Week Woman

A Pox on the Patriarchy

Don’t Read the Comments? Why The Hell Shouldn’t I?

As I completed my victory lap* around the internet this morning, I did something I have trained myself not to do, after too many disheartening and even disturbing Two Businessmen Huggingexperiences. Yes reader, I read the comments. Cue the gentle rustle of the internet’s collective head shaking.

Except of course, not the whole internet. Because some of the internet clearly likes the comments. I know this because they post in the comment area, have discussions with other commenters, and even hit that little ‘like’ or ‘recommend’ button. Ah, the like button, the holy grail of the professional commenter. That little notification of affirmation, of consensus, of community. Which is nice – or it would be if that community weren’t a cesspit of sexism, that consensus not of hatred, that affirmation not of male superiority.

But you all know this. This is why ‘don’t read the comments’ is practically a meme, an internet cliché, and why we have twitter accounts like “Avoid Comments“. The comments section has become the valley of the shadow of misogyny, where women – and many men – fear to tread. We’ve given up this supposed equalising space and handed over the magic markers to the playground bullies.

A well-functioning comments section could be a glorious thing. It could be a chance to speak truth to power, a chance for true and engaging debate, with alternate perspectives, or little snippets of knowledge being added to the article above. But instead, the comments section is the internet’s dirty little secret, the place where all the societal cracks we try desperately to paper over come out and play. Here be your racism, your homophobia, and above all, your rampant misogyny. Here, basically, be power relations we are desperately trying to leave behind writ large. Because it seems to me, judging by their overt prejudices, that practically the only people who comment on the internet are straight, white, men.

As I gorged myself on yet another comment glutted with hate, I wondered why. Why has the comments section become an enclave of male entitlement? A Radio 4 programme I heard about a year ago came to mind. The producer of Any Answers was being interviewed about achieving a gender balance in the show and she revealed the very different behaviours of male and female listeners: broadly, men called up immediately, never doubting the relevance and interest of their comments; women waited to see whose comments were aired, unsure of how they would measure up, of whether they deserved to be heard. It’s the age-old male entitlement versus female reticence played out again. Gendered social conditioning shutting women out from debate. Again.

I see the sense in “Avoid the Comments”, I really do. Who has the mental and emotional capacity to take on the bilious internet herd? The times I have ‘waded in’, I am routinely left with that dead feeling in my stomach that so many women will recognise, of having yet again taken on the world’s hatred of my sex. I feel hopeless and exhausted, and reluctant to ever go back. I long for the quiet life. And yet, another part of me, that rebellious small voice that never knows when to shut up – the feminist voice, if you will – screams, “Why?” Why this quiet, resigned acquiescence? Why this public acceptance that the comments section is for loud, entitled male bores?

The comments section is too much for any one person to take on. But it’s not too much for the internet as a whole to tackle. Studies of commenters repeatedly demonstrate that they represent a tiny minority of a publication’s readers. They are not the invincible force we, or they, with their inflated sense of self-worth, think they are. If we all made a little effort, we could surely wrest this section back as a tool for the public as a whole. And yes, I know, who cares, right? Populated as it is by the vicious underbelly of society, the comments section doesn’t matter. Let them have their little black hole.

Running The Women’s Room has given me an insight into the myriad reasons why the percentage of female experts in the UK media remains so stubbornly fixed at around 20%. Part of this is the media’s fault. But there can be no denying that part of it is because women are scared of speaking – and the daily dose of internet bile, and the daily reminder that there are big signs hung over large swathes of the internet saying “Women Keep Out” does nothing to help this. It’s all very well for men in the public eye to say ‘I get trolls too, I just ignore them’. No man has ever experienced anything to the degree that Mary Beard experienced. But perhaps more significantly, if more subtly, men are not on a daily diet of societal hatred, that feeds that other small voice in nearly every woman’s head, the creation of years of being told to sit down, shut up and keep out, that maybe the trolls are right. That maybe we are stupid, inconsequential, ugly, unworthy, boring and inept. This is why telling women to just ignore the hatred doesn’t work; after years of having loathing directed at us, it has turned inward, and it’s barely worse than anything we tell ourselves.

So this is why I’m not happy to leave it at ‘Don’t read the comments’. These comments are not hosted beyond the event horizon. They are smeared across the website of every one of our national publications and so given that establishment stamp of approval. And in this way, nearly every article online represents a stark, slap-in-the-face reminder that hatred for women is still tolerated. That women are still silenced. And that the male voice rules supreme.

*revision avoidance lap

14 comments on “Don’t Read the Comments? Why The Hell Shouldn’t I?

  1. Vicki
    August 23, 2013

    I spent 20 years in pr. the mantra was never ever leave a critisism unchallenged otherwise thats the only opinion left on record. I regularly wade in to sexist trolls with facts, figures and reasoned debate. When they become abusive i point out to them they are using violent hate speech to try and intimidate me rather than reasoned debate and that i cannot debate with someone using violence. I wont change the troll, but i hope to leave an accurate record of the counterside of the argument and to expose the sexist bullies for what they are to readers coming across the argument later. Silencing is what the sexists want, i try to do the opposite, if nothing more than to assert my human right to have a voice.

  2. Pingback: Don’t Read the Comments? Why The Hell Shouldn’t I? | J Crew

  3. broadsideblog
    May 25, 2013

    If you want to be heard/listened to, you have to speak up and out. There’s no two ways about it.

  4. Lauren Nelson
    May 25, 2013

    This is awesome. I’m a huge advocate of engaging in the comments section. On the surface it looks like masochism – constant exposure to people cannot or will not participate in civil discourse, or who reject data in favor of anecdotes, or who sling insults instead of warrants. It’s exhausting.

    That being said, it’s incredibly important. As you say in your post, it’s about standing up and having voices heard, but in a lot of ways, it’s also about teaching others to do the same. People can disagree without the conversation devolving into a slur fest; for some, it just takes someone setting an example of how it can be done. Even if we never change a troll’s mind, we provide through our behavior and words a living testament to reason, and a subtle rebuke of sorts to the vitriol they spit. It’s not about the troll at all, really. It’s about the people watching.

    In other words, bravo! Keep engaging!

  5. paulalindo
    May 24, 2013

    Reblogged this on Paula Lindo and commented:
    “I see the sense in “Avoid the Comments”, I really do. Who has the mental and emotional capacity to take on the bilious internet herd? The times I have ‘waded in’, I am routinely left with that dead feeling in my stomach that so many women will recognise, of having yet again taken on the world’s hatred of my sex. I feel hopeless and exhausted, and reluctant to ever go back.”

  6. Dan
    May 24, 2013

    “The comments section has become the valley of the shadow of misogyny, where women – and many men – fear to tread.”

    What sort of person is scared to look at a comments section? Misogyny doesn’t exist, by the way.

    • pinkelastik
      May 24, 2013

      Dan, your a dick.

    • Adam @Zeeblebum
      May 25, 2013

      > “What sort of person is scared to look at a comments section?”

      Did you read the article?

      > “Misandry doesn’t exist, by the way.”

      You misspelt ‘misandry’. I’ve corrected it for you. You’re welcome.

    • Psycho_Claire
      May 25, 2013

      Really, Dan? You think that there is no sexism in our society? Women consistently are paid less than men. The proportion of women in jobs drops the higher you go up the scale. Even in my arena of academic Psychology, a topic dominated by women at undergraduate level, sees very few women reaching professorship. I’m sure you’ll say that this is to do with women having children. But that statement alone demonstrates misogyny. Why should it be only women who take career breaks? Where are the fathers? Why do they not take time off too? The mere fact that women take career breaks when they have children, and men do not is the clearest demonstration of patriarchy there is.
      Perhaps you should take a long hard look at the world and your sense of entitlement before declaring “misogyny doesn’t exist”.
      Also, this is OUR space. I’m reclaiming it for reasoned debate and discussion. Take your inflammatory and hostile comments elsewhere. We don’t want them here! #silentnomore

  7. badders911
    May 24, 2013

    Inspiring article to keep pushing the boundaries back with, thanks. I found the TedX talk given by Anita Sarkesian last year about cyber-mob bullying fits very well with this subject. Laurie Penny also receives relentless trolling on everything she writes. Very glad there are so many strong women who are not prepared to lie down or hide away because of this insistent bullying.

    I have noted a few women getting in on the trolling act, especially as vacuous haters of feminists, or vocal supporters of racism etc.especially on Twitter. There is something going on with a lack of cognitive development/awareness in some people whereby they think it is acceptable to be rude and nasty about others yet they do not want to be treated this way themselves…odd un-reflective species that we are.

  8. mark
    May 24, 2013

    What amazes me even more is the sheer number of women who’ll descend to this level of viciousness in the commentaries they make when they enter that door. Perhaps they’ve been beaten down so long that they have come to the point of affirmation of the nonsense they’ve taken in, processed as perhaps reality so then express that craziness outward, thinking they are speaking truth.

    I read some comments because most of them are like the impending train wreck, I can’t keep my eyes off it. But then, like you, I see the carnage wreaked and I turn away in disgust and a sense of hopelessness. Don’t bother trying to have civil, much less intelligent discourse there. That is only infinitismally a possibility.

  9. laspencas
    May 24, 2013

    I agree that many women have ‘hidden away’ for a quiet life. I’m always amazed at how my apparently strong feminist friends morph into wishy washy surrendered wives when their man is present. So much for living a life congruent with your beliefs. That double life just doesn’t work. If you buy into it you end up living a life of quiet desperation. True liberation is speaking with your true voice, whatever the consequences. Thank you for being one such woman.

  10. judisutherland
    May 24, 2013

    Here’s a comment. WE WILL NOT BE QUIET! We just have to stop caring what the trolls say, we know our own worth and our own motivation. Keep going, Week Woman!

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