On Wednesday, a victory for women was won. After 35,000 people signed a petition asking that women remain celebrated on our money (after the news that Elizabeth Fry was to be replaced by Winston Churchill on the £5 note) it was announced that the new face of the £10 note will be Jane Austen. Women of achievement (and no, the queen doesn’t count) will continue to be publicly celebrated on our currency and not ignored.
The woman who spearheaded this campaign was Caroline Criado-Perez. It was a tremendous victory for her, for common sense and for the representation of women. And as a result, she has been put through hell ever since. Rape threats, abuse and the posting of what was believed to be her home address were all used on Twitter to try to “put her in her place”. These may or may not be idle threats voiced by anonymous losers, but they are threats nonetheless and when subjected to this level of abuse, it doesn’t feel very idle.
Can anything be done to stop women experiencing this kind of abuse simply for speaking up? Whenever we start to ask such questions we come up against two immediate barriers – that of the philosophy of censorship and the more practical questions of how it could be done.
The most frequent analogy used about the internet is that of the Wild West. Lawless and ungovernable. But here’s the thing about the wild west – it no longer exists. In the end, it was tamed. The law won. Can the same be true eventually of the internet? I hope so. Just because we cannot currently see a way in which this is technologically possible does not mean we should not try to develop such technological solutions – nor should we stop asking these questions and raising these issues as we do. Tough challenges require innovative and imaginative solutions and for the pressure to be kept up.
The questions of censorship is more thorny. Most people agree with some form or another of censorship – though they don’t tend to call it that. Most of us agree that it is wrong to shout “fire” in a crowded theatre, or that access to violent or explicit material should have age restrictions – however hard that is to police.
The difficult question is where we draw the line. When does disagreement become abuse? How can we tell the difference and how can that line be monitored and breaches measured.
How much does context matter? For example, I may well say things to my friends on Twitter (my language can be quite salty – though less so now my Mum follows me!) that were I to say them to a stranger would be rude and insulting.
Social media – and particularly Twitter – has changed the way we “know” and interact with people. I have lost count of the number of people I have met over the last year or so for the first time who I have “known” for some time online. This blurring of our on and offline relationships and the nature of Twitter leads to an informality of approach that some may find threatening even when the intention is anything but.
But we are not talking about over-familiarity here. We’re talking about a woman subjected to a sustained campaign of rape threats. If there is to b e a line and if we do find a way to enforce it, I think we can all agree that this goes well beyond it.
Women online (myself included) are subjected to sexualised abuse all the time. (apparently as I am “too ugly to be raped” I shouldn’t worry about the issue). It can make building a voice for yourself online an incredible difficult thing to do. You aren’t simply asking yourself “what do I have to say and how best should I express it?”. You ask yourself if doing so is worth the inevitable abuse that will come your way for doing so. For some women the answer is no, and so another woman is intimidated into silence.
The internet is an incredible thing. It allows us to interact in ways we never would have dreamed possible just a few years ago. But it is not always a places where everyone feels safe and equal. We need to continue to examine how we change that.
This post first appeared on LabourList.