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To Cure "Cyberbullying" We Need to Go To the Roots Of The Hatred

Since the Kathy Sierra incident earlier this week, I've been thinking about "cyberbullying." I joined Andy Carvin's Ning network. I've been reading blog posts and articles and thinking about codes of conduct and what needs to be done to stop the kind of hate-filled online attacks that Kathy has experienced. I've also been wondering what I want to say about all of this to support "Stop Cyberbullying Day."

As I think about all of these issues, I keep coming back to this. I believe that there's something far deeper at work in what happened to Kathy that will not be solved by teaching people about how to be safe online or by establishing some kind of blogger code of conduct, although both are fine ideas. What is happening online is just an extension of what's happening in our society, where despite the so-called "success" of the women's movement, women can still expect to be ridiculed, harassed, and threatened in every aspect of their lives where they fail to conform to male expectations. They can assume that no matter how successful they are, someone will still bring it back to how they look or what they wear. It's a world where standing up for yourself as a woman is to invite even more threats.

This isn't about "cyberbullies." It's about, at the very least, rampant sexism. And on the worst end of things, it's about misogyny. To call it anything else in my mind is to make it less than what it is. It also sidetracks the conversation into fearmongering about the Web, rather than focusing on the fact that the Web is just an extension of the way that women are treated in all parts of society.  It's also about the slippery slope that we've been on where we tolerate a lot of on (and off) line behavior that ultimately leads us to what Kathy has been experiencing. It's only when it reaches clearly egregious levels, such as what happened to Kathy, that people decide to step in. And even there, it seems to me that the supportive reactions to Kathy's situation are a result of the fact that she expressed fear, conforming to cultural expectations of women as victims, rather than expressing her disgust as pure anger, as most men would likely do when faced with the same situation. 

In my mind, what goes on in cyberspace reflects what goes on in "real life." Take this Ning demo video posted on TechCrunch featuring CEO Gina Bianchini. Scroll down to the comments where you can see one guy after another posting not about Ning or the content of Gina's video (although some do), but about how "hot" Gina is. "David" even goes so far as to say,"That is one sexy CEO/Demo….She can Ning me anytime!!" One person in the thread does speak up ("What’s up with all of these falsely flattering sexist comments?"), but most just let it roll or actively contribute to what's being said. This is exactly the sort of thing that goes on in real life (I defy you to find a woman who hasn't been on the receiving end of something like this).  And it's a slippery slope that once tolerated leads us into darker territory, as Michelle Malkin describes here. (Although I hate her politics, I also think she's on the money in this particular rant, particularly in her description of what has been tolerated for years on the Net.)

Sexism and misogyny are everywhere, so we shouldn't be surprised to find them online. Back in Skinny Jeans points to the media landscape that feeds sexualized violence against women. And Violet Blue of SF Gate writes disturbingly of "When a Man Hates a Woman":

Ask any three women who publish online if they're ever been stalked, sexually threatened or threatened with violence on other blogs or in comments. I don't need to bet money to know you'll get a yes from one of those women. Too busy to ask anyone? That's OK, I'll raise my hand for all three.

Imagine being a girl and working really hard to earn the reputation of a respected voice in the world of tech journalism and blogging -- a world populated by disproportionately more men than women -- and to find yourself the target object of a hate-filled Web site. The tone and content of the hate site centers around sexually threatening you, suggesting ways you could be killed and have your corpse defiled, stating that you are a "slut" and that your gender is also in question. Your straight male colleagues don't have this problem.

Then the person running the hate site blogs about every word you say, every time you make a post or publish an article. And targets your friends. And posts the names of your family and Google satellite maps of your family's homes. They deface your Wikipedia page at every opportunity, with sexual slurs, objectifying you at every possible chance. It's enough to make a girl choose not to be a tech journalist.

The point I want to make today is this. I'm all for stopping what happened to Kathy Sierra from happening to anyone else. But I think that we will only stop it when we address it at its roots and we start having a conversation about what makes people (mostly men) react in this way to powerful, high profile women--or women at all.

What happened to Kathy is a symptom of a disease and like most diseases, addressing the symptoms will not cure the illness. The people who peddle this hatred will not be bound by blogger codes or being forced to reveal their "true" identities. We've seen that with sexual harassment in the workplace which has not been eliminated by laws and policies, but has just been pushed underground where it is more insidious then ever, and in some ways even more damaging. To stop cyberbullying of this type, we need to stop what motivates it in the first place--a fundamental and culturally acceptable disrespect for women that pervades every aspect of our society. Until we address that, we're just playing at the margins.

P.S.--This kind of online hatred isn't just reserved for women. Minorities are victims, too. Why doesn't anyone speak up when message board threads like this one descend into some of the most vile and ugly racism I've ever seen? (I'm only linking to give you an idea of what gets said online). I actually complained about this to the site owners and to the radio show that the site is supporting. I received email back telling me it wasn't their problem.  They didn't express outrage at what had been posted, nor did they see any reason to remove the offending threads. My husband, who is Black, (I'm white), told me to just leave it alone.  He accepts that this is routinely said about members of his race, especially Black men. I find this horrifying. And again, I don't believe that "rules" are going to solve the problem.

Comments

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I completely agree that the solution isn't just teaching people how to be safer online and how to deal with cyberbullies, stalkers, trolls, and the like. This will only treat the symptoms... but not the root of the illness.

Thanks, Stuart--I think what disgusts me the most is that we accept so much of this behavior as a given. It's the way it is and it isn't until we get something like what was done to Kathy that people start to get all up in arms about it. I wish we were more vigilant about sexism and racism in all its forms (including white and male privilege) so that we could start to really do something about the root causes.

I agree with you on all of your points. At the same time, the internet shouldn't be a fertile breeding ground resplendent with anonymity and anarchy either.

If what trolls did online didn't matter, they wouldn't be a problem. But they do matter, whether aiming their venom at race, gender, personality, sexual orientation, or political bent.

And that is at the heart of the matter. How to minimize the troll noise without quashing free speech.

THANK YOU. This is so very dead on the money.

Though I will say it angers me when some people that don't do this advocate for 'free speech' in this context - when in fact 'free speech' was not about saying slanderous things about individuals based on external characterics - it was about politics.

Anonymity for instance as a long history as a protection for politcal POVs that would get people jailed by the powers that be - because they were TRUE not false. That is the basis of the protection - not guys god given RIGHTS to be cowardly miserable sacks of skin - to say what they would never say to their mother sister, wives or friends to their face.

Sadly, I think it's mostly boys not men...but I think all the men should go home and talk to their boys about this.

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