Flickr/Johan Larsson. Some rights reserved.
To behold the British print and broadcast media discuss blogs, social media and digital communications can be excruciating and transfixing in equal measure. At times it feels as if one is watching a gibbering, undead cadaver speaking on the impotence of a mischievous and unruly child; its inexpert venom generated by fear, its sense of superiority born of little else than the narcissism of an ever fading reflection. Just as we are now told that the statues of antiquity were once covered in the most vibrant colours, so too will subsequent generations be told of pluralistic, well written and commercially successful newspapers. A certain unease may be the response; how is colour possible upon such dead and lifeless marble? How were these anything other than ruins for a distant future to gaze upon? Perhaps we are already there.
Over the last few days the cadaver has focused on an issue which it all too frequently ignores; misogyny and violence towards women. Such focus has, rather than take aim at the actual phenomena of sexism and misogyny, decided instead to isolate the communications channels through which particular manifestations have been mediated. In the recent cases of Stella Creasy MP and Caroline Criado-Perez this has been the social media site ‘Twitter’.
The design principles of Twitter are somewhat dissimilar to those of the printed press and broadcast television. While it can be used as a broadcast media it is most commonly employed as a distributed network that erodes readily identifiable distinctions between news and conversation; friends, experts and those with whom we enjoy shared interests. It is a place which, as is a general feature of digital communications within the network society, dissolves binaries like work and leisure, public and private. In short it is very different to those media, primarily newsprint, which facilitated the rise of the deliberative ‘public sphere’ of the modern period which itself possessed fixed and far less permeable notions of public and private discussion and selfhood. The fixity of this previously dominant binary still informs the self-identity of media in both print and broadcast and it is this tension, between incumbent media actors and emerging social practice, which is so glaring in any discussion they deem worthy on the matter.
It’s not the communication channel, stupid
One thing that digital communications channels do is reduce the costs of engaging in certain kinds of action, both collective and otherwise. It is clearly much easier and with fewer attendant consequences for one to denigrate another, for whatever reason, on Twitter, Facebook or in a chatroom than in a face-to-face situation. Natural inhibitions may be cast aside, shyness is lost, and a certain candour is almost always gained. Such candour can frequently be a very good thing, such as when people feel free to talk about issues of personal bereavement, anxiety and suffering. Individuals can, without trepidation, begin to discuss topics that offline would be simply impossible - sexuality, mental health, race, their hopes and fears, their innermost anxieties about the world that surrounds them. In this process a very real tension emerges between ‘the real world’ and the conversations we have online. New possibilities emerge, as do new conceptions of who we are and who we could be. It is my opinion that these possibilities, these conceptions, and this re-imagining of ourselves in relation to the other spills over into our offline practices and interactions.
By way of example my first engagement with the idea of intersectional feminism was through Twitter and by engaging with a very diverse set of people, many of whom are not in academia. Given I am a PhD student this is instructive because, according to certain columnists, intersectional feminism is in fact the exclusive preserve of ‘PhD students’. As with so much analysis from such quarters this is course complete nonsense, a janus of bias confirmation and wilful misunderstanding.
These digital fora can be regarded as liminal spaces where ‘normal’ discourses and their flows are interrupted and not reproduced in an identical fashion to the mainstream media. That is not to say such experiences are wholly positive. I recall watching the #Dalefarm hashtag unfold on the day of the eviction of the traveller site in Essex and I found the levels of hatred and bilious venom genuinely shocking. There were calls for genocide, infanticide and sexual sterilisation. This was not trolling, this was racism and xenophobia of the most intense and despicable kind. To compound this the later performance of Jeremy Paxman on Newsnight discussing the day’s events made perfectly clear the levels of violence the traveller community is subjected to in this country, from top to bottom.
As with Dale Farm however so too with the cases of Caroline Criado-Perez and Stella Creasy (and these are only two prominent cases of what is a ubiquitous problem). The problem was not the communication channel, be it Twitter, Facebook or comment threads on online articles or video content on Youtube; it was xenophobia and racism. It was the exact cause, the exact same sentiments that were behind the murder of as many as 1.5 million Roma during the Holocaust. The internet did not catalyse these sentiments; what it did permit however was for what would remain otherwise private utterances to become public ones. This is a changed communicative reality, the costs of engaging in multi-direction channels of communication have been massively reduced and what would have previously required huge capital requirements now merely requires a computer and a broadband connection.
The ubiquity of violence towards women and minorities
We need to be honest about a few things. Hatred and violence towards women and minorities is prevalent throughout society. I have been guilty of it, as I believe has probably every man I have ever met. Recent and insufficiently highlighted cases of this include online attacks towards this year’s winner of Wimbledon and a young woman who started a feminist society at her school. These are just two examples of how insidious, how deep and how wide this problem really goes. The fact that Caroline Criado-Perez merely wanted a woman’s face to appear on the front of a banknote and was subsequently subjected to vile abuse and rape threats speaks volumes. While the media attempts to create specific subjects responsible for this (which are themselves frequently composed of racially subaltern groups such as ‘Muslim grooming gangs’) sexual violence and harassment is a feature of societies across the globe.
According to an NSPCC study in 2009 a third of girls between 13 and 18 have experienced sexual violence with as many as 250,000 teenage girls suffering from abuse at any one time. One survey undertaken by Sky in 2010 found that almost 1 in 4 men claimed that it wasn't rape even if a woman had said "no" at the beginning of a sexual encounter. In the same survey a further 1 in 4 claimed they would try to have sex with someone they knew was unwilling. If men are honest with themselves, we know these numbers are probably far higher. Elsewhere the scale of gendered infanticide/ femicide, particularly in India, is horrifying and according to a 2005 report by the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) up to 50 million female foetuses have been aborted as a result of systematic sex discrimination. Contentious events in India last year in response to the gang rape of a 23 year old woman in Delhi were a response to a climate of gender oppression whose scale is almost impossible to describe. In the United States a report published in 2005 by George Mason University claimed that 1 in 3 women in America will be sexually assaulted during their lifetime.
Linda Stupart recently wrote with a mix of passion, anger and precision about ‘Max and Montle’ and their joking about ‘corrective rape’ (the former, Max Barashenkov, even wrote this article about ‘Eco friendly Paedophilia’ in Vice magazine). What Linda touched upon was something that runs through a great deal of ‘acceptable’ media content, from ‘Lads Mags’ to page 3 in the Sun to sexualised images throughout the Daily Mail.
Racist and sexist violence is far more common in the UK than the mainstream media is willing to discuss and public policy initiatives like equality of pay in the boardroom is a bizarre response to a problem that primarily exists, as it always has, at the level of private interaction and personal attitudes. What the internet and sites such as Twitter do is simply make such attitudes more transparent, particularly to those such as myself (a relatively privileged male) who aren’t subjected to these kinds of events on a regular basis. The fact that those such as Jon Snow think this is unique to Twitter shows their illiteracy in the history of digital communications and the presence of similar behaviours in not only chatrooms but other media such as SMS messaging. The ability to say the most violent and degrading things now comes with lower costs attached both punitively and socially. No one can slap you on the other end of a fibre optic cable. What is more most women most of the time are subjected to misogyny offline and because they are women, not because they are journalists or prominent feminist campaigners.
Julie Burchill's disgusting transphobic piece in the Observer a few months ago, shortly thereafter republished in the Telegraph by Toby Young, is a shining example of how broadcast media, even as it is conflicts with newer forms of communication, produces sentiments as equally violent as those now under such scrutiny on Twitter. What is more its far larger audience and the inability of those subject to attack to respond, make it far more dangerous.
It is now a matter of historical record that during the course of the twentieth and early twenty-first centuries the broadcast media model facilitated genocide, war, mass rape and racial hatred as well as seeking to legitimize imperialism and barbarities of the most grotesque kinds to primarily Western publics. It was broadcast media which permitted the propaganda-model in contexts as economically and culturally distinct as Sri Lanka in the early 1980s (anti-Tamil riots), Nazi Germany and anti-Tutsi genocide in 1990s Rwanda. These are just a few examples among thousands that one might choose to offer. The idea that this broadcast model is morally superior to newer, disintermediated models of digital communication is spurious to say the least. What is more, the broadcast model fails to offer the liminality and ability to re-investigate ourselves and our social relationships that is offered by newer media platforms which are defined by the breakdown between private and public, news and conversation.
The nature of the egregious comments made towards Caroline Criado-Perez are those of a society with violence at its beating heart. This challenges not only incumbent media actors but also incredibly lazy attitudes towards issues of sexism, xenophobia, racism and homophobia. These issues have not been ‘overcome’, and the horizon of destroying these attitudes is the work of a lifetime and not capable of being remedied through policy measures or an ‘abuse’ button. These actions make clear the society in which we live, they make public what was already private. That needs to be confronted and changed.
Within such a process the role of media actors who sneer at the plight of ethnic minorities and who lionise the EDL and ‘Tommy Robinson’ as an authentic voice of the ‘white English working class’ (the same working class which was central in the cross-class coalition of the movement for the abolition of the slave trade) is highly suspect. The cadaver will gibber on but its only interests are that its condition of undeath is sustained and that its descent into non-being is impeded for as long as possible. It is only with communications platforms such as Twitter that I could fully apprehend what so many women are subjected to, what is more it is these platforms which also show me that there are enough people to change things. It is not enough to push public transgression back into the private and pretend it has been resolved. There is a problem and we have to deal with it.