The trolls we despise are our own creation

To kill off the poisonous notions of celebrity, we have to stop giving it our attention and act civilly to each other.

It’s easy to mock Paris Hilton.

She is the scarecrow that embodies everything we use to keep our morals flapping above the fields of indignity. With celebrity culture, the glitz of Hollywood has lit up long dormant beasts in each of us: because they’re on the big screen, they’re deserving of our vitriol, of our scorn. But we no longer direct rotten fruit at them, but rotten terms: Too fat, too skinny, cheater, liar, weirdo, skank, whore, drug addict, stupid, bimbo, loser, airhead, meaningless. Terms most of us left in the schoolyard, replacing them with conduct catered to civility and, indeed, common decency, are somehow allowed rebirth and fruition to be used at these idols of our indulgences, these effigies to narcissism.

Yet, those of us who casually and so easily mock the failings of young women we do not know, or largely harmless men with admittedly weird religions, are also quick to shake our fists and heads at rude online comments and bizarre blog threads; we are outraged at the targeting of people for making the mistake of, for example, reviewing technology or being a woman and having an open comment thread on the internet.

When we turn off the screen, a black monitor greets us with a darkened face and we have an answer. Do we even realise the casualness with which we dismiss celebrities as idiots, bimbos, wash-ups, has-beens, irrelevant? This ignorance on our part of targeting people who are, in fact, complete strangers – just more famous ones than online writers – is itself part of the problem. We’ve casually allowed for this environment of trolling, of harassment, because so many of us do it. We’ve built a culture of mockery, a religion of ridicule, where we drink the spirits of vitriol down parched throats, raw from directed anger. And we wonder where these ‘new’ beasts come from.

We created them. We’ve produced an environment where people like Charlotte Dawson attempt suicide because strangers on Twitter had direct access to someone they’d otherwise never be able to reach. Technology may be bringing us together, but no one ought to assume this is always a good thing. Celebrities and people on television have always been the target of casual hatred, of comments that dismiss them as persons with actual emotions, instead of entities flickering on a screen, or smiling from a glossy magazine; all that’s changed is Twitter and blogs and forums have allowed us to air talk that would’ve quickly evaporated at dinners and barbeques into a permanent format: often in ways allowing us to aim our hate directly at the celebrity in question, as with Dawson.

We like to think we’re better than celebrities: these entities with no emotions, these scarecrows of our own design, with the expensive smiles and poor judgements. They’re not real like our friends, our lovers, our families, we think, they exist in some other world beyond our mere mortal grasp. While this is true to some extent, it’s no reason to treat them with casual hatred and quick dismissals: if we really are better than them, surely that means we should demonstrate it, in not allowing even casual hatred to be a property we have. It’s easy to create scarecrows from the threads the screen provides, from the weird behaviour picked apart by gossip columnists, by the tiny increase in bulges etched into eternity by paparazzi; it’s much harder to fight against this machine that manufactures celebrities out of ordinary people, fed by screaming passion of voyeuristic indulgence.

In a global society increasingly growing weary of gods, we’ve become lax to a religion that creates them all the time, demanding the sacrifice of our decency.

There are multiple ways to make places like the internet and society in general a space in which adult discussion can occur. There are ways to combat the influence pundits, who sprout fallacies and untruths, have on political discourse in the most powerful countries in the world. One way is to grow a stable foundation of our own discourse. It’s to reclaim civility in a consistent way. It’s to say we’re better than this, we’re better than the hype machine, we’re better than the trolls.

There will always be strange people doing harmless things, always be celebrities who say nonsense like Paris Hilton and her homophobic ideas; but our passion and our anger are better served elsewhere than on strangers – no matter how big-named they are.

Celebrity does not imply talent. Celebrity is only made by attention. We should start killing the notion of "celebrity", replacing it with actual talent, actual ability. But to do that requires us to stop giving attention, to stop hurting our own humanity as moral beings: we’ve got to act civil – ie read and engage charitably, begin with some measure of respect, until such time as interlocutors do not reciprocate or demonstrate deserving of it, and so on. 

If we can’t even maintain a modicum of respect for a rather harmless young woman like Paris Hilton, is it any wonder we fail in facilitating proper dialogue on important matters with our opponents?

Paris Hilton: a celebrity we created. Photograph: Getty Images
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Angela Merkel's burqa ban is sexist, racist and wrong

The German chancellor's plan for a partial ban of the full-face veil is a clearly political move, which will do more to harm those women who wear it than protect them.

 

In these febrile times, women’s freedom and autonomy has become a bargaining chip in the poker game of public propaganda — and that goes double for brown, Muslim and migrant women. Angela Merkel should know as well as any other female politician how demeaning it is to be treated as if what you wear is more important than what you say and what you do. With the far-right on the rise across Europe, however, the German chancellor has become the latest lawmaker to call for a partial ban on the burqa and niqab.

We are told that this perennial political football is being kicked about in the name of liberating women. It can have nothing to do, of course, with the fact that popular opinion is lurching wildly to the right in western democracies, there’s an election in Germany next year, and Merkel is seen as being too soft on migration after her decision to allow a million Syrian refugees to enter the country last year. She is also somehow blamed for the mob attacks on women in Cologne, which have become a symbol of the threat that immigration poses to white women and, by extension, to white masculinity in Europe. Rape and abuse perpetrated by white Europeans, of course, is not considered a matter for urgent political intervention — nor could it be counted on to win back voters who have turned from Merkel's party to the far-right AFD, which wants to see a national debate on abortion rights and women restricted to their rightful role as mothers and homemakers.

If you’ll allow me to be cynical for a moment, imposing state restrictions on what women may and may not wear in public has not, historically, been a great foundation for feminist liberation. The move is symbolic, not practical. In Britain, where the ban is also being proposed by Ukip the services that actually protect women from domestic violence have been slashed over the past six years — the charity Refuge, the largest provider of domestic violence services in the UK, has seen a reduction in funding across 80% of its service contracts since 2011.

It’s worth noting that even in western countries with sizeable Muslim minorities, the number of women who wear full burqa is vanishingly small. If those women are victims of coercion or domestic violence, banning the burqa in public will not do a thing to make them safer — if anything, it will reduce their ability to leave their homes, isolating them further.

In the wake of the Brexit vote, racist and Islamophobic attacks spiked in the UK. Hate crimes nationally shot up by 42% in the two weeks following the vote on 23 June. Hate crimes against Muslim women increased by over 300%, with visibly Muslim women experiencing 46% of all hate incidents. Instances of headscarves being ripped off have become so common that self-defense videos are being shared online, showing women how to deflect the “hijab grab”. In this context, it is absurd to claim that politicians proposing a burqa ban care about protecting women: the move is transparently designed to placate the very people who are making Muslim women feel unsafe in their own communities.

When politicians talk about banning the burqa, the public hears an attack on all Islamic headscarves — not everyone knows the difference between the hijab, the niqab and the burqa, and not everyone cares. The important thing is that seeing women dressed that way makes some people feel uncomfortable, and desperate politicians are casting about for ways to validate that discomfort.

Women who actually wear the burqa are not invited to speak about their experiences or state their preferences in this debate. On this point, Islamic fundamentalists and panicked western conservatives are in absolute agreement: Muslim women are provocative and deserve to be treated as a threat to masculine pride. They should shut up and let other people decide what’s best for them.

I know Muslim women who regard even the simple hijab as an object of oppression and have sworn never to wear one again. I also know Muslim women who wear headscarves every day as a statement both of faith and of political defiance. There is no neutral fashion option for a woman of Islamic faith — either way, men in positions of power will feel entitled to judge, shame and threaten. Either choice risks provoking anger and violence from someone with an opinion about what your outfit means for them. The important thing is the autonomy that comes with still having a choice.

A law which treats women like children who cannot be trusted to make basic decisions about their bodies and clothing is a sexist law; a law that singles out religious minorities and women of colour as especially unworthy of autonomy is a racist, sexist law. Instituting racist, sexist laws is a good way to win back the votes of racist, sexist people, but, again, a dreadful way of protecting women. In practice, a burqa ban, even the partial version proposed by Merkel which will most likely be hard to enforce under German constitutional law, will directly impact only a few thousand people in the west. Those people are women of colour, many of them immigrants or foreigners, people whose actual lives are already of minimal importance to the state except on an abstract, symbolic level, as the embodiment of a notional threat to white Christian patriarchy. Many believe that France's longstanding burqa ban has increased racial tensions — encapsulated by the image earlier this year of French police surrounding a woman who was just trying to relax with her family on the beach in a burkini. There's definitely male violence at play here, but a different kind — a kind that cannot be mined for political capital, because it comes from the heart of the state.

This has been the case for centuries: long before the US government used the term“Operation Enduring Freedom” to describe the war in Afghanistan, western politicians used the symbolism of the veil to recast the repeated invasion of Middle Eastern nations as a project of feminist liberation. The same colonists who justified the British takeover of Islamic countries abroad were active in the fight to suppress women’s suffrage at home. This is not about freeing women, but about soothing and coddling men’s feelings about women.

The security argument is even more farcical: border guards are already able to strip people of their clothes, underwear and dignity if they get the urge. If a state truly believes that facial coverings are some sort of security threat, it should start by banning beards, but let's be serious, masculinity is fragile enough as it is. If it were less so, we wouldn't have politicians panicking over how to placate the millions of people who view the clothing choices of minority and migrant women as an active identity threat.

Many decent, tolerant people, including feminists, are torn on the issue of the burqa: of course we don't want the state to start policing what women can and can't wear, but isn't the burqa oppressive? Maybe so, but I was not aware of feminism as a movement that demands that all oppressive clothing be subject to police confiscation, unless the Met’s evidence lockers are full of stilettos, girdles and push-up bras. In case you're wondering, yes, I do feel uncomfortable on the rare occasions when I have seen people wearing the full face veil in public. I've spent enough time living with goths and hippies that I've a high tolerance for ersatz fashion choices — but do wonder what their home lives are like and whether they are happy and safe, and that makes me feel anxious. Banning the burqa might make me feel less anxious. It would not, however, improve the lives of the women who actually wear it. That is what matters. My personal feelings as a white woman about how Muslim women choose to dress are, in fact, staggeringly unimportant.

If you think the Burqa is oppressive and offensive, you are perfectly entitled never to wear one. You are not, however, entitled to make that decision for anyone else. Exactly the same principle applies in the interminable battle over women's basic reproductive choices: many people believe that abortion is wrong, sinful and damaging to women. That's okay. I suggest they never have an abortion. What's not okay is taking away that autonomy from others as a cheap ploy for good press coverage in the runup to an election.

This debate has been dragging on for decades, but there's a new urgency to it now, a new danger: we are now in a political climate where the elected leaders of major nations are talking about registries for Muslims and other minorities. Instituting a symbolic ban on religious dress, however extreme, sets a precedent. What comes next? Are we going to ban every form of Islamic headdress? What about the yarmulke, the tichel, the Sikh turban, the rainbow flag? If this is about community cohesion, what will it take to make white conservatives feel “comfortable”? Where does it stop? Whose freedoms are politicians prepared to sacrifice as a sop to a populace made bitter and unpredictable by 30 years of neoliberal incompetence? Where do we draw the line?

We draw it right here, between the state and the autonomy of women, particularly minority and migrant women who are already facing harassment in unprecedented numbers. Whatever you feel about the burqa, it is not the role of government to police what women wear, and doing it has nothing to do with protection. It is chauvinist, it is repressive, it is a deeply disturbing precedent, and it has no place in our public conversation.

 
 
 
 

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