Why is drowning in vitriol the price women pay for being in politics?
Labour MP Yvette Cooper gives a speech about online abuse. The result is that she receives more online abuse. Someone called WesleyBrownLab tweets “We need a final solution on the Blairite question”. A photo that she clearly does not know is being taken of her on a train is tweeted. This is stalkerish and intrinsically threatening. It is difficult to even talk about online abuse without spiralling into despair. It is deliberate and ongoing yet remains strangely invisible to anyone who doesn’t encounter it. If you are not a woman or gay or black or Muslim you may wonder what the fuss is about. Lucky you. Twitter has become unbearable for many people, whether politicans or broadcasters.
The reams of abuse and death threats that Stella Creasy gets are there to see. Diane Abbott, Angela Rayner, and Luciana Berger have been subjected to tickbox racism, classism and antisemitism, on top of sexism.
What is difficult sometimes is that all of this abuse does not come from the right – though of course much of it does – but from those who claim to be on the left. The viciousness that Cooper spoke about her speech is often played out in pile-ons between different parts of the Labour party. The enemy of some who support Jeremy Corbyn is not the Tories but anyone they see as Blairite.
Those people are to be silenced or deselected and those people just so happen often to be women. Similarly Laura Kuenssberg, the BBC’s political editor, is regularly denounced as a MSM Tory shill in a way her male counterparts are not. Cooper is, by extension, then labelled a Tory for defending her. Doubtless I am, too. For in this ludicrous atmosphere of excommunication and denunciation, faith is demonstrated by drive by vitriol. There are all sorts of criticisms to be made of the BBC – the over-exposure of Nigel Farage would be one, for sure – but the singling out of Kuenssberg is galling.
It is certainly true that most of the media (mea culpa) underestimated Jeremy Corbyn’s appeal, and are belatedly trying to remedy that, with a new generation of pundits and alternative media outlets coming through. This is all to the good. It is both timely and necessary. All these outlets use social media to promote themselves and to make new narratives.
Too often those narratives become too easily simplified. Especially in 140 characters. The so-called hard left meets the hard right in its hatred of “liberals”. Centrist is a dirty word. Blairites are scum of the earth. Worship of Corbyn as the absolute boy is a laugh. Otherwise you are a melt or a slug. Banterful! The language of some of the Corbyn crew – laddish, appropriated working-class slang – can turn into aggression and hostility to women. Or exclude them. This may not be intentional, but it is happening.
In the zeal for purity, the unpure must be vanquished – and funnily enough, the unpure are so often female! An excellent MP like Stella Creasy rightly celebrated for her recent work on extending abortion rights for Northern Irish women has been abused and threatened by both the left and the right. The intimidation of Luciana Berger, and the constant calls for her to go, are dismaying.
Obviousy Corbyn has much female support, and often these women are subject to abuse or patronised by middle-aged “moderate” men whose entire raison d’etre is to sit online, putting the world to rights by putting young women in their place. Mansplaining doesn’t cover this semi-bullying – it is questioning women’s right to have an opinion or indeed knowledge.
All this ends up in a ridiculous competition about who is abused most. Show me yours, and I will show you mine. Supporters of Corbyn refuse to believe what is done in his name. Or justify it by the hostility of the media to him in the last couple of years.
This does not get round the central point of what Cooper was saying, though. She was talking about the misogyny that is aimed at women of all political persuasions. She did not, she said, want to see the severed head of Theresa May carried at demonstrations. The linking of social media abuse to actual violence is pertinent, and after the murder of Jo Cox, it’s all too real.
The online surveillance of women’s images alongside the silencing of their voices is now a fraught part of our environment with real effects. I know many prominent women who will not go on TV as they can’t take the abuse they will inevitably receive, not about just their views, but about their desirability/class/race, and so on.
This is an absolute regression for women in the public eye. Is it acceptable to say to any young woman with a view and a voice that you have to wade through a barrage of horrible personal insults every day, as this is the price you pay for having a voice at all?
This is the river now in which we swim. How can we stop a river flowing? Perhaps by listening to what is being said. Believing those who say they have been abused. Not thinking one form of abuse counters another. Some of us keep waving but some of us are drowning in the murk.