance on dislocated individuals and enabling them to discharge their resentment against a hated way of life, terrorism by Isis is of another kind. Against the background of deep divisions in European societies, these rewards could become an increasingly powerful source of the group’s appeal.

John Gray is the New Statesman’s lead book reviewer. His latest book is “The Soul of the Marionette: a Short Inquiry Into Human Freedom” (Allen Lane)

John Gray is the New Statesman’s lead book reviewer. His latest book is The Soul of the Marionette: A Short Enquiry into Human Freedom.

This article first appeared in the 28 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double Issue