Threats and Trolls

(President Troll’s tweet from February 10, 2018)

Almost two weeks ago (2-11-18), The Chronicle of Higher Education published a piece titled “For Scholars of Women’s Studies, It’s Been a Dangerous Year.”  The article provides examples of increased criticism and threats issued to professors and scholars of women’s, gender, and sexuality studies.  Middlebury College Professor Carly Thomsen appropriately responded to the criticism of all-activism, no-scholarship by saying: “It’s the issue of the relationship between theory and practice, between scholarship and activism.  The assumption that women’s studies equals a kind of uncritical support for contemporary movements is wrong.”  In fact, I would add that this area of study has examined contemporary realities and movements in profound and broad ways and has contributed to careful critical thinking on the operation of gender and its intersections in our world. I was wholly unsurprised by the content of the article, from reporting on the frequent undercutting of women’s studies as a viable field of study (those who launch the criticisms often have not actually read the syllabi to which they refer), to offering examples of derogatory language leveled at professors, to issuing actual threats of rape and death.

Professor Heidi Lockwood of Southern Connecticut State University is also quoted in the article.  She says, “If anything, controversies about feminism and movements like #metoo and the entertainment industry’s Time’s Up are precisely why women’s-studies programs are necessary, Rose said. “Now we are being looked to as programs and as scholars to have the conversations people haven’t had before,” she said. “We are the one program on campus that is equipped intellectually and politically to actually do and care for the kind of work that needs to be done.”  Lockwood rightly asserts the existence of and increased need for a critical apparatus on gender issues that addresses contemporary issues of gender, race, religion, and national origin.

Before I got the opportunity to share the article with colleagues, I was pleased to see that our dean had already shared it with the core and affiliate professors of our Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Program.  While the generalized notion and acceptance of threats against women is troubling in and of itself, at least we know people are recognizing the threats and understanding the need for increased awareness on campus.

The Gender Shrapnel Blog certainly makes me a more visible person in these realms.  What I most notice are the increased Facebook “friend” requests coming from men dressed in camouflage, often bearing arms, sometimes sharing photographs of barely-dressed young girls, and not infrequently giving loving cuddles to dogs and puppies.  While I always mark these daily requests as spam, I also always wonder why I am receiving them.  Is it the blog, my work on our WGSS Program, my scholarship, general hatred of women who speak?  Of course, it must be some twisted combination of all of the above, and I don’t usually give this more thought than what I’ve just done here.  At the same time, our current political regime protects Second Amendment rights over First Amendment rights and over protections offered by Titles VII and IX, and that’s enough to have anyone think twice about her public voice.  The Weinstein/Cosby/Trump era certainly drives home who has the power to assault and silence others.  (*See many Gender Shrapnel Blog posts that treat these issues more specifically.)

Several years ago, a colleague and I wrote a series of letters to then-Governor of Virginia Bob McDonnell protesting the lack of awareness and action surrounding campus sexual assault.  We also wrote letters to the editor of Ms. Blog, The Richmond Times Dispatch, and The Wall Street Journal.  At the same time, we were writing protest poetry and one-act plays that demonstrated activism on Title IX and Title VII issues.  The result was a violent voice mail message that told “us little missies” what we could do with our activism.  The speaker made sure we knew that he knew where we lived and worked.  We reported the incident to our campus police and administrations and left it at that.

This trolling of us from years ago of course has been replicated in many contexts, in more dire circumstances for more visible people and more copiously through increased social media access.  Many famous women, including actor Leslie Jones and writer Mary Beard, have had to deal openly with the violent verbal attacks on their persons and beliefs and the very specific, gender-based threats made over and over again.  (*See this Gender Shrapnel Blog post on Mary Beard and this one that looks at “civility” in the case of Leslie Jones and others.)  These are threats not unlike what we have heard from Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte (who has ordered women rebels to be shot in the vagina) and United States President Donald Trump (who has openly and repeatedly trolled Rosie O’Donnell).  Of course, “trolled” ends up being too light a term, for it does not convey the intensely implied physical threat behind the tweets, soundbites, and mockeries, nor does it communicate often delusional sentiments and desires of the trolls.  For example, Glamour had to point out that Trump trolled the January 18, 2018, Women’s March by pretending that the anniversary march—an anniversary of the all-important, seven-continent Women’s March of 2017—was in celebration of his first year in office.

Don’t even get me started on the international, illegal, world-changing trolling of Hillary Clinton to promote fraud, ensure her election loss (despite the historic number of votes she won), and put President Troll, dangerous dupe, stupid stooge, and vulnerable villain of the Putin regime, into office.  Even the famously anti-Trump Washington Post recently called the trolling of Hillary Clinton “both comical and sinister”: “The indictments allege the Russians communicated with unwitting members of Trump’s campaign in local communities. They sought to organize rallies. They put out false information. They paid for a demonstrator ‘to wear a costume portraying Clinton in a prison uniform’ and wired money to someone in the United States ‘to build a cage large enough to hold an actress portraying Clinton in a prison uniform.’ It is both comical and sinister.”  I actually would love to hear Washington Post Chief Correspondent and author of this article explain these comments without re-legitimizing the “Lock Her Up” trope that became so vicious and violent.  (*See this Gender Shrapnel Blog post and this one on this topic.)  Like so many others, Dan Balz succeeds in normalizing the supposed criminality of women who dare to step into the public arena.  There is nothing comical about this.

Weinstein and Company

(Table of Contents of a 1990 publication by Elizabeth Bouchard, Everything You Need to Know about Sexual Harassment)

When I was in college, over 30 years ago, a woman from my dorm was raped at a fraternity party.  One year when I was a resident assistant in a dorm, a woman on my hall was in the shower, getting ready for Sunday morning church, and saw a man entering the shower stall through the bottom.  On another day that year, women on the hall upstairs reported that a man had entered their bedroom and climbed into bed with them.  He was eventually caught when attempting to do the same thing in another residence hall.  My third or fourth year—I can’t remember now because these predatory behaviors are so common that accounts of them start to blend together—women students were told to be careful of studying in the stacks in the library because a man was walking through the stacks, holding scissors, and snipping ponytails.  I can’t know whether the creepy perpetrator knew Alexander Pope’s poem, “The Rape of the Lock,” but I can say that making light of these actions is both common and foolish.  Since the college years, many friends have recounted dozens of other stories like these, all from one college in one college town.  I imagine some of you are reading this first paragraph and recalling similar stories from your own college years and well beyond.

As a college professor, I have been made aware of more cases of sexual assault and violence than I ever anticipated I would.  As I have said many times in the Gender Shrapnel Blog (for example, here) and throughout the Gender Shrapnel book, sexual discrimination, harassment, and retaliation are on a continuum with sexual assault and sexual violence.  If we are not reducing incidents of the former, there is no way we are reducing incidents of the latter.  The blind-eye phenomenon, practiced by so many in our communities, serves only to protect the powerful and create more opportunities for violence against women (and men, an issue that we need to address more frequently, especially in “fraternal” contexts, such as the military, sports, and Greek fraternity organizations).

I’m entering the Weinstein fray a little late because times are busy, none of this is surprising, and here we are again.  (*See previous posts on Fox News, Bill Cosby, needing better remedies for sexual discrimination, harassment and retaliation, rape, and campus sexual assault.)  As I said in the Bill Cosby post, patterns tell us something.  Testimonial elements of one felony line up with testimonial elements of other felonies perpetrated by the same person.  These details matter.  These stories matter.  And I’m hoping that criminal justice experts and/or sociologists can teach us to extrapolate from the stories we know to understand how many stories there may be that we don’t know.  Patterns tell us a lot, and there are many dotted lines between incidents on which we might imagine more felonies happening.  The Guardian provides this 10-11-2017 account of all the women who have accused Harvey Weinstein “so far,” implying that we will hear more allegations of more felonies.  According to The Guardian piece and to the 10-10-2017 account in The New Yorker, Weinstein’s alleged patterns reveal, over a 25-30-year span, a deliberate pattern: finding young women (usually actors or aspiring actors); convincing them to take a meeting with him, the unbelievably powerful movie mogul; dismissing staff members present at the first part of these meetings, often held in hotel suites; asking the women repeatedly to have sex with him or give him a massage; overriding the women’s “no’s” or hesitations by appearing naked and beginning the massage process himself; forcing his penis into women’s mouths and/or masturbating in front of them.

Multiple reports tell us that women who attempted to report the incidents (we could call them “crimes,” for example) were offered non-disclosure statements and money and/or were eliminated from Hollywood movie rosters and dragged through tabloids.  When in 1997 Weinstein’s company settled out of court with actor Rose McGowan, authors of the legal document insist that the settlement’s purpose was to “avoid litigation and buy peace” (The New York Times, 10-5-2017).  Peace for whom, we might ask.  Peace for Weinstein, his all-male board, the so-called “honeypots” who arranged the meetings, and all the men who act like Weinstein or think they should get to act like Weinstein.  This is not peace for McGowan or for the many women since 1997 who allege having been harassed and/or raped by Weinstein, and the many women since then who perhaps haven’t yet come forward.  Our money-run legal system traffics in violence and silence, silence and violence, and we are going to have to generate legal remedies that do not encourage perpetrators to continue their patterns, plain as day.

In this piece by The New York Times Editorial Board, the authors emphasize women’s silence (“Mr. Weinstein controlled many avenues to advancement in his industry and could kill the career of any woman who didn’t hush up”), but they don’t address men’s silence in this piece.  Where was Bob Weinstein on this?  What about all the men on the Weinstein board?  How about all the male actors who turned a blind eye?   The indulgence, abetting, and blind eyes over all these years communicated to everyone in the movie industry (and every other industry, since examples of the powerful getting away with felony after felony are abundant) that this culture was just fine, that power wins every time, that being exposed to sexual assault and violence are part and parcel of “climbing the ladder.”  The Washington Post’s Alyssa Rosenberg makes the point in this way: “Placing a particular burden on women, rather than, say, on the Weinstein Company’s all-male board, to have done something about him suggests this isn’t really about feminist credentials at all: it’s about making women, rather than men, responsible for male misbehavior” (10-10-17). (*Alexandra Petri’s hilarious take on the Weinstein case is also worth the read.)

The New York Times has spent the last week bending over backwards to perform a bizarre liberal mea culpa (see the aforementioned piece by the Editorial Board and this ridiculously juvenile piece by Ross Douthat) surrounding the Weinstein case.  Oh, Democrats, don’t be silent.  Oh, Democrats, renounce the money given you.  Hold on here, NYT.  Slow the hell down.  The preachiness is almost unbearable, given the newspaper’s role in harassing Hillary Clinton over e-mail protocols practiced abundantly both before and after her time in Washington.  Parsing the issue of sexual harassment and assault along party lines and expressing outrage or surprise when men who support the Democratic Party engage in these behaviors is disingenuous and tiresome.  We have elected men from the Democratic Party who have harassed, and possibly raped, women.  We have elected men from the Republican party who have harassed, and possibly raped, women.  I would venture to say that the situation is worse when your “president” has bragged about harassing behaviors and half of the nation has turned a blind eye to it.  We have all seen and can all discern these predatory, felonious patterns, but some choose to say nothing, and some choose to vote for these felons.

When The New York Times decided to publish the Douthat op-ed, which I can only call offensive tripe, they allowed Douthat to diminish Weinstein’s alleged criminal actions to words such as “piggishness” and “vice.”  Douthat also employs the euphemism “caddishness.” The newspaper allowed him to reinforce gender binaries in antiquated ways (e.g. the line about the Republic of Gilead, which not only ignores the fact that men are also victims of rape and extreme violence, but also subtly suggests that we should at least move towards the gender dystopia of the Atwood novel of the Moss television series).  Douthat also claims (here and in last week’s op-ed) Hugh Hefner as a liberal icon, but I think he might hear quite differently from liberals and progressives who have actually worked on gender and race issues.  Douthat tells us, “Promiscuity can encourage predatory entitlement.  Older rules of moral restraint were broader for a reason.  If your culture’s code is libertine, don’t be surprised that worse things than libertinism flourish.”  Welcome to the 19th century, people, where women weren’t even allowed to wear the short skirts that apparently caused the violence against them and their own downfalls.  This line also reads like a threat, something like, “Learn from your promiscuity, liberal Hollywood women, or return to Gilead.”  The New York Times’s liberal auto-flagellation reinforces age-old postures that blame women for the crimes, the felonies, of men.  Stop the bullshit.

An urgent question: To whom are we turning a blind eye right now?  Why are we letting them get away with this?  Who has the courage to speak up and out?

And a reminder.  I wrote the following text in the September 19th blog post of last year, and I fear I’ll be copying and pasting it again at this time next year:

*****

Let’s think for a moment about the common denominators at the core of sexual discrimination, harassment, and retaliation:

  • Hierarchy with powerful, high-salaried white men at the top [e.g. Roger Ailes, Rupert Murdoch]
  • Reinforcement of white, male privilege through the hiring and retention of more people who look the same, thus making people of color and women a rarity [Just look at the Fox News administrative team and line-up of anchors]
  • Institutional leaders who practice sexual discrimination, harassment, and retaliation are not only protected by other organizational leaders [e.g. Bill Shine, Diane Brandi], including general counsel, but are also imitated by men below them in the hierarchy [e.g. Bill O’Reilly, who has also been the subject of complaints of sexual harassment]
  • Establishment of a workplace environment that gives power to men and takes it from women.  Examples of this include giving more and higher quality airtime to men, regulating women’s appearance in highly scripted ways, and repeatedly airing sexist broadcasts as if they were news [Check out this series of clips of Fox News’ rampant misogyny]
  • “Boys-will-be-boys” indulgence of men’s illegal behavior [See that series of clips I just mentioned!]
  • Punishment of and retaliation against those lower in the hierarchy who make people aware of the illegal acts [Fox News firings of those who came forward about sexual harassment]
  • Silencing news of the illegal behaviors, through intimidation or pay-off
  • Condoning these behaviors through high-level protection afforded the wrongdoers.  The wrongdoers stay, and those who complain of the wrongdoing must go.
  • This cycle repeats itself.

While the law (see also Chapter 6 of Gender Shrapnel in the Academic Workplace) distinguishes between quid pro quo (usually involving requests for sexual favors) and hostile work environment (HWE) harassment and discrimination, often where there is one form of harassment, the other is lurking as well.  There are multiple ways for the higher-ups in an organization to create a dehumanizing culture in which the lower-downs are not accorded respect for the work they do, are paid too little for the jobs they do, are silenced for taking a stand, and/or are removed because they challenge the hierarchy.  It is reported that Fox News employees, with Ailes at the helm, used both quid pro quo and HWE to foment a culture of harassment and dehumanization for decades.  This is textbook, people, and there is absolutely nothing shocking about it.  (Bryce Covert makes a similar point in this New York Times opinion piece.)

*****

 

 

Lock Her Up

(Remedios Varo, Witch Going To The Sabbath [1957]; https://www.wikiart.org/en/remedios-varo/witch-going-to-the-sabbath-1957)

As I drive south on I-81 in Virginia towards my home, I pass an old barn with a giant “Lock Her Up” sign nailed to the top.  The barn serves as a homemade billboard, publicizing its message for thousands of cars and trucks passing by each day.  The billboard reminds me how Michael Flynn led chants of “Lock Her Up” at last year’s Republican National Convention.  Oh, the irony.

A friend drives her car behind a truck with a multitude of stickers.  One of them is an exaggerated, Barbie-style female shape, in a sex pose, colored in with the confederate flag.  The caption is “Southern Style.”  Other stickers on the truck boast of the truck owner’s military service.  The sticker reminds me of how the confederate flag imposes racist, and now also explicitly sexist, messages masked as nostalgia for the past.  This is a past for which many people feel nothing akin to nostalgia, due to the overriding and violent oppression they and their ancestors experienced in that past, a past which resembles in too many ways the present.

A few days ago, I drove behind a truck that had a sticker that recommended that its readers, “Ditch the bitch.  Let’s go goose hunting.”  This prompted me to wonder who “the bitch” was and why the ditcher would engage in what appears to be an unsatisfying relationship with the ditched.  Things might work better, I thought, if the ditcher skipped the unwanted union with the “bitch” and just went directly to killing birds.  The bumper sticker evokes a general misogyny that seems even more unleashed than usual over the past year.  (*See this Gender Blog post on the “B-word,” used in reference to Hillary Clinton frequently during the campaign season.)

This past week, Donald Trump claimed to be the victim of a witch hunt.  He tweeted, “This is the single greatest witch hunt of a politician in American history!”  According to this article from the Smithsonian Magazine, tens of thousands of women were executed in witch trials in Europe between the late 1300’s and the late 1600’s, and of course most of us are familiar with the Salem Witch Trials here in the United States in the 1600’s and 1700’s.  History professor Mikki Brock’s interview in Motto is an excellent critique of Trump’s use of the term ‘witch hunt.’  The Motto piece states: “One of the great ironies of this of course is that Trump is not someone who has an especially high view of women,” Brock said. “For Trump to co-opt that term to paint himself as a victim shows a total misunderstanding and woeful ignorance of women — but also an unwillingness to see how power structures work and to be sensitive to the deep meanings behind this terminology.”

In this May 18, 2017, article in The Atlantic, Yasmeen Serhan speaks with historian Mary Beth Norton about witch hunts and witch trials.  Norton sees the witch hunt as “an expression [more] of military fear” in which white citizens believed the devil controlled Indians and witches.  Norton adds, “The problem that I set for myself as a historian was figuring out why Salem was so different, and my answer was fear of Indians and the Indian war and how the fear of the Indians got conflated with fear of the witches.”  Historians Brock and Norton tell us that the key to the witch hunt is the idea that a person is unfairly targeted (made “other,” as in the case of Native Americans and many women) or falsely accused.  Of course, then, we have to see Trump’s use of this term as analogous to his claims of “false news” for any media outlet that tarnishes the overblown image he has of himself. The man who just takes what he wants sees himself as unfairly targeted.  The man who encouraged, rally after rally, to have supporters chant “lock her up” sees himself as unfairly targeted.  Oh, the irony.

The “Lock Her Up” metaphor stretches to other women-punishing policies of the Trump administration, including the AHCA and the Global Gag Rule.  See this April 4, 2017, Foreign Policy article for more information on Trump’s anti-woman policies.

Politics seems to breed corruption. I’m not a political scientist and can’t speak to the history or statistics of this statement, but it certainly seems true to the casual observer of the political sphere. In this sense, if corrupt practices are part and parcel of how business is done, then I am concerned that women presidents and prime ministers (and potential presidents and prime ministers) are held to significantly higher standards than their men counterparts.  Former Brazil President Dilma Rousseff was impeached and removed from office last year, and South Korean President Park Geun-hye was impeached and removed from office this year.  This is a high percentage of specifically women leaders to be impeached!  (*The Pew Research Center reported on March 8, 2017, that “There are 15 female world leaders currently in office, eight of whom are their country’s first woman in power, according to our analysis of data from WEF and other sources. While the number of current female leaders – excluding monarchs and figurehead leaders – has more than doubled since 2000, these women still represent fewer than 10% of 193 UN member states.”)

(https://www.usnews.com/news/sports/articles/2016-03-23/political-crisis-relegates-rio-olympics-to-an-afterthought)

By many accounts, Dilma Rousseff and Park Geun-hye seem to have been engaged in corrupt practices, practices that are a part of the system in which they move.  I am not saying that impeachment wasn’t (or was) appropriate in these two cases, but I am saying that male colleagues seem to escape the intense scrutiny to which high-level women leaders are subjected.

Former Acting Attorney General Sally Yates, who seems only to have done an exemplary job in her office, illustrates the “Lock Her Up” metaphor even more clearly.  As she provided constitutional rationale both for criticizing Executive Order 13769 and for warning of Flynn’s compromised position, she was accused by Senator Charles Grassley of leaking information to the news media and scolded by Senator John Cornyn for making an “enormously disappointing” decision about the travel ban. (*See this The New York Times opinion piece from 5-11-2017.)

Remember, too, that Code Pink activist Desiree Fairooz was arrested for laughing at the confirmation hearing of Jeff Sessions.  The New York Times reports that Fairooz and two other protesters face “up to 12 months in jail, $2,000 in fines, or both, depending on the outcome of a June 21 sentencing hearing.”  “Lock Her Up” apparently extends from e-mail servers all the way to laughter.

What and whom do they want to lock up?  It seems we are somehow still afraid of women’s authority, success, irreverence, and genius.