Women and Men, Why Can't We All Just Disagree?

Why the Internet commentariat is a tough place for women.

If you're going to be a woman writing about hot-button issues on the Internet, you should be prepared for some abuse. People are occasionally going to tell you that they wish you were dead, and more rarely that they are planning to make that happen. The lazier among them will urge you to commit suicide and spare them the trouble. Others will describe all the ways in which your appearance, mood and opinions could be improved by brutal assault. Your parents, if they read your writing, will inevitably scroll down to the comments and find suggestions being made to their darling daughter that most people would be ashamed to offer in the parlor of a bawdy house.

Amanda Hess, who has gotten a lot of this sort of abuse, has a lengthy article in Pacific Standard magazine detailing the toll this has taken on her, from the sheer emotional weariness it entails to having to spend time dealing with the cops when she gets what seem to be serious death threats.

I've never called the cops on my creepy stalkers -- after more than a decade, no one has ever actually shown up to assault, rape or kill me, so the percentage of genuine threats among the vile imprecations seems to be vanishingly low. Nonetheless, it does weary one. It can be unpleasant to be a woman on the Internet, as Conor Friedersdorf found out when he guest-blogged for me.

On the other hand, it can be unpleasant to be a man on the Internet. I know from experience that liberal women tend to believe that they are getting vile abuse not just because they are women, but also because they are liberal women -- that the reason they get so much abuse is that conservative men are virulent sexists who oppose their bold truth-telling about sex and the patriarchy. Conservative women who have been savaged by liberal male pundits and their followers can attest that this is not true. They wonder if this isn't something about liberal men not having any norms of civility about how to treat women. It's a bipartisan vice.

My experience is that the torrent of abuse comes not from "conservatives" or "liberals" but from "people you are disagreeing with." It tends to pop up when a pundit on the other side links you, or something you've written goes viral. There appears to be something particularly disagreeable to many men about a disagreeing woman. And for that matter, disagreeable to many women. I've had feminist women, for example, essentially say "You're just saying that to get a boyfriend" when I differed with something they wrote.

But does it just appear that way? Are men getting the same kind of abuse? I asked a group of libertarian and conservative writers whom I know -- mostly men, a few women. Specifically, I asked them how often they got the following:

1. People talking about how you perform oral sex on various powerful or rich conservatives, usually the Kochs, but could be anyone.

2. People asking you how it feels to do same.

3. Being told that you should have children in order to learn compassion for others.

4. Wishes that you will have children, and then those children will die, in order to teach you compassion for others.

5. Comments on how you are so ugly that no one would ever want to marry/reproduce with you.

6. Speculation on how awful you must be in bed.

7. Comments along the lines of "I'd like to f*** some sense into him/her" or other speculations on how they might change your opinions by sleeping with you.

8. Comments along the lines of "I would never sleep with him/her, not even if I were blind and they were the last person on earth."

9. Death threats.

10. Rape threats.

11. Threatened assaults.

12. Creepy sexualized fantasies about spanking/corporally punishing you.

13. Assertions that you have only gotten where you are because you are sleeping with powerful people.

In other words, how often did they get comments that were sexualized or gender-specific? (I added in the death and assault threats because these often come up when discussing how women are treated on the Internet.) And yes, you may infer from the questions that I have gotten all of these, in e-mails, on Twitter and Facebook, and in the comments of my and other blogs. Not every day. But probably weekly.

The results may surprise you, or not. Most of the women, and a few of the men, had been accused of some sort of sexual activity with the Kochs, metaphorical or otherwise. Several men had been deluged with fond hopes that a child or someone else near and dear to them would die. Almost everyone had gotten death threats and threats of assault, along with meditations on how great it would be if someone else assaulted or killed you.

A Jewish writer I know, like most of the Jewish writers I know, gets "a small but steady flow" of anti-Semitic e-mails. Those who weren't white had gotten racist remarks. A stocky gentleman got a lot of fat jokes. There was agreement that women got singled out for an unusual amount of abuse. But this comports with what others have noted: If you are different from the able-bodied, thin, heterosexual white male norm in any noticeable way, people who disagree with you politically are going to make abusive remarks about it.

I'll be honest: This stuff is really unpleasant; my mother finds it hard to read my articles because such comments upset her too much. And yet, it's actually not as dispiriting as the broader abuse one gets on the Internet, because the people who write it are just obviously crazy, and it's hard to get worked up about the fact that an obviously crazy person doesn't like you very much.

(If any of the obviously crazy people who write such things are reading this, take note: Not only are you failing to change your targets' terrible opinions, but you also aren't even having the intended effect of making them feel bad about themselves. Play another game of computer solitaire instead.)

What's actually much harder to deal with is the overreactions, the uncharitable misreadings of sentences with a perfectly innocent meaning, and all the other tools that both sides use to whip their fellow travelers into a feeding frenzy. Laura McKenna touches on this a bit over at her place:

Megan has had her share of scary trolls in her comment section, who like Hess's creeps, refer to her looks and are strangely sexual. Megan has also received flack from more established areas of the blogosphere that were ... let's just say disproportionate. Her adversaries would not have spoken to a man in the same condescending, rude manner. Misogyny comes in many different forms.

I went back and forth over linking this, because it's about me, and it sounds as if I think all my critics are just sexist pigs, which is not true. Many smart and honorable people dislike me in a perfectly honorable and straightforward way. But I ended up linking it because leaving the issue of my treatment aside -- I am obviously not in any way able to objectively assess what I deserve in the way of rudeness and condescension -- I do see this with other women, and it bothers me. I wrote about this last year, when Democratic spokeswoman Stephanie Cutter briefly became the target of an Internet hatefest:

[People] get very uncomfortable when [women] contest men on skill: when they are arguing, in essence, "I'm smarter than you" or "I've thought this through better" or "My ideas are more compelling" or just "I'm in charge, and we're going to do it my way". It's not just that the women may be wrong -- 50% of the time, they probably are. There's a real anger that the women are daring to put themselves out there, to declaim in a space where they have no right to be.

Politics seems to me to be very definitely one of those arenas. When Stephanie Cutter does her job right, she wins the news cycle -- and the people who have lost take a double blow. They were beaten, and they were beaten by a woman. It's galling.

Which is why Rush Limbaugh garners outrage and fear, while Michelle Malkin garners a sort of hysterical contempt, incredulity mixed with horror mixed with "How dare that uppity [expletive deleted] state her stupid opinions!" And why the reaction to both Hilary Clinton and Sarah Palin was somewhat out of proportion to their actual faults.

The general defense that gets mounted to this is "But I don't denigrate women. I think these women are great!" followed by a list of women who agree with them politically.

But to go back to what I noted above, it is the combination of women and politics (or some other highly emotional topic) that triggers the abuse. A woman who is vociferously agreeing with you is not exactly violating the patriarchal dynamic, is she? The fact that women on your side do not trigger your atavistic instincts does not mean that there isn't residual sexism lurking in your behavior. And before the guys go and get all defensive, let me be clear: I am not singling out guys. Women do it, too, including feminists, many of whom are nastier and more judgmental about women who disagree with them than they are about men who do, even as they are incredibly solidaristic with fellow feminists. I don't think it's hypocrisy; I don't think they know they're doing it.

What I'm saying is that I think all people are unfairly hard on women and minorities on the other side than they are on opponents who are men. I'm not calling on men to flagellate themselves for what a terrible burden white men are on the human race. I'm pointing out that we have an unconscious and unfair double standard. Sometimes it manifests itself in sheer crazy. More often it manifests in dismissing women on the grounds that they couldn't possibly have anything to add to the conversation.

In my experience, what's the first thing anyone says about a woman who disagrees with them on an issue? "She's such an idiot." I'll be honest and say I've caught myself doing it. Yes, undoubtedly some of them are idiots. But it seems statistically unlikely that all the women on the other side are idiots, and your side happened to get all the good ones. Men get accused of a wide range of sins, from deliberate mendacity to wanting to maintain their privilege, but almost all of the women are foolish and should shut their mouths. Their hysterical mouths.

To see what I mean, consider this. I frequently see lists of "writers I like" or "bloggers I like" or what have you, and there's usually a spot for "Folks on the other side who I enjoy." Sometimes that's a whole post or article of its own. These are staples of blogging.

And in the decade-plus I've been writing on the Internet, I have almost never seen a woman in those slots. Not never-never: I think I made Kevin Drum's list once, and I am sure I am not the only one who has crossed the aisle in that way. But it's really rare, either in proportion to the number of women writers, or the number of other women on these lists. Though it's true that political writing and blogging trend heavily male, these lists usually do contain women -- just very rarely in that slot. I think the same holds true for minority writers, though I am less sure of that. And what are the odds of this happening by chance?

This strikes me as the real problem with "women on the Internet." We're big girls now, and we know how to use the delete button. But we don't have a button for the people who automatically delete us from the list of grown-ups who should be taken seriously.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

    To contact the author on this story:
    Megan McArdle at mmcardle3@bloomberg.net

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