Wednesday 9 November 2011

The Answer to Online Abuse - Compassion

As you have probably heard by now, this past week has seen an outpour of writing by women who are sick and tired of experiencing online abuse. I wrote a small summary for WVoN, and Cath has gathered all the links on her blog.

I have given this matter a lot of thought these past days, trying to find a way to either share my experience or ignore the issue altogether.

I had to fight a few “demons” on the way. “Outsider Syndrome” came out in full gear, and I was left feeling, once again, like the “odd feminist out”.

Because, you see… Well… there really is no other way to say this, but…

I have never experienced online abuse.

So when I read Ray’s words, saying
“the internet is a society where being (perceived as) female and writing about feminism invariably leads to responses on the theme of *nasty abuse*”

I was left feeling… well… “different”.

For I am on the internet, and have been blogging for 3-4 years now. I am universally perceived as female and I write about feminism. But…

I have never experienced online abuse.

Faced with this reality, my demons (aka “Outsider Syndrome”) began screaming with rage, and expressing irrational, incorrect, and downright silly ideas:
OMG, how can they say that all feminists experience abuse? I haven’t! What is she trying to say? That I’m not a feminist? Or perhaps it’s because, oh, I don’t know, NOBODY HAS EVER HEARD OF ME! NOBODY READS WHAT I WRITE. And so nobody even bothers sending me abuse.”

And when I say silly, I mean it. For a split second my demon went on:
You know what? They should be downright grateful they are getting abuse! At least it shows someone is reading what they write. How would they like it if nobody took any notice of them? HUH? ‘Cuz that’s what happens to me! You know what, I wish I was getting…

Yeah, my demons are silly. They are made up of an emotional response to a painful situation. It’s complicated, but you can read about how they work in Havi’s blog.

So I had to calm them down before I could think clearly about what is going on. And I have a couple of theories.

  • Is it possible that I haven’t experienced any abuse online because I’m just not that popular? After all, if nobody reads what you write, then nobody can get angry at you.

  • Or is it possible that what I write about is not all that “feminist”? Or controversial? I have been keeping a low profile on the feminist front, mainly because I’ve been bored of it. But then again, I have written a post titled “Feminism: it’s all been co-opted”. And “The meaning of sexualisation”. So yes, I do write feminist-y things.

  • This is the most interesting and exciting one of all. Is it possible that the language I’m using to write is somehow not “triggering” to those people who are most likely to spout abuse at women/feminist writers?
Oh, if only this last one was true. If you’ve been following this blog, you’ll know that I’ve been trying to come up with a different language to use when discussing politics for a while now. A language that is less confrontational, which seeks to explain things rather than “force” one’s argument onto someone else. Based in dialogue rather than fight.

The answer is likely to include all of the above, along with things like “sheer luck”. But it’s the last one that provides the gate to “the alternative”.

I believe that the people sending abuse to women are in a lot of pain. It has been said before, I’m not breaking any new ground here. But it’s important to remember.

Perhaps it’s because I’ve been in a lot of pain myself. Perhaps it’s because the Universe decided I should be extra sensitive to it. But the fact is that I can see the suffering that many men are under. For it appears to be mostly men who are “triggered” by feminist words.

Sometimes this knowledge scares me, for I have no idea where on Earth it comes from. Compassion, I suppose. It is a difficult thing to have compassion for the oppressed and for the oppressor. But fortunately, compassion is unlimited.

So if this is true, and a different “language” helps to not trigger abuse, then my suggestion to women/feminist writers would be… compassion.
Yes, I know it’s difficult. It’s only taken me 4 years to get here, and I’ve only just started. But it seems to be the only thing that works, judging by the success of other writers.

Not to mention that Buddhists would not have it as one of their core practices if it didn’t work in some way.

Notice that I use the word “trigger” to mean “what makes abusers angry”. I do this for a reason. When we are in pain, a few words can trigger an emotional response much like the one I had when I read Ray’s post.

In my case, her reference to “all feminists getting abuse” triggered by Outsider Syndrome, along with my “Popularity Deficiency Affliction”. My emotional response (or demon) said “Omg I’m different to all of them! And I’m unpopular as Hell!”.

And it drove me so angry and sad that I was within meters of saying not-so-nice things at Ray (in my head). Things like “Oh, you should be grateful you get abuse, you popular feminist; I bet you sleep in a bed of roses and bath in Champagne”.

Because the demons responsible for this kind of response are very silly. (And in my case, also funny).

These demons only come out when we are in pain. So when you see abuse, this is in all likelihood the words of someone’s demon raging in their heads and driving them to type horrible things.

I hope this makes some sense. What I’m trying to say is this: “people say horrible things when they are in pain”. And it helps if we remind ourselves that the horrible things are an expression of someone’s pain, and have nothing to do with us.

Just like in my case, the reactions from my demons had absolutely nothing to do with Ray, who is an amazing feminist doing a fantastic job. My rational, not-in-pain self has nothing but positive things to say about her.

I give my own experience as example because I think it will help. Because it shows how the “hurling abuse at someone on the internet” gene is present in all of us. Because we are all human, we all have pain, and we can all be triggered at any point by anyone.

And that’s why the answer to abuse is likely to be compassion.

Note 1: I want to make it extra clear that I do not have a single negative feeling towards Ray. I really think she's great. And I don't hold her responsible in any way for how I felt, because that would be stoopid. I believe she said the right thing, and my own personal demons have nothing to do her.
Note 2: For more about compassion and Buddhism, Pema Chodron's cds are a good place to start.
Note 3: I want to make it absolutely clear that having compassion for online abusers does not, in any way, condone their violent behaviour. Nor does it mean we should stop talking about what we need to talk about, ie: feminism. It just means that we can both a) put a stop to escalating abuse and b) we can use less triggering language. Though as my example shows, it will be pretty impossible to eliminate all triggering language, for anything at all can provide a trigger. Just think of it as sanding off some rough edges so that our words are not unncessesarily spiky.


Deepika said...

You know, I really love reading your blog and have been reading for a while and I don't think I've commented before.

But what you propose here is unjust and untenable.

I don't even know where to start. It's simply so off.

Really, really off.

Anonymous said...

I always read your blogs, and I found your old blog and read that too. I don't often comment, because fundamentally I've largely given up ideologies, so it wouldn't help much to be critiquing YOUR ideologies (any more than I already have).

But I'm attracted to your blog because it highlights compassion so highly, and you seem so genuine. So many bloggers (particularly many radical and idealogical bloggers) wear their hatred on their sleeves, but rarely their vulnerabilities.

So maybe people don't get fired up with you, because they sense genuinely human values, even if they disagree with you. But I'm a bit puzzled about Deepika's comment above. I've kept re-reading your post, to try to guess what might have offended her/him so much. Your compassion?

Perhaps Deepika is just trying to give you a little abuse, so you don't feel like an outsider?!?
Michael Biggs

Deepika said...

Look - apologies for not being specific earlier. I guess I was still digesting what you wrote and I should have waited before responding.

But the entire second half of the post is basically saying "Female bloggers! Watch your tone - you are triggering the poor males and driving them to send rape/death/mutilation threats your way!"

So either women don't write about contentious topics, or they sugar-coat it till the content is pretty much lost in the noise.

It's coming off a little bit victim-blamey.

The only thing you wrote that made sense to me was this: "Though as my example shows, it will be pretty impossible to eliminate all triggering language, for anything at all can provide a trigger." YES. Thank you. This. The solution can NOT be to not write, or to constantly watch your tone. Too many feminist writers have already talked about doing that with every single word they write.

Then you end with something about "unnecessarily spiky" language - could you define that please? Maybe provide examples?

You know, this is the only post you've ever written that I've found personally "triggering" - enough to comment on it. Funny, that.

Deepika said...

@Michael Biggs

Where is the abuse in my first comment, you poor, hurt, angry, TRIGGERED man? If you could just find it in yourself to work through all your pain and emotions to point it out to me...

Deepika said...

@ MaryTracy

Btw - posted a comment explaining what I found so off-putting about the OP that seems to have disappeared into the ether. In mod? Deleted?

Anonymous said...


My original reference to you was puzzlement about what it was in Mary's blog that you found "really, really off". You've since explained it, but I originally thought that you were referring to compassion.

I can't spot the reason for these insults from you to me. You know nothing about me, other than the fact that I'm a man.

My email to Mary was generated from wanting to express some appreciation for her blogging, and explaining why I usually don't respond in the comments. Then I expressed my puzzlement at your post. From this, you think I am angry and "triggered"?

In traffic, many people feel quite willing to honk agressively at strangers in cars - much more than they would shout abuse at strangers walking with them on the footpath. I wonder whether this is a good analogy with internet blog behaviour. Something about the anonymity of it heightens the culture of acceptable agression.
Michael Biggs

Mary Tracy said...

Hi Deepika

Indeed, your comment got stuck in mod for no reason; blogger is not very smart.

These are all new concepts for me, so for all I know I could be getting things wrong.

But I most certainly did not mean that we should not write about contentious topics, or that we should sugar coat it. I sait at the end that having compassion does not mean we should stop talking about feminism.

Let me see if I can explain this better. When we experience compassion for someone, we enter a sort of different state of mind. (This may sound strange, but please bear with me). It is from this different state of mind that we can write without anger, and when we write without anger the words and expressions that are likely to trigger people the most simply "melt away".

It is difficult for me to come up with an example of what I mean. If I had inded said "watch your tone", that would have probably constituted "unnecessarily spiky" language.

Instead, what I'm saying is "female bloggers: is it possible to say the same thing without triggering a painful response on people who are in a lot of pain?".

If it turns out that it can't be done, then well, I suppose that can't be helped. But I don't think we have even tried yet.

See, when you truly understand how the mind of the oppressor works, you begin to realise how much pain they are under. Only someone very nasty towards themselves could justify being nasty to others.

Deepika said...

Thank you for the response, and for un-stucking the comment. Appreciate it.

OK, here's where I keep getting hung up.

When you say "But I don't think we have even tried yet" regarding watching our words it really puzzles me. Have you even read the New Statesman piece where female bloggers speak out? (Sorry I don't know how to hyperlink so I'm just pasting the url here:

Eleanor O'Hagen: "I think it's because, very early on, I became conscious of how my opinions would be received and began watering them down, or not expressing them at all. I noticed that making feminist arguments led to more abuse and, as a result, I rarely wrote about feminism at all."

Dawn Foster: "Rather than simply being negative, it was clear the commenters hadn't read the post: just clocked the title, my gender and started punching the keyboard furiously."

Anonymous: "We're constantly ducking and diving, choosing our words carefully and having to walk the tightrope of being completely true to our beliefs, regardless of whether they happen to please other feminists or (conversely) the sexist majority, but also making sure we don't prompt misogynists to attack us because of an ill-chosen word or two.

We feel like our arguments have to be tight at all times and that we'd better not type out anything less than reasonable (in anger) because the punishment we receive is likely to be disproportionate to the intellectual crime."

So I really don't think that many, many other female bloggers haven't tried this whole "tone" thing.

Re anger. From your comment above: " It is from this different state of mind that we can write without anger, and when we write without anger the words and expressions that are likely to trigger people the most simply "melt away". "

People=men here yes? I'd really like to see you back this claim up, based on something other than the fact that your blog as not attracted the more abusive form of troll because of how compassionately and un-angrily you write.

And personally, I really love reading a righteous post, brimming with anger at the injustice of the world, of the kind that ballbuster does, for e.g. A lot of women find solace, comfort and solidarity in posts like those - are you saying these women are less important than the poor triggered males?

Or that if women want to write the way they feel is honest, and true to themselves, that they should then just expect and accept the abuse that comes their way because they just aren't compassionate enough to deserve better?

"female bloggers: is it possible to say the same thing without triggering a painful response on people who are in a lot of pain?"

Who are these female bloggers you're addressing writing FOR, and what about? Why are these poor, hurt, angry men their responsibility? Why is it their responsibility to think of any and every conceivable trigger - for their oppressors, no less - and avoid using it? Why are female bloggers to have at least DOUBLE the regular human level of compassion before they even consider writing? Why are female bloggers not allowed to be angry? Why are women in general not allowed to be angry?

Apologies for the length. I'll stop here. Thank you for engaging with me.

Mary Tracy said...

Deepika, I know exactly where you are coming from because that's where I was just two years ago.

I started writing about this topic with the intention of turning it into a book.

First, a caveat. I don't think doing things differently will magically remove our problems. I just believe it might help.
Second, I would never, ever, ever, EVER suggest we water down our message in any way. Mainly because if I were to do that, then the whole of me would disappear. If I got any more radical, I'd be falling off the rim of the Discworld.

Third, I would never advise anyone to change the way they write if it's working for them. If anger makes them feel good, or gets them to write, then great. But for me anger was getting in the way of writing, and that was unacceptable. I realised, and believe me, it was not an easy process, that if I let the anger go away, I could write the same things and actually, you know, "write them"; as opposed to ranting in my head unable to move or articulate a coherent word because of my rage.

So the first reason for getting our anger out of the way should be... because it'll be good for us.

I've only been trying this compassion thing for a few months, and I assure you, my previous writing contains a lot of anger. It would get me angry, it would get others angry, and it would just be an angry-fest.
That was, when I managed to write at all, which wasn't very often. Again, if anger works for others, great. But if, like in my case, it makes them feel too bad, I want to reassure writers that it is possible to write about feminism without being angry.

Now this is important: men's feelings are not our responsibility. Not-at-all. We should write whichever way we want and they should be able to deal with their own feelings; their feelings, their business.

But here's the beauty of it: if you don't get angry at what someone is saying or doing... you are denying them "credibility". You know how people say "nobody can make you angry without you letting them"? It's something like that. I used to get angry because their words meant "too much" for me. Now... they don't. I am so confident in my feminism that their words do not affect me.

Now the thing about compassion if... you can't just feel it for someone else and not yourself. You can only be compassionate to others while you are compassionate to yourself. So under no circumstance could this work by putting men's feelings above ours.

I hope this helps. It's 5:12 and I have to go to Fem 11, so I'll have to stop now.

Thanks for writing and letting me know how you feel about this idea. Like I said, it's all new territoriy for me.