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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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How to think about the EU result if you voted Remain

A belief in democracy means accepting the crowd is wiser than you are as an individual. 

I voted Remain, I feel sick about this result and its implications for what’s to come. But I’m a believer in democracy. This post is about how to reconcile those two things (it’s a bit unstructured because I’m working it out as I go, and I’m not sure I agree with all of it).

Democracy isn’t just fairer than other systems of governance, it’s smarter. It leads to better decisions and better outcomes, on average and over the long run, than countries that are run by autocrats or councils of wise men with jobs for life. It is simply the best way we have yet devised of solving complex problems involving many people. On that topic, if you’re not averse to some rather dense and technical prose, read this post or seek out this book. But the central argument is that democracy is the best way of harnessing ‘cognitive diversity’ — bringing to bear many different perspectives on a problem, each of which are very partial in themselves, but add up to something more than any one wise person.

I don’t think you can truly be a believer in democracy unless you accept that the people, collectively, are smarter than you are. That’s hard. It’s easy to say you believe in the popular will, right up until the popular will does something REALLY STUPID. The hard thing is not just to ‘accept the result’ but to accept that the majority who voted for that result know or understand something better than you. But they do. You are just one person, after all, and try as you might to expand your perspective with reading (and some try harder than others) you can’t see everything. So if a vote goes against you, you need to reflect on the possibility you got it wrong in some way. If I look at the results of past general elections and referendums, for instance, I now see they were all pretty much the right calls, including those where I voted the other way.

One way to think about the vote is that it has forced a slightly more equitable distribution of anxiety and alienation upon the country. After Thursday, I feel more insecure about my future, and that of my family. I also feel like a foreigner in my own country — that there’s this whole massive swathe of people out there who don’t think like me at all and probably don’t like me. I feel like a big decision about my life has been imposed on me by nameless people out there. But of course, this is exactly how many of those very people have been feeling for years, and at a much higher level of intensity. Democracy forces us to try on each other’s clothes. I could have carried on quite happily ignoring the unhappiness of much of the country but I can’t ignore this.

I’m seeing a lot of people on Twitter and in the press bemoaning how ill-informed people were, talking about a ‘post-factual democracy’. Well, maybe, though I think that requires further investigation - democracy has always been a dirty dishonest business. But surely the great thing about Thursday that so many people voted — including many, many people who might have felt disenfranchised from a system that hasn’t been serving them well. I’m not sure you’re truly a democrat if you don’t take at least a tiny bit of delight in seeing people so far from the centres of power tipping the polity upside down and giving it a shake. Would it have been better or worse for the country if Remain had won because only informed middle-class people voted? It might have felt better for people like me, it might actually have been better, economically, for everyone. But it would have indicated a deeper rot in our democracy than do the problems with our national information environment (which I accept are real).

I’m not quite saying ‘the people are always right’ — at least, I don’t think it was wrong to vote to stay in the EU. I still believe we should have Remained and I’m worried about what we’ve got ourselves into by getting out. But I am saying they may have been right to use this opportunity — the only one they were given — to send an unignorable signal to the powers-that-be that things aren’t working. You might say general elections are the place for that, but our particular system isn’t suited to change things on which there is a broad consensus between the two main parties.

Ian Leslie is a writer, author of CURIOUS: The Desire to Know and Why Your Future Depends On It, and writer/presenter of BBC R4's Before They Were Famous.