What lies behind online misogyny?

UPDATE As I am not acutely familiar with WordPress guidelines and terms of use, and because I am aware that the concept of objective reportage might not be widely accepted, I’ve chosen to censor this post. I do, however, stand by the fact that I believe it is appropriate to include the word in a discussion like this uncensored.

Tonight I finally ‘got’ Twitter. It started with @Glinner posting about chivalry, which led to me being gripped by reading the #feministwishlist created (I think) by @giagia. I got very involved responding to the male tweets which I felt were attacking the positive posters.

Probably too involved, but what fascinated me was the reactions. Regularly, I was told that I was taking things too seriously, that these male tweeters just enjoyed winding up feminists, that I was a cunt, a dick or an idiot.

My favourite was someone proudly tweeting that their friend was “winding up moustachioed feminists in aid of Movember”. I suggested that I thought Movember wouldn’t appreciate being associated with women-bating for fun. We called each other idiots. It ended there.

Some clearly enjoyed winding me up, and I’ve got to admit by this stage I was pretty open to being goaded. But I persevered with some, effectively ending up just talking to guys who thought it would be funny to say something intentionally sexist or misogynist.

I don’t think these guys are the root of the issue, but they illustrate how incredibly normalised it has become to spout outwardly ‘ironic’ misogynist views for the purposes of getting a laugh. Leaving most people calling them to task as ‘humourless’.

One poster pushed me to thinking about why I was responding, to which I then replied that I didn’t feel his words should stand uncontested, and that he was making a fool of himself. But, no, I was the fool for ever believing that he was being serious in what he said.

So why say it, if you’re not serious? His reply was to suggest I was telling him he couldn’t post what he liked. Which is where we, inevitably, got to free speech.

I believe that you should read your Spider-Man. With great power comes great responsibility. Free speech is one of the most powerful gifts we have from society (and it is society which holds free speech as an accepted human right). But that doesn’t actually mean we can just say what we like.

Free speech is not about being freed from the responsibility to answer for what you say. Free speech is about saying whatever you want, aware that the payback is the responsibility for what you say. Play the free speech card and you *must* be willing to stand by what you have said.

“I’m not fussed if they are offended though. That’s their issue not mine.”

That’s not what I mean. Whether you care about whether anyone is offended or not is irrelevant. Actually, I do believe that we are responsible for our own taking of offence. But if you say something, and someone *is* offended by that, you must at least respect their right to feel that way and to respond by holding you up to what you have said, and judging you by it.

That is your pact with free speech. You are what you say.

A week or so ago, @Herring1967 (Richard Herring) got involved in a spectacular spat with fans of Ricky Gervais over Ricky Gervais’ use of the word ‘mong’. Mong is an offensive term. It comes from, as everyone knows, mongoloid and Mongol. That might not be what you are inferring when you use the word, but it is unavoidably connected with that root meaning.

And that root meaning is a derogatory term for, in my experience, people with Down’s Syndrome. In the end, it does not matter really that what someone “meant” was to say stupid, what they said was mong, and I find it hard to believe they were not aware of the root meaning. After all, without the root meaning, their insult would have no weight.

The fact that they used a word which had a very definite meaning in the cultural-consciousness was something they could not accept. What mattered to them was what they ‘meant’ by it, not what you or I ‘understood’ by what they said. But that is the responsibility of using words, you must accept that other people’s act of response is valid, whether you feel their actual response is valid or not.

How I think this connects to general, normalised misogyny is in the ‘just a joke’ or ‘that’s not what I meant’ defence of the people using the word mong. If someone does hold you to what you say, judges you by it, and asks you to justify your decision to say it, you have to think.

Not only do you have to think about what you have said, you have to consider what you were attempting to say. And, finally, you have to think about how you really feel about what you said, and how close it is to your own inner truth. Many people are not practiced at this sort of critical self-awareness. It scares them, because they feel vulnerable. So they lash out.

When a woman posts online that she thinks men perhaps should, please, be considerate and stop sending her emails about how much they feel she should be raped, it is not an act of censorship, of shutting down anything you want to say or of denying you the right to say what you want.

She is simply, reasonably asking that people who write such ugly words ought to be made accountable. Because, I believe, if you make an ugly mind accountable you begin to make them understand that they must self-edit, that they must be aware of the consequences of their words. Because, for fucks’ sake, all of us normal people are like this as often as we can be.

When I was at school I called a classmate who had hurt me a fat n*****. I was young, but I am still deeply ashamed of what I did. What I said was wrong, it was abusive, racist, unacceptable. I answered for it, internally and through outer judgement, and I wish I had not said those ugly words.

Why did I say it? Because I wanted to hurt the boy and in my humiliation I reached for the easiest, the nastiest and the ugliest thing to hand. I was utterly aware of the impact my words would have. I have no excuse. I am just ashamed.

But having no excuse is a distressing position to be in. Being called to account for something terrible that you said or did in a moment where your judgement failed you or your inner editor missed a beat is excessively upsetting. But I didn’t mean it! I didn’t mean it like that!

These situations demand that you are self-aware, that you take responsibility for your actions, that you accept that you are the one holding the reins of your willpower and that if it breaks then you are the one who is ultimately to blame. No one made me use those ugly words. I said them.

So when a woman says something which forces men (boys?) to self-evaluate, to question themselves about whether it is funny to belittle women, to actually have to think about what they actually think rather than simply repeat the familiar and normalised views they have been steeped in for most of their lives, they are in a wholly uncomfortable position which they are not familiar with. And it scares them.

Probably they wouldn’t associate it with ‘fear’. And yet it is fear. But not fear of the woman, or of the things she says or wants or of the implications of those things. It is fear of themselves, fear of having to undergo the incredible strain of understanding oneself, fear of challenging not just their own externally implanted and reinforced opinions but the opinions of their friends, of their workmates, of their own families.

Even just writing about the ugly thing I chose to say has upset me deeply. But I benefit from an inner understanding won through years of self-doubt, self-questioning and self-examination. I have spent the last fifteen years or more coming to terms with and accepting responsibility for actions that have burdened me with terrific guilt and self-loathing.

Through writing, love and being listened to I have been able to forgive myself, and in doing so, to entirely inhabit my own self. This has compelled me to seek out challenging viewpoints and to constantly re-examine and subsequently express myself in response to the expression of others.

I realise I am evangelical on this. I am a born-again thinker, and I want for everyone what I have found for myself, especially men. Because times are hard for men. But not in the way that these men would like to believe.

About Ben Catley-Richardson

Writer, reader, husband. Father!
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