Social Norms, Not Tech, Fuel Abuse

Posted by Jacqueline Wernimont, Ph.D. on Feb 11, 2016 in Freedom of Speech, Gender-Based Violence, Online Harassment
Social Norms, Not Tech, Fuel Abuse
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September 8th

There is a man in my living room saying that feminists on a university campus “should be shot to death and remaining survivors tied to a tree with their throats slit with a dull knife.” I am a feminist university professor.

Another chimes in, observing that guns can be rented at Jarvis, a local gun shop, allowing one to “walk into the classroom and fire a bullet in the feminist professor’s head.” I am grading student papers as this conversation unfolds.

Meanwhile, a group of people is very angry about a news story that discusses work addressing violence against women online.  One declares that I’ve clearly “lost it,” another suggests I “toughen the fuck up.” Among themselves they declare “she’s every bit as retarded as you imagine.” “Nigga, just walk away” from the computer, one suggests. Another declares: “Your point is fucking stupid.”

University police have asked people to stay alert as they investigate the campus threats. Some people will cancel classes in response, and family and friends will advise students to stay safe by staying home.

November 2nd

The room for my noon class is curiously empty for a class of 113 students. Afterward I learn that a threat made in an online forum to use a Bushmaster M4 Carbine to make “girls and normies” at ASU “pay” has been circulating widely. One student emails that she woke to this threat in a text message and is now “terrified,” another says she’s “locking [herself] in her gated dorm until this passes,” and a third reports that her parents have called her home in fear. The university does not cancel classes, although some professors do. Forty-eight hours later we learn that a 12-year-old boy from Saskatchewan has “apologized for his actions and the disruption they caused.”

Online violence

I share the two stories above with caution. I’m not eager to amplify or give undue weight to anger, sexism, and racism. At the same time, I do want to make clear that online violence impacts people in very real ways. The two events above unfolded as I was working—literally and figuratively shaping what it means for me to be a professor. It means that classes are disrupted, that students attend with the threat of possible violence, that I cannot grade or advise students without also encountering the strong anti-feminist sentiment that is part of many digital cultures. This is not just my experience and these stories are not particularly egregious in the canon of online violence. For many women, existence and participation in everyday life is enough to provoke vitriol.

Online violences are diverse but they have in common harm and constraint. They seek to limit the kinds of lives that women and feminists can live on- and offline.

When I talk about violence online—violence enacted through online discussions, Facebook posts, Twitter, online games, and the like, some people object to my use of the term “violence” to characterize women’s experiences. This almost always includes a reference to a definition of “violence” such as this: “The deliberate exercise of physical force against a person, property, etc.” People argue that what happens through digital media shouldn’t be characterized as “real violence” because it isn’t physical. I often hear that no one can “pay respects” to victims or see bruises—violence, detractors claim, is measured only in terms of battered bodies.

But what of battered days—of shaken, “terrified” souls that are unable to work or attend school out of fear? Events like the recent murder of 10 people at Umpqua Community College, which was announced beforehand on 4Chan, the same message board site where the ASU shooting threat was posted, demonstrate the fluidity between our media and our lived experiences.

We need not turn to the all-too-frequent campus shootings to demonstrate the limits of an argument that insists only on physical violence. Like most words in the English language, “violence” is multivalent—it can be defined in a number of ways, including “an undue or enforced constraint.” Online violences are diverse but they have in common harm and constraint. They seek to limit the kinds of lives that women and feminists can live on- and offline. They punish those who push against that constraint with threats of financial and identity theft and with promises of physical violence.

So while you might not see battered bodies, if you look hard you’ll see absences everywhere—students who didn’t attend class out of fear, women who don’t publish online or use social media because doing so makes them a target. For those who don’t absent themselves, banking, working, checking a school calendar, or interacting with family online may also entail encountering a furious, sometimes murderous public.

Solutions

There is no technological fix to online violence. The problems are social and so are the solutions. Acknowledging that online violence is violence is an important first step. Computing culture is so tightly woven into everyday rhythms that offline and online life cannot be easily demarcated. Constraints, whether physical, emotional, or both, to women’s participation in connected culture is a form of violence. As in the case of the campus shooting threats, threats can cut off access to education and the right to a safe workplace even for those not taking part in online culture. Talk to women you know about their experiences, and educate yourself about the inequalities produced through digital media.

Each of us can take action by changing the social norms of our communities.

Online violence plays out as interactions between people—real people operating machines in their work and social lives—and the solutions are fundamentally rooted in our interactions as well. Each of us can take action by changing the social norms of our communities. Support women by refusing to let violence go unremarked—intervene when you see someone harming a woman or women online. Make it clear within communities and families that posting threats online to shoot or rape a woman is as real as standing in her living room, dorm, or office shouting those same threats. Educate yourself and those around you on the differences between disagreement and violence.

Women are not responsible for the violence we face. Nevertheless, knowing best practices regarding digital life can help minimize risks.

Jacqueline Wernimont, Ph.D., is Assistant Professor of English, Arizona State University, and founding co-director of the Human Security Collaboratory.

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Copyright Women’s Media Center, 2016. For reprint, contact permissions@womensmediacenter.com. The views expressed in this commentary are those of the author alone and do not represent WMC. WMC is a 501(c)(3) organization and does not endorse candidates.