Freelance writer from Cornwall
With the current Laurie Penny Twiterstorm and general online harassment in mind, it’s entirely fair to say that there’s a great deal of it and it’s certainly directed at women on a regular basis. If you’re female, hold strong opinions and are prepared to stick your head out of the trench and express them, sooner or later you’ll be considered fair game for the web’s resident undesirables. That is simply not in question.
Nor is it justifiable. Making threats, delivering insults for the sake of insults, making comments with no content worth considering or the sole intention of being vicious are common coin online and it’s unacceptable behaviour. The chief problem being that the web easily lends itself to bullies and stalkers who feel safe hiding behind a screen and a username. Being anonymous can be perfect if you’re unpleasantly-minded. You can insult, harass, stalk and abuse anybody and everybody that takes your fancy, safe in the knowledge that you’re highly unlikely to be called to account.
That such harassment exists is unquestionable. That it’s also entirely unacceptable is unquestionable. That not enough is done about it is unquestionable.
That said, there’s a huge difference between vile online abuse and expressing honest opinion while trying to stimulate open debate. There’s a dividing line between insulting somebody and simply saying something they don’t want to hear. Posing inconvenient questions and expressing differing views don’t constitute major personal and/or social defects on the part of those involved.
Therein lies the problem at the heart of the current fracas (the latest of many) involving the online presence of one Laurie Penny. That she (and many others) regularly receive insults, abuse and harassment ranging from mildly offensive to grossly obscene isn’t in doubt. For those who aren’t sure about that it’s not hard to go online and find it, either. There’s enough to go round. She does attract a lot of that kind of unacceptable behaviour and it’s indefensible. But she and quite a few of her admirers have also been known to interpret any and all opposing views and inconvenient questions as being misogynistic attacks, bullying and harassment. If they block you on Twitter because you made a deliberately-offensive, cruel or threatening remark then good, I would as well.
Leaving the obvious vileness aside, though, at different times questions have been raised about her veracity (the Ryan Gosling episode), her professional ethics (interaction with a person threatening suicide and possibly ignoring professional advice thereon), her motives (is she a committed political animal or a careerist simply doing the ‘rebel sell’?) and her attitude towards criticism of any kind, no matter how politely it might be expressed or constructively-intended. When the difference between honest opinion and debate and actual harassment is raised (I’ve raised it myself) it wouldn’t be unknown for those raising it to be instantly and repeatedly accused of being a misogynist (I was). To try and raise fair points or pose inconvenient questions and be met with blanket accusations of misogyny isn’t just frustrating and insulting, it’s also fundamentally dishonest, snide and hypocritical.
Holding different or opposing views doesn’t make you a bad person. Asking difficult or inconvenient questions doesn’t either. Nor is pointing out the difference between those things and cyber-stalking being a bully or stalker or otherwise deficient human being. If you do it civilly and politely and read it back before you hit the ‘Send’ button then you’re not doing anything wrong. If you express yourself bluntly, or satirically, or sarcastically then you’d be very, very well advised to go away, think about exactly what you’ve said and then perhaps tone it down before you hit the ‘Send’ button. You’re not a bad, deficient person for doing that, either. It wouldn’t at all be a bad idea.
Adopting the attitude that any and every dissenting view, snarky comment or inconvenient question is a personal attack levelled by a moral delinquent, on the other hand, IS a very bad idea. It avoids actually engaging with people when they say something worth engaging with. It avoids having to answer difficult questions. It’s both frustrating and insulting to people who want to engage meaningfully. It’s hypocrisy to complain about people trying to silence you if you respond to critics by insulting them with accusations of misogyny or try intimidating them into giving ground they should stand and hold, but won’t because they’re afraid of risking further accusations and of being misrepresented as something they’re not.
A couple of days ago Laurie Penny tweeted in solidarity with the protests over the ongoing Palestine crisis, while stating that she wasn’t going to attend personally because of the heat. She caught hell for it. Vileness aside (sadly, there was plenty of it) the point was raised about her urging people to attend an event she had no intention of actually being at. Having left my former home at 7am for five-hour coach rides to London demonstrations, spent six hours or so on the marches themselves and then another six hours on a coach before finally getting home (and having done so far more often than I can actually remember) it didn’t inspire a lot of warm feelings in me, either. Just log into Twitter and search for ‘pennyred’ and it’s there to be read and assessed for yourself. Form your own opinions, that’s what a free society is for.
The other suggestion was rather more serious in nature. Laurie Penny currently has a new book on sale and has lately been promoting it far and wide. Nothing wrong with that, scribblers do it all the time. The suggestion, though, was that she was using the Palestine crisis as a means to increase her profile and also her book sales, especially when in a rather dismissive tweet she stated that her online bullies weren’t going to stop her from spending the day writing ‘epic articles.’ Which does seem a little odd for someone who’d already tweeted they weren’t well enough to do very much that day.
That led into another question. Why would a self-professed left-wing firebrand be marketing said book via Amazon, Amazon not having the best reputation for paying any more tax than they absolutely have to, for giving their employees the most enjoyable working environment and being seen by many as the Evil Empire of the publishing and book marketing business.
Questions that, so far, remain unanswered.
Cue an epic Twitterstorm. The bullies were bullying, the moderates were trying to glean something vaguely substantial from the experience and her admirers seemed to circle their wagons, often asserting collective misogyny on the part of anybody and everybody not agreeing with them.
What did most to fan the flames was the brief return of Laurie Penny herself. Complaining bitterly (and quite possibly correctly) that certain Twitter users were mounting an organised campaign to flood her Amazon page with bad reviews and sabotage her latest product she then left on her website a blatant sales pitch. Urging people to buy her book and flood the Amazon page with positive reviews to counter the negative ones in an effort to defeat the misogynists. That sales pitch can be viewed here:
This came across as blindingly clumsy and at worst opportunistic and mercenary. That is NOT to say that this was some deliberately-provoked and pre-planned marketing stunt, but it could easily be viewed as using the very serious issue of online harassment and cyberstalking simply as a means to generate publicity, sell her product and boost her bank balance. Which, were ot proved to be the case, would be a pretty contemptible, utterly mercenary way to make a living.
It’s highly contradictory to decry the undoubted vileness of online harassment while also using it to deliver an explicit sales pitch. Would anybody take a peace campaigner seriously if they drew a monthly share dividend from Vickers or Lockheed? If a disability rights campaigner banged their drum (I am disabled, by the way) while holding shares in ATOS would people think that was a credible or consistent position? Does the Pope invest Vatican funds in contraceptive companies while publicly decrying the sin of birth control?
I shouldn’t think so, no.
Publicly opposing a social evil while also using it as a revenue-raiser isn’t a circle that can be easily squared.
Complaining about attempts to silence your voice while either ignoring genuine critics or blasting them with blanket accusations of misogyny isn’t easily-squared, either.
Professing to be some left-wing firebrand, a latter-day La Passionara and selling yourself as the voice of a disaffected generation while marketing your wares through a company that avoids paying more tax than it absolutely has to (costing the public purse a vast amount in lost revenue), for not being overly tolerant of competition (it wouldn’t be the first time Amazon have faced lawsuits over business practices) and are generally regarded as being arch capitalists even by the standards of other arch capitalists is somewhat difficult to make sense of as well, come to think about it.
Asking difficult questions, posing inconvenient points and expressing differing or opposing views is NOT misogyny in and of itself. Up to a point, doing so bluntly, sarcastically or satirically shouldn’t be taken as though it is, either. These, in themselves, are not questionable practices.
But are ignoring your critics when you can critics, issuing blanket accusations of misogyny at those you feel obliged to notice, ignoring inconvenient points, refusing to answer difficult questions, ignoring the very obvious contradictions of your own behaviour and using tragic events in world affairs to sell your product exempt from any kind of scrutiny? Are they questionable practices?
And it remains to be seen whether those employing them will be prepared to debate that.