Trigger warnings for cyber-bullying, threats of sexual and non-sexual violence.
It’s been almost a month since I’ve posted anything on this blog. This hasn’t been through lack of things to write about. I have about six fully drafted blog posts on a variety of issues in my “drafts” section on Blogger, which I haven’t posted. I didn’t do so for a reason, which was that following on from one of my earlier posts (a fairly long but I think inoffensive article about the CUSU elections) I began to receive appalling online abuse. Whether it was sparked by this particular blog post (in which case, something is very wrong with the world if people get that ANGRY about a students union election) or by a general anger towards me as an individual (again, I can’t think of anything I’ve done to offend anyone so greatly) or due to the fact that the communicating on the internet is like trying to have a thoughtful debate in a minefield, where everything you say is blasted through a megaphone at such a volume that your opponent takes offence at the very fact that you are even speaking, let alone what you’re saying.
After the CUSU post, I received almost 20 abusive comments and messages to my GMail account. I have deleted most of the comments from the original post, but left a few for posterity’s sake, and the vain hope that I might be able to get some stand up out of them (unlikely). This isn’t the first time I have been subject to online abuse. Here’s a selection of the things that have been said about my online, or offline, for that matter some not even in response to things I have written:
“Their (sic) [referring to CUSU sabbs] all like radical leftist faggot chris page. He should be shot.” – A tab comment.
“Hope u get raped.” – an anonymous email sent to me while I was Welfare & Rights Officer.
“Fuck off an die you leftist fuck.” – a comment on this blog. Oddly, a comment on my earlier piece about CUSU, which I don’t think was especially leftist.
“You are racist fascist scum. I want to break your neck.” – an anonymous email sent to me as Welfare & Rights Officer.
“CUNT!!!!!!” – a note left in my pigeon hole as I was an undergraduate. This particular note was written over a much nicer note from a friend who had put a bar of chocolate and a motivational note in my pigeon hole after hearing I was really stressed. The person who added to it had taken the chocolate, stuffed the wrapper back in my pidge with their amended note and then presumably went on with their day.
“You are despicable. Get out of this college.” – a note I found in the pigeon hole of my new college, shortly after starting there.
And so on. I suppose its rather macabre that I’ve kept a record of all of these, and more. I suppose it’s my way of coming to terms with them.
The smart thing to do, I suppose, would be to ignore the abuse, to put it down to keyboard warriors who have nothing better to do with their time but say horrific things. Since I’m blogging about issues related to Cambridge University, and there are plenty in the wider world (a fair few of them unsavoury) who have an interest in Cambridge, it’s likely that many of these would have come from trolls who aren’t even students, the kind of overweight hacker types for whom the best thing in life is a bacon sandwich and an evening of porn hub. In short, what I should have done, and was advised to do by friends, was to ignore it and carry on.
But I couldn’t ignore it. It scared me.
Maybe it was the violence being wished upon me by parties unknown, a violence often graphic and sexual. Maybe it was the vitriol, which seemed to come out of nowhere, and might be justified if I had just put someone’s puppy in a blender. Maybe it was just the destabilising effect to see emails coming through on my phone with “a new comment on your blog post” and opening it to find that someone out there wanted me to dead, or raped, or to kill myself, or whatever. But the fact remained that the online abuse scared me.
My fear was compounded by a sense of being weak. Many of the bloggers I admire – Richard Seymour, Owen Jones, Laurie Penny etc – probably get their fair share of abuse, and I imagine since they are more public figures, since they have stuck their necks out in a more obvious way than me, some of it is probably worse. But they haven’t stopped writing. They kept going and took it on the chin. And I couldn’t.
I found myself increasingly questioning the logic which friends were offering me; that these comments were coming from online trolls who get a rise out of online abuse, that it was a power play that I was an unfortunate victim of. When I cycled from my house into Cambridge town to go to my college, the University Library, or whatever, I increasingly began to wonder whether these people were students, who knew me, and who genuinely did want to inflict violence on me, or hated me so much they wanted to shut me up. Absurdly, I began to feel sorry, like I had offended them and wanted to apologise for whatever hurt or wrong doing. In my darker moments, I wondered if some of these people were my friends, who were unable to criticise me to my face and so took out their frustration and anger at me online, behind the veil of anonymity. Perhaps the best thing I could do, then, would be to keep my head down and carry on with my studies.
Thinking about it logically, and rationally, I guess some of abuse is coming from people I know or have known – the notes in my pigeon holes, for example, are clearly from people who wanted to target me in particular. But what was so frightening was not knowing who was behind the online comments, who hated me quite so much. I have encountered some examples of extreme expression among students. During strike action last term (which, to my shame, I didn’t really do much to support) I got into an argument with someone who told me I should kill myself for supporting strikes. At the time I was perplexed by such an over-the-top response and rationalised it by telling myself that that person was clearly bonkers. But with this incident, I at least could look someone in the eye and understand what they had against me.
I think it’s a symptom of internet discussion that we have become so aggressive in our online communications. I dislike having Facebook debates about politics precisely because of how it can descend into name calling, borderline threats and triggering comments. Being able to hide behind your Facebook avatar gives you the freedom to post things you might not actually say to someone in real life. With an online discussion, we’re robbed of the ability to properly “read” another person. We don’t see their body language, we don’t know their tone, we can’t hear their sarcasm or lack thereof, and that makes me afraid.
Admitting my vulnerability is the first step towards trying to overcome it. A more practical step is that I have shut down comments on this blog. It saddens me to do so, but I really can’t deal with another round of abuse. I don’t intend to shut the blog down, or change my line of thinking or the topics I talk about. Hopefully, this will mean I won’t have to be afraid of abuse anymore. We’ll see. Thanks to those who offered their support, and hope you enjoy some of the new posts.