A few weeks ago, I wrote a light-hearted listicle called “Shit White People in New Orleans Like.” I included a disclaimer that I am indeed white, live in New Orleans, and enjoy many of the things on my list, but was merely poking a little fun.
Until this article went live, my writing partner and I had only ever gotten a couple hundred views on our blog posts. We write mainly for our friends and family and were always satisfied with 300 views on an article about our birthdays or reality TV shows. This particular article got 37,674 views. That’s more than 100 times more than any previous post. Damn.
Mostly, the feedback was great. Our personal friends loved it, even though most of them were, in one way or another, a target of the piece. Several complete strangers shared the article on Facebook and Twitter, so it spread like wildfire. We checked our WordPress stats obsessively and kept texting each other the current number of views in disbelief. But it wasn’t long before the other shoe dropped.
Commenters lamented, “What exactly ARE white people allowed to do?” This one in particular was annoying for us to read, not only because it was negative in nature, but because the person just so obviously did not understand the satire or self-deprecation in the post. Fine, though. We’re putting our stuff out there and can’t expect everyone to agree or understand, right?
But it got worse. And it got personal! One woman commented, “Poor girl must not have an ounce of authenticity in her entire body.” Seriously? That’s a big leap to a crazy-rude assessment of a person whose first name you don’t even know.
Although I’d estimate that we got 90% positive feedback, that 10% hurt more than we expected. I had a physical reaction to reading these comments; my face got hot and I felt a queasiness in my stomach. Maybe this will sound like whining, and I know I need to toughen up if I’m going to post my writing in public, but it was shitty to find out how quickly complete strangers will say awful things about you. And I know this was an extremely mild case of internet trolling. Basically, someone just hurt my feelings. Women receive rape and death threats on the internet every single day, and I know this doesn’t begin to compare. But it made me think twice about the mean things I might have said about strangers on the internet. People are real and they can see what you’re writing about them. Why be so mean for no reason?
A few weeks later, I had another experience with an internet troll. But this one was worse. Remember when I mentioned those rape and death threats earlier? Yeah.
So, just to get this out of the way – I’m supporting Hillary Clinton for president. I really like Bernie Sanders and have nothing bad to say about the guy, and for that reason, I don’t fight with Bernie supporters on social media. In fact, this election season, I’ve tried to stay out of the weeds altogether. I’ll tweet some of my own views or post the funny Huckabee “Hello” music video to a friend’s wall, but I won’t go arguing about campaign finance or anything with a fellow democrat.
But the other day I was scrolling through Facebook and saw a Vox.Com article about Clinton’s narrow win in Iowa. I wasn’t looking for trouble but the first comment really jumped out at me:
“Raddled old pantsuited whore.” Fuck. I couldn’t help myself.
A few comment exchanges later and this happens:
I should be “grateful” that we never meet in person because he would “make mincemeat” out of me. So, that’s a threat, right? All because I encouraged him to focus his criticisms on Clinton’s policy history rather than her age, appearance, or apparent whore-ish-ness. This is all on top of him calling fellow commenters “whiny bitch,” “sugarpie,” “precious,” and the big kahuna, “cunt.”
I committed the cardinal sin of engaging with a troll, I know. But it’s scary to know that there are real people out there who think and speak this way. People who will jump to a threat on a woman’s life because they’re dissatisfied with the results of the Iowa Caucus. And I just can’t help but feel like this is all connected to the real-life harassment women face. It doesn’t feel like a stretch to me to link this type of behavior to the man who pulled up next to me on I-10 a few weeks ago, presumably because he saw my Emily’s List bumper sticker, to scream “fucking feminist cunt” and promptly cut me off on a narrow highway exit. It also doesn’t feel like a stretch to link this to the guy who grazed his hand across my butt at Magnolia Discount gas station, called me a bitch, and used his stature to physically intimidate me when I said, voice trembling, “don’t touch me.” And it certainly doesn’t feel like a stretch to link this to the guy who tried following me into my hotel room when I was staying in Manhattan for a work trip, trailing me down the hall, shouting about how he liked my high heeled shoes and finally, cornering me by my door until I threatened to scream.
This isn’t just about hurting someone’s feelings on the internet. And none of this is to say that someone being offended about my white people blog post is the cause of women being raped. But it’s too easy for disagreements on the internet to escalate into personal harassment and threats, and even easier to forget that rhetoric has real life implications.