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megpie71

October 2014

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Friday, September 20th, 2013 08:23 am
Julian Burnside writes a very interesting response to the problem of hate mail and the sorts of vicious comments which are made to people who stand up for causes in public in The Conversation today.

His response was (to put it bluntly) fascinating. He chose to engage with those people who sent him hate mail over the asylum seeker issue, treating them as reasonable individuals, seeking to find out why they felt as they did. Oddly enough, by treating these people as though they were reasonable individuals, he discovered the vast majority of them were reasonable individuals, able to engage in civil discourse, and discuss a position calmly and in a considered fashion.

Which is great, but before people go around recommending that (particularly) women who are harassed and abused and trolled on the internet make efforts to discuss things civilly with their tormentors in an effort to bring them back to the path of light and reasonableness and politeness, let's just consider a few extraneous factors in the case. Firstly, Mr Burnside is male. He's white. He's a lawyer who is well-enough off to be able to afford to perform copious amounts of pro-bono work. All of these things mean he has privilege in our society. He is, in fact, extraordinarily privileged, with a high amount of social status.

All of this means if Mr Burnside goes to the police with, for example, a collection of abusive emails all emanating from the same email account, he's going to get a different reception than I did when I tried it. He's going to be treated with a lot more respect if he brings a screenshot of a tweeted death threat than, for example, Caroline Criado-Perez was when she brought the torrent of abuse she was handed to the attention of police. He'll get a more concerned and sympathetic reaction to someone publishing his address and other personal details online than, for example, Kathy Sierra did. If he's assaulted physically, the police will take this much more seriously than an assault on someone who is, for example, indigenous Australian.

Plus, of course, any abusive communications Mr Burnside receives are coming at him from a different angle to the ones received by women like me.

The abusive emails and letters Mr Burnside receives are examples of what I'd call "shouting up" - shouting up at the windows of the privileged from the street. The primary goal is to be heard, and to be taken seriously. A white man who sends an abusive email to Mr Burnside is hoping to catch Mr Burnside's ear, to be heard. When Mr Burnside does listen, and does engage with them, they're polite - they've achieved their aim, which is to begin a discussion.

By contrast, people who are identified as women, or people of colour online are abused for an entirely different set of reasons. Generally, this abuse is what could be termed "shouting down" - an attempt to silence the persons speaking up against the power dynamic in our society. A white man who sends an abusive email to a woman, or a person of colour, will generally react with rage and escalated abuse if they respond by attempting to engage, because this is precisely contrary to the intent of their action. They don't want to talk to us. They don't want to even HEAR us. They want us to shut up and go away and stay shut up, and stay away - and they'll keep up the torrent of abuse and harassment until the point sinks in.

Or, to put it even more bluntly: Mr Burnside receives abusive email when he speaks up on disputed topics. Women and people of colour receive abusive email when they speak.

So Mr Burnside's solution to the troll problem, while fascinating in its particular context, is not scalable to deal with the larger issue.
(Anonymous)
Friday, September 20th, 2013 12:54 pm (UTC)
Just came upon your corner of the internet. I like your work. It's intelligent and thoughtful and I don't wonder someone as thoughtful about social justice and power structures gets depressed sometimes. Hang in there. Get some distance where you can and - I'm assuming you are quite young? - it gets easier with age, coping with all the thinking, expressing and caring, empowering even. And hey, we're all a little dark with this change in political landscape.
All the best.
L.