What I’ve learned in the last three hours of wrestling with this blog post and ultimately producing nothing I could use is that making a point effectively and concisely while maintaining and projecting empathy can be incredibly difficult.
Maybe this is part of the problem.
The troubles with internet culture are not new. From what I understand, Youtube has historically been a cesspit of bile and awfulness, which is why I never read any Youtube comments except when I’ve been unexpectedly hit by a train of stupid by my own brain. I’ve been aware of the death and rape threats routinely made via the internet for many years. And my corners of the internet have been quite troubled for the past several months, by Gamergate, by some controversy in the YA world that I speak about obliquely here and less obliquely here, by the Requires Hate reveal, and most recently by the Hugo award nomination fracas.
In short, the internet can be an ugly place to hang out. There is a cost associated with being here. There is a cost associated with being a thought leader and expressing your opinion here. It is a cost I have been aware of since I began this blog nearly five years ago.
A few friends of mine reached out to me after I published my piece on rocking the boat about #KeepYAKind. I listened to them carefully, and I’ve been thinking about what they said for the last few weeks. My main takeaway is, people are scared. People are scared to speak up. People are scared to share their opinions. People are afraid of the internet being dropped on their heads. People are afraid of the cost involved. They are afraid of the threats, the personal attacks, the harassment, the name-calling. And understandably so.
One of my friends told me, “Someday you’ll see this from the other side.” And it’s true, I know it can happen to me. Of course I’ve thought about it. Of course I’ve thought about what it will be like getting rape threats on the internet, because I’m a woman who sometimes talks about feminist issues, and no matter how careful I am, no matter how many times I read over each blog post and how thoroughly I consider my word choices, I will offend someone. And someday that someone might be a shitty person who thinks an appropriate way to respond is with a rape or death threat. And at some other point, I am bound to say something stupid. I’m sure I already have, and I’ll do it again. And the internet might fall on my head. It might be right about me, it might be wrong, but in that period of time, the rightness and wrongness will probably not be foremost in my mind.
I still disagree with the #KeepYAKind campaign. It showed an ignorance of the type of rhetoric and cultural training that have been used for decades to keep women quiet and “in their place” that I find quite troubling, especially given what it was in response to. And tactically, it was much more likely to silence the moderate and less privileged voices; the trolls weren’t going to be affected by it to anywhere near the same extent, if at all.
But I do agree that internet culture, and the harassment, bullying, and scare tactics that go along with it, are a huge problem, both for writers (my own tiny habitat in the pond) and for society in general. We can theorize about why internet culture is the way it is (the power of anonymity, the dehumanization and depersonalization of others that is perhaps an effect heightened by interaction over the internet, the attention economy, humanity’s history of only having to deal in relatively small social units, etc.). But all our theories will not change the reality.
Then we have Kameron Hurley’s recent inspirational piece about how the internet harassment she is subjected to is nothing compared to the difficulties faced by her grandmother in Nazi-occupied France. I will admit this gave me a severe case of mixed feelings. On the one hand, perspective is valuable, as is having the moxy to live loud on the internet and encourage others to do the same.
On the other hand, we’re looking at some problem comparing here. Of course internet harassment is not the same as living in Nazi-occupied France. But that doesn’t make the fear less real. That doesn’t mean anyone who is afraid or upset or angered by internet harassment should feel ashamed of those emotions. And shame is the danger that inevitably comes with problem comparing, even when such a comparison makes for a great rhetorical device.
Well, I am not ashamed. I’m a recovering people pleaser, for goodness sake. Of course I was afraid when I started this blog. If I hadn’t been afraid, I wouldn’t have needed any Backbone Project. I recognized the need for me to claim my voice in spite of the fear, and I’ve been working on that ever since. And I’m still afraid, sometimes. I still worry. It’s gotten a lot easier, but when I get the internet dropped on my head, I’m sure I’ll have a miserable time of it.
As a writer, I have to keep asking myself: Am I willing to pay the price for lifting my voice? Even when the price is stupidly high? Even if I’m terrified or creatively blocked or otherwise emotionally compromised by the experience? And if the answer becomes no, then so be it. There is no shame in that. Ultimately my own welfare and safety trumps everything else.
But so far, the answer is still yes. And I hope it will continue to be yes for a long time to come.