This morning, popular CBC Radio 1 news program The Current weighed in on the recent controversial U.N. “Cyber Violence Against Women and Girls” report. This was not a surprise to me. Unfortunately, as with most stories that involve feminist issues, The Current and its host are not known for providing what I would consider balanced coverage and tend to wear their bias on their sleeves, though they claim to be impartial. This episode was no exception.
They had multiple guests on, spouting the usual talking points on how unsafe the Internet is for women, largely because of the actions of men, hyping up the importance of this report, ignoring its many flaws and glossing over the lacking credibility of the people presenting at the conference such as Zoë Quinn and Anita Sarkeesian. In a laughable attempt to be even in their coverage, they concluded by talking to Ken White from Popehat. He’s been very critical of the report from a free speech perspective and was allowed to state his opinion but host Anna Maria Tremonti kept trying to lead him into agreement with the more extreme positions of the prior guests, either cutting him off or ignoring his answers when he wouldn’t do so. Thankfully, White is far too smart for that. It was clear she had no intention of being fair or even handed with him and had an agenda going in. Listen to the segment if you don’t believe me, it’s obvious. For a show and a personality that considers themselves journalistic, this certainly didn’t seem it to me.
Lots of other people have weighed in with opinions on this U.N. report and many of them did a better job than I ever could so I was going to leave it at that. However, seeing a popular news program on a public broadcaster present it in such a biased way as to rival cable news compels me to respond, both as someone concerned about the report and as a continued defender of the CBC.
Is there a huge and growing problem with harassment online? Absolutely. Are the social networks not doing enough about it? Absolutely. Does it negatively affect women? Absolutely. Does it affect only women and girls? No, it affects everybody! Online harassment is a global problem that affects everyone of every gender, race and creed. To only focus on one element of it attacks a huge problem at only one narrow focal point. Harassment is universally bad and it shouldn’t be some popularity contest where it’s worse for one person because of their gender. I’ve received online death threats before. I also had my house called when I was a teenager and was told someone was coming to kill me and my family and the cops blew it off. Those events were terrifying and made me an emotional wreck for weeks. Do they matter less because I wasn’t a woman? According to some, they did, including The Current apparently. No one should get harassed, it doesn’t matter who you are and focusing only on one element is an exclusionary tactic by a movement that claims to be all about inclusion.
One of the main points Ken White tried to make that Tremonti blew off was the laughable quality of both the report itself and especially it’s citations. It’s so bad, it’s something that wouldn’t pass muster in high school, yet this was being presented at the United Nations and preached as gospel by the media, many of whom didn’t even read it before posting stories to generate clicks through controversy. The Current had multiple days to realise these problems, yet they either didn’t or ignored them in favour of their agenda and when Ken White tried to point this out, it was dismissed as “Well there’s still a problem here.” Yes, among them is that this report cites things that either don’t exist, aren’t available for review or in some cases, are outright lies written by crazy people. It’s unfortunate that such things are inconvenient to the narrative you are trying to push but they nonetheless exist and deserve proper discussion. That’s the whole point of journalism.
Even ignoring all that, I find the most offensive element of the report to be this whole concept of “cyber violence”, a term that’s been fabricated in order to create a media boogeyman. Let me be blunt: There is no such thing as cyber violence. As someone who was bullied throughout elementary school and was jumped and badly assaulted as a teenager, I know what violence is. Violence is getting physically harmed, not having mean things said to you. I spent most of my childhood living with an emotionally abusive parent and I also know the pain of what being insulted to your face entails. It’s a lot different than text insults over Twitter. To equate that to physical violence is insulting to those who have been victims of the latter. Being berated online and even receiving death threats are no laughing matter to be sure but neither compares to being physically attacked and let’s be clear, neither Quinn nor Sarkeesian have ever received one ounce of physical violence for all the threats they’ve gotten. That’s why this “cyber violence” term had to be invented, because these people never actually experienced any real violence.
Quinn and Sarkeesian have been victims of true, horrific harassment–though often overstated and cherry-picked–and while I’m on record as not being a fan of either person or their work, I will never say they deserved any of it. No one deserves harassment, period. That said, these are people who are calling for a new standard of legal online censorship to be implemented because of people saying such things to them as “you suck” and “you’re a liar.” Those are literally things Sarkeesian cited as examples of “cyber violence.” These are people that believe criticism of their work is equivalent to receiving death and rape threats. That’s both wrong and frankly, narcissistic. When you put stuff out for public consumption, you are opening yourself up to feedback of all kinds and the more popular your work gets, the more extreme some of the responses will be. Ask any popular YouTube personality–male or female–about this. That doesn’t make the extreme responses acceptable but it’s not something that’s going to change. You either need to accept and manage it or stop releasing controversial content. You are not entitled to universal praise of your work. It doesn’t matter how right you think you are, others are allowed to think you aren’t and say so. If you can’t handle that, don’t post antagonising things out in public.
The fact is, these are people who have plenty of factual holes to poke in their credibility as individuals, as creators of frequently cited works and self-appointed representatives of women. They continue to claim to be living in fear while they purposefully antagonise their opposition and use their followers as weapons against those who disagree with them. Quinn is a self-admitted former Internet troll herself and was instrumental in driving harassment towards another feminist gaming organisation, one that in spite of that, has managed to release more gaming related content than she has in the last year. This is to say nothing of her documented emotional abuse of a former partner, the kind of abuse I saw drive a friend to a suicide attempt in my youth.
They are both profiting heavily from their status as victims while consistently failing to deliver products they promised their patrons in a timely manner or at all in some cases. They have not deserved any of the harassment they have gotten but they are also not paragons of virtue who who be doing only good for the world if it wasn’t for those damn Internet trolls. None of the demonstrable facts about these people are hard to find, yet the media consistently ignores them because it’s easier to put them on pedestals as only victims to push a narrative that from my observation, is one that less exists and more that people like Tremonti just wish existed.
In attempting to support the notion that the very concepts of the Internet should be fundamentally altered in order to protect the feelings of a few over the freedom of everyone, The Current completely glossed over the glaring faults in the U.N. report, the people backing it and blew off legitimate criticisms and concerns because it was inconvenient to their agenda. They also ignored the large number of women and minorities who don’t follow in lock step with the narrative of oppression that the likes of Quinn and Sarkeesian try to push and think that the proposed solutions are overreaching. Again, both sides deserve to be heard but as is so often the case, the plight of certain genders or group only seem to be considered relevant in specific, defined, convenient contexts.
Online harassment is a big problem for everyone and one that’s unfortunately going to continue to be. Removing anonymity from the Internet or making web sites liable for the things their users post is like dropping a nuclear bomb on one country, thinking that will eliminate ISIS. It will do nothing to stop the bad actors, it will only make things worse for the vast majority of good ones. You can’t make core elements of human behaviour and psyche to change by forcefully altering methods of communication. As prohibition and the war on drugs have clearly shown, trying to force people to not do something always has the opposite effect. A cultural shift is needed and I believe it’s starting but they take time and trying to force them to happen faster only inhibits progress. The fact is, culture and human nature don’t care about your feelings or your perception of the world and it takes an epic level of narcissism to think that you have a right to speak on behalf of everyone for how they should change and at what pace.
What The Current presented this morning is not what journalism is supposed to be and a supposedly seasoned journalist like Anna Maria Tremonti should know better than this. I have gone out of my way to defend the CBC and the importance of public broadcasting from governments that are trying wear it away. However, it gets harder and harder to do when I see cable-news like distortion of issues like this or when a prominent director at the network cowardly refuses to publish the Charlie Hebdo cartoons and admonishes others for doing it. If you’re going to talk about an issue, do it fairly. If you can’t keep your own biases and agenda to the side, then at least stop presenting yourselves as able to.
The CBC is supposed to be better than this and the taxpayers who fund it deserve better than this.