Quick hit: getting too close to power

Trigger warning: this post describes and discusses harassment and threats.

Sady Doyle writes on Tiger Beatdown:

When feminist women reach a certain critical mass of readership or influence, then mass negative exposure and harassment invariably comes their way. Sooner or later, there are just too many people who know about you, and the threats become credible: Blacklisting, hacking, smear campaigns, invasion of private property, maybe even straight-up bodily harm. At a certain point it goes beyond grudges or trolling or sarcastic comments or even just isolated scary dudes; it becomes a large-scale Thing, and it attracts its fair share of people who operate without anything even vaguely resembling a conscience.

I mean, let’s review just a few of the more famous cases. They often have something to do with women approaching positions of power: As we all know, when Amanda Marcotte and Melissa McEwan were hired for the John Edwards campaign, there was a national and frequently televised campaign aimed not only at getting them fired, but at making them functionally unemployable. It went on for a long while, it was vicious, and it involved Bill O’Reilly, which is never fun. Furthermore, Jessica Valenti was accused of slutting it up with Bill Clinton because she was in a room with him along with some other people… In each case, this happened because the women were getting too close to power: A President, a presidential candidate. The idea that these women might be doing politics, not “just” gender politics. That was enough to set it off.

If it’s not power, it’s geek stuff. Because we are on the Internet, and the geeks are powerful. Kathy Sierra was subject to one of the most vicious, frightening campaigns of harassment and death threats that anyone has ever seen, because she spoke about software development. And being a lady, but mostly: Being a lady as it related to software development. “I am afraid to leave my yard, I will never feel the same. I will never be the same,” she wrote, to explain why she had to quit working and earning money as a speaker for a while… Then there was Harriet J and her criticism of Google Buzz — no, not Google Buzz!!!! — or McEwan, again, who got one of the biggest pile-ups of her career on a post about a video game called “Fat Princess.” Video games, tech, Google, basic Internet geek stuff: These are the things you’re not allowed to approach, for fear of harassment…

Other people are allowed to seek popularity. Other people are allowed to think it is a good thing. And yet, over here, we know that popularity is not good, but BAD. Feminists often RUN THE HELL AWAY FROM POPULARITY. At least, we do if we’ve got any darn sense in our heads or have seen this happen often enough. (I have a little sense. Not a lot, or enough.) Or if we don’t run away from it, our first instinct is to disavow basic things to which all writers should be entitled, like pride in our work, or a hope that our work might be read and respected. And the reason is this:

Because you cannot so much as mention “not deserving to be raped,” in a blog post about freaking GOOGLE PRIVACY SETTINGS, without getting hundreds of comments about how you should go get raped immediately, because you deserve to be raped so very much.

It is, as I hope is obvious from the quote, worth reading the whole thing.

But I wanted to highlight the relevance of this for this blog and the people who write for it or are in its community. None of this is news, and it is fairly obvious what I mean: we are critiquing geekdom, and geekdom is powerful here on the Internet.

And consequences like these have in fact of course already happened to us and near us. This blog itself doesn’t right at this moment undergo persistent trolling in moderation, it has in the past and undoubtedly will in the future. To give the best known example, MikeeUSA has been reappearing periodically since 2005, and that’s just in communities that I personally follow, and making threats of violence or death all that time, including explicitly invoking and praising the actions of murderer Hans Reiser and mass murderer Marc Lépine.

People who describe themselves as geek feminists and geek feminist activists regularly burn out or take planned breaks in various ways: they go back to technical blogging and technical work, they stop giving unicorn talks, they move their commentary partially or entirely to locked networks rather than public spaces. They may or may not come back to public activity.

I myself have not been a target of sustained personalised harassment campaigns—and even saying that is indicative of the problem, that someone who has “merely” experienced one-off incidents, or harassment aimed at women geeks in general rather than her in particular doesn’t feel like she’s experienced the “real” problem—but I have seen the weapons that are being used against my friends.

I want to, here, acknowledge these people and the work that they did, are doing, and will do. As firecat wrote a long time ago now:

Let’s say that fighting sexism is like a chorus of people singing a continuous tone. If enough people sing, the tone will be continuous even though each of the singers will be stopping singing to take a breath every now and then. The way to change things is for more people to sing rather than for the same small group of people to try to sing louder and never breathe.

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About Mary

Mary is a women in tech activist, a programmer, a writer, and a sometime computational linguist. She writes at puzzling.org with occasional appearances at Hoyden About Town and her previous projects include co-founding the Ada Initiative and major contributions to the Geek Feminism blog. She's @me_gardiner on Twitter.

6 thoughts on “Quick hit: getting too close to power

  1. deborah

    Thank you for linking to this fabulous post, and for your commentary. Any number of times I have posted in a private forum about some particular public fail by a major figure in geekdom on either a feminism or disability spectrum, saying, “I’m not going to speak up, but…” And every single time several people say “oh, you must speak up!”

    There’s a reason I’m not. Feminists run away from being famous, as the post says. People with disabilities all the more so.

    *wishes I could send some nice cookies to Dan Choi in the hospital*

  2. John

    Great links, thank you. That last quote really hit me. A great reminder to sing out often and clearly, to encourage friends to join in, and to breathe when you need to.

  3. Addie

    This is eerily reminiscent of an experience I went through in the last week, although on a much smaller scale. I was about to acquire some power, so I had to be degraded first so the authority wouldn’t go to my head, or whatever presumed threat needed to be neutralized. At least, that’s totally how it felt, and there really was no other justification. Glad for Sady’s timing (and forgot how much she probably inspired my own fighting spirit in the face of that crisis – I’d been following her #MooreAndMe-related activism with rapt attention for the past two weeks.)

  4. lala

    The people who say these women should just “suck it up” or “grow a backbone” or something whenever they try to remain anonymous to protect themselves make it so much worse.

  5. Moose

    You’ve before linked to the stuff I’m going through with LOPSA, which is supposed to be a professional organization.

    Every time it hits me in the face again I go through another round of, “Is it me? Is there something wrong with ME?”

    Yet I get conflicting tales of why I’ve been ejected and rejected (I’ve now heard 3 different reasons why I was ‘fired’ from chairing an important committee), and some current and former board members continue to blame me for the failures of the organization while others demand to know why I’m not working harder for the org, while back-handedly praising all the hard work I did for years. (The lone female board member has been completely silent throughout.)

    Meanwhile it’s been a clear campaign to silence my speaking up for the women in the profession, who all too often brush my fights aside with, “That’s just how men are, why are you bothering to waste your time?”

    It’s depressing and disheartening and sometimes I wonder what the hell I’m doing. My reputation in the organization is gone. Only time will tell how that reflects on my professional reputation.

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