How to Stand up to Haters

Sometimes, when women speak up, certain people can become quickly overwhelmed.

Sometimes, when women speak up, certain people can become quickly overwhelmed.

A few days ago, an acquaintance contacted me asking for some advice on entering the public fray. An unabashed feminist in her everyday life, she’d been wrestling with the fear of becoming more vocal because of the standard backlash meted out to loud, opinionated women (particularly those who speak out against oppression and patriarchal codes). As she said, “Something about feminism stirs a deep and abiding rage in people.” Given this week marks the first birthday of DailyLife.com.au, a website that has been instrumental in furthering feminist debate in Australia and giving voice to the rage and frustration women still experience as a result of deeply entrenched social discrimination, I thought it would be a good opportunity to encourage women to be brave about claiming their public space despite the inevitable onslaught that comes with it. 

It’s certainly true that women in public life receive an altogether more violent kind of feedback from their critics. Feminists especially are the targets of a bitter fury that manifests itself in various ways, from benign paternalistic mockery (‘try harder next time luvvie’) to more serious threats of rape and assault (‘I’m going to find you and give you a dose of masculinity’). I personally receive a significant amount of the former from the kinds of men who punctuate novella length emails with reminders of how silly and stupid I am, and then seem surprised when I either refuse to acknowledge the veracity of their opinions or simply ignore them entirely. I’m the target of numerous Twitter accounts run by faceless folk who drop by on a semi-regular basis to accuse me of hating men, being mentally ill and being ‘obviously’ deeply dissatisfied with life.

I’ve been interrupted while delivering feminist lectures by people who have evidently turned up to register their opposition, so apparently incensed that the issue of women’s rights is being elevated over the more serious issue of why feminists aren’t doing enough to fix men’s problems. (The best situation occurred while I was delivering a speech about the ritual silencing of women in public, and the limited ways in which they’re allowed to speak; a male audience member yelled at me mid sentence to express his vehement disagreement. Lelaina Pierce, I present this to you as an apt definition of ‘irony’.)

A photographer's depiction of what a Daily Life commenter may look like when inflamed with anger at a feminist piece.

A photographer's depiction of what a Daily Life commenter may look like when inflamed with anger at a feminist piece. Photo: sjharmon

And I have received rape threats before. One or two occasions have seen me paranoid about my personal safety in public, particularly given that I’m not especially vigilant about keeping my movements private. Thankfully, these incidents are rare. Most of the ‘violence’ targeted towards me is in empty insults - rudimentary attempts to embarrass me, dent my self esteem or simply make me rock back and forth crying over how unattractive I am. And even though none of those things have ever succeeded in penetrating the hide one must develop in order to open the computer day after day, it’s the knowledge that these people exist that truly exhausts. No matter how strong you are, no matter how much you can shake the acidic bile from your shoulders and keep on moving forward, laughing with your friends over the appalling grammar and imagination on display, there are moments when you cannot help but pause to contemplate the reality of your daily grind - that a life in which you have found happiness, professional satisfaction and a general sense of accomplishment seems to be necessarily accompanied by the tradeoff of anonymous messages such as ‘I hope you get raped by a hiv carrier’, ‘you sound fat’, ‘your as ugly as a dead dog on the side of the road’, and the cut-and-paste job favoured by discerning misogynists and sent to every woman with a voice on the internet at one time or another: ‘your to ugly to rape’ (sic).

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Is it any wonder women hesitate to speak out for fear that they too will be subjected to the kind of commentary that reminds them their greatest assets are not their brains, their wit or their talent but their ability to cause and then marvel at an erection? That their words might anger someone so much that he (or she) suggests her mouth might be better employed elsewhere? Of course not. Such vitriol is exhausting and emotionally harrowing. It requires sometimes daily interaction with these words: fat, ugly, bitch, slut, whore, misandrist, man-hater, lesbian, feminazi, ball breaker, shrill, old, angry, jealous, hairy, stupid, useless. You’ll be reminded constantly that the cure for all of these things is a ‘good fuck’, consensual or not - as if the real source of your complaint is the repulsive effect you have on men who consider the sum total of a woman’s value to be in how compliant she is as a sexual object.

But when you look at it like this, these insults and assaults rapidly lose their power. Truth deflates a thought bubble quicker than a few tiny pricks can. Because what strength do those words even have? The majority are predicated on the idea that the worse thing a woman can be is difficult or disruptive. That her greatest aspiration is to be sexually desired, but as an object and not an equal. That her legitimate complaints can be dismissed as the rumblings of an angry old shrew. That her insistence on speaking is laughable and ridiculous, because women should know their place and be happy about it. These are all social codes that feminists fight against - so what exactly is there to fear in hearing them used against us? Give me emails calling me fat and ugly, send me missives that threaten me with degrading abuse, show me the depths to which frightened rats will scurry! Because this is how I know my side is winning.

And so to my acquaintance and all of you, I say this: Never let it be true that the words of a faceless detractor, issued in rudimentary insults and threats of sexual violence and/or disinterest, have more power than the words of women exercising their fundamental right to speak. Speak up often and loudly, and never stop; laugh at personal attacks, and recognise them for what they are - the childish jibes of people who think the best way to undermine you is to deny you the compliment of their dick. Stake your claim in the arid wilderness of cyberspace and don’t let the howls of wounded dingoes frighten you away.

80 comments

  • Like!

    Commenter
    Pampelmousse
    Date and time
    February 12, 2013, 8:22AM
    • LOVE

      Commenter
      Rachael
      Location
      Sydney
      Date and time
      February 12, 2013, 10:04AM
  • Thank you!! Thank you!! Thank you!! Thank you!! Thank you!! Thank you!! Thank you!!

    It's so good to see a vocal champion on this issue. I may not always agree with you Clementine, but on this, I am 1000% with you all the way.

    Commenter
    Dhammachick
    Location
    Sydney
    Date and time
    February 12, 2013, 8:32AM
    • As an addendum, I am sickened and disgusted but sadly not surprised at the vitriol you have experienced (especially the rape comments EEUUW). But I truly admire your attitude to it and wish I could be more resilient at times.

      You rock :)

      Commenter
      Dhammachick
      Location
      Sydney
      Date and time
      February 12, 2013, 8:34AM
      • it's not just the anonymous trolls. People with names and faces can denigrate women (and men) who speak up on a number of volatile issues - and sometimes the targets are not well known and don't have a public platform to defend themselves. The perpetrators are often politically motivated groups or individuals and they can be very nasty. I have had things said about me that are not true, words that will remain on the internet forever. But I can't run around trying to correct the record all day, although i have sometimes.

        It can be very hurtful to be represented in ways that don't represent how you think or what you do, it can also change the way people see you and there is little you can do to then convey the truth. Where there is smoke there must be fire, people can think. Yes, there are defamation laws but who has the time or money to go to court and personally, the thought of engaging more deeply with some people would be worse than dealing with what they have said. I don't have any answers, other than to keep on going, keep saying what i think, and try not to care what people think. There are nutters out there and it is always wise to protect ourselves, but they are mostly full of hot air and I have found, generally cowards.

        Commenter
        hot air
        Date and time
        February 12, 2013, 8:43AM
        • The best lesson I've learned about this, is that most people will believe whatever you *demonstrate* that you believe about yourself.

          Commenter
          Christian
          Date and time
          February 12, 2013, 3:22PM
      • Go, Clem, loud and proud! :)

        Who are these bloody fools who think they can intimidate you with this misogynistic nonsense? Obviously they haven't bothered to read more than a line of your work, or they'd see it's obvious that you are a woman not to be f-cked with!

        At least when these guys resort to their predictable insults about you being fat, bitter, old cow who needs to get some SEX (goddammit!) you can console yourself with the knowledge that most of your readership sees you in the same vein your partner does - as a fabulous, sexy, brilliant woman who is usually saying what everyone else is thinking.

        If I ever see you out and about, I'm buying you a drink ;)

        Commenter
        Red Pony
        Date and time
        February 12, 2013, 8:45AM
        • Sadly it's not easy to ignore "rudimentary insults". A daily dose of this nonsense does, in fact, chisel away at one's self-esteem. The internet is not the only place to meet haters either; over the last decade I've experienced verbal face-to-face insults, usually from younger men who are completely unknown to me. I'm not a media person, or in the public eye in any way, so to be targeted in this way is intimidating. The anger that is directed towards women in general was not in evidence when I was younger. Perhaps it would make an interesting article to speculate on why (other than the anonymity of the internet) there seem to be more angry people.

          Commenter
          KateJ
          Date and time
          February 12, 2013, 8:47AM
          • I have discovered that if you know who you are, what you stand for, what your values are and stand unbudgingly by those traits, they are the best armour against intimidation.

            Commenter
            Rachael
            Location
            Sydney
            Date and time
            February 12, 2013, 10:10AM
          • @Rachel - very true.

            I've been doing exactly as you say over the last two or three years and my self-esteem and self-confidence has greatly improved. Of course it's still unnerving when someone attacks mefor my beliefs but at least now I can quite calmly stand up for myself and I bounce back much faster too.

            Commenter
            Carmel
            Location
            Sydney
            Date and time
            February 12, 2013, 1:00PM

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