Words, Words, Words: On Toxicity and Abuse in Online Activism

An image of a dark haired and light skinned woman, eyes closed with two fingers pressed to her temple as she is surrounded by a number of holographic images. Woman’s place is on the internet. (Artwork from Eclipse Phase by Tariq Hassan used under Creative Commons).
A landscape image of Shodan, a feminine face made up of green digital characters against a black background.
Digital Shodan by Chris R (http://twitter.com/offby1)

To all new readers: I’ve written a follow up to this article.

Not long ago my partner and I were seated in her car discussing the arbitrary nature of certain holidays and I opined, perhaps halfheartedly, that New Year’s was a worthwhile holiday simply for it being a useful vantage point for reflection, however arbitrary. It provides an overlook whence one can see a year of one’s life and world. A recent tranche of writing by several prominent members of the trans and queer feminist gaming community has renewed my faith in that idea– with the overleaf of the year we suddenly find a great deal of penetrating insight into activist discourse and the risks incurred by our silence about certain excesses that have come to define us too often.

The wages of rage in our communities, and the often aimless, unchecked anger striking both within and without have created a climate of toxicity and fear that not only undermine our highest ideals, but also corrode the comforts of community for the very people who most need it. One of the most leaden wages of that culture of rage is, indeed, fear. I have been praised for my voice by many in this community and called “brave” by more people than I can name, count, or thank; and yet sitting in my My Documents folder is a number of articles, some finished, others not, that are “on ice.”

When I mention the icebox of unpublished posts and articles to friends and colleagues, I do so with a forced smile, pretending that it’s a heady combination of academic perfectionism and fear of being attacked by bigots that leads me to suppress them. There is more than a grain of truth to this. As many of my friends, loved ones, and sisters in struggle have demonstrated and written about, there is a lot to fear from the 4chan-esque world of angry young men with ample resentment towards those of us they perceive to be purloining some birthright of theirs. My academic work is devoted, in no small measure to explaining their behaviour (more on this in a bit).

But I am lying when I say they are the sole source of my hesitation.

The rest, often as not even the lion’s share, comes from fear of something with the power to cut even deeper– my own community. I fear being cast suddenly as one of the “bad guys” for being insufficiently radical, too nuanced or too forgiving, or for simply writing something whose offensive dimensions would be unknown to me at the time of publication. In other words, for making an innocently ignorant mistake.

An image of a dark haired and light skinned woman, eyes closed with two fingers pressed to her temple as she is surrounded by a number of holographic images.
Woman’s place is on the internet– and it’s our responsibility to make it safe for each other. (Artwork from Eclipse Phase by Tariq Hassan used under Creative Commons).

The Tumblr-isation of Activism

I have feared stumbling over the Tumblr trip wire and falling into the abyss of “call-out culture” to be discredited with every slur and slander in the book by the people who I ought to be able to trust the most. This stays my author’s hand as much as anxiety about being attacked by, say, the same crowd that bedevils Anita Sarkeesian. I fear the moment I get tarred as a “collaborator,” “apologist” for privilege, or a “sell out” (to women, to Latin@s, to working class people, to trans folk). Equally troubling is the fear of my loved ones being caught in the mammoth whirlpool of Twitter/Tumblr Justice and tarred for their association with me.

Fear of this sends me, yearning, into the oblivious embrace of silence.

I have written about this in the past, obliquely, and spoken in either couched or very specific terms about my feelings on this matter, which have haunted my thoughts for some time. So much online social justice activism has become hyper-vigilant against sin, great or small, past or present. That sense, that even the smallest, meanest revelation of past transgressions would come back to haunt me, inspired this paragraph in an old article I wrote about the painful contradictions of feminist activism:

“The pressure for me has always been to aspire to that feminist Madonnahood, and the perfection this demands is rigorous indeed. There is a strangely Catholic quality to the demand I often hear to show my scars, to prove I am a woman by showing how I have been hurt, to prove that patriarchy can wound me by showing how it has.

For there is something very odd about what the perfection my activism and my internalised sense of morality has demanded of me. It is not only that I show my scars but that I, paradoxically, testify to my permanent perfection from birth. In this world where patriarchy has scratched, burned, and tortured me- and where proving this martyrdom is a requirement of feminist perfection- I must also somehow be unblemished by patriarchy.”

I stand by this, but I deliberately left enough spaces for readers to assume that I was speaking about white cis middle class feminism, the dreaded “mainstream” variety that it was more acceptable to criticise. I was, but I was also speaking about the wider activist enterprise upon which many of us are embarked. This includes the world of online social justice activism, trans politics–indeed, the radical left as a whole. We must paradoxically be “oppressed” and yet bear none of the markings of that oppression upon our consciousness; we can never bear baggage or scars; as people of colour we can never show our veil of double consciousness, per W.E.B DuBois. It feels, sometimes, as if we must arrive fully formed to the world of activism, the perfect agents of change, somehow entirely cognisant of the ever shifting morass of rules and prescribed or proscribed words, phrases, argot, and thought.

But this also presumes that there is some kind of Platonic perfection to which we must unproblematically aspire. There is the lingering but important question of disagreement; identity does not fully contain humanity, and there are many of us who are women, and/or trans, and/or people of colour who have good faith arguments against dominant strategic paradigms, or dominant cultures, norms, and rules. Time and again, I speak to people of my background in the whisper filled shadows of corners and corridors, quietly fretting about “getting it wrong” or being accused of collaboration or being a sell-out for voicing such criticisms. Even when such whispers have the audacity to become a loud conversation (behind locked doors) they rarely grow into public debates– too many of us fear we’re alone.

Identity and Politics

In a characteristically elegant act of rhetorical artistry, scholar Edward Said used his article on William Butler Yeats and colonialism to find insights about the entire colonial/anti-colonial enterprise. Said took the cultural ferment that he argued gave rise to much of Yeats’ oeuvre and used it to elaborate on both the triumphs and follies of decolonisation– to brilliant effect

Yeats, in being a tribune for Irish liberation (albeit a rather problematic one, as Said explains elsewhere), wrote poetry that was not only about Ireland and Irishness but also poems that held,

“…a good deal of promise in getting beyond them, not remaining trapped in the emotional self-indulgence of celebrating one’s own identity. There is first of all the possibility of discovering a world not constructed out of warring essences. Second, there is the possibility of a universalism that is not limited or coercive, which beliving that all people have only one single identity is… Third, and most important, moving beyond nativism does not mean abandoning nationality, but it does mean thinking of local identity as not exhaustive, and therefore not being anxious to confine one’s self to one’s own sphere, with its ceremonies of belonging, its built in chauvinism, and its limiting sense of security.”

“Nativism” is Said’s word for nationalisms that trumpet a reversal of colonialist hierarchies, exalting rather than denigrating the purported essence of the colonised. This, Said argues, leads to a “metaphysics of essences” that then begets an “unthinking acceptance of stereotypes, myths, animosities, and traditions encouraged by imperialism.”

So, what does this have to do with us and online activism? Said was speaking to vexations that have bedevilled every liberation movement, and used art to elucidate what is a fairly common struggle: how do we continue on the path to the promised land without taking perpetual detours in hells of our own making? How do we avoid the pitfalls created by the very fires we use to emancipate ourselves? And most pertinent for me: how do we do activism without taking too much of patriarchy for granted?

I have long argued (privately) that our current phase of online activism is very much hobbled by the logic of neoliberalism and its emphasis on the individual, in ways that many of us are completely unaware of. Much online activism exalts the particular at the expense of the collective, rewarding individual episodes of catharsis and valuing them with considerably higher esteem than the more hard-nosed and less histrionic work that sustains a community. This is the dark side of the anxiety over the “tone argument.”

The Uses of Anger to Late Capitalism

Odds are if you belong to marginalised group, you are saddled with a stigma against being angry. Women, people of colour, people with disabilities, trans people, the poor and labouring classes, all face various and specific stigmas for being “too loud” or “too angry.” There are paradigmatic stereotypes in the particular, as well, “Angry Black Wo/Man,” “Angry Tranny,” “Feisty Latina,” “Dragon Lady,” “class warrior,” and so on, with which we are all painfully familiar in one way or another. It was with noble intentions that many of us rallied around the idea that “tone policing” was an oppressive construct meant to deny us the eminent humanity and cleansing fire of anger. We had a right to be angry, as surely as anyone else; moreso, even. Oppression ought to make one angry.

But in the process, “the tone argument” came to be understood less as a complex piece of social machinery than an easily identifiable trope; it then became a badge that could be waved at will in any discussion to absolve one of responsibility for their words. Even though we as leftists quite literally wrote the book(s) on why and how language matters, we suspend that understanding when it comes to our own community members because we have come to value the sanctity of their anger over the integrity of the wider group. Some of us excuse this on the grounds that we provide the only safe place for certain people to express anger without being shamed for it, and that living with oppression leaves us with pent up rage that demands expression.

The individual catharsis, then, comes to matter more than the collective, and responsibility to a wider community is blurred, if not quite lost.

It’s why it was difficult for many in the trans community to challenge the #DieCisScum hashtag, for example, because any who questioned it would be charged with “tone policing” and denying the community’s right to be angry. But the problem always was that this pseudo-therapeutic exercise in catharsis only made a few people feel better while starting a violently unnecessary and unhelpful discussion with hordes of cis people who laid their own hurt and anger at every trans person’s door. It took a tarring brush to the entire community for next to no meaningful gain, other than sticking it to “our oppressors” for the benefit of a handful.

This is where we return to Said and his argument that nativism operated under colonialist logic; in addition to the emphasis on individual catharsis, the culture of unchecked rage that sometimes wracks us is also an artefact of patriarchy itself and its lust for competitive, often violent contest. Much ink has been spilled on the masculinism that infects activist discourse, leading to delightfully snarky epithets like “Manarchism,” but we ignore the fact that white cis men are not the only people perpetuating this; it’s a culture, it does not dwell only in those with a perceived “essence.” We often unthinkingly accept and venerate the modalities and methods that patriarchy most favours; rage fuelled, unempathetic, us-versus-them politics is an ideal fit with the political hellscape of modern, neo-liberal patriarchy. It is a world that prizes the atomised particular over the powerful but compromising collective.

Your rage fuels the profits of every major website on the internet; be it Facebook, Twitter, Fox Nation, the New York Times’ comment sections, blog comments, Reddit, Tumblr, or Slashdot, your rage gets others angry, committing them to call-and-response threads hundreds of comments deep, which keeps them coming back to threads obsessively, which generates pageviews, ad impressions, and more revenue for the interested parties.

Activist rage is linkbait.

The isomorphism between the particularly fiery posture of some activism and the weeknight lineup of American cable news ought not be lost on us. If we can recognise the latter as a cynical sop to capital that is degrading our discourse, then it might be time to acknowledge that, at least sometimes, we are pressed into a similar role by the cultural logic of our society. Rage seduces us all, no matter what our background, and its sirensong will always be in the language that most appeals to us as individuals, regardless of our politics.

An image showing two wire mesh human faces staring at each other in an amber/orange field of numbers.
I imagine queer cyborgs might look like this, only cooler.

Ethics for Queer Cyborgs

This past year I began to outline a theory of online behaviour, entitled Ethics For Cyborgs, that explained why we ought to go beyond blaming anonymity for the rash outbreaks of prejudice and mass cruelty that predominate online– what is sometimes erroneously called “trolling,” and what too often becomes a very material threat to one’s life and livelihood. I argued, in brief, that although anonymity was a part of the problem, it has been vastly overemphasised in popular and academic discussions alike, and that taking it away would not bring us to a significantly better place online, free from prejudice and the oppression of privilege’s collective soft power. Instead, I said it must be defended as a common human right for us all online, and that we must look instead to the fact that the internet is presented to us as a mobius strip of reality and unreality– real when it’s convenient, unreal when it is not, and that the cultural conceits educating us into thinking of cyberspace as less real than “meatspace” make inhumane behaviour inevitable. This is a new medium for human interaction, and one where our socialisation for it has been decidedly faulty, laden with the false conventional wisdom that our eyes deceive us.

This argument was presented as one that chiefly explained the well-known behaviour of prejudiced people who would form hate mobs directed at outspoken women and queer people. The hate mail, the organised campaigns, the rape and death threats, the pornography, the organised and well-marshalled targeting of people’s homes, families, and loved ones, would be, I argued, more intelligible within this framework.

What I did not foreground, however, was the fact that this theory– that we are socialised to believe the internet is less than real, and that this makes belligerent behaviour more likely and more defensible– also explained the less violent, but still worrying behaviour of some social justice activists who delight in vitriolic attacks against their own when they are perceived to have erred. The fusillade of expletive laden insults and cruelly-cast public aspersions by our own are equally explicable by that theory. We ourselves fail to keep sight of the fact that the people we attack are human beings, and that our words have power.

My friend, activist Kat Hache, spoke about this phenomenon in her own article on activist rage:

Anita Sarkeesian’s TED talk touched on this sort of performative cruelty, where targeting other individuals online has gained somewhat of a competitive aspect, similar to that of a video game, with a rewards system that reinforces toxic behavior.  I have to say, as much as I’ve seen directed at me that mirrors exactly what she describes in the threads about me on 4chan, I’ve seen a disturbing amount within the social justice circle.”

I find myself reminded of the time when I was a tadpole trans woman and mere neophyte blogger, when I was raked over the coals by a woman who damned me for defending a cis friend who had made a mistake on trans issues; not only was I torn into, but another woman even wished death to that same friend when I (ill-advisedly) brought up her terminal illness. My interlocutor hoped my friend would die sooner, she said.

It is an extreme example but one that is nevertheless entirely too common, and one that I came perilously close to taking as a model. There was a time in my life where I took pride in being a “social justice warrior” on Reddit, ticking the boxes of others’ mistakes, missteps, and misspoken words, cruelly scolding people, looking for those who were “doing it wrong” as a means of validating my own sense of integrity as an activist, as if each person I roasted would be a talisman against the same thing happening to me ever again. It was only when I discovered that I had made someone cry for hours that I took a long step back and asked myself if I was really making the world a better place by doing this.

I had at last allowed myself to acknowledge that this was not what I wanted to do as an activist.

A poorly drawn castle on a floating island in the middle of a starry sky with a poorly drawn crescent moon above it.
My old “castle in the air” drawing– it was one of the first things I drew for blogging that symbolised my aspirations

From Here to Eternity: Concluding Thoughts

At its best, activism is not merely opposition to what is, it is also constructive of what will be. Ours is not a utopia of negatives– a world without this, without that, and so forth– but also a world of affirmatives and possibilities. This swirling gyre of rage and ressentiment is a terrible artefact of oppression, and one we ought not consign ourselves to. It is not a wormhole to liberation, however much we may wish it to be.

What aroused my concern was the fact that there are too many people, in the trans community alone, who feel like they are unable to call it their community and find shelter there because the tenor of discourse is so corrosive as to be just as stressful and antagonistic as the outside world. I hear this from a number of people who are close to me and have contributed mightily to activist communities with labour, art, and struggle– and I hear it from neophytes and outsiders who wish to join but find themselves put off by the rancour they hear from within. One example of the latter was a trans woman named Deb who commented on an article I wrote criticising the culture that led to the vicious online firestorm surrounding Carolyn Petit and her review of GTA V. Deb worried that that same “poisonous attitude” was creeping into “otherwise nice places,” going on to cite examples of speech in queer communities that troubled her. My reply was at pains to draw a clear distinction between oppressive speech and counter-oppressive speech, and to assert that the difference in power between the two was not trivial. Nevertheless, her core points could not be denied and so I addressed those at greater length. What I said there is, I think, a good way to close:

“It is not reasonable to compare the angry speech of a powerless minority to the “hate speech” (in the legal and sociological sense of that term) of a privileged group, but there is an ethical argument to be made. We may not materially disadvantage cis people when we speak in such overtly aggressive ways, but we do something equally bad– and you exemplify this– we isolate our community members and corrode the very community that is meant to be a shelter for us against an often uncaring world. I do not wish to be in a community where spite and anger are the prevailing emotions, however justified they may be in some cosmic sense. More than cis people, we owe it to each other to make our community more productive. The simple and ineluctable truth about our corrosive call-out culture is that it’s part of this larger problem I addressed, where we use the unique nature of the internet to do harm. People saying that others should commit suicide, die in a fire, or making death threats are not acceptable– whoever says them. And as feminists and social justice activists, we must make that clearer without indulging in the overused and disingenuous argument that oppression makes that sort of expression valid.”

We must remember that considering the impact of our words and the register in which they are spoken is not genuflection to the oppressor, but love and respect for our peers.

I would now take this one step further to say that while sheltering our community members must always take priority, we must also challenge ourselves to be merciful to those who make themselves our enemies, and keep their humanity in sight even as they denude themselves of it with petty hatred. We can do more than simply meet their cruelty with ineffectual rage, and we can do more than simply shelter in place from their privilege. It is time that we took our convictions to their logical conclusion and set our sights higher than the call outs of particular points of failure evinced by some hapless individual; it is time we took the next step so many in our communities are already taking, to a social justice activism recommitted to changing social structures and not just creating echo chambers to declaim against what we have. In Mattie Brice’s words we “need to keep in mind that we’re fighting the system that uses people to marginalise others, not the people themselves.”

Throughout this piece I have, likely to the consternation of some, been less careful with my uses of the terms “anger” and “rage” than some of the other critics and activists I have cited. I did this in part because I think it can be healthy to be critical about what we admit as “anger” and thus acceptable under the dominant paradigms of activist discourse. One can take the excellent tack that Aevee Bee took in her article and say that “anger isn’t abuse and abuse isn’t anger,” recognising that abuse is not something we should excuse with the ennoblement of anger that we indulge, but we can also think about the efficacy of even “acceptable” forms of anger. Why? Because I believe that lack of circumspection is at the heart of the problem. We allow important activist insights to metamorphose into inflexible rules, rather than useful information to help us make sense of an ever-undulating landscape. Yes, anger is useful and sometimes vitally necessary. But we can hold onto that while judging activist tactics on a case by case basis. Rather than applying blanket rules (“all questioning of anger is tone policing”) we can be nimbly thoughtful in our assessments and recognise that not every problem we face is the nail to anger’s hammer.

Justice does not take the shape of punishment eagerly dispensed. Let us recommit to the just creed that has summoned us to this work: a clarion call that resonates with our shared humanity and compels us towards a more compassionate and merciful understanding of justice– surely we owe it to ourselves.