“You do realise it’s a crime just to be a woman on some parts of the Internet?” was what someone said to me after I wrote a piece last week about what anonymity on the net is doing to our sense of ethics. She went on to point me to this recent story about a woman with an idea who gets attacked in the most horrible way by men on the Internet – and then pointed that this sort of thing was far from an isolated incident.
So a few weeks ago Anita Sarkeesian came up with an idea to take a look at the way women are depicted in computer games. She started a Kickstarter project to get funding to produce the work and put up a video on YouTube to explain what she was trying to do. Now it doesn’t really matter what you or I may think of the quality of her work or the idea – nothing could possibly justify the response she got. Graphic threats of rape and violence, wishes that she should contract cancer, steaming piles of foul invective. I felt sullied just having read through the comments; I cannot imagine what it must be like to live through having that sort of hate directed at you. And all, fundamentally, for the crime of going on the Internet and being a woman with an idea.
Which begs the question: who on earth are the men who are willing to do this sort of thing while hiding pathetically behind the cloak of anonymity? Would they talk to their wives, mothers, daughters like this? Would others stand by and do nothing while they did so? What is going on here?
One option is that there are smatterings of men who do in fact act like this in real life. They do treat the females in their lives awfully – presumably to the backing track of banjos duelling. The Internet is a big place and so suddenly they find themselves in a position to discover like-minded individuals, form a pack, and fight their feelings of powerlessness in the modern world by attacking a woman. Another option is one that I really dislike: That there are in fact many men out there who think like this, but it only comes out when they have the anonymous opportunity to let their inner misogynist run free.
Honestly, I’m not sure how to explain it other than that anonymity breeds contempt for even the most basic ethical behaviour.
How much lower do you get than threatening someone with rape or wishing they get cancer? The element which sets the experience for women apart from general Internet ‘trolling’ is that it is sexual. There’s a horrible underlying sense that the men involved are getting some gratification out of the invective they are spewing. It is this that makes the attacks on women different to what can be seen when, for example, someone mentions Apple in a technical arena and the fan-boys and haters come out of the woodwork. Apple fans vs the world can be ugly - but it’s less generally personal and certainly less sexual.
At one level this is just the big scary world we now live in: do something public on the Internet and you come in contact with a more diverse group of people that you might in the real world. But surely there have to be lines somewhere that say ‘this is not acceptable’ no matter where it is taking place?
I don’t know how you draw the line; I don’t know how you manage it. But I do believe a line is needed. Largely because what is being done is just plain wrong and we need to do something about it.
We need to stand up and say something. We need to remove the cloak of anonymity from these people. We need bring up our children to recognise that IT DOESN’T MATTER IF NO ONE KNOWS IT IS YOU. It’s wrong, no matter who’s watching.
I can try to teach my boys that it is vile to act like the people who attacked Anita Sarkeesian. Partly because if I had a daughter I would be horrified to see her treated like that; but largely because I’d be even even more horrified to think that she could be scared into silence by such actions.