The internet — both my battleground and my home, as a millennial feminist — has given new meaning to the term public space. When I think public space, I think of streets and parks and the Metro. But now message boards and comment threads have also become places we exist for others to see and to interact. Harassment has found a home in this new public space, too.
What is Harassment and Why is it Awful?
Any member of a marginalized community — women, LGBTQ individuals – who has dared to exist in public knows that harassment is an all-too-common occurrence. Unwanted comments, “compliments,” and come-ons are as commonplace as Starbucks in today’s world. Above all, harassment is disrespect — people are dehumanized, turned into objects for another’s viewing pleasure or discussion.
Internet harassment has been around practically as long as the internet itself. Conversations about cyberbullying largely focus on school-aged children and how their arguments and tensions play out in school hallways. But the people who harass strangers online are far from school-aged. They are grown adults — they shouldn’t be behaving like children.
Different Ingredients, Same Formula
Some online harassment can seem simple and relatively harmless — obscenities and the like. But when it turns into slurs and insults and threats, it feels different. Sticks and stones can hurt our bones — and words have the power to hurt us. Harassment can make its target feel directly attacked, or embarrassed, or hurt, or angry, or insecure. Additionally, much of the harassment I’ve seen online is highly gendered — from slurs used specifically for women to threats of sexual assault.
When it comes down to it, is there really a difference between the man who shouts “praise” about my body on my way to work and the internet troll who calls me slurs on Twitter? One might seem less harmful than the other in different ways, but both are an attack on what people see, not the real me. The man who yells “compliments” at me while it’s raining and I’m trying to balance coffee and my textbooks sees me for my body, not what I’m reading in those textbooks. The troll who thinks my publicly stated opinions conflict with his own beliefs isn’t attacking my personality or how I’m arguing my points, but is lumping me in with a stereotype of a group he disagrees with. I’m not Samantha Kovacs — student, friend, daughter, Gilmore Girls fan, coffee drinker — to harassers in real life and online. I’m only my body, or my Twitter handle.
How Do You Solve A Problem Like Harassment?
How do you catch a cloud and pin it down?
How do you find the word that means harassment?
A flibbertijibbet! A will-o’-the wisp! A clown!
(The Sound of Music, of course.)
It’s a complicated question. Teaching people to respect others — to fully see their humanity, not bodies or Twitter handles — is easier said than done. Raising awareness and educating people about why harassment is wrong could be a good start.
But the problem is more complicated than that. There are plenty of people who would never catcall someone in public but feel comfortable using abusive language online, where they have a mask to hide behind — and don’t recognize how the two are actually the same. We need to make it clear to the people who move within public space (AKA all of us) that harassment can take many forms, and that harassers and victims can be anyone. These forms are as harmful as the rest, and none of them are acceptable.
It’s easy enough to say that people shouldn’t harass others because it’s not nice. But it’s not only a matter of ethics and morals, especially when it comes to online conversations. We need a higher standard for how we conduct our healthy online debates. Most people engage in internet commentary because they believe in something, or because they have an opinion that wants to be heard. And we should want to hear them
But when people turn to insults and threats instead of real arguments, we can’t have constructive conversations about the issues that matter. When online users are too busy trying to protect themselves from violent language and reporting people who would rather insult and threaten them, we can’t have constructive conversations about the issues that matter. After all — when people turn to insults, they have nothing left to say.