A few days ago, I watched a Danish talkshow on television. One of the guests was a woman who for years has been quite active in public debates about gender and feminist issues, but who recently decided to leave the social media sphere entirely and delete her Facebook and Twitter account. Her reason for doing this was two-fold; she explained how she was so caught up in the debates that she constantly felt guilty for not making enough comments or reading enough articles. Social media thus turned into a scene where she felt imperfect and incomplete.
Her second reason for quitting her social media ‘addiction’, as she called it, was that it was too exhausting to deal with all the personal attacks she received from angry men and women whenever she made a public statement about issues regarding gender equality, women’s rights or other feminist issues. The tone in the debate is simply too rough and uncomfortable, and as a way of protecting herself she decided enough was enough.
My first reaction was “I totally get it”. The tone in the Danish debate is without doubt way too evil and aggressive. I am not a public person and I have only been shamed once on Twitter, but when I watched the talkshow I was reminded how uncomfortable I felt when it happened to me. A few months back, I posted a critique of a commercial campaign made by one of the biggest Danish fitness center chains, whose slogan was something in line of: “Which hashtag do you want attached?” followed by a series of very superficial hashtag options like “#milf”, “#naughty” and “#bootylicious”.
I tweeted that none of these hashtags were in my interest and that the company ought to step it up a little and not make such sexist commercials. Shortly after, a random man tweeted me, saying that my looks would never make people connect the hashtags with me, so I should not worry about it. Even though it was a tiny comment from a man with no knowledge of my looks or my personality whatsoever, it felt like a punch in the stomach.
My first impulse was to delete my tweet, hide under a blanket, and feel sorry for myself. This feeling of humiliation did not last long though, because I decided that a man like that should not get away with making me feel bad about myself and question my appearance. I looked at his profile and it became clear that his ‘thing’ was to shame women on Twitter. He had made many posts similar to the one he made about me, and some of the women had attempted to argue with him. Unfortunately, it was quite obvious that this was exactly what he was looking for and thus fueled his little hateful fire. This was a man who you could never reason with and therefore I decided to just ignore his tweet altogether.
I guess one of his reasons for making all those spiteful comments about women was a way of making them withdraw from the public debate. For this man, it was all about ridiculing and humiliating me and the other women, and it was thus about making us question our right to share our thoughts in the social media sphere. A recent study by WAM! (Women, Action & the Media) concludes that “internet harassment is closely connected with issues of free speech, and that the act of harassment is used as a way of silencing the speech of others. And it is especially used as a way of silencing women”.
I find it fundamentally strange that debates about gender issues, gender equality or women’s rights make people lower their standard of discussion and instead of making real and relevant arguments, just make hurtful comments. Last year a Danish television program called “Shut Up Woman” tried to shed light on the issue of women being shamed whenever they enter the social debate. It followed various prominent Danish women (such as politicians from different parties), who shared some of the emails they receive on a regular basis containing sexist comments, rape threats and various forms of harassment. The political areas that cause the most aggressive and insulting reactions is immigration issues and issues about gender equality.
The WAM! report clearly shows how a large part of the online harassment is so-called hate speech which is mainly sexist, racist or homophobic. This sort of hate speech is obviously closely connected to the previously mentioned political issues. Denmark is supposed to be one of the most equal countries in the world, but for some reason people get very angry and emotional as soon as topics like equal pay, equal opportunities, and sexual harassment are discussed.
Why is that? Why is it that people get so uncomfortable? In Denmark, it might be because we have bought the myth that we already have gender equality. Therefore, I guess it is quite annoying when people start questioning this myth and demand improvements or structural change. And in spite of more attention to the issue of bad rhetoric that the television program “Shut Up Woman” caused, the tone in the debate is still aggressive and abrasive. In an ideal world, I should not have to worry about getting hurt or receiving rape threats when I use my democratic right and voice my opinion. But it seems we are quite far from a world where Danish women can feel secure when using their right to free speech.
Therefore, I perfectly understand the urge to delete one’s Twitter and Facebook accounts. However, I think that is the last thing we should do. Around the world, so many brave women fight for social change, gender equality and freedom. In doing so, these women are often risking their lives, situated in places where the consequences of questioning the status quo and demanding women’s rights are very severe, and very real.
Libyan human rights lawyer and activist Salwa Bugaighis was assassinated shortly after casting her vote in the national election in 2014. This tragedy, however, did not stop the women in Libya, and the women’s movement in the country still fights for equal rights. We should think of women like Salwa and all the other brave women around the world whenever we get discouraged by the aggressive and angry reactions we might receive when we speak our mind, online or otherwise.
As Director of Women’s Studies at Clark University Cynthia Enloe says, “If we don’t make people a little uncomfortable it is because we are not doing it right”. The fact that people get so utterly uncomfortable might be because we are on to something. Even in a country like Denmark, there are still equality issues that need to be addressed. And someone needs to address these issues, even though it might be risky.
Indian feminist and publisher Urvashi Butalia was recently asked if she had any advice for young feminists who want to make more feminist voices heard. Her answer inspires us all and implores us to continue to participate in these important conversations:
“I’d say come on in, there’s almost nothing that you can do that is so important, so what are you waiting for?”
Isa Romby Nielson lives in Denmark.