While white feminists argue among ourselves, Rod Liddle gets away with racism

“Don’t feed the trolls”: race, privilege, and intersectional feminism.

“Not only do you slap us, but you tell us how to react to being slapped.” I first saw that quote tweeted by Ava Vidal, during an argument about racism last year, and now that I know it, it seems to be applicable to almost every argument about racism or sexism since. Sometimes I think bigots have more fun telling us off for reacting to their microaggressions (and macroaggressions) than they do making them. Sometimes I think that’s the point of them: to give them an excuse to punish us for reacting.

When the Spectator published Rod Liddle’s blog referring to the Woolwich suspects as “black savages,” (since edited) there was an instinctive, understandable reaction from a lot of people to not “feed the troll” by reacting. Then, after engaging in debate, Laurie Penny, among others, changed her mind and concluded that public censure was actually a better idea than shrugging and ignoring. This newfangled idea of publically changing your mind and admitting you were wrong about something has upset Louise Mensch so much that she wrote a whole blog post about it, which was then republished in the Guardian. So far, so blah.

Now, if an individual doesn’t personally want to “feed the trolls” by wasting time and energy on someone who either won’t learn anything or will just be given greater publicity for their views, then that’s obviously their prerogative. But last week Mensch was doing something beyond just asserting that she, personally, wasn’t going to respond to Liddle. She was actively telling other people how they should or shouldn’t react to him.

It’s worth pointing out first of all that even aside from the question of whether it’s worth publically condemning racism when it comes from a known provocateur, a lot of the questions people were asking about Liddle’s piece weren’t actually directed at him. After all, it’s not like he was making a point to be debated; he was just calling people “black savages.” A lot of questions were being asked of the Spectator – specifically, its editor Fraser Nelson – about the professional decision to publish that language. Unless Mensch believes the Spectator is a troll, asking questions about how the decision to publish racism was taken is a bigger question than “ignoring” or “feeding” the trolls.

I don’t want the whole blog to be about Mensch, because she’s just a recent example of something bigger; the ugly prioritising that keeps happening within white feminism. And she’s not even the worst offender. Still, I can’t help but feel this assertion about not feeding the trolls is doubly uncomfortable when it comes from someone who has responded to “trolls” time after time again when she wants to. In fact, she got oodles of praise heaped upon her (including some from me), and, I seem to remember, a healthy dollop of positive media coverage for herself when she decided to go through all the sexist abuse she got on twitter one day and favourite it, to highlight the problem of internet trolls. White feminists – including Louise Mensch in more than one instance – have reacted regularly to sexism that could easily be called “trolling” from George Galloway, Austin Mitchell, Brendan O’ Neill, Roger Helmer, Nadine Dorries, Chris Brown, Jan Moir, Samantha Brick, the Socialist Workers’ Party, the Justice for Ched tweeters, some of them anonymous, faceless, internet accounts, and, bless him, Nick Ross. The Everyday Sexism Project has been running a well-organised online campaign to report hate pages (from underage pornographic photos to ‘comic’ rape memes) on Facebook. Most of those pages could be described as “trolling”. We don’t ignore them, we react to them. That’s how we make them unacceptable.

Ironically, the Everyday Sexism campaign is often explained by drawing parallels with racism: if this vitriol was directed at black people, instead of women, we say, would Facebook allow those pages to stay up? Well, perhaps not. But what if it was semi-intellectualised, and written in an article, in a national publication? What then? Perhaps we’d be angry. But perhaps we’d say, calm down, dears. Don’t feed the trolls.

Sometimes, ignoring trolls is necessary for your own boundaries, your own mental wellbeing, or just the reality of there being too many trolls and too little time. But sometimes, “don’t feed the trolls” feels a hop skip and a jump away from “it’s just banter.” Whatever your intentions, when you tell someone “don’t feed the trolls,” you’re still telling the person on the receiving end of the trolling/banter how to react. The problem is with their reaction, not with what was said. They’re taking it too seriously. They’re missing the broader point. They’re distracting from the Real Issues. Ignore it because context. Ignore it because irony. Ignore it because banter. Ignore it because trolls.

And I will be honest: my first reaction to Liddle’s post was the same as Laurie Penny’s. He’s a troll. Ignore him. But then I remembered how Liddle’s trolling in the past nearly prejudiced a trial and cost Stephen Lawrence’s family justice. And I saw tweets from Musa Okwonga, Ava Vidal, and others, about the importance of challenging a racist voice with his platform, and, yes, I changed my mind about it, just as Laurie Penny did. I genuinely cannot see why Mensch finds that so upsetting.

Of all the tweets on the recent #blackprivilege hashtag, the one that I recognised most, both unconsciously manifested in my own behaviour as well as in others, was this one: “#BlackPrivilege is white people telling me how awful racism is, instead of telling other white folk.” (I’d like to credit whoever said this, but I can’t remember, and I can’t find the tweet.) Yes. We do this: lots of us do this, all the time, without even realising it. Because it’s easier to tell Ava Vidal how much we hate racism and expect a cookie and a re-tweet than it is to ask the nice, influential editor of the Spectator why he chose to publish racism in an environment of near civil unrest.

It’s not unique to feminism but it’s just so embarrassing when its white feminists doing it. We are so familiar, after all, with men doing it. You know, the Liberal Dudes who go on and on about how clued up on all that feminism business they are – usually in the most authoritative, patronising way imaginable, too – but when their mates make misogynistic rape jokes, when their colleague hires a man over an equally qualified woman for the sixth or seventh time, when their friend or favourite singer or footie player or just some Dude they think is cool is accused of rape or assault? They explain. They excuse. They tell us it’s a joke. It’s not worth responding to. It’s not the Real Issue. It’s not their problem. It’s banter. Don’t feed the trolls.

Some people might not ever respond to any trolls, and that’s fine. But speaking for myself, if I’m honest, I know perfectly well that if Rod Liddle had made some sort of comparable comment about women, especially if it was in an equivalent climate of increasing sexist hostility, with MRA marches doing pro-rape salutes around London – just imagine, white feminists, how we would feel if that was happening around us – there is no way in the world I would have shrugged and said to myself: “Yeah, I’m not responding to that. Don’t feed the trolls.” What’s more, I don’t believe Louise Mensch would have done, either.

This piece originally appeared on Louise McCudden's blog, and is republished here with her permission

Trolls: should we feed them? Photograph: Getty Images
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The most terrifying thing about Donald Trump's speech? What he didn't say

No politician uses official speeches to put across their most controversial ideas. But Donald Trump's are not hard to find. 

As Donald Trump took the podium on a cold Washington day to deliver his inauguration speech, the world held its breath. Viewers hunched over televisions or internet streaming services watched Trump mouth “thank you” to the camera, no doubt wondering how he could possibly live up to his deranged late-night Twitter persona. In newsrooms across America, reporters unsure when they might next get access to a president who seems to delight in denying them the right to ask questions got ready to parse his words for any clue as to what was to come. Some, deciding they couldn’t bear to watch, studiously busied themselves with other things.

But when the moment came, Trump’s speech was uncharacteristically professional – at least compared to his previous performances. The fractured, repetitive grammar that marks many of his off-the-cuff statements was missing, and so, too, were most of his most controversial policy ideas.

Trump told the crowd that his presidency would “determine the course of America, and the world, for many, many years to come” before expressing his gratefulness to President Barack Obama and Michelle Obama for their “gracious aid” during the transition. “They have been magnificent," Trump said, before leading applause of thanks from the crowd.

If this opening was innocent enough, however, it all changed in the next breath. The new president moved quickly to the “historic movement”, “the likes of which the world has never seen before”, that elected him President. Following the small-state rhetoric of his campaign, Trump promised to take power from the “establishment” and restore it to the American people. “This moment," he told them, “Is your moment. It belongs to you.”

A good deal of the speech was given over to re-iterating his nationalist positions while also making repeated references to the key issues – “Islamic terrorism” and families – that remain points of commonality within the fractured Republican GOP.

The loss of business to overseas producers was blamed for “destroying our jobs”. “Protection," Trump said, “Will lead to great strength." He promised to end what he called the “American carnage” caused by drugs and crime.

“From this day forward," Trump said, “It’s going to be only America first."

There was plenty in the speech, then, that should worry viewers, particularly if you read Trump’s promises to make America “unstoppable” so it can “win” again in light of his recent tweets about China

But it was the things Trump didn't mention that should worry us most. Trump, we know, doesn’t use official channels to communicate his most troubling ideas. From bizarre television interviews to his upsetting and offensive rallies and, of course, the infamous tweets, the new President is inclined to fling his thoughts into the world as and when he sees fit, not on the occasions when he’s required to address the nation (see, also, his anodyne acceptance speech).

It’s important to remember that Trump’s administration wins when it makes itself seem as innocent as possible. During the speech, I was reminded of my colleague Helen Lewis’ recent thoughts on the “gaslighter-in-chief”, reflecting on Trump’s lying claim that he never mocked a disabled reporter. “Now we can see," she wrote, “A false narrative being built in real time, tweet by tweet."

Saying things that are untrue isn’t the only way of lying – it is also possible to lie by omission.

There has been much discussion as to whether Trump will soften after he becomes president. All the things this speech did not mention were designed to keep us guessing about many of the President’s most controversial promises.

Trump did not mention his proposed ban on Muslims entering the US, nor the wall he insists he will erect between America and Mexico (which he maintains the latter will pay for). He maintained a polite coolness towards the former President and avoiding any discussion of alleged cuts to anti-domestic violence programs and abortion regulations. Why? Trump wanted to leave viewers unsure as to whether he actually intends to carry through on his election rhetoric.

To understand what Trump is capable of, therefore, it is best not to look to his speeches on a global stage, but to the promises he makes to his allies. So when the President’s personal website still insists he will build a wall, end catch-and-release, suspend immigration from “terror-prone regions” “where adequate screening cannot occur”; when, despite saying he understands only 3 per cent of Planned Parenthood services relate to abortion and that “millions” of women are helped by their cancer screening, he plans to defund Planned Parenthood; when the president says he will remove gun-free zones around schools “on his first day” - believe him.  

Stephanie Boland is digital assistant at the New Statesman. She tweets at @stephanieboland