Wednesday, 31 July 2013

Counting the Cost

There are several reasons why I don't think campaigning for a report button on Twitter is a good idea. Chief among them - yet barely addressed - is the fact that this is fig leaf politics. It's enabling business leaders and politicians to wriggle out of a much bigger problem, which is this: who is going to pay to fix our broken society and why should women and minorities pay for the cost of leaving it the way it is?

First of all, let me clarify that I am not without sympathy for those who have been hurt by threats made against them online. Whilst I think we need to exercise caution in policing slurs, a threat that places somebody in a state of fear and alarm (or which a reasonable person would assume could do so) would, in other circumstances, be considered a crime, and I don't see why it being made online should be seen as making it less serious. I should note that I've received any number of rape and death threats in my time and I have generally laughed them off (most are, all else aside, terribly badly written), but that's me. I'm not easily intimidated in that way, but we don't say it's okay to go around shoving people in the street because the stronger ones won't fall over. I note that most people saying everyone should laugh this off are not members of those groups who can expect to be threatened in person on a frequent basis. Many women and members of minority groups experience that daily; they may find it hard to brush off online threats if they've been raped and assaulted in the past.

That said, I also have some sympathy for certain kinds of trolling - not the sorts that terrify people but the sorts that aim to provoke people for socially or politically important reasons. We have always needed contrary voices in order to enhance public discussion. Often it is only through this kind of provocation that radical perspectives come to be heard at all, and even if some of it seems inept, our society is richer for it. Furthermore, there are groups out there whose very existence is seen as provocation. I worry for the future of my charity if a report button happens because I know there are people out there who would constantly report it as being offensive simply for advocating that trans people have a right to decent treatment. It wouldn't matter if each instance of complaint was dismissed; if it happened frequently enough, we would not be able to communicate using Twitter. The same could go for any number of socially and politically focused organisations, and indeed for feminist advocates who attract the ire of certain groups of men.

Ultimately, though, what worries me most is that a report button - and similar approaches elsewhere - will allow a symbolic gesture to shut off debate in a really important area. Adding a button does not guarantee that Twitter, or any other organisation, will devote any more resources to following up complaints, or doing so promptly. Facebook has report buttons and yet remains notorious as a home for groups discussing rape and violence. Adding a button or clicking a button will not make the problem go away, it will just boost corporate PR.

Worse than this is the political jumping on the bandwagon (and here I do not include politicians like Stella Creasy who have been campaigning on related issues for a long time). This is a boost for David Cameron's equally ill-thought-out internet porn filter scheme. It allows politicians to look as if they care about violence against women without ever putting their money where their mouths are. If Cameron gave a damn, he wouldn't have taken funding away from battered women's shelters.

Here's the crux of the problem: misogyny wasn't invented by the internet. It may sometimes take more exaggerated forms there but the real reason it's becoming a political issue is not that there's more of it, it's that women are able to raise their voices, en masse, in protest. Projects like Everyday Sexism have helped to demonstrate the scale of the problem, online and off. Men who used to keep their hatred within all-male groups are now expressing it where women can observe it, and are having to contend with the fact that women don't like it. Hence all the nonsensical attempts to drown out women's voices in the name of free speech.

Ever since our society started to recognise that women are human beings with a right to expect the same opportunities in life as men, our society has been heading towards this confrontation. We have reached a point where it is no longer possible to ignore the aggression that many women routinely face from many men. We need to have a social solution, a cultural solution, a political solution - and there will be no persuading women to return to the meek days of accepting their fate. But what really makes this frightening for politicians is that we need an economic solution.

Every debate about dealing with misogyny stops short when it comes to finance. We are at a point where we don't need hand wringing and sympathetic speeches, we need serious investment. We need the police to be adequately funded to follow things up every time a credible threat or rape or violence is made, every time a woman is groped on a bus, every time she faces sexual harassment in a workplace that fails to take action. Restricting follow-up to high threshold cases isn't good enough. It isn't good enough because there is a cost to all this freewheeling abuse and right now women (along with other targeted groups like gay people) are bearing all of that cost themselves. Ultimately, the question must be why our society thinks it's okay for half its members to bear the whole of this cost rather than everyone paying their share, fairly, through the tax system, through government action to tackle the problem.

The same applies when it comes to child protection. We get endless soundbites and new schemes to encourage reporting. We don't see the organisations things are reported to getting anything like adequate resources for follow-up. Once again, one group is left to pay the price, in suffering, of society's failure to put its money where its mouth is.

The real reason very little is done to tackle misogynistic aggression is that it's so endemic the cost would be huge. That's a tough thing for politicians to take on, but what they need to understand is that the cost of doing nothing is also huge. Those who are paying it now will not put up with that forever. They are voters too, and politically, they are waking up to this. They will not be placated for long by being given buttons. It is time for real action.

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