by Isaac Butler
Yesterday, the literary blogger Edward Champion took to his website to pen an eleven thousand word extremely personal attack on the author Emily Gould. You can google it if you want to read it, but I warn you: it left me feeling shaken and physically ill. It left Gould feeling justifiably scared. As In These Times's Sady Doyle put it, it "was not anything like `criticism.' It demonstrated a frankly horrifying nuber of red flags for abuse and stalking. But, more than that, it was an attempt to make women, generally, feel unsafe in public, or unsafe as writers. It was an effort to convey that, no matter how well you do, you ca always be targeted & reduced to nasty comments on your body or sex life."
To name some of the red flags: The screed was filled with numorous photos of Gould, betrayed an obsessive focus on her romantic and sex life, accused her of sleeping her way into a career, and included a particularly unwelcome reference to her genitalia. In its obsessive mania, over the top erudition, fevered axe-grinding and frankly conspiratorial reasoning, it reminded me to some extent of some of the trolling I've received over the years although, to be clear, nothing I ever faced was as bad as this.
One of the things that has come up for review now that the dust has begun to settle is the idea of "taking the high road," which tends to mean doing nothing. Gould was told by many on twitter that she should try to deprive this particular fire of oxygen, not respond, and ignore it. She refused. The writer Roxane Gay commented on this on twitter as well, writing about some online abuse she received on Facebook and saying, "this made me think of all the harassment from men I swallow so as not to `feed the trolls' and how I am supposed to take the high road. And this is what all women writers are told. Fuck your high road."
As longtime readers of this blog know, and as everyone else probably assumes, I was bullied quite a bit growing up. While, again, there are many many differences to these experiences, I am struck by how the idea of the high road unites chlidhood bullying and online harassment. I have been told time and again in my life to take the High Road. To ignore it. To think of the sticks and the stones and the names that never hurt me.
Generally growing up, the pattern worked like this: kids would make fun of me until I got extremely upset, and then I would get in trouble for being disruptive. And as the adults were disciplining me instead of my peers, they would inform me that I would be better off if I just ignored it. I would try to ignore it, the kids bullying me would escalate the bullying, and then I wouldn't be able to take it anymore and get in trouble. The prescription remained the same: ignore it and it will go away.
I wish I had had the presense of mind to say to those teachers and assistant principles that I could start ignoring it as soon as they stopped. That their job, in fact, was to protect me and that they had failed.
I wish I had said then that the only people really served by the high road are the ones who want to ignore that there is a problem in the first place.
Because let's be honest with each other: if someone is determined to bully you, ignoring them won't stop them. If someone is obsessed with you, ignoring them won't stop them. If someone hates you because you exist, because you are a woman, because you have the audacity to claim your existence as valid in public and online, ignoring them won't stop them. In the age of the internet, ignoring them also won't stop other people from paying attention to them.
When we ask people to take the high road, we think we are trying to give them tactical advice about how to solve the problem of trolls and misogynists and bullies. And sometimes, this tactical advice is appropriate. If someone on twitter with ten followers is trolling you, shining a spotlight on them is likely just giving them fuel.
Quite a bit of the time, however, what we are actually doing is asking the already put-upon to shoulder the burden of being tasteful. We are begging not to be made uncomfortable. Begging not to have to take sides. Begging to be left on the sidelines as a voyeur, to not feel any urgency or need to participate, to get involved, to risk.