(Content note: hate and threats, including violently misogynist hatred and threats of rape and death.)
Progressives condemn the hateful vitriol aimed at feminist women.
Why do we aim it at people we don’t like?
As you probably know, Texas pastor and conservative activist Rick Scarborough recently commented on the right-wing Christian fight against same-sex marriage, saying, “We are not going to bow, we are not going to bend, and if necessary, we will burn.”
Many progressives responded as if Scarborough had threatened to set himself on fire. And many of those progressives responded to this supposed suicide threat with glee. They said things like, “I’ll give him the matches,” and, “Can I bring the marshmallows?” When the Supreme Court decision on marriage equality came down, they called for Scarborough to make good on his supposed promise, and mocked him for not doing it. (This isn’t just one or two people, either — it’s been all over my Facebook feed.)
I have a couple of problems with this. One, as Ed Brayton (Dispatches from the Culture Wars) has pointed out repeatedly on Facebook, is that Scarborough’s statement was not, in fact, a threat to set himself on fire. It was an absurd statement of a willingness to fight marriage equality to the death — but it wasn’t a threat to kill himself by burning. But that’s not what I want to talk about. I want to talk about my other problem with this progressive response.
My problem is that I see it as a threat.
Here’s the thing. I’m a feminist writer on the Internet — which means I get a whole lot of people publicly saying that I should experience brutal violence or die in some horrible way, and expressing pleasure at the thought of it happening. And when they do, I see it as a threat. Most of my readers see it that way, too. When people publicly tell me “I HOPE YOU GET RAPED,” or that “someone should tattoo a giant cock across your face,” or that “I think I’m going to become a far right wing, woman raping clergyman,” or that I should “GO CHOKE ON A DICK AND DIE,” or that I should “just die already,” or when they tell me to “Go fuck yourself with a knife,” or when they tell me “Kill yourself” — most of my readers recognize it as a threat. When other women are targeted with hateful messages saying, “You should be killed very slowly,” “Will somebody please rape Rebecca Watson,” “This bitch needs to be punched in the throat,” or “Kill yourself Kill yourself Kill yourself Kill yourself Kill yourself Kill yourself Kill yourself Kill yourself Kill yourself Kill yourself Kill yourself…”– most of my readers recognize it as a threat.
My readers understand that a threat doesn’t have to be explicit to be real. They understand that very few people are foolish enough to come out and say, “I want to do violent things to you and I’m making a plan to do them” (although sometimes they are). They understand that veiled threats are real threats; that saying, “Nice place you’ve got, it’d be a shame if something happened to it,” is a real threat. And they understand that even if there’s no serious plan to do physical harm, the intent is still to threaten and terrorize, to make the Internet a toxic and frightening place where women are afraid to speak. Most of my readers are feminists and social justice activists — and most of them respond to this public outpouring of hateful, violent ideation with rage and horror.
And I think at least some of the people who are horrified at the threats against me, and against other women, are the same people publicly crowing over the notion of Scarborough burning to death.
I’m not okay with that. To put it mildly.
Why is it okay for progressives to tell Scarborough that since he (supposedly) promised to kill himself, he should now follow through on that promise? Why is it okay to tell him that they’d give him the matches, and bring marshmallows to toast while he burned? Why is it horrifying for anti-feminists to tell me that I should kill myself, that I should stick a knife in my cunt, that I should choke on a dick and die — but it’s okay for progressives to tell Scarborough that he should kill himself, that they’d watch with pleasure while he did it, that they’d give him the tools to do it?
What’s the difference?
Yes, there are differences. Anti-feminists have been engaging in a sustained, systematic, organized, years-long campaign of harassment and threats against feminist women. As far as I know, there hasn’t been anything like that from the left — and that’s an important difference. (If I’m mistaken about this, by the way, please let me know — with citations.) And of course, there are different power dynamics: there’s the difference between “punching up” and “punching down.” When LGBT people direct gleeful rage at the religious right, and in particular at the religious right’s opposition to marriage equality and other LGBT rights — that’s punching up. When anti-feminist men direct gleeful rage at feminist women — that’s punching down. I’ll accept a whole lot more anger and vitriol when it’s punching up. I’m not tone-trolling or civility policing: I am totally on board with people being uncivil as hell when they’re punching up.
But I draw the line at threats of violence.
I draw the line at telling people how great it would be if they suffered excruciating pain. I draw the line at telling people how great it would be if they died. I draw the line at telling people to kill themselves.
I’m not immune to the pleasures of scathingly violent vitriol. I’m queer, and I’ve had more than one revenge fantasy about hateful homophobes like Scarborough. I get why people say this stuff. I’ve done it myself. And I regret it. I think it was wrong; I don’t do it anymore; and I’m asking other people who do it to reconsider.
Now, I’m sure plenty of people will say that these comments about Scarborough are obviously not serious. Of course they don’t sincerely want Scarborough to set himself on fire and burn to death; of course they wouldn’t watch gleefully if it happened; of course they wouldn’t give him the matches. Of course it’s not a threat. It’s just a joke, just morbid humor, the venting of years of anger in a burst of over-the-top hyperbole.
You know what? That’s exactly what many of the anti-feminists say. They say they’re just kidding. They say that their public wishes for feminists to be brutally raped and murdered, their public wishes for feminists to kill themselves, are just jokes — hyperbolic, satirical, over-the-top vitriol, obviously not meant to be taken seriously. They say these comments aren’t meant to be threats — and that it’s ridiculous for women to treat them as threats.
And most of my readers would call this bullshit. They would point out that there is no way to tell the difference between a “joking” threat and a serious threat. They would point out that when people persist in telling these “jokes,” even in the face of women overwhelmingly saying how vile and traumatic they are for us, this callousness itself is sexist and misogynistic. They would point out that even the “joking” threats perpetuate sexist and misogynist attitudes, and normalize them, and desensitize people to them. They would point out that even the “joking” threats contribute to a culture of misogyny — a culture where victims of rape and other violence are blamed for it, where the desire to rape is treated as understandable, where the seriousness of rape is trivialized, where the desire to punish rapists is decreased. They point to extensive research backing up this conclusion.
If progressives are going to condemn this culture of brutal threats, we need to not perpetuate it. We need to not say, “Geez, of course I didn’t mean it when I said you should kill yourself painfully and gruesomely, lighten up already.” If we’re going to speak against unintended ugliness by saying that “intention is not magic,” we need to not act as if our own behavior is covered by a magical cloak of non-evil intentions.
We have a culture where being a public figure — any public figure, not just a controversial one — means a serious risk of being targeted with a firehose of hatred, harassment, and graphic threats of violence and death. We have a culture where more recognition for your work, more visibility, more acclaim, means getting hit with a bigger firehose. And this is keeping some very smart, talented people out of the public arena. This is a problem for everybody. It’s especially a problem for women, for people of color, for LGBT people, for other folks on the marginalized end of power dynamics. It’s especially a problem when the firehose of hatred is just one of many tools keeping oppressed people down. But it’s a problem for everybody — and we need to take it seriously.
Of course there’s a place in our culture for scathing, over-the-top vitriol. I am a big advocate of the expression of rage — especially when it’s oppressed people raging at their oppressors. And of course there’s a place in our culture for morbid humor. I love morbid humor. But there’s a line between morbid, scathing, vitriolic humor — and the public expression of bloodlust. That may be a difficult line to draw, and it’s worth having a discussion of how and where to draw it. But the line needs to be drawn. And wherever the line gets drawn, saying, “I hope you kill yourself by setting yourself on fire and horribly burning to death, I’ll watch with pleasure and even help you do it,” is clearly on the wrong side.
Greta Christina is author of four books: Comforting Thoughts About Death That Have Nothing to Do with God, Coming Out Atheist: How to Do It, How to Help Each Other, and Why, Why Are You Atheists So Angry? 99 Things That Piss Off the Godless, and Bending: Dirty Kinky Stories About Pain, Power, Religion, Unicorns, & More.