Don’t feed the trolls: or, women can be such weenies sometimes

Violent Acres (VA) really hit a nerve yesterday, no, she hit two.

  1. Nobody ever died of embarrassment
  2. Women can be such weenies when hostility is directed their way.

Read her post for a good and funny example of surviving public embarrassment. Even better, approach it with humor. In her case, she gracefully turned physical awkwardness into into an opportunity to set her audience at ease. This no doubt made them more receptive to her ideas, and she must have left more of an impression than if everything had gone “perfectly.”

Look back on the memorable occasions in your life. Aren’t they more memorable because of the things that went haywire? Mine are. Yes, usually, you really will laugh about a life bobble later.

That story alone makes that post top notch. But then she segues into a topic that has been on my mind for years. I’ll let you read VA’s post for the particulars of the incident that inspired her to write. The particulars aren’t important, because it’s just another occasion of a woman giving up because someone attacked her (not physically).

There aren’t as many public, professional women as men, so it’s noticeable when they give up in the face of hostility or public attacks. The problem is the message this sends: women are weak, need protecting, and that, really, it’s better to just stay quietly in the background and not make waves. This is so wrong it makes my head ache.

I’m mightily disappointed every time I read of a woman who gives up instead of fighting.

I used to read the blog Creating Passionate Users co-authored by Kathy Sierra. A while back some people started posting really mean things about her. I gather that it was pretty extreme at one point and included death threats. In the face of that she gave up writing and appearing publicly. I don’t know what her current status is.

I sympathize. I really do. I have been subject to miserable, obscene suggestions about what would happen to me as a result of newsgroup postings some respondent didn’t like. It was frightening. It wasn’t nearly the scale of the abuse Ms. Sierra experienced, but enough that my sympathy is sincere. And it’s true that sometimes people really do act on their threats. So, Ms. Sierra had reason to be afraid.

Mostly though I wanted to say, still want to say, WHAT THE FUCK WAS SHE THINKING WOULD HAPPEN? You go public, writing about topics that are supposed to instill passion in people, that you feel passionate about, and you are shocked when people react passionately? Especially knowing that people will feel particularly free to attack you because you are a woman? And that when you don’t quit, they will be even more abusive?

If Sierra made any mistake, perhaps it was in thinking that she could become a public figure and not be subject to bad behavior by idiots.

The abuse was wrong. Those people were absolutely foul. It was a serious problem, and Ms. Sierra had a serious decision to make. I can’t really fault her for choosing as she did, but I am disappointed. Ms. Sierra is an extreme example of women in a position to push through a wall of resistance to her and every woman’s presence, and she quit. The next woman after her will only have a harder time because Ms. Sierra quit. That next woman may be her daughter. Or a daughter of one of the assholes who drove her to quit.

So, there is this crux that Ms. Sierra’s case presents, that the case VA presents: one can’t be a revolutionary (and she was) and be assured of personal safety at the same time. If a woman gives up in the face of resistance to the trail she’s blazing, she will only leave a harder path for the woman behind her. Why? The assholes will know what works and will feel more free to pull all the stops. It’s interesting, she blogged once about the importance of listening to the happy (well-adjusted) people rather than the negative people. And yet, she did exactly that.

One more point. This isn’t, really, about men vs. women. Public men also receive abuse, death threats, and threats of violence. Also, women are subject to the censorship of other women as often as by men. A graphic example? Girls are not circumcised by men. They are circumcised by women. I won’t use an example from my own country (U.S.) or time because it would just be a distraction.

When someone, anyone, stands up for themselves in a constructive, proud way, they are really standing up for many other people. Sierra mentions Robert Scoble’s support for her. Robert is my role model for grace under fire. He’s had horrible, miserable, untrue things written about him for years. If he loses his temper it’s rare, and rarely public. He’s always seemed to me to be genuinely willing to hear the constructive part in any criticism, and yet keep his self-confidence whole and complete. I admire that. If I don’t have that talent naturally, I can certainly try to emulate it.

In reading up on the Sierra controversy, I found the following statement by Joan Walsh in an interesting article about the “firestorm:”

I say this as a mouthy woman who has tried for a long time to pretend otherwise: that Web misogyny isn’t especially rampant — but even if it is, it has no effect on me, or any other strong, sane woman doing her job.

I argue that those are not only options. We do not have to choose between delusion about the misogyny, nor do we have to dwell on it to the point it controls us and our actions. But, how do we acknowledge it? How do we as public people (yeah, I’m over-inflating my importance) resist the temptation to give up, to stay sane in the face of brutal reactions?

I don’t know  how to “solve” the problem of disrespect in the public sphere. I don’t know that “it” is solvable, or even if there is an “it.” I do believe that regulating manners fails. Manners are relative: mean things are couched in nice behavior and an abrasive person can become a loyal and helpful advocate.

In either case, nasty whisperers and the overtly hostile, direct counter-attacks seem to be rarely successful. However, the form of the counter attack has to be natural to the person. VA would fight one way, I’d fight another. But neither of us would give in–well, I’d hope. Of course, we all have our limits.

But I don’t want to no matter what someone thinks I should do, because I work with girls every week who are learning from the examples around them what it means to be a woman. If I give up, I’ve abandoned them. If people try to attack me, I have to figure I’m starting to get somewhere.

I’m glad that VA will be there fighting too, in her way, on her terms.

I was impressed by the following exchange between two very public, trailblazing women: Diane Sawyer and Jeanne Kirkpatrick. (I’m paraphrasing from memory.)

Sawyer: “Didn’t you experience discrimination as a woman?”

Kirkpatrick: “Yeah. So?”

Hate Kirkpatrick’s politics. Love her aplomb.


3 thoughts on “Don’t feed the trolls: or, women can be such weenies sometimes

  1. I was raised in a rural, very patriarchal farming community. Women were only “acceptable” if they kept their words kind.. and preferably few. My own father was happy with my academic achievements (simply good grades) but was certain I was doomed because of my mouth. I was not gracious and polite like my mother.

    I had an older woman friend who said to me and about me that I “would go far when I learned to keep my mouth shut”… going far simply meant finding a good man.

    I married young. I moved away to Seattle and went to work soon after relocating at a company in Seattle as a secretary. This is in the late ‘70’s. Now I know this is not bullying, rather sexual harassment but still, I want to point out the lack of fear or concern back then from the person conducting the abuse.

    When I was hired to this company the boss in my department was on vacation in Greece. He was in fact, Greek. He returned, I’d been working at this position for only 3 or 4 weeks. He called me into his office and asked me to shut the door. He introduced himself to me and instead of talking to me about my work profile he looked at my hand and said. “I see you are married.” I answered yes. “How is your sex life?” he asked. If that isn’t bad enough. If that isn’t just horrid in itself. I answered, “Fine”… It has only been 30 years since that incident.. I’m still shocked and amazed that I didn’t bitch slap him then. I left his office shocked and ashamed that I hadn’t ‘done the right thing’ which would have been to set him straight. But I needed that job and I was terrified of speaking my mind.

    I raised two daughters and I told each of them that story. I made a personal case study of myself. I vowed never again to be verbally raped for a position or a paycheck. Maybe this is off the subject. I wasn’t in a position of power (obviously) but I was in a position that was almost uniquely female and at that time, not uncommon. I’m thankful for the women since then who have stood up and gone public over this kind of hideousness. I am certain that I sent two young women into the world that would NEVER compromise the way that I did.

    I always appreciate your voice on the cause of women and their strength. I know you don’t get a lot of popularity votes because of it sometimes. I’m thankful your backbone is made of sturdy stuff.

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