To speak up or shut up, that is the question

Jane Austen banknoteLast December, when I wrote a post about casual misogyny on the anniversary of the gender-based massacre at Montreal’s Ecole Polytechnique, I realized, I think for the first time, how much my blog has exposed me. I also got a small glimpse of the sheer, immeasurable, and baffling amount of hatred and anger that exists on the internet, and how much of that, for whatever reason, is directed at women.

I’m not saying that misandry does not also exist on the internet. I am certain that it does, and I do not agree with it, but that being said I have seen nothing to suggest that the amount of misandry on the net is anywhere close to the tsunami of misogynistic vitriol (including rape and death threats) being directed at female bloggers, media personalities, and public figures just for speaking out about an issue that affects them, while also being a woman.

A recent example of this is the case of academic and blogger (and my former school chum) Lucia Lorenzi. After reading reports that UBC frosh leaders from the Sauder School of Business led their students in the now infamous St. Mary’s University Y-O-U-N-G rape chant (and encouraged them to keep it a secret), Lorenzi spoke out. She wrote a passionate and well-researched post on her blog, which led to her being featured in the Vancouver Sun, on CBC’s the National (though much of her interview was cut from broadcast) and as a guest on the Bill Good Show on CKNW. While taking part in outrageous chants is a rite of passage during university frosh weeks Canada-wide, this particular chant is so obscene and so dismissive of the serious issue of rape (“Y is for your sister, O is for oh so tight, U is for underage, N is for no consent…”) I really can’t see what frosh leaders could possibly have been thinking, and you really can’t blame students like Lorenzi for having a major problem with a chant like this being encouraged at the institution where they work, study, and pay tuition (and where many survivors of rape and assault also attend).

But some people do blame her, and women like her. In the few days since her media appearances, Lorenzi has already been receiving nasty messages, and, more worryingly, has been trashed on a well-known and very creepy MRA website as part of a more targeted attack aimed at Denise Ryan, the Vancouver Sun columnist who wrote about the rape chants. To some, it seems, the problem is not the rape chant, which is “tradition” and “no big deal”, the problem is Lorenzi, for being a “bitch” and expressing her outrage (at something that might reasonably spark outrage among both women and men). Even for those who don’t agree with Lorenzi’s point of view, surely harassing her for speaking out only further proves her point that misogynistic attitudes (like those embodied by the rape chant) are present in society and have compromised her right to physical and emotional safety as she pursues her studies and career.

Here’s another example for you: across the pond, the Bank of England revealed plans to replace Elizabeth Fry with Winston Churchill on the new £5 note, meaning the only woman’s face on British currency would be the Queen’s. British journalist and activist Caroline Criado-Perez thought that was a bit crappy, so she spearheaded a successful campaign to have Jane Austen replace Charles Darwin on the new £10 note by 2017. Sounds good, right? Austen is arguably Britain’s most well-known female author, her work is still popular and well-loved (spawning countless film adaptations, mini-series, and literary spin-offs, including the inventive Pride and Prejudice and Zombies), and her popularity (and representation of a certain kind of quaint, genteel England) certainly helps bring tourist dollars (er, pounds) into the country. What’s not to like?

A lot, for some. Surprisingly, there are many people who did not like the campaign at all, and not because they’re just not Jane Austen fans. Within hours of the announcement that her bid to place Jane Austen on the banknote had been successful, Criado-Perez began receiving rape and death threats on her Twitter account. When Member of Parliament Stella Creasy spoke out in Criado-Perez’ defense, Creasy received rape and death threats too (some of them quite graphic). According to their online attackers, it’s not okay to want to see a woman on your currency (even though women form half the British population and make significant contributions to society). It’s also not okay to be a woman who takes issue with another woman receiving rape and death threats. The cause of this shit storm? Apparently, some online trolls are upset about the idea of Jane Austen’s face on the tenner and took the campaign as a form of misandry.

Which is ridiculous. I mean, this is a celebration of JANE AUSTEN, people, not Lorena Bobbitt. How full of hate must you be that you find it justifiable to threaten to kill someone over JANE AUSTEN? (This is not to say you have to like Jane Austen on your money, literary critic Frances Wilson certainly doesn’t, but you’ll notice she’s not planning to rape anyone about it.)

You don’t have to change your entire country’s currency to incur the wrath of internet trolls. Sometimes you just have to be a female gamer. Or a a female student who doesn’t like rape chants, like Ms. Lorenzi. Or a woman who happens to be caught on video protesting for women’s rights. Or a female blogger on a popular website like Jezebel. The fact is that when people notice you speaking up, some of them want to take you down. Even with my tiny readership, I’ve still been afraid to write about this issue because I don’t want to draw negative attention to myself.

I just want to speak. I just want to be able to speak about the things that bother me. And this is something that bothers me–this fear that I have felt whenever I have wanted to blog about certain things. And it’s inherently unfair:

If I speak out, I may draw negative attention to myself. Reading about the experiences of other women makes me hesitant to speak up, which is likely exactly what the trolls who indulge in this kind of heinous behaviour are going for.

If I stay silent because I am afraid, the trolls win.

If I speak up and say that I am afraid, the trolls know that they are successfully frightening women, and they still win.

In my first year of university, I took an introductory course in ethical and political philosophy. My brain just about exploded when I encountered Iris Marion Young’s “Five Faces of Oppression” in my readings–it had never occurred to me that I could be oppressed just because I was a woman. Sure, I knew women in other countries were oppressed (women who couldn’t vote or go to school or wear what they wanted for example), and I knew that women who were in physically abusive relationships were oppressed, and I knew that obviously the wage gap existed and the glass ceiling and all of that. But my mind was blown when I began to grapple with Young’s idea that women in general are oppressed, not necessarily because anyone is actively trying to hurt them or keep them down, but because they live with the constant fear of rape, a fear they are subject to simply for being a woman (whether or not you agree with Young, this idea is incredibly compelling and worth considering). A woman’s choices and behaviour, therefore, must be different from those of her male peers because she is constrained by a threat of violence they are not subject to.

This idea that the threat of rape is a form of oppression translates well to what I see happening on the internet: the threat of gender-based trolling is certainly giving some female bloggers (like myself) pause, and affects what we say and do online. If I say the wrong thing, if I make the wrong choice, I may put my physical and/or emotional safety on the line. And that’s really scary.

I really really like this blog, small as it is. I really like writing about things that are important to me, and sharing those things. Most of the time, I don’t write much that could be considered all that provocative (I think my views are fairly in line with most left-wing Canadian values, so they’re not all that radical, and even if they were, that’s no reason to send someone a death threat), and I don’t feel the need to be provocative. But there are a few blog posts (this one included) that I have wanted to write for a long time, but probably won’t (or not for a much longer time), because whenever I think about the idea of posting them I feel a tug of fear.

So I won’t be writing anything directly about the MRA movement anytime soon, though I think it’s a complicated and incredibly charged topic that deserves as much conversation from as many sides as possible. I won’t be writing about the emotional abuse I experienced at the hands of a romantic partner in my younger days, even though I think it might help people of both genders notice the red flags of emotional abuse earlier on. Unlike the trolls I am afraid of, I do not have the luxury of sending disgusting violent messages to people I don’t agree with, because I’ve attached my real name to my online identity (I think I once told former Heritage Minister James Moore on Twitter that he should be ashamed of himself and I felt bad about it all day–he’s the Industry Minister now; I doubt I hurt his feelings much).

So do I speak up or do I shut up? Do I let the trolls win by staying silent, or do I let the trolls win by letting them know that I’m scared, but in doing so perhaps join a growing chorus of women and make speaking up easier for someone else next time? I guess if I’m writing this post, I’m choosing the latter, though as of this moment I haven’t hit “Publish” yet.

If you’re reading this, I guess I chose “Publish”. I hope the internet’s okay with that. I’m not asking for a flame war here, just the right to safely speak my mind on the website I pay for.

It’s December 6, and casual misogyny abounds

Green-AppleThis morning Canadians on Facebook and Twitter have been calling on us to remember the 14 female engineering students whose lives were taken by a gunman on December 6, 1989, and to pledge that violence against women will stop.

I was particularly taken with this address made by NDP MP Megan Leslie in 2008 and shared on Twitter today. Leslie said, “We live in a culture of casual misogyny…And we don’t do enough to fight it.”

This year, like any year, I would agree with Megan Leslie. But this year in particular, I have been provided (via an argument on Facebook no less, if you want to really talk “casual”) with an example of casual misogyny in action which has proven, beyond a doubt, that we need more than ever, to oppose violence against women, and first and foremost, to vehemently oppose, wherever they arise, the misogynistic attitudes that lead to gender-based violence in the first place.

The argument started with an opinion piece called The war on men, written by Suzanne Venker and published on FoxNews.com. Venker opines that women these days are having a hard time finding a marriageable man these days, and it’s feminism’s fault:

Women aren’t women anymore…

Now the men have nowhere to go…

Men want to love women, not compete with them. They want to provide for and protect their families – it’s in their DNA. But modern women won’t let them…

Fortunately, there is good news: women have the power to turn everything around. All they have to do is surrender to their nature – their femininity – and let men surrender to theirs.

If they do, marriageable men will come out of the woodwork.

Pretty nauseating stuff. Almost laughably bad, and I was laughing at it. I was laughing at this horrible piece of “journalism” because I didn’t know a single person who actually thought the article had any truth or merit.

Until last weekend when I found myself in a Facebook argument I couldn’t ignore because this man’s opinions were so disturbing to me. A friend had posted the article and we were all having a nice time poking fun at its flaws when for some reason a guy up and decided that this was the day he was going to reveal his true feelings about feminism at last. At first, pretty small potatoes. This guy said that he had met too many “liberal transient single women with zero goals” who problematize masculinity to say feminism was without its problems. I have also met such women, but as was immediately pointed out, perhaps the issue was not the women’s feminism itself but perhaps other aspects of their personality (or, as my friend suggested, “a lack of critical thinking”).

Sounds good to me. But no. The guy then told me that “the line of of thinking” in feminism is not the belief that everyone should have equal value in society, but that feminists believe that society itself is invalid because it is patriarchical. To which I replied:

“As a feminist, I think I know what my own line of thinking is thank you. And I think it’s a bit much to say “THE line of thinking” is or isn’t anything. At its base, it’s about being an equally valued member of society no matter your gender, and this is the line of thinking I hear most often from the feminists in my life. After that, the idea of feminism becomes complicated and I believe personal, affected by where and when I live, historically and geographically. Just as I assume your own beliefs and values surrounding gender, femininity and masculinity are. If YOU personally believe that society is invalid because it’s patriarchal, that’s fine. Either way, you don’t really have the right to paint your particular idea of feminism on me or any other feminist. I’ve been a feminist for as long as I’ve been socially conscious. I’m more than capable of knowing what my line of thinking is.

The issue for me wasn’t really what this guy thought about feminism, it was that he, not I (a woman and a feminist) knew what THE line of thinking in feminism was. Some feminists may very well have this belief about society and patriarchy, but this is not an absolute. Many people joined in at this point to agree that “isms” are flexible and personal, and that there is a whole spectrum of feminism to which a person and their line of thinking can belong. In fact, my friend who posted the article in the first place even stepped in and tried to smooth things over by clarifying that it was the stupid article, not masculinity, that was under attack, and she was sorry if the guy had felt differently.

To which he replied with a bunch of mumbo jumbo no doubt picked up during a philosophy class, about spectrums and how they are “very clearly finite” complete with a mathematical example. Other people tried to shut down this crazy train but this guy was intent to keep on chugging:

“i replied in this manner because i sensed the feeling behind the sheepish bashing of crude right-wing news is coming from a place of pain and darkness. the punches are too easy… are you just externalizing your pain?. so its like hey u kno what? there’s a ton of pain and obscurity and distancing and dissociating within the feminist movement. Inside. if we confront that pain well be 10x stronger in creating the world we want.”

Again, there’s a tiny kernel of truth there. Yes, a lot of women (like a lot of men) experience pain and darkness in their lives. Many of them at the hands of men or at the hands of a gender-biased society. It’s one of the reasons people (both men and women) might become feminists in the first place. But it seems to me that this guy, while pretending he is part of the “we” that needs to “confront the pain” (while so obviously demonstrating he is not on the same team), is experiencing some pain of his own around the idea of feminism that he needs to deal with. Why else would he be trying to prove he is not misogynistic by calling women “sheepish” and essentially saying they just need to deal with their baggage?

And this point I just couldn’t ignore the conversation anymore and had to step back in:

“Here’s the thing. When _____  first shared this article, we were laughing at the stupidity of it, making jokes like “good thing you’re a great cook” and having a fun time with a poor piece of journalism. The butt of the joke was always the ARTICLE (which was, incidentally, written by a woman), never men themselves. Somewhere along the way things went way off the tracks. I’ve no doubt we’ve all met a feminist or two we didn’t like. I have. But was the problem their feminism or that maybe they just weren’t very nice people? Keep in mind, for example, that _____, a wonderful intelligent person I respect and admire, is a feminist (I make this assumption based on the 20+ years of conversations we’ve had). I assume we’re all friends of _____’s or we wouldn’t be on her Facebook wall. Does anyone truly believe their friend _____ blames her problems on men or indulges in “sheepish bashing”? Or enjoys how crazy this has gotten? If you are her friend, you know she doesn’t. Don’t let bad experiences with a “feminist” or two in the past colour your opinions of the kick ass feminist who shared this post in the first place. For my part, I’m out now before things start to get more nuts, though it’s been an interesting conversation.”

And foolish as I am I truly thought that might be it. I tried to be diplomatic. I didn’t single this guy out. I didn’t use his name or try to make the attacks personal, though I just wanted to scream, “Listen to yourself, you f**king misogynist!”. I thought, surely no rational twenty-something educated Canadian man would want to both insult his friend and appear misogynistic by continuing his kamikaze mission of crazy talk. But he DID:

ok, two last things and this can all roll under the bridge forver if u like ……
i. The handful of women i’m thinking of are lovely intelligent gorgeous human beings, consciously feminist. i personally find them adorable and fun. i see a part of their being is a terrible sadness. a fundamental radical source of negativity seems to be the undercurrent of their choices, shaping a life to be flighty transient and obscure. negating something very primary about the universe: wielding energy over objects is control. so going thru life rejecting this immutability of using masc. power-over, whilst simultaneously relying on others doing it for survival. Weird adolescence without end. seeing giant industry and going NOpe not real ZOOOOOOOoooom.

ii. (my cultural view) by being unable to accept power-over in any form, relationships suffer since the natural dance & ebb and flow of (u>me + me>u = meu) is stifled into oblivion. any decent man versed in feminist thought undeniably recognizes Woman possesses of her Being her own kind of creative power and nonrational wisdom distinct from his, but from which he may borrow. In union, let man go out face the world with his devices (fights for what’s his) and let woman freedom to apply & refine her creation, her genesis at home, in the private realm; or if she decides to leave it, it is her complete choice and not obligation for survival. (you decide what these entities are, ‘Woman’ ‘man’ maybe they are aspecst of your own self, yet this motif comes up again and again). If this basic concept of ‘home’ isn’t satisfied then it is replaced with a series of ugly public conventions, a myriad way of contending with REEEELING against the flow of dominion of men over nature.

I don’t respect this as multiculturalism. It’s simply degradation of the feminine in the name of misdirected freedom. good luck

I just. I just don’t know. I just don’t know what the hell this guy is talking about. I mean, he uses disclaimers like “you decide what these entities are ‘Woman’, ‘Man'”, etc. but hold the phone… “adorable”? The feminists he knows are adorable but have a terrible sadness (and this sadness is somehow feminism’s fault)? And women possess their own kind of “nonrational” wisdom? And that as a woman I am free to express myself in my home and in the private realm? (Or leave my home, if I choose, but don’t worry, he’s told me I’m not “obligated” to do so.)

I have never read anything more patronizing in my life. Like capitalizing the word “Being” just for us feminists (because you can’t be a feminist without also being New Age, apparently). Like admitting to our  “nonrational wisdom” but declaring “power-over” (whatever that is) to be a distinctly and irrevocably masculine power. Like kindly admitting women’s dominion over their homes and private lives, allowing them to enter public life, but assuring women they are not obligated to (assuming, I suppose, because their masculine counterpart is already out there, makin’ the bacon). The whole thing was like getting a huge “F U” wrapped in an ugly bow.

To really really give this clown the benefit of the doubt and say he’s using the words “Man” and “Woman” in symbolic rather than literal terms, I still find his argument sexist: to infer that the power which is public and shapes the world must always be a masculine power, and that the feminine power is wielded in the private realm. I don’t buy it. If I were to divvy up my own yin and yang, I would say it is actually my more stereotypically feminine qualities (my sociability, my rapport, my organization and attention to detail) that allow me to be very good at my job, to support myself, and to get what I want in my public life.

I did read and reread this guy’s comments, wondering if they truly are as sexist as I felt they were. And they are. I am also aware this kind of not-so-thinly veiled “philosophical” misogyny is not the same as committing violent acts against women, and that this guy probably has no idea, in his heart of hearts, that what he was saying makes him appear incredibly incredibly sexist.

Which is why it scares me so much. Just like when someone says, “I’m not racist, but…” before making a gross racial stereotype, a person who claims not to be sexist but simply rational (unlike, apparently, “nonrational” women) is the worst kind of sexist. It is hard to change their minds because they believe they are realists, rationalists, and it is feminists or people who agree with feminism that are crazy and out of touch. And it was all so casual, the way this person just lay these ideas out there as if he was having a drunken philosophical argument with a roommate with no real-world implications. As if all that matters is winning the argument, rather than the repercussions those arguments (as widely held beliefs) have on women, real women, in real life. As if there aren’t people out there, people less in control of their impulses, who come across these so-called “rational” arguments against feminism and use them to justify discrimination and violence.

The misogynists I have had the misfortune to encounter in my life (and not all through the screen of Facebook, unfortunately) all seemed to labour under the misconception that there is a finite amount of success/happiness in the world, and that women wanting to achieve success and happiness means that they want to take this success and happiness away from men. So I want to make something very VERY clear:

When I say I am a feminist, I am saying that I believe all people, regardless of gender, should have equal rights, equal worth, and equal regard in the eyes of the law, society, employment, and any institution or organization they are a part of.

When I, more specifically as a woman, say I am a feminist, I am saying that I believe I have the right to equal opportunity to go out into the world and try to get what I want. I don’t want to take something belonging to a man away from him. But if I want something out of my life, I believe I should have just as much opportunity to try for it as any man has had to achieve his dreams. Dude, I don’t want your dreams. I want mine. And I don’t want the biggest thing standing in my way to be the fact that I am a woman.

When I say I am a feminist, I am saying that I believe that gender-based violence is a hate crime. I am saying that the man who shot and killed fourteen women at the Montreal Ecole Polytechnique 23 years ago because he felt they did not belong in a place of higher education, committed a hate crime, and as Megan Leslie calls it, an act of “gender terrorism” designed to keep women out of traditionally male spheres of life.

And I am saying that gender-based hate crimes begin with attitudes. Begin, as Leslie says, with “casual misogyny”. Begin with the idea that feminism is a threat to men and to masculinity. Begin with the belief that women in the public sphere give men “nowhere to go.” Begin with the idea that there is something tragic, flawed, or simply unnatural about pursuing something outside of traditional gender roles. Begin with the idea that women and feminists are a fringe group, not representative of a large number of people possessing intelligence, practicality, and reason. Begin with the idea that it okay to tell me, a rational intelligent adult, what my “line of thinking” is, as if my deeply held beliefs are up for debate.

No gun kept further generations of Canadian women from going to university. Does anyone really think their high-flung philosophical misogynistic rhetoric is going to shake me?

But it does make me sad. Because it proves that we have so, so very far to go.