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Laurie Penny on online aggression: What do you do the day after a death threat?

You carry on, writes Laurie Penny.

Last night I went for dinner with a friend, M, who is one of those women who can’t walk down a street without being hassled by men: cat-calling, making bizarre animal noises at her, professing undying love or threatening rape. This is a daily reality for many of us, but with M it’s on a whole other level of threat awareness. Just strolling home with her feels like walking through an enemy camp. We were talking, naturally, about the situation for women who have an online presence in the UK right now, and how frightening and relentless the sexist bullying is getting, and M asked me how I manage to continue to write, given that I’ve been dealing with all this bullshit for more than three years now. I asked her: how do you continue to walk down pavements in public? The answer is: M walks with her hips swaying and her head held high. Because she knows she has a right to the street.

On Monday, I received a bomb threat. This has been happening to several prominent British women journalists and politicians recently, and I suppose it’s some sort of dubious distinction, but it didn’t make it any less frightening and enraging to have to call the police and then find somewhere else to stay for the night. I’m lucky in that I live alone and have relatively little trouble grabbing my go-bag and sleeping on a strange sofa; I know that at least one of the other women who received these threats has a disabled child, and I can only imagine the hassle and stress she went through.

I have a few friends who live nearby, but for some reason, the person I called instantly was somebody I know from online dating, somebody I used to sleep with casually and don’t anymore. He was out with his new girlfriend that night, so offered me his room. I knew instantly that that was where I wanted to be, by myself; it’s a room I used to feel very safe in, where nothing was ever demanded of me except what I wanted to give. His housemate let me in, and I rushed upstairs, shut the door, and took the enormous Jedi-warrior bathrobe that I used to mock so horribly off the hook. I made tea, took off my clothes, wrapped myself in the Jedi robe and sat cross-legged on the bed. I wrote the column I had due for the next day. I felt like nothing could touch me.

Right now it’s pretty scary to be a woman who makes a public spectacle of herself in Britain. By "making a spectacle", I mean "daring to have an opinion in public"; the piece I wrote in 2011 about a woman’s opinion functioning as the mini-skirt of the internet is relevant here. Twitter is also in total meltdown as various camps of campaigners tear chunks out of each other, and it’s upsetting to see. One of the bizarrely modern headaches I’ve had lately is the ongoing, extremely public feud between my current editor and my ex-girlfriend over intersectionality issues, a fight which I’ve had to scramble to avoid because it’s a huge helping of fuck no. There is a deep well of unkindness, of recrimination and refusal to listen, bubbling up online right now in my communities. It is disturbing, and it’s exhausting.

When I’d finished my column, my eyes swimming with tiredness, I posted on Facebook: I need clear space to write. The past two years have been a litany of online attacks and British media bearpit bollocks and the energy I’ve wasted on the mental overheads has been enormous. I don’t want to do it anymore. I wanted to be a writer and a campaigner, I didn’t ask to be a scapegoat and a target, and I didn’t expect it. It’s a curious lonely place to be in and there’s nothing anyone can really do. I’m still here and still fighting but I don’t want to have to fight like this. It’s boring.

Not giving up comes at a cost. I haven’t yet flounced off Twitter or made any sort of dramatic, public exit from the spaces in which I work and receive abuse, because I don’t think that my doing so would help anyone. That doesn’t mean I haven’t seriously considered just kicking it in for the good of my mental health. Imagine that you’re a professional dancer and you have to dance down a street where men are screaming abuse at you, throwing things, leering, sending threats. Do you stop dancing, even if you know a little part of your soul will die if you do? No, fuck that. You keep on dancing; even when your bones ache and your head rings from the relentless cunt bitch stupid girl attention seeker sellout whore. You keep on dancing, but there’s a cost. Don’t ever imagine there’s not a cost

I don’t make it easy for myself. I know that. Not only have I not shut up about women’s rights over the past three years like people want me to, I’m in the middle of writing a book which talks openly about sex, including my own experiences. Part of the reason I’m doing this is that I’ve a slightly adventurous sexual history and am an active member of the queer and poly community in London and elsewhere, and I know that those who are seeking to attack me are probably going to find that out at some point; I’ve been threatened before by people who wanted to release details and/or pictures of me as a half-naked teenager, and I know it’s going to come out at some point; I want to be in control of when and how that happens. I’m not ashamed in any way, not of my life choices and not of my decision to keep on talking.

But the energy it takes to carry on is enormous, and becomes self-reflexive: you write and speak just in order to keep on writing and speaking in adversity. This is no way to be creative; it is no way to sustain a writing life. It makes me angry, and I want it to stop so I can get on with all the other work I want to do. I do not want to be known as the girl who gets a ton of flak for speaking up; I want to carry on saying things that have relevance, even if only to a handful of readers scattered across the world. I’m bored of this, and I’m angry, and I want it to stop. Also I am considering buying my own Jedi robe to wear whenever I open Twitter. That’s all.

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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The UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder