6 March 2012

On online discourse

Towards the end of last year, there was extended discussion about the abuse that female writers receive via online comments sections, forums and social networking sites. In ‘You Should Have Your Tongue Ripped Out: The reality of sexist abuse online’, published on the New Statesman site, Helen Lewis-Hasteley explored the level – and the type – of insults, slurs and threats aimed at women who address political issues not just on mainstream websites such as The Guardian, The Telegraph and others, but also on their personal blogs.

The discussion was trigged by Statesman writer Laurie Penny retweeting a small fraction of the vitriol thrown at her via Twitter. Some were shocked, but I wasn’t: since starting my Transgender Journey blog for The Guardian and entering circles of liberal and left-wing journalists, I’ve met Laurie and others who know her, and discussed with her how she deals with the attacks, and with her friends just how abhorrent we find their quantity and intensity. Laurie – a talented young author who handled her rapid rise gracefully and sensitively – has found it extremely draining, and long refrained from speaking out as she wondered whether it was worth continuing.

Other female writers I met, and found to be interesting, articulate people whose voices would be missed if they were to retire, documented their struggles with online abuse, and how it made them reluctant to carry on. Cath Elliott, deservedly shortlisted for The Orwell Prize, and Suzanne Moore have both outlined their experiences; having taken plenty of trans-misogynistic (as Julia Serano puts it) abuse when writing for The Guardian and The New Statesman, I have every sympathy.

I’m late to this, partly because I had to break and recover after an emotionally intense 18 months, but I’m here to consider my experiences of blogging my gender reassignment and trans politics in high-profile leftist spaces, and the responses I’ve drawn – particularly the positive ones. (Strange, as I always reply to “A pessimist is never disappointed” with “Well, you say that …” but here we are.)

I refer primarily to the deeply subjective Transgender Journey that I wrote regularly from June 2010-July 2011 (and less frequently since). I had a set of aims – mainly to create a space where issues around gender variance could be discussed from a trans-friendly starting point, in which a transsexual person set the terms and other trans people could share their experiences. I also wanted to gauge wider attitudes towards transsexual and transgender people, which I felt could best be coaxed out by writing an accessible series, giving me limitless room to articulate a position hitherto allowed little media representation. (More on how it came about here.)

The day before it went online, my editor asked if I wanted comments enabled. I thought hard about this – I’d seen poor Max Gogarty get ripped to ribbons, and knew Guardian commenters to be notoriously tough at times – but felt that the project would not be able to achieve its goals without them. With a heavy heart, I said yes, sensing that covering such a contentious topic would bring plenty of abuse.

This turned out to be absolutely the right decision. I didn’t get many of the usual comments on articles which readers of one of the world’s most widely read newspaper websites feel, not always unfairly, aren’t up to scratch (“How did this get in The Guardian?” or “Who commissioned this?” will be familiar to any Comment is Free visitor), which I decided to take as an indication that the writing wasn’t dismal. I was pleasantly surprised at how positive were many of the comments: quickly, people – not just trans people – saw the need for the blog, and I soon discovered that I would not have to expend lots of energy defending my position as there were plenty of others willing to do it for me, giving the project a warm sense of community.

I didn’t see the second comment posted on the first blog as I was away from my desk at work (and, of course, only went online during designated breaks), but I knew from the replies that it had been negative – some ‘political correctness gone mad’ shtick along the lines of “I might try wearing a skirt and see if The Guardian will give me a column’.

Perfect, I smiled, that’ll get people talking. Then I realised that I was in the not unproblematic position of knowing that the blog needed some negative comments to justify its existence – there was no need for a calm, sober explanation of transsexualism if everyone just said “Yeah, we’re fine with it” – but worrying that I might attract so much negativity that it became difficult to continue, as happened to Mike Penner/Christine Daniels in the US.

As the series progressed, the hostile comments developed their own clich├ęs. Most typically, people told me that my gender reassignment should not be publicly funded, a position maintained despite numerous responses saying that the NHS pays for many other specific needs or lifestyle choices (the consequences of heavy drinking, smoking or drug use, sports or DIY injuries, etc.) or that our taxes also pay for the worst programmes on BBC Three or unwinnable imperialist wars launched on spurious pretexts.

None of these arguments proved a deterrent and at times I almost admired these people’s ability to work new information into the familiar trope. After The Guardian added a note mentioning that the blog was long listed for an award, someone responded with “If you win the fucking Orwell Prize you can pay for your operation yourself”, not bothering to find out that a) Graeme Archer had already won it and b) the £3000 prize would not come close to funding surgery – in fact, it would probably only just cover the time I’ll spend out of my day job to recover from it.

There were certain subjects that I knew would push buttons, and I made a point of staying away from a computer for such time that the moderators could filter the most personally aggressive comments and set acceptable terms for debate. When my piece on transsexualism and mental health – still the single piece of writing of which I’m most proud – went online, I decided to eat with a friend rather than read every response before the Guardian team deleted them.

Overall, I thought the moderators were, if anything, overly cautious – perhaps, I speculated, because they weren’t too familiar with the world I documented. I eventually told my editor that there was no need to censor those asking about the NHS, and that it would be better if others and I could argue, but perhaps the mods were just bored of the same conversation and did it to ensure some variety and vitality, rather than because they believed it to be offensive. (I was constantly amused at how they all thought they were saying something new and unsayable – like those commentators who churn out endless columns about how you’re “not allowed” to talk about immigration any more.)

Nonetheless, when things got too bad tempered, I tried to change the tone, feelimg that calmer writing would generate calmer discourse. After pieces on the Gender Identity Clinic (which raised heated debate about NHS funding, and strong opinions from transsexual people about their treatment) and mental health, I submitted a gentler piece on my search for a trans community, thinking that it would still help trans people and their friends whilst taking the heat off myself for a little while.

Criticism from those closest to me – other trans people, and especially activists – stung the most, partly because some of their arguments were valid and partly because I felt misunderstood or unfairly judged. I particularly resented suggestions that I was in this for the money, becoming annoyed by forum comments saying “How much does she get paid?” (The assumption that anyone published in a widely-known space must be a multi-millionaire becomes rather galling when you’re not earning much, and was one reason why I detailed my experiences of writing for free.)

It got easier when I thought back to when I’d posted embittered attacks on people in the public eye, either under a pseudonym or in places where I knew, really, that they wouldn’t notice, and imagined my critics in similar circumstances – or at least equally frustrated.

In my mid-Twenties, I was working in a call centre, flat broke, having given up on a PhD after failing to secure funding, struggling with my writing, my gender and other mental health problems and with no idea what to do with my life. With Internet messageboards, blogs, social networks and comments sections being my main outlets in a workplace that frowned on people talking to each other, I took out my insecurities on more successful people, my reasoning being that they'd put themselves into the public sphere so somehow deserved any abuse they got. My targets were mostly mainstream comedians or footballers – especially those that played for my club, Norwich City.

My least favourite player in a very poor side was , whose attempts to win over the fans with energetic running, ceaseless shouting at team-mates and clapping the crowd after every game had the opposite effect. Thinking myself a student of the game, I prided myself on seeing through this, and presumed motives for his style, particularly his applauding, implying that it was cheap cover for what I felt was limited ability. (I was far from alone in this.)

Poor Hughes had a terrible time in Norfolk, failing to win over his numerous vocal critics. Months after he finally snapped and had an altercation with a fan after City lost 4-1 to Burnley, leading to Nigel Worthington, the manager who signed him, being sacked, Hughes left for Leeds, but by then I’d changed my tone.

Why?

I’d love to say it was because I started playing competitive 11-a-side football again, which I’d not done since school, but that happened later. When I joined the Brighton Bandits in the Gay Football Supporters’ Network league and realised that even Sunday League was really tough, I became far more understanding of professional players’ limitations – and just how much their skill, nerve and determination outstripped mine. This sense of how difficult their jobs were and how much judgement they tolerated from the totally ignorant made me less critical, and applying this logic to other walks of life, I grew out of my bitterness.

What softened me on Hughes was learning that he was Norwich’s ‘reading champion’ in a scheme launched with the National Literacy Trust, where professional footballers gave up spare time to read to disadvantaged children. There was a picture of Hughes poring over a book with a child, just like my father used to with me. Suddenly he was far more human, and I felt terrible about all I’d impugned about his gestures.

*

Sticking with football momentarily, there’s a rumour about a Chelsea fan who continually slated Joe Cole until someone asked him to stop.

“Why?”
“That’s my son” said Joe Cole’s father.
“I’ve paid my money” the fan answered, “I can say what I like.”
“Very well” replied Joe Cole’s father, taking some money from his wallet and pointing at a small boy accompanying the fan, “Here’s forty quid – is that your son?”

This story is almost certainly apocryphal, but its mere plausibility illustrates nicely the gulf between certain increasingly unforgiving and entitled consumers and those emotionally affected by their vitriol, and their somewhat spurious justifications for it. (“I’ve paid my money”, “They earn enough to put up with it”, “If they don’t want to be criticised [not “attacked”] they shouldn’t do it”, etc.) Footballers, like politicians and journalists, can be expected – or even told – to just put up with it – no matter how unpleasant it gets.

*

I think I was spared the worst because more conservative people tend not to share my belief (which underpinned my column) that the personal is political, keeping me under the radar of some critics aiming to discourage dissenting voices, but the abuse hurled at Laurie, Suzanne and others do make me reluctant to tackle more straightforward politics, and I’m sure I’m not the only one put off even entering the discourse by it, or by the argument that it just “comes with the territory”.

Social change, however – particularly the type I wanted to push towards with my writing – relies on offending sensibilities, and related to my anxieties over who criticised my work was the question: “Who is it admissible to offend? And how?”

I soon learned that I had to judge this instinctively - there were few basic rules, except to try not to offend unless it was absolutely unavoidable. If I believed the positive effects of publishing a sentence, paragraph or article would outweigh the negatives, then it was worth it, and usually I felt vindicated: the nastiest attacks paled against the messages from trans people telling me their stories, or how my writing had helped them explore their identities, or from others telling how it had enabled them to understand the issues, or a loved one in transition.

I started blogging at a time when, it’s fair to say, any egalitarianism about how the Internet might make all opinions equally valid had dissipated. John Gabriel’s Greater Internet Fuckwad Theory was so popular because it was so universally recognisable, whilst Doug Stanhope’s piece on ‘Have Your Say’ sections became my first port of call whenever I was annoyed at how I’d been addressed online.

There’s a sense that the tide is turning, too, with journalists striking back at those whom they feel overstep the mark. Brian Whelan recently exposed a commenter who posted a particularly callous threat towards a female journalist, showing how easy it was to name people with linked Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and Amazon accounts. This week there was much argument over another blogger being stripped of anonymity after annoying a number of authors, particularly feminist or LGBT writers.

In addition, there is, I conjecture, growing weariness with the “It’s just the Internet” defence for unkindness – just because there’s less direct personal interaction than on the street, in the pub or on the phone does not subtract the power of words to hurt, and really, anyone past primary school age should know this.

That said, the comments on my Guardian column were often heart-warming, funny, insightful or inspiring, and I wouldn’t have changed them for the world – the bad and the good felt almost symbiotic at times. Some of the commenters have, thanks to Twitter and other social networks which can bring writers and readers together, became my friends - notably with all anonymity removed from the exchange. For all its problems, Internet discourse can be a transformative experience: without it, I don’t know where I or the previously disparate transgender ‘community’ that found some unity through online debate might be.