caroline criado-perez, feminism, free speech, gender, Helen Lewis, mary beard, men, rape, rhetoric, women
Content note: this piece refers to misogynistic threats of violence
Recently the media has been full of stories about women in the public eye being subjected to sexist abuse online. I’ve written in the past about the way women are singled out for vitriol which men simply do not have to face, and the tendency for the attacks to focus on their bodies rather than their ideas. Just this week, Caroline Criado-Perez has spoken out about the way she was the target of a spate of hateful messages in the aftermath of her campaign to convince the Bank of England to keep a woman amongst the national luminaries pictured on banknotes. Over the last year the academic Mary Beard, the critic Anita Sarkeezian and the journalist Helen Lewis have all faced appalling victimization simply for having opinions whilst being a woman. And these are simply the most famous cases, which I happen to know about because the mainstream media has picked up on them.
When anyone points out that it is intolerable for women to be expected to put up with threats of rape and murder simply for being in public, the cry goes up of “free speech!” This is a free speech issue, we are told. We cannot trespass on the sacred right of anyone to express their Great Thoughts on the subject of a famous classicist’s vagina, or speculate about the sound a notable journalist would make as she choked to death. Free speech is such an unalienable right, and such an absolute value, that it cannot be infringed, even to the extent to enforcing current laws against hateful and threatening language. This situation, is it endlessly repeated, is a free speech issue.
As it happens, I agree. Rape threats are a free speech issue. They pose a deliberate and carefully calculated threat to women’s freedom of speech. The relentless barrage of obscenity is designed to shut women up, to force them out of the public square and to keep them from contributing to our shared culture. Men who send rape threats to female writers and broadcasters are attempting to put a price on speech. They’re taxing women who won’t be quiet and submissive, trying to impose a toll on entrance to the public sphere. They don’t need to have a better argument, or discredit a woman’s views. They just need to make it too costly to be part of the discussion. One threat might not have that effect, but twenty or fifty might, and publishing her address might tip the balance.
They tacitly admit this in the threats they choose to make. Amidst all the general violence and obscenity, there’s a particular obsession with speech and mouths. They harp on forced oral sex, on choking, on how they’d like to hear their victim scream, on the many things they would use to fill or shut a woman’s mouth. Violent speech which can’t shut up about violence to speech. The form, the purpose and the imagery of these threats all revolve around silencing women, this obsessive dream of ending women’s ability to speak.
I’m not an advocate for censorship, and there are various discussions to be had about the most effective way of tackling abuse online. But can we please recognise that women detailing their experiences of harassment are not part of a cabal trying to make sure that “you can’t say anything these days”? Mary Beard, Helen Lewis, Caroline Criado-Perez and their fellow women are reacting against a sustained and vicious attempt to rob them of the right to express their views in public. Free speech is an immensely valuable and fragile element of our civil society, which we should guard tenaciously. And we could start that task by recognising that rape threats are indeed a free speech issue. They’re an attempt to destroy it.
Reblogged this on Just a link and commented:
So well explained thanks
Thank you. Well done and well explained
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John Burns said:
An excellent succinct piece. Couldn’t agree more
Reblogged this on The Kettle Press and commented:
The number, the viciousness and the momentum of such threats to women who express anything to do with equality is nauseating. Social media has been seen and used by too many to group attack as sport. At it’s most benign it is immature; but it is not benign. It is criminal, disgusting and offensive to anyone with an ounce of ethical fibre. We, men and woman, all society, must stand together to barricade against such abuse.
Reblogged this on thinkingaesthetics.
Diane Lem said:
If it’s a free speech issue, I am sure women are also free to discuss waving a knife or two and to mention Lorena Bobbitt. Those men who like to threaten women with rape should thus be reminded that their preferred rape tool consists mostly of soft tissue and blood vessels and can be easily removed.
Great post. I’ve blogged about this issue in connection to Lindy West’s arguments about rape jokes. (http://goo.gl/WiQ2k8) I
think that part of what’s going on when men cry “Censorship!” in response to being called out for supporting rape culture etc., and when those same men think it’s *not* a free speech issue when they silence women through harassment and threats, is they’re unable to think about free speech in any terms other than legal/illegal. If your thinking about politics (in the broadest sense of the word) is framed entirely in terms of “private laissez faire vs. government regulation,” i.e. in classic liberal terms, then it’s impossible to conceive of non-governmental forms of censorship such as hate speech. Another way of characterizing this frame is that explicit government force is the only kind of force: under a government which uses its monopoly on force to protect citizens from being deprived of life (e.g. by murder), liberty (e.g. by kidnapping), and property (e.g. by burglary), anything that happens in the private sector (like hate speech) is *by definition* consensual. In this frame, implicit power does not exist.
So the issues around freedom of speech and kinds of censorship which you raise here vis-a-vis women seem to me to connect to much broader issues of power and oppression in general.
Every so often, you see a comment that raises such a good point as to deserve being a post in itself. This is one of those.
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Reblogged this on Flip It Right Side Up.
With the rise of social media threats women throughout the world ranging from politicians to celebrities have received rape and death threats, which is very alarming. Excellent article!