It is a truth universally acknowledged that we live in an age of incivility, with coarseness enabled by the Internet’s immediacy and anonymity.
Still, one needn’t have the delicate sensibility or decorous manners of a Jane Austen character to be shocked by the violent response in the Twitterverse to, of all things, the Bank of England’s plan to put Austen’s likeness on the 10 pound note.
Feminist blogger Caroline Criado-Perez had lobbied the bank for a wee bit more gender diversity on its currency; prison reformer Elizabeth Fry, the only other woman portrayed besides the Queen, was being rotated out for Winston Churchill. Criado-Perez’s online petition proposed, as “suitable replacements,” biophysicist Rosalind Franklin or 18th-century feminist Mary Wollstonecraft.
Austen, as Rebecca Mead wrote for Newyorker.com, “seemed the most uncontroversial of choices,” having achieved “a status among the English rather like that of a cup of tea: cozy, restorative, unthreatening, and omnipresent.”
Apparently not, except the omnipresent part. Criado-Perez found her Twitter feed deluged — not just with the usual torrent of profanities but also with explicit threats of rape and murder. “I’m going to pistol whip you over and over until you lose consciousness,” one Twitter user warned. “Wouldn’t mind tying this bitch to my stove. Hey sweetheart, give me a shout when you’re ready to be put in your place,” said another.
Stella Creasy, a Labor member of Parliament, came to Criado-Perez’s defense and complained of Twitter’s corporate weak-tea response. “Twitter tells me we should simply block those who ‘offend us,’ as though a rape threat is a matter of bad manners, not criminal behavior,” she wrote in the Observer.
The predictable consequence? The Internet trolls targeted Creasy as well. “I’m gonna be the first thing u see when u wake up,” wrote one tweeter, including a picture from the horror film “Halloween” — a masked man brandishing a meat cleaver. “YOU BETTER WATCH YOUR BACK . . . IM GONNA RAPE [YOU] AT 8PM AND PUT THE VIDEO ALL OVER THE INTERNET,” offered another.
Three men have been arrested for the online harassment. Twitter, which had taken a deliberately hands-off policy to policing content, announced stepped-up efforts to handle abuse reports and make it easier to flag problems.
Let us pause, gentle reader, to savor the irony of the choice of Austen provoking this response. Her characters inhabit a world of genteel decorum and entrenched convention, with rules of behavior as rigid and minutely choreographed as a Netherfield ball.
The closest they edge to rudeness are exclamations along the lines of “Nonsense, errant nonsense, as ever was talked!” — Mr. Knightley’s reproof when Emma Woodhouse dares suggest her friend is too good for a farmer’s marriage proposal.
There is a certain historical irony, as well, in the misogynists’ hiding behind the skirts of Internet anonymity. Following the convention of the times, Austen’s novels were published anonymously — “By A Lady.”
Austen, her nephew recounted, wrote in secret, “careful that her occupation should not be suspected by the servants, or visitors, or any persons beyond her only family party.” As Austen biographer Claire Tomalin explains, “A lady naturally avoided any public notice.”
Austen’s anonymity was in the service of propriety. The anti-Austen troglodytes use it to cloak their cowardly viciousness.
Which leads to two interconnected and disturbing issues. First, accounting for the misogyny. How can the reaction be so intense to a dead writer on a bank note?
“If even a small thing like this, a nice middle-class debate about putting Jane Austen’s picture on the opposite side of a bank note from the queen, causes a storm of abuse like this, what will happen when we get to the bigger issues?” Times of London columnist Caitlin Moran wondered to the New York Times.
The second: understanding how the advent of the Internet has weaponized such hate speech and what can or should be done to defuse it.
“I have broken down pretty much every day since this happened,” Criado-Perez told the Guardian. “But I don’t want to give them the satisfaction of knowing they are getting to me.”
Yet scrubbing social media of offensive commentary would be neither feasible nor appropriate. Twitter alone generates 400 million tweets daily. Heavy-handed correctness policing would drain the Internet of its vibrancy.
There is no pat fix for venom gone viral. The problem is both technological (the medium encourages the abhorrent message) and societal (the underlying abhorrence of the message itself, and whatever the incomprehensible cocktail of hatred, anger and resentment that fuels it). The fault is not simply in our social media but in ourselves.