How the internet has become a battleground for women’s rights [Transcript: International Women’s Day speech]

6 Mar

Thank you – I would like to pay my respects to the traditional owners of this land and recognise their contribution to Australia even though it has come at and continues to extract a brutal cost.

Thank you for having me here. This is truly an honour, not only because I get to indulge in my love of talking but to be here in the Queen Victoria Women’s Centre… there are buildings for women these days?

Has anyone told the LNP in Queensland? Or Tony? The Prime Minister said that holding the LNP International Women’s Day lunch in a Men’s only club was crashing through the ceiling and winning for gender equality. Imagine how he’d feel if he knew that in Victoria we had a WHOLE building for women. Well, he’d be a bit threatened.

Now, just quickly and in the spirit of fairness, I kinda understand why they did it. The Vice President of the LNP Women’s group Peta Simpson said that the men’s only venue offered best value for money which us women really value, because women don’t get paid as much as men so we really count our coins.

But enough of that…

On to more important matters: you.

I want to talk to you about the internet. We’re told that it’s just like the men’s only club up in Queensland in that women aren’t really allowed but on special occasions (just like a Q and A special) they will rent it out to the women’s.

But the internet is better than that. I don’t want you to fear it. I want you to walk out of here and stake your claim online. Find your space, find your voice and own it.

Because we’re often told to fear the internet. And yes, it’s true.

It can be horrible.

It’s filled with men who don’t want you there.  They want you to do what every society expects of you: to remain invisible until they have need of you. And if you annoy them, they can shout you down, drown you out, make you run in fear of intimidation, threatened violence and the public exposure of private details.

But I can’t hate it. I have a special spot in what remains of my heart for the internet. I say remain because, as all grim humourless feminists know, we have the majority of our heart removed in secret feminist initiation rites. We also have an extra rib placed in there to stick it to the man, or god, but I’ve said too much.

The internet has been one of the most generous benefactors to me and it’s a love affair that’s never gonna quit. My heart would lurch at the beeping song of a modem. Without the internet, I would not be able to know the friends I love so dearly, learn what I have about feminism and politics or get the dream writing job I wanted but couldn’t find a way into the industry. Without the internet, I wouldn’t be here talking with you tonight (you may want to burn down the internet after this speech though).

So yes we’re going to pick apart the Internet – we’ll talk about how it is a place where we can zoom in on misogyny, sexism and privilege. But the internet isn’t just a place where we are attacked. It isn’t just a place where we see the daily war on women that exposes us, makes us cower, makes us silent or maimed or even killed.

The internet is a place to have so much fun and waste so much time by yourself or with your newest, greatest friends that you’ll forget the damn place was actually created with a military purpose.

And let’s focus on that if only briefly because I am not a fan of military terms.

Origins

The internet was created ostensibly by the US Department of Defense. It was a bunch of packet networking systems and what become known as internetworking, which I’m led to believe is where multiple separate networks can form a network of networks (or one network), whereas I just thought internetworking was a polite if snarky euphemism for the fact I barely work when I’m on the internet.

But from those early days of Defense, the internet existed to share information quickly between agencies, universities and research orgnisations. A network to build on collective knowledge and share that knowledge quickly.

Then Tim Berners-Lee came along and created the World Wide Web. He wanted it to be royalty and patent free. An open space where people could gather, share ideas openly.

And let’s think about that – a place where defence and knowledge are shared at once. The Department of Defence had no idea what battles would be fought on it, just like Tim Berners-Lee had no idea the concepts we’d use it to share.

And that’s what I’m going to talk about tonight. Because the internet is one of the best ways to see the struggle for gender equality. It’s a stateless land with an ongoing battle for territory and we are always in the front line.

Research tells us that this because men may be engaged in an exaggerated attempt to enforce their offline culture, perhaps a retreat from the ever encroaching rights of women.

Here are three online communities’ approach to gender equality (and spoiler, it’s all pretty bad). I’ve selected these because they’re either at the forefront of dramatic hate campaigns, I tend to frequent them a lot, plus they’ve been the subject of some academic attention. There are more social platforms and communities out there – Facebook and Tumblr being two notable additions – we can talk about them at the end.

4chan

Imagine 4chan as the snot-filled kid that lives around the corner. You’re nice to this kid but every interaction leaves you muttering to anyone who will listen they’re quite possibly the antichrist and who wants to split the cost on holy water and crosses. It’s antisocial, it claims a hacker ethic (as origin for the radical hacking group Anonymous) and despite professing a desire to never be mentioned in the news, continually pulls stunts that ensures it will be covered.

A research paper entitled “Tits or GTFO: the logics of misogyny on 4chan’s Random – /b/ 4chan” argued that the mostly male members would shout down any woman who made reference to being female, perceived attention seeking or displaying an identity.

Now this paper also shared that they held similar animosity for anyone who gave themselves an identity as it is counter to the 4chan anonymous culture. New members were routinely called “newfags”, women who approached and engaged in what is perceived to be feminine online behaviour (like posting a selfie, etc) were told they were “cumdumpsters” and to show their “tits or get the fuck out”.

Now, the paper argues this is because 4chan relies on a place where identity is not held in high regard. In fact, identity is the enemy as a reaction against the hyper-identification of other communities like Tumblr, etc. The author says that the misogyny 4chan uses is actually crucial in site-specific context because it keeps the site true to its shock/hacker routes.

And though it arguably attempts to provide a distraction free environment to keep the focus where they think it should be –  with the LOLs, trade cat pics, porn and planning campaigns against people who haven’t forsaken their identity, and not on a hierarchy of indentities tiring them with self expression, relationships, potential power plays or a reminder they are actual real people.

To my way of thinking, that’s because it literally washes everyone down to the desired, default model: a presumably white, straight male (coincidentally, the main demographic for 4chan). And that’s an expectation in mainstream media, as well as most online communities – so really? Not that rare. Not that radical.

The author claims this isn’t sexism, rather a strategic use of offense for “subcultural preservation” which can be used in tandem with technological ability of modifying images, creating word filters that will change whatever a user types on screen. The assumed barrier is two-fold – a woman will disappear if she’s called a whore and a woman won’t stick around on 4chan because she doesn’t have the technical smarts anyway.

Women: vain AND techno-luddites apparently.

But women are apparently allowed on 4chan, if they play by the rules of hiding their identity under the default straight/white/dude mantle. We’re expected to believe 4chan is really so impressively trickster-level smart it can use a theory of behaviour control and cultural defence where misogyny is used as a weapon…that they don’t really believe in (and, for a site that prides itself on lack of identity, it’s something only the reconised old timers will “get”).

Bull. Shit.

But it does provide an interesting model of culture defence. And, you know, when I’m talking about misogyny as a tool of defending a culture, I mean a massively deluded, entitled one.

Admittedly in the case of 4chan, it’s a hyper vigilant, hyper aggressive one. But it can be argued that it’s a similar model employed by groups on Facebook, Tumblr and Twitter albeit on a lower-tech level.

But it has failings.

Aggressively preserving a monocultural, monoidentity culture doesn’t actually retain previous cultures and even if you didn’t start out as a misogynist on 4chan, you’d sure as shit end up as one.

REDDIT

Reddit on the other hand can offer oases of solidarity. Sub-reddits, which are sections of the site arranged by theme, can offer solace, uneasy grounds of ceasefire, all out warfare or a wall.

I’ve visited Reddit for years and while it’s true there are the scourge of subreddits today expressly designed as spaces for men to spit hatred of women and dress it up in the invisible robes of a men’s rights philosophy, it would be remiss to not acknowledge it was previously far worse. There were sub-reddits that shared rape porn, where the provenance of authenticity wasn’t really cared about, or one literally called “beating women” which left little to the imagination of what was discussed and how the members felt about women.

But still, Reddit does exhibit the same gender problems as other online communities. Men will shout down women, they will patronise them and try to silence them or distract them from their work and enjoyment because of some perceived entitlement.

However, it must be said that women are better able to build their own spaces, get in on others and

TWITTER

Twitter can be one of the nastiest places for hostility towards women.

The most potent example is GamerGate.

Just quickly, if you don’t know about GamerGate – it’s where mostly men scream invective at women for daring to work in or critique the games industry. These noble defenders of pixellated justice say their threats, their abuse, their orchestrated campaigns to disrupt women’s work is not about sexism. No. Not at all. It’s about ethics in games journalism. And these gamergaters call anyone who disagrees with them SJWs or Social Justice Warriors which is meant to be an insult. You can tell its an insult because to these men fighting for ethics’ in games journalism and screaming rape threats at women is far more noble than the struggle to create a socially just environment.

At one point, Robinson Meyer described GamerGate as a ‘an existential crisis for Twitter’. I think that gives them far too much intellectual credibility for what is in effect a prolonged and increasingly destructive temper tantrum.

The loosely structured but organised group meet online to discuss how to silence, intimidate and discredit women who have invoked their ire. They send death threats, increasingly detailed and hateful. They’ll publish where a woman lives in the hopes a) she feels intimidated and b) that others will join in intimidating her.

But it’s not just about the hate. Twitter of all places may be one of the more destructive but it’s also one of the most instructive.

It’s where you can learn that the dominant female experience isn’t white, cis-gendered and straight. That there are new experiences which don’t require your voice – but require your attention.   I spend my days trying to reading Ayesha Siddiqi, Not All Bhas, Lauren Chief Elk, transfeminist sociologist Katherine Cross and many others. There are amazing groups that give voice, training and exposure – like Black Girls Coding, who are helping young girls learn about technology and break into one of the most monosexual, monocultural and richest industries in the world.

And when you want to share their thoughts? Retweet them without addition, without cutting and pasting. Make the platform larger and don’t just read notes from the crowd.

This is my oasis in the desert of derp.

WHY ARE WOMEN ATTACKED?

But it’s important here to look at the main reason why women are attached for being online – for embracing their identity and opinion.

It’s seen as an act of independence, a freedom many resent possibly because they thought that was a milestone for them to award.

This is no different to what happens in every day life away from a wifi connection. Women will be shamed for how they dress or what choices they make in their lives, they will be talked down to at work or at home or by random member of the dudebrorati on the street who really thinks that telling a woman how she looks is actually all she ever wanted to learn. It’s no different to when a woman is told to calm down or when she’s told she was somehow responsible for being attacked.

There is nothing more dangerous in this world than an independent woman. Actually, strike that. There is nothing more dangerous in this world than a woman. An independent woman is the stuff of legend, and quite possibly rides on a unicorn on the shores of Atlantis because we are certain neither 3 things exist.

In a curious case, Lindy West once started talking with one of her reformed trolls/abusers. He had sent her an email saying the following:

Hey Lindy, I don’t know why or even when I started trolling you. It wasn’t because of your stance on rape jokes. I don’t find them funny either.

I think my anger towards you stems from your happiness with your own being. It offended me because it served to highlight my unhappiness with my own self.

I have e-mailed you through 2 other gmail accounts just to send you idiotic insults.

I apologize for that.

I created the PaulWestDunzo@gmail.com account & Twitter account. (I have deleted both.)

I can’t say sorry enough.

It was the lowest thing I had ever done. When you included it in your latest Jezebel article it finally hit me. There is a living, breathing human being who is reading this shit. I am attacking someone who never harmed me in any way. And for no reason whatsoever.

I’m done being a troll.

Again I apologize.

I made donation in memory to your dad.

I wish you the best.

In a subsequent exchange, West’s abuser confessed that:

“Women are being more forthright in their writing, they’re not — there isn’t a sense of timidity to when they speak. They’re saying it loud. And I think for me as well, it’s threatening at first …”

But he didn’t originally think he was sexist or misogynistic in trolling West, pretending to be her dead father and spewing hate over several twitter and email accounts.

“I work with women all day, and I don’t have an issue with anyone. I could have told you back then, if someone had said to me, “you’re a misogynist, you hate women,” I would have said, “Nuh-uh! I love my mum, I love my sisters, I’ve loved the girlfriends I’ve had in my life.” But you can’t claim to be ok with women and then go online and insult them, seek them out to harm them emotionally.”

What’s at heart here is both a challenge and opportunity for everyone.

The challenge for men is to reflect on their reactions before acting on them.

The opportunity for women is to move past them and damn well keep on talking.

So what are we looking at when it comes to online hate? 

The effect of online hate is pretty simple. The more people tell you in a multitude of ways they don’t want you to talk, you won’t. You’ll feel out numbered.

This becomes even worse when we view online abuse from an intersectional angle where ethnicity, gender spectrum, size and disability are included into the mix.

If your views and confidence threaten men, men will want to silence you and some will be incredibly inventive about the matter.

Helen Lewis, a reporter for the Guardian, came up with the most wonderful adage now known as Lewis’ Law: “any comment on an article about feminism justify feminism”.

For anyone who has ever put up a piece on the Guardian, it’s a reassuring and instructive comment. Put your views out there and people will tear at it.

But highlighting the abuse women writers receive can be taken too far, a curious conundrum where some women have mistaken online abuse for validation as a feminist or a status symbol.

I mean, sure, it can be funny and I’m certainly not averse to a well placed screen cap if I need support or if it’s hilarious in its immense derpitude. But it is not the only response to women available online or off.

Being a feminist isn’t about the hate you attract. It’s about the work you do. And holding up screencaps of what men say about you just show you are still deeply bound to male validation, no matter if its positive or negative. A woman’s experience is more than filtering her life through male expression.

I want more for us. When the Victorian Women’s Trust released an app to help educate teens about abusive relationships, that’s about the work they do for women.

When women like Canberra lawyer Louise Taylor works tirelessly in the courts defending women, that’s about the work she does for women.

When Ada Conroy advocates for women’s rights out in the West, that’s about the work she does for women.

Amy McQuire from New Matilda shared her speech today on racial inequality in the struggle to end violence against women and it was a revelation – that’s the work she does for women.

Today, Tara Moss was announced as the new ambassador for the Full Stop Foundation, providing programs to support  something she will juggle with her entry into academia and writing career and they’re all things she does for women.

When Clementine Ford spends days answering emails from women who need advice and support and writing articles explaining feminist culture, that’s about the work she does for women.

Same with Ruby Hamad.

Same with Celeste Liddle, who spends her days writing about feminist and indigenous issues while working on the front lines at the National Tertiary Education Union, it’s about the work she does for women.

When Jenna Price, a woman who I actually think has never slept a full hour in her life, spends countless hours advocating for women along with Destroy the Joint, it’s about the work she does for women, advocating, educating and building new networks.

And I think about my friend Stella Young, who went far too early and did so damn much and still had mountains to obliterate (and she totally would have), who spent every day in a passionate, fierce and tenacious campaign to educate the world about women’s rights, about how society and not our bodies create true disability and sought to make the world truly equal and she did that for women, she did that to educate and make changes for everyone.

We have so many amazing women here in Australia that I could spend the entire speech telling you we have rolled gold goddesses that may never be called to appear on Q and A but are instrumental in building a better environment for women. I’m feeling annoyed I can’t because our incredibly valid scramble to protect the vulnerable and the oppressed we forget how many amazing women are working tirelessly in this country.

So spare me your constant screen caps and retweets. Yes, we need to understand the oppression and aggression we face. But a constant stream doesn’t define feminism. The work does and we have amazing feminists surrounding us and more are arriving every single day.

Who are you? 

I’m not going to stand here and tell you to raise your phone right now and swear an allegiance to raising hell, storming 4chan or your nearest DudeBrorati website.

I’m not even going to give you a single answer on how to deal with the internet as a woman and, hopefully, a feminist woman. Because to suggest one answer to cover all women means we’re not actually listening to all women.

I won’t tell you to lean into the online battle.

But I will tell you that you have ways to not only protect your space but grab some more for you and others.

Because it’s not just about finding a safe space for you alone or even just you and your friends – it’s about providing space for others. When we build space for others, we increase representation for all self-identifying women.

The bizarre choice offered to women is so often one or the other. I remember on election night there was discussion about whether it should be Leigh Sales or Annabel Crabb on the ABC panel. Their merits were debated. It could only be one or the other.

Well, to echo my constant life adviser, the taco kid: why not both?

It’s not about choosing one woman to meet diversity requirements. You are not a requirement to be met. You are a thinking, living, breathing, creating, experiencing, amazing and struggling human being.

Here are some different online types you can be. You can be one, you can be a lil of some, more of the other. But you’ll generally find yourself in here to some degree.

You can be a warrior you can be like Clementine Ford, one of the most tireless and quick debators who can annihilate any and most arguments I’ve ever seen. It is a high energy, time-intensive, brutal role.

Not only do warriors engage others in debate (and the tone will vary) but their work also acts as a shield to protect others from attack and can also exist as inspiration for an ever-watching, often silent marjority. (And – even before George Brandis came up with his legislation, lemme tell you that you are always being watched online. It’s just by your community and not the authorities.)

A warrior can also be called en masse to drown out gendered abuse. Imagine Apocalypse Now where the choppers fly overhead to Ride of the Valkyries but instead of increasingly fractured soldiers you get actual valkyries, looking over those in battle and swooping in to make their feminist noise and decide the victor.

You can be a builder – you can use the skills you have and you can build satefy network and resources that educate and inspire other women.

Zoe Quinn – a frequent target of online hate in increasingly orchestrated and planned campaigns – developed the Crash Override Network to help people (often women) who are victims and targets of online harassment. They help people lock down their information to block doxing attempts (where their personal details are uncovered and published), threat monitoring, advice and basically protecting people and weakening their attackers. All by using their skills and hard fought experience.

Another example of building is Amy Poehler’s Smart Girls – a network created to inspire growing women to feel good about themselves and give back to the community through volunteering, civic activism, cultural exchange and basically to find their inner Lesley Knope. Their motto is “Change the World By Being Yourself”, which is an amazing message for women maturing in cultures that expressly don’t want that to happen, because society loves telling women what to do.

A builder has skills, a builder has experience and knows how to make things better. A builder not only reclaims territory – like helping people back into social media so another female voice can be added to the chorus – a builder can actually create new territory.

You can be a talker/gatherer – they’re like hunter gatherers but without a fanciful diet Pete Evans approved diet attached. Talker-gatherers are natural community builders – they know what’s happening, to whom, and who can help.  talkers are excellent because they’re born to share information.

You can be a comforter – not everyone has to fight, not everyone has to sweat at building or gathering. You can be there, watching and learning, offering support when its needed.

But while we are all different, we are all in this together.

And on that point….

Women should recognise that the struggle for equality, especially online, brings us up close to the realisation that our experience is not necessarily the only female experience.

We don’t just support women we agree with politically.  We are not in a struggle for the rights of women from the left or right or progressive or conservative. Hell, we don’t just support women we like.

Sometimes you won’t need to speak. Just listen and read the experiences of other women and realise we don’t speak for all – once again, if we attempt to speak for all women, we simply prove we aren’t listening to women.

And there are women who will react hostilely to that. Presume to know a woman of colour’s experience and be prepared to meet the full and incredibly justified fury of someone who is so worn down by (well meaning or not) advice or commentary that they will let you have it. And this is the important part of intersectionality – the recognition that some women have been so oppressed, so ignored and so invisible to the debate on women’s rights they feel excluded and justifiably angry.

I can’t speak for them, but I and I hope you too will work to make the platform larger so that there are more women’s voices showing the multitude of our experience and the full on riot of our potential.

We’re supporting everyone – supporting by listening, acting when asked and giving whatever skills we have to take extra space online, gain greater wins and make that platform, that visibility, wider and brighter for everyone.

We have the skills, we have the strength, we have the persistence and the momentum to make the internet as much ours.

We can do it.

2 Responses to “How the internet has become a battleground for women’s rights [Transcript: International Women’s Day speech]”

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