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.

Civility

A few months ago, I delivered an impromptu anti-Trump rant at the dinner table.  The rant was rambling.  It covered the imprudent proposal to repeal the ACA, racist and anti-immigrant policies, sexist comments, and a general and increasing concern about the candidate’s sanity.  When I finished, my daughter said scoldingly, “Mo-oooom.  Opinions!”  I retorted, “Yes, I have a few.”  My daughter’s comment and rolling eyes shouldn’t surprise any of us who know what 12-year-olds are about, and I appreciate my daughter’s sense of challenge and feistiness.  At the same time, I do wonder if her desire for me to express fewer opinions comes from the social inculcation of a woman’s place, niceness, and civility, all of which seem to nudge people to make women “behave.”  Like most young people, my daughter is learning to navigate gendered impositions of speech and silence, while also figuring out how to police these very same elements.

The exchange reveals how we can feel discomfort when we hear strongly stated opinions and how that discomfort can result in an urge to silence another person.  We have likely all silenced a person or an idea, as we instinctively protect dearly-held beliefs and opinions and/or an internally set sense of how things should be said or done.  In other words, we have a built-in sense of civility and its relevance to certain social or political contexts.  Popular culture breaks with some of these gendered norms, but often at a cost.  For example, Leslie Jones starred as part of the all-star cast of the remake of “Ghostbusters” but suffered a ridiculous chain of insults based on her race and gender.  The racism and misogyny of those who criticized her probably stemmed in part from their desire to remember “Ghostbusters” as a dude-centered and incredibly successful ‘80’s movie.  The intrusion of women, including a woman of color, on that hallowed ground of pop culture stirred anger and hostility directed primarily at the person whose profile is the most apparently intersectional.

What is civility, if not a list of rules to live by?  Who writes the rules, and who suffers more if they break them?  At Billboard’s Women in Music event back in December, Madonna addressed gender disparities in the music industry:  “Thank you for acknowledging my ability to continue my career for 34 years in the face of blatant sexism and misogyny and constant bullying and relentless abuse.” She discussed her muse, David Bowie, who “embodied male and female spirit” and “made me think there were no rules. But I was wrong. There are no rules – if you’re a boy. There are rules if you’re a girl.”

Those rules are as follows: “If you’re a girl, you have to play the game. You’re allowed to be pretty and cute and sexy. But don’t act too smart. Don’t have an opinion that’s out of line with the status quo. You are allowed to be objectified by men and dress like a slut, but don’t own your sluttiness. And do not, I repeat do not, share your own sexual fantasies with the world. Be what men want you to be, but more importantly, be what women feel comfortable with you being around other men. And finally, do not age. Because to age is a sin. You will be criticised and vilified and definitely not played on the radio” (cited in The Guardian, 12-12-16). Traditional race and gender norms rely on codes of civility for their survival.  The more we follow civility rules and tacitly or explicitly police others’ behaviors, the more we reinforce the damaging status quo of oppression.

At many universities with honor codes or systems, the word ‘civility’ accompanies the word ‘honor,’ thus recalling centuries-old (millennia-old) systems of behaviors based on expectations of gendered norms and scripts and enforcing those norms with a code of civility, which silences anything or anyone approaching reasoned protest.  In fact, my institution still uses the phrase “conduct unbecoming a gentleman,” thus entrenching behavioral codes and implying that those who break them (according to whom?) are somehow less attractive, less lovely, less in the box in which they belong.  We have to question more fully why it is considered “unattractive” to call out injustice and ask for change.

The questioning of civility codes often falls disproportionately on those who have less power in hierarchical situations, thus allowing the people with more power to retain it in what appears to be a morally superior, more “becoming” way.  Steven Mintz, a professor from Cal Poly who calls himself the “Ethics Sage,” wrote this 2012 blog post about civility.  Mintz contributes to the entrenchment of gendered civility scripts by expressing surprise that girls and women are also capable of civil “mayhem”:  “Have you checked out You Tube lately? More and more we see video clips of teenagers attacking one another and there seems to be a marked increase in girls getting involved in the mayhem. I suppose such actions were the motivation for the Oxygen network developing a television program called Bad Girls Club that is in its sixth season.  Sigh.”  He concludes the post by saying, “Civil discourse was an important value to our founding fathers. Perhaps Ralph Waldo Emerson said it best: ‘There can be no high civility without a deep morality.’”

There were founding fathers who owned slaves and raped women, which should tell us once again to question postures of moral superiority cloaked as civility.

People should have stark opinions, and disagreement should make us stronger.  I want us to have a thoughtful rationale for those very opinions, a rationale that has taken into account data and multiple viewpoints.  I want us to state opinions thoughtfully but also forthrightly, and this is a lifelong challenge for most of us.  I want opinions not to translate into universal truths that end up harming people and our planet.

This means that I want Trump to get the hell off Twitter (I know, “Mooo-ooom.  Opinions!”) and for us to dismantle his platform of selfishness, lies, and violence.  How can we have these conversations in a respectful way that doesn’t water down the real danger that many of us observe and feel and doesn’t silence individuals or groups?  Is it more “civil” to maintain an unfair status quo by silencing others or to voice unequivocally what is wrong with the status quo?

(See this 5-11-2003 NPR piece on George Washington and civility.)