An update on my horrible year of bullying and harassment, and a thank you

A brief post today – I have been quite quiet on this blog due to a looming dissertation deadline, but I thought I’d briefly extricate myself from my thesis cave to say a few things:

1) My post about harassment and bullying has now been republished by the Tab, and you can read it here. I was initially hesitant about writing for the press about my experience (I didn’t want to be one of those people who might be seen as using bad things that happened to them to become a BNOC) but it occurred to me that the experiences I have had might well be shared by others, and so getting the word out about what’s happened to me, and the need to speak out is important. Give the Tab piece a share – I hope it gives the people who’ve gone through bullying some comfort, and maybe more will speak out.

2) On a less positive note – it appears my troll, or trolls, is moving into legally dubious territory by impersonating senior members of my college and the University. A few days ago I received this:

And a little bit later, I received this:

Now you don’t need to be a supersleuth to see these emails are fake. I mean, what have I reputedly done which would make Queens’ (it has an apostrophe, dickhead) ban me from going within 400 metres of the college? And why am I suddenly liable for a £50,000 fine for a series of serious charges, brought against me by the “Protors”? For those of you not in Cambridge, Proctors are the University Disciplinary force, and are pretty incompetent to say the least, but no so incompetent that they would be unable to spell their own names. What’s more worrying about these emails is they both appear to come from @cam.ac.uk addresses, so my troll is now impersonating (albeit poorly) some fairly senior people. I’m guessing that they got bored of wanting to set me on fire and then sexually assault me. Anyway, I’m going to pass these onto the authorities and see what they can do about it.

3) On a better note: I wanted to say thank you to the people who have sent me messages of support and solidarity. It really means a lot to me, and I know that that sounds like a cliche, but I really am moved and heartened. So thank you. I also hope that other victims can get the same sense of solidarity as I have. If anyone out there has been affected by bullying and would like a place to speak out about it (anonymously if needs be) I’d be happy to take a guest post to this blog. It gets around 1,000 hits a month, so it’s not the worlds strongest platform, but anything I can do to help really.

Anyway, the thesis cave is calling to me. Thanks again for all the support. Catch you when I have more letters after my name.

Peace.

Chris.

Harassment and Bullying at Cambridge – We need to talk about it.

CONTENT WARNING: this blog post contains a link to some direct transcripts of threatening messages I have received. These contain threats of physical and sexual violence which you might find distressing. Please be aware of this before you click on the link.

The theme of my MPhil year has, sadly, been harassment.

Don’t get me wrong – there’s been a lot about this year which has been great. For all of its faults, I’m enjoying my MPhil, and in particular the company of the people I’ve met on the course. Being a graduate has its pitfalls, but, refreshingly, there is a sense that my academic life is in my hands, rather than the hands of the Tripos system. I’ve done some great comedy gigs (gigging with Kate Smurthwaite at the start of the year was great, as was my solo show a few weeks ago); but sadly I have to admit that for the entirety of this academic year I have been the victim of sustained harassment and bullying. I write this for two reasons. Firstly, because I don’t think I should suffer this bullshit in silence; perhaps by letting the wider world know, someone might come forward with information as to who is the perpetrator. Secondly, and more importantly to me, I suspect I’m not the only person at Cambridge to have suffered harassment and bullying – in fact, I’m certain of it – so to those of you who have been in this position: you aren’t alone. And we need to start talking about it. I should warn people in advance that some of the bullying messages I have received are extremely graphically violent, so brace yourselves…

The problem began before the start of the academic year. I was about to begin at a new college (Queens’) which was a relief as I’d never really felt entirely comfortable in my old one (Sidney Sussex). More on that another time. Before I matriculated, in the run-up to my first days at the college, I noticed I had already been allocated a pigeon hole, and I was mildly excited to see that it was already full. Its contents were two notes: the first of these branded me a “cheater and a liar,” and the second, written all in capitals was: “GET THE FUCK OUT OF MY COLLEGE YOU ARE NOT WELCOME HERE.” Charming. At the time, I was upset, but didn’t report the notes. I didn’t really want my first ever interaction with my new college to be one of reporting harassment. In hindsight, I probably should have done so. Oh well.

A number of other incidents took place in the Queens’ post room. I ordered a few books online, to be delivered to my college address, and never received any of them. Each time, I found the packaging of the book stuffed into my pidge, and the book itself missing. I am not in college that regularly, thus it would have been easy enough for someone to steal my books. Pigeon hole thefts, however, aren’t really much to write home about, and are depressingly common in Cambridge. I reported each incident to the Porters. Queens’ doesn’t have CCTV in the post room, thus there wasn’t much they could do. Somewhere, someone has my copies of “Heartbreak,” by Andrea Dworkin, “On Contradiction and Practice,” by Mao, and “A Thousand Plateaus” by Deleuze and Guattari, and I’d quite like them back. I’m also aware that that selection of books makes me sound like a right pretentious twit, but hey, I am a pretentious twit.

The abuse, however, really kicked into overdrive in Lent term. Some of you may have read my previous blog post about this –  the abuse began after I wrote something long-winded but broadly inoffensive about the CUSU elections. The sneering field-day that sections of the student press were having about the lack of candidates for a couple of positions was annoyingly unbalanced and I figured that I might write a few things about the situation from the perspective of someone who’d worked for CUSU. This provoked an online shit-storm. Within a few days of my post, I had received no less than 20 threats of violence and death. Many of these were comments on the blog, while others were sent directly to my email address. Now, this I find very perplexing. Whilst the issue of CUSU is fairly polarising in Cambridge, I really can’t see how someone cares so much about my opinions on what is essentially a small charity in East Anglia to wish death upon me, let alone so incessantly. That said, I know the internet, and it is, among other things, a forum for people to be as nasty as possible in a scatter gun approach. Perhaps someone had shared my blog post on the wrong forum, and so anti-left, anti-student, or even anti-Cambridge individuals had decided to vent their rage against me. I tried my best to get on with things. It was, however, at this point, that I was introduced to “Voice of Cambridge,” the screen name of the troll and bully who has been the bane of my life since.

Following this, I received some of the following messages, often on a daily basis. After disabling comments on the blog, most of these came to my personal email account.  I publish a handful of them on a Google doc here – *PLEASE NOTE THAT THEY ARE GRAPHICALLY VIOLENT IN TERMS OF PHYSICAL AND SEXUAL ASSAULT*


The sad thing is that these are only a handful of the messages I have received. The last of these messages were in relation to some comments I made on a very depressing article about consent, which you can read here, complete with my comments

By this point in the year, I was starting to feel scared and threatened. I’ve written about my response to the online abuse elsewhere in the blog. However, matters came to a head a few days ago. On Saturday, (May 24th) I went into Queens’ and decided to check my post as I hadn’t done so for a good few weeks. As I have most important things sent to my house, (partially due to the abusive messages earlier this year), I check my post in college very rarely. I wasn’t surprised, therefore, when I saw my pidge was full of leaflets; chapel leaflets, adverts for shows, stuff from CUSU. It was all piled at the back of my pidge, so I reached in to pull it all out in one go. And then I felt something, right at the back of my pigeon hole, snap shut on my index finger. I yanked my hand out, bashing it hard against the roof of my pidge, my finger feeling like it was about to explode with pain.

Right at the back of my pigeon hole, hidden under all of the leaflets, was a mousetrap.

It was this which had caught my finger. Someone had put it into my pigeon hole, set it, and covered it with leaflets, a trap which could well have broken my finger. Luckily for me, I managed to yank my hand away, but the result is ligament damage, which means I am typing this with my index and middle finger of my right hand taped together, pointing absurdly at the computer screen. I finally caved and reported it to the police. Whether they will be able to do anything about this attempt at finger-breaking is another matter. Not long after this, I received the latest anonymous email:

We sent you a little gift – hope you got it! See if you can point the FINGER of blame now. Lots of love sweetie!!!!! Voice of Cambridge (and my many many many you hating friends.)”

Let’s take a step back and reflect on this: all of these messages have been sent from fake email accounts, the kind that one can easily create and which “self destruct” after a short period of time. Most, if not all, use the screen name “Voice of Cambridge,” but the tone of these messages vary – many of them are graphically sexually violent, others seem mocking and theatrical. And then the mousetrap in my pigeon hole is so oddly violent it’s hard to know where to begin. It’s like something from one of those films like Home Alone where an savvy kid deals out the pain to nefarious adults using household objects. 
And the scariest thing is that I have no idea who this is. I thought, initially, that the messages were coming from a random internet troll who, for reasons unknown, or no reason at all, had chosen me as a random target. Perhaps it was someone on the extreme right who’d taken exception to my leftist politics, though I’ll be the first to admit that I’m hardly the most vocal leftist at Cambridge. Everyday I run through potential perpetrators in my head – all the people I’ve ever had a disagreement with, or clashed with, or upset, but no-one comes to mind who was, as far as I was aware, so upset, and so angry, that they would want to harass me, and then try to physically assault me. This anonymity means there is very, very little I can do. If the perpetrator(s) were another member of Queens’, or of the University, I could begin harassment procedures against them. I would also be able to press charges. But this person, or persons, is doing a damn good job of hiding their tracks. All of the emails are, apparently, untraceable. I blocked each address, only for a new one to be created. Short of changing both my Hermes address, and my GMail, I can’t think of anything I can do. I’ve reported matters to the police, but heard nothing from them. Chances are that they are as stumped as I am. 
You might think that I’m sounding remarkably calm given all that has happened. I have to be – frankly, if I let these random acts of cruelty and abuse get to me, I suspect that it would take a long time before I was ready to face the world again. The short term consequence is that I now no longer want to have anything to do with Queens’. Nothing personal to them, or to say they haven’t tried to be helpful (they have) but being in that college makes me afraid, and so, to the person who put that note in my pidge at the beginning of the year – congrats. You won. 
The main reason I am writing this, however, is because I want to try and reach out to anyone else who has experienced this kind of online and offline harassment at Cambridge.  It can’t just be me. Unlike many of my other posts, where I at this point would start laying into the University or the colleges for not having a policy about this, or not caring about that, I genuinely do think that the most powerful thing that people can do in this situation is to let the world know what they are going through. Bullying tends to work best when the victim stays silent, and the bully can take this as a sign that they can continue with impunity. Perhaps I’ll never know who is responsible for this harassment, but I take some comfort from the fact that I won’t be staying quiet about it, and, perhaps, they’ll be caught. So to anyone else who’s experienced this – I am so so sorry. And you are not alone.

*Note – comments will be open, but moderated*

Why this blog has gone a bit quiet recently….

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.