I recently participated in a Twitter exchange around Ashley Judd’s response to the abuse she has been receiving on Twitter. It was one of those Twitter convos that becomes increasingly difficult to follow and, as positions get more complex and nuanced, increasingly incompatible with Twitter as a communications medium. Since I had a lot of things I still wanted to say, I thought I’d say them here.
Basically, the position espoused by the others in the Twitter exchange on @AshleyJudd and online abuse I was in seems to be, in a nutshell:
—she started it (by saying the other team could ‘kiss her ass’)
—they’re not really threats (“bitch,” “whore,” “suck my dick,” etc. are not actual threats)
—it’s just Twitter, this sort of stuff happens all the time
—she’s too thin-skinned, if she can’t stand the heat she should get off Twitter
I would say in response:
—She talked generic trash to the world at large in the context of a college basketball game that had gotten rough, while the response attacked her personally and directly.
—The notion of “threat” used is too narrow; perhaps it would help to consider the word “intimidation.”
—Twitter and other online fora and social media have become significant sites in which a public sphere of political and social participation is enacted.—It’s not clear why one would trivialize Twitter, or draw what I assume is such a strong distinction between speech on Twitter and in public (IRL) (or perhaps on radio or in newspapers).
The final point is particularly troubling for slightly more subtle reasons: ‘she’s too thin-skinned, too sensitive.’
Or to put it another way: she needs to man up, grow a pair. Which is the point, really. I guess it wasn’t that subtle at all.
The vicious responses to women like Judd and Anita Sarkeesian (@anitasarkeesian) who dare to speak out in public, particularly on issues and in spheres that are deemed the proper province of men, represent attempts to silence them, drive them back into silence. Speaking more broadly, they are part of a sustained effort to keep women, people of color, LGBTQ, and so-called minorities in their place, and to perpetuate the existing structures of power and privilege.
To say, “I’m not a feminist” is in effect to oppose women’s equality and social and economic justice for women, and to support those existing structures of power and privilege. To call oneself a Social Justice Warrior (SJW) and then say you’re not a feminist is fundamentally incoherent, and in effect backs up the people who coined the SJW label as an easy Twitter pejorative, for feminists in particular.
It’s impossible to talk about attacks on women on Twitter without considering the #GamerGate issue. To not take sides in #GamerGate, as one person on Twitter said as part of this convo, because it’s “a Pandora’s box” seems disingenuous at best. Either one cares about #GamerGate or not. If you don’t care about it, then you are saying you don’t really care about the abuse, harassment, and threats hurtled at Sarkeesian and others. But at least you’ve made your position clear. I don’t respect it, but it’s clear. If you can’t be bothered taking any cognizance of the issue, then it is hard for me to understand why you would bother calling Judd to task. How does that set of priorities work?
However, if you do care about the issue, then unpacking what’s involved and taking a stance is the obvious, necessary thing to do. It can be scary, though. The level of intimidation and harassment to which #GamerGate figures such as Sarkeesian and Brianna Wu (@Spacekatgal) have been subjected is genuinely scary. It is intimidating. I’ve thought twice about posting on the issue in the past out of fear of having that malicious eye turned on me. But that’s the point. It silences not just Sarkeesian and Wu, but also others, who see what happened to them and are justifiably afraid of speaking up.
And that’s a key part of the situation with Judd that is overlooked in the position my co-conversationalists seem to be espousing. Yes, Judd can block people. One problem with that is that, as with Sarkeesian and Wu, it’s not just one person, or a couple of people. And even the people you block can just create new Twitter identities and keep coming after you. And, yes, Judd has a measure of safety that is afforded her by her wealth and status—and a greater ability to respond for the same reasons.
But more importantly, other women who want to speak out—women, people of color, LGBTQ—can see what happens to people like Sarkeesian, Wu, Judd, and others. And think… that’s too much, I couldn’t handle that. And be silenced, and marginalized. Driven back into the kitchen or the closet, out of the public sphere.
I think one useful way to think about the invective, insults, intimidation, harassment, and threats that these women have received is to liken it to SLAPP, “Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation.” Here’s how Wikipedia describes SLAPP:
A strategic lawsuit against public participation (SLAPP) is a lawsuit that is intended to censor, intimidate, and silence critics by burdening them with the cost of a legal defense until they abandon their criticism or opposition.
The typical SLAPP plaintiff does not normally expect to win the lawsuit. The plaintiff’s goals are accomplished if the defendant succumbs to fear, intimidation, mounting legal costs or simple exhaustion and abandons the criticism.
The response to Judd et. al. represents an instance of STAPP : Strategic Twitting against Public Participation. Women who speak out as feminists or on issues perceived as feminist are not the only people to be subjected to STAPP silencing tactics, but the overall low level of outrage in our society toward misogyny and the overall success of the campaign to vilify outspoken women as “feminazis,” PC crybabies and even SJWs (a label that progressives have been claiming, I think unwisely, for themselves) makes them relatively easy targets.
It’s a shame to see people who might in other situations identify with progressive causes participate in this process, even passively.
I haven’t even touched on why the highly sexualized and aggressively sexual nature of the responses to Judd is so problematic. It’s part of a spectrum that runs the gamut from minor things like calling a coworker “hon” and “babe” and “sweetheart” all the way up to rape. The gist of it is: women who don’t know their place risk being subject to sexual violence. Given Judd’s very public discussion of being the victim of rape and sexual violence, sexual intimidation has an even more potent charge in her case. Though clearly she is not intimidated and is more than capable of taking care of business. But since 14-20% of undergraduate women are raped in college, and many more outside, the reality of sexual violence is something all women have reason to fear, and all men have reason to fight. And we should not require all women to be as tough as Judd in order to participate in social discourse or public life.
Background, Context, More Reading
Forget Your Team: Your Online Violence Toward Girls and Women Is What Can Kiss My Ass – Mic (Ashley Judd’s principal response)
Mansplaining and Sealioning: Online Harassment Lexicon – Flavorwire.
Cybersexism: Sex, Gender and Power on the Internet—Laurie PennyEnlisting in Ashley Judd’s war on Twitter trolls
Ashley Judd in DC: I’m a Three-Time Rape Survivor | Mother Jones.
Ashley Judd – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Harassed on Twitter? Here’s How Ashley Judd and Others Are Fighting Back | Inc.com
Ashley Judd responds to continued Twitter trolling | The Dagger – Yahoo Sports.
Ashley Judd Suffers Renewed Backlash for Stance on Social Media Abuse: Read the Messages – Hollywood Reporter.
Nearly 1 in 5 Women in U.S. Survey Report Sexual Assault – NYTimes.com (2011)
The Campus Sexual Assault (CSA) Study – NCJRS (2007)
Backlash: The Undeclared War Against American Women