Should We Fight Back Against Misogynist Trolls?

Credit: Thinkstock

Credit: Thinkstock

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There's a political tall tale, popular among the kinds of people for whom congressmen are movie stars, which tells of Lyndon Johnson on one of his first campaigns. Johnson is in a tight race. His strategy isn't working. He's nervous. He goes to an aid and instructs him to start a rumor that his opponent has sex with farm animals. Christ, Lyndon, nobody is going to believe that, says the aid. Ok, says Johnson, well then let the pigfucker deny it.

In political life, who won the issue rarely matters. The winner is whoever chose on the issue worth warring over in the first place.

We are in the middle of feminism's fourth wave. Its causes are substantial, equally concerned with the possibilities of law and what lies beyond it. It wants an end to street harassment. It wants a just system for combating sexual violence, especially in schools. It wants equal pay for equal work. It wants equal opportunity for women in media and academia, not just in policy but in spirit. It wants intersectionality and empathy and the emergence of new voices.

It has gotten its last wish, at least. The Internet, in its possibilities for publishing and its accessibility of broadcast, has allowed almost anyone to speak. But volume, particularly in the form of social media, has brought consequences. Organized intimidation was once reserved for willing leaders; now it is fair game for anyone speaking audibly. The victims of harassment, from boorishness to explicit threats of violence, are in large part ordinary women, bullied for simply relating an anecdote or observation or experience on Twitter. The threshold for hatred has been lowered while the means for expressing it directly to its object have expanded in turn. An army of trolls has emerged, and they don't want what the new feminism wants. They want its advocates to shut up, know their place, and die.

I am asked to assess the impact of organized misogyny online. I cannot speak to its individual consequence. I have no experiences of my own, and so I can only believe the reported fear of its victims. I can only try to empathize with hearing a stranger only pause between threats of mutilation to send you your home address.

I can speak to the political consequences. The trolls have managed to force a good deal of the energy and effort of contemporary feminism away from progress and policy and toward a debate over whether or not the expression of a political opinion ought to be met with rape threats.

They get away with it because the Internet is chaos. They get away with it because moderators and policemen are reticent to do their jobs. They get away with it because we must respond. They get away with it because it is easier to write a Facebook post with the thesis "death threats are wrong" than to write one in defense of policy minutia; it is easier for an online magazine hack to meet their quota with quick, click-bait tales of heroes and villains than an investigation of statutory discretion within the DoE's compliance office. They get away with it because the Internet makes argument like professional fencing: It happens too fast to follow; the easiest thing is just to report who put a point on the board.

They get away with it because they are doing what trolls do best: putting us in a bind, where to fight them is to feed them but to ignore them is to let their provocations go unchallenged.

To the mob and to the press, the politics of wage equality are boring. The finer points of Title IX are difficult to follow. Fact checking is too much for a character count. But violence is simple, in both cause and consequence. Even on good days, the story any hack would rather report is about how someone stood up to the monsters. About how somebody fought back, or how they couldn't, or how terrible it is that women are subject to all this and how we ought to do something about it. It is right and good that we should tell these stories; necessary that women fight back. But it shouldn't surprise us that the field trolls choose to fight on is found along the low road. It shouldn't surprise us that to meet them we must travel there. It shouldn't surprise us that this field is a swamp that runs beneath a bridge but that to cross in peace may mean stepping off the bridge entirely, getting down into the bile and bog water and forgetting, sometimes, about the far shore we meant to reach, or what was there, or why. It is right and good to stand up to the trolls, but every day spent doing so is another day of denying that we're pigfuckers.

I don't know what we should do. There's a reason they're called trolls; there's a reason feeding makes them stronger, but a reason we cannot refuse to feed them at all —so long as they exist, silence in the face of their menace is not a moral act.

It would be easier if moderators and support teams did their jobs, acknowledging the clear line between engagement and harassment and recognizing that the right to free speech in general does not preclude their particular right to refuse service to anyone. It would be easier if law enforcement did its job and followed up on explicit threats of violence. It would be easier if the press didn't write 10 stories on Twitter harassment for every one on Title IX, but there's little sense in arguing with the cheap seats.

To turn the other cheek is to let violence go unanswered; to fight back is to risk losing sight of any goals beyond the war we didn't ask for. We must do both, somehow. We've managed so far. I'm skeptical of masterstrokes in American life. The course of change is almost always through small battles. Drop the troll a bread roll and keep on down the bridge. They can't do anything but react. Give them something to really pound the stones and wail about.

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