Commentary Media

Defending Free Speech Does Not Mean Tolerating Harassment

Amanda Marcotte

Andrew Sullivan got completely unbent at the idea that Twitter might crack down on harassment. But the real censorship is coming from anti-feminists who use abusive campaigns in an effort to silence feminists.

Andrew Sullivan is concerned about free speech.

No, it’s not because TIME asked its readers if the word “feminist” should be banned, with misogynists unsurprisingly agreeing that the idea of equality needs to be stifled post-haste. On the contrary, as Sullivan warned his readers this week, there’s a real threat out there to free speech, one so grave that it may put the Soviet gulags to shame: Twitter might make it a little harder to scream rape threats all day at women. After all, who has time to worry about the silencing of actual ideas and political discourse when some meatheads’ obsessive hobby of harassing women for speaking out against sexism is at stake? Especially when that hobby, in itself, works to censor the speech of others?

Sullivan’s hyperventilating response to the announcement that Women, Action, and the Media! (WAM!) is starting a program to make it easier for women to report Twitter harassment is a wonderland of bad arguments. As Tom Scocca wrote at Gawker, “It’s testimony to the atavism of the GamerGaters, or to the monotony of Sullivan’s thought, that he can simply plug his ’90s-era subroutines into the program and execute them.”  Let us examine some of the more pernicious of these subroutines, shall we?

First, Sullivan decides to investigate WAM!’s seedy underbelly. He is horrified by what he finds: “They want gender quotas for all media businesses, equal representation for women in, say, video-games, gender parity in employment in journalism and in the stories themselves.”

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For those wondering what the problem is with believing that half the human race should have half the representation in media environments, he follows up by complaining that WAM! has objected to the fact that only 1 percent of compositions performed in classical concerts in 2009-2010 were composed by women. “Less Beethoven—more, er, women!” he simply writes, apparently assuming that it’s self-evidently ridiculous to believe that women have anything more to contribute to this genre of music. Why, asking orchestras to play songs by women is like asking them to have dancing dogs perform! It’s so undignified and silly it requires italics.

He goes on to argue that because WAM! thinks harassment is terrible, its leaders must be convinced that “women are not strong or capable enough of forging their own brands, voices, websites and fighting back against ideas they abhor with wit and energy and passion and freedom.” (He could have used a couple more words there. I personally fight for my brand with not just energy and wit and passion and freedom but also vim and a grace reminiscent of cat falling into a toilet. Don’t hold back, Sully!) He also wonders whether “WAM believes that women cannot possibly handle the rough-and-tumble of uninhibited online speech.”

Oh, this argument, perhaps the favorite of the harassment defenders. It’s wrong in so many ways that it’s hard to count them all. First of all, it assumes that women must not just be equal to men to “earn” our right to speak, but that we must, to the last one of us, be better than men. Men are not expected to crawl across a sea of abuse and threats in order to simply express themselves, but if women want in on the conversation, the price they must pay is higher.

It’s also an argument that’s comical in its narcissism. Men who scold women about how we must stoically endure harassment seem to assume that they, personally, would be able to withstand the abuse should the roles be reversed. No doubt they could also do a triple back flip should the occasion for it come about, as well.

But as someone who is personally harassed constantly online and who has been told she has a fairly strong constitution for the “rough-and-tumble,” I can safely say the latter has little to do with the former. Getting dozens of abusive tweets a second is less like having an intense debate and more like having a crowd of people standing on your lawn yelling at you. Or perhaps like having your phone ring off the hook, every two seconds. The suggestion that one should be able to tolerate such behavior as a bare minimum to participate in social discourse is an easy one to make—for someone who will never have to do it.

Plus, no one’s free speech is actually stripped from them if a private service like Twitter decides you can’t use their servers to aim targeted harassment at a woman simply because you want to silence her. (“Free speech” proponents sure do like silencing, don’t they?) In a follow-up post, Sullivan back-tracked a bit, saying, “I actively support suspending abusive, stalking tweeters or those threatening violence.”

Of course, that’s everyone whom WAM! is monitoring. So to salvage his ridiculous attack on the organization, he insisted that the people getting suspended are not abusive, but “non-harassing tweeters” merely saying “politically incorrect things”. As examples of such upstanding conservative citizens, he cited Breitbart Associate Editor Milo Yiannopoulos, A Voice for Men Social Media Director Janet Bloomfield, and a man that goes by the handle “Thunderf00t.”

If that’s the best that Sullivan can do, then this conversation really is over. Even within his post, he admitted that Yiannopoulos harasses people by calling them “spineless, hypocritical queers”; at one woman, he yelled, “You get your tits out for a living.” Sullivan excuses this by pointing out that Yiannopoulos apologized to one of them, but ignoring the pattern of behavior Yiannopoulos has displayed shows that Sullivan is very much not supporting the suspension of “abusive, stalking tweeters.”

His other examples of supposedly unfairly punished people are even more ridiculous. Janet Bloomfield has a habit of making up fake quotes from feminists and tweeting them like they’re real, mostly to encourage her followers to overwhelm feminist Twitter feeds with abuse. Anyone who has encountered the man who calls himself Thunderf00t online can strongly attest that his obsession with certain feminists goes well over the “stalking” line and that he has a history of doing things like doxxing confidential information. These are the people that Sullivan is defending, which says a lot about his argument.

Most feminists are not afraid of people who make sexist arguments straightforwardly and without harassment. (I did not hesitate, for instance, to read and respond to Sullivan’s posts, which are silly but definitely not harassment.) In fact, most are confident that feminist ideas will eventually win on a level playing field. The only people here trying to silence dissent are anti-feminists, who are so afraid of our arguments that they try to abuse women online into silence. The anti-feminist GamerGaters Sullivan loves so much are so dismayed by opposing arguments that they have started email campaigns to get income pulled from sites that publish feminist opinions. That’s what censorship looks like.

Telling people to lay off harassing individuals all day long on Twitter is not stopping them from sharing their opinions. It’s just stopping them from silencing others’.

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