The first time my dad noticed that somebody on the Internet had called me an idiot, he decided to take matters into his own hands.
Without telling me, my proud papa tracked down the accuser’s e-mail address and sent him a sternly worded screed. In a fit of protective pique, my father expressed his profound disappointment with the author’s use of ad hominem attacks, and this ad hominem attack in particular. He then sent the blogger a comprehensive rebuttal explaining why I am not, in his objective fatherly opinion, an “idiot.” He offered as evidence various portions of my résumé — including, most cringingly, my SAT scores.
The accuser, apparently surprised that (A) anyone actually read his obscure blog (which my father had found through a Google Alert) and (B) his lone reader was the parent of one of his subjects, apologized profusely and removed the offending post.
I learned all this after the fact, when my father triumphantly forwarded the e-mail exchange. Far from being relieved, though, I went ballistic.
Never, ever, ever engage with trolls again, I told him. At issue was not just a daughter’s tendency to be reflexively embarrassed by her well-intentioned father. My concern was that, based on my own experience and that of many of my colleagues, responding to trolls more often leads to escalation than apologies.
Which is why I had very mixed feelings when, last week, my father e-mailed me about Curt Schilling’s blog post and asked if my feelings had softened.
Schilling, a former major league pitcher, had proudly tweeted about his 17-year-old daughter’s plans to play college softball. The message was greeted with horrifyingly vulgar comments and threats of sexual violence against his daughter, which inspired Schilling to condemn the “cyberbullies” on his blog. The bloodthirsty mobs of Twitter then helped him locate and out the offending jerks, ultimately leading to punishments at work and school for many of them. The Internet cheered this result, proclaiming Schilling its new champion of chivalry and civility.
“You don’t need money, you don’t need celebrity to out these toolboxes,” Schilling wrote in a self-congratulatory follow-up post. “Just a desire to take a bully in front of the public. Nothing a phony tough guy is more scared of than being outed I bet.”
I know that Schilling, like my father, means well, but he is wrong. For most people, taking on a cyberbully “in front of the public” is not only futile but potentially dangerous.
I know this because those of us without Schilling’s celebrity who receive similarly hateful and sexually violent mail on a regular basis have tried similar methods, with little support from anyone but our own overprotective parents.
The exchange my father had with the obscure blogger was neither the first nor last time I received a personal attack in response to my work, though it was one of the most G-rated such instances. In retrospect, being called an “idiot” almost seems quaint, compared with the vulgarities and explicit threats of sexual violence I now regularly receive. They’re not appropriate for a family newspaper, but suffice it to say they frequently feature the a-word, b-word, c-word, d-word, f-word and various other letter-word profanities I bet you didn’t know existed, as well as graphic descriptions of physical and sexual attacks that readers hope to perpetrate. Racial and ethnic epithets (which may or may not be relevant to my actual lineage) feature prominently, too.
The Internet is rife with stories of other women (often journalists and performers, but sometimes just random users) being threatened and tormented by quasi-anonymous hordes, whose vitriol seems only to swell if the target fights back. Consider “Gamergate” or the feminist writers who have scaled back or eliminated their online presence rather than endure daily abuse.
Far from receiving the encouragement and moral support that Schilling enjoyed, when female targets of these obscene attacks speak up, we are typically accused of being thin-skinned, uppity crybabies who likely brought the verbal abuse upon ourselves. Women who have approached social media platforms and legal authorities about harassment and actionable threats of violence have been repeatedly laughed off.
I’m not sure why Schilling (or my father) was more successful when shaming cyberbullies; maybe when a protective father chimes in, the crowd views the original female target as more deserving of support. If so, that would be all the more disturbing: Why should women need to be seen as daughters before we can ever be recognized as human beings?
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