For Take Back the Blog day, here are some thoughts on receiving threats, and on why I never had a photo-byline for my 2006 Sunday Star-Times column.
Firstly, photo-bylines are stupid and vain, and Steve Braunias virtually dared me to try and wrangle my way out of having to have one at the SST - he thought that I'd never succeed.
Secondly, the white supremacist movement (about four people - maybe more of a mah-jong group than a movement?), had a bad photo of me on a 'watchlist', which included a link to my phone number and address details. The purpose of this was to encourage harassment of me, due to my involvement in an anti-hate crimes march in Wellington 2004, on a day that ended with skinheads being routed from the city by a mob of bloodthirsty anarcho-punks. Naturally, I was also receiving a few nasty emails, sometimes threatening and graphic, via the Public Address feedback function, messages which I generally file under a 'Nazis' label and forget about unless they're particularly inventive.
Was there a realistic threat? Very unlikely, and that's what I would have said if you'd asked. But it would have depended on what time of day you caught me at, and if you caught me by jumping out from behind a bush. My address and phone number was out there. A lot of the time I was home alone. I'd had a silent hang-up call which could have been nothing. I'd seen pictures in return of the weedy kids involved in these far right groups, and was confident that I could take them if they knocked on my door, although I didn't relish the idea. What if it was nighttime and they knocked off my glasses? If they vandalised my apartment wall and ran away like at the Roskill Mosque, would the Bodycorp cover it? What if they turned up and I was just in my sarong and not able to take a swing at them for fear of it falling off? Should I start building up my upper body strength? Find a self-defense class? Why are you even thinking these things? Stop it! These were actual thoughts running through my mind.
I suppose it is weak of me to admit that it bothered me, and I would never have admitted it publicly at the time - but it's actually the truth. Does admitting that you can be bothered by these things, damage the reputation of women bloggers as strong, independent, forceful voices? Should we just shut up and take it like men? Or should we rather, point out that these kinds of fears are why women do in fact, shut up much more than they should?
Because the 'watchlist' photo didn't look that much like me, I didn't feel any reason to make a better picture widely and regularly available at weekly intervals until the far-right attention faded away (it has). The SST heard me out on this, after the 'stupid and vain' and 'Steve Braunias dared me to' angles failed to have an impact. To be honest, it pained me to have tell them that I did have slight security concerns, and it would have been a lot more painful to admit had the SST editor been a man. She wasn't, and the paper kindly acceded to my request.
Well, sort of kindly. I had assumed that my contract negotiations would remain private, but as it happens I soon found myself at the receiving end of a mini snark-attack in the weekly gossip column of a national magazine once held in high esteem by the bourgeois-intellectual set (before we were all lobotomised by interest rates and pinot noir, and the likes of Steve Braunias and Ian Wedde suddenly became far too difficult for us to understand). Along with a weird imputation that I was covering up a 'white' name, actually belonging I believe to an unfortunate Wellingtonian Dutchwoman called Lena Mok, the snippet pulled out a columnist's most deadly weapon - scare quotes. "...Chinese letters have been inserted instead of her mugshot – it’s because of “the death threats”. Isn’t it strange how death threats always arrive in clusters?"
No-one has ever specifically threatened to kill me I am happy to say, and I've never claimed to have received death threats, scare-quoted or bare. It was contextually kind of a funny thing to see, but since it wasn't actually true, and as I was still doing the odd bit of freelancing for that publication, it was surprising. I didn't really know why they would want to imply that I would exaggerate or make up unpleasant things that had happened to me.
Let me make clear that all this was nowhere near comparable in scale to the Kathy Sierra affair, but that recent shitstorm did remind me of the far lesser echo of my own experience, and of the sorry end of Blackademic last year. These events seem to speak of default methods of dealing with women, and women of colour, when they - ironically - attempt to *recede* from the public eye citing distaste at an atmosphere of sexual or racial aggression that they are exposed to in daily operations. When threats are mentioned, these women are simultaneously, or contradictorily, accused of self-aggrandisement (even though they are trying to disappear), dishonesty (in exaggerating the harshness of their treatment or making up imaginary 'threats'), and of cowardice (being unsuitably afraid of the things they have been accused of making up).
Russell posted a few weeks back about the extreme and frightening threats of rape Sierra received, and some of the appalling reactions to her statement. Russ included a link to a Joan Walsh article - 'Men who hate Women on the Web' - which made think about my past situation again, and was the deciding factor in letting ya'll know about it:
If you show it bothers you, you've given them pleasure," Walsh writes, "But it coarsens you to look away, and to tell others to do the same. I've grown a thicker skin. I didn't want skin this thick. And what does it mean that women writers have to drag around this anchor every time they start to write -- that we reflexively compose our own hate mail, and sometimes type and retype to try to avoid it? I can honestly say it's probably made me more precise and less glib. That's good. But it's also, for now, made me too cautious. I write less than I would if I wasn't thinking these thoughts. I think that's bad."
An aftershock of the Sierra case that Russell didn't mention was the reaction from Markos Moulitskas, kingpin of America's liberal blog elite. In criticising the Blogger Code proposal, Kos also threw a dismissive blanket statement over Sierra's case, indicating that she and other "crying bloggers" were hysterical pussies who should just shut up and take it like real men. It confirmed those suspicions we've had ever since the 'pie fight' incident: Kos has got something against chicks. But I shan't speak ill of the dead. Because Kos is now dead to me, ya hear? Dead. The progressive and feminist American blogosphere has done a comprehensive whack-job on him, even if the 'A-list' didn't touch him. Reactions like Moulitskas' to Sierra's departure have provided the progressive US blogswell for the Take Back The Blogswarm that this post is a part of:
in support of the rights of women to participate fully in all aspects of our society, including specifically online in the world of blogging but indeed everywhere and at all times, day and night, without fear of harassment, intimidation, sexual harassment, online stalking and slander, predation or violence of any sort.
I count myself lucky to be part of a blog community where the self-selecting readership and bloggers are supportive of people's freedom of expression, and generally committed to disagreement in civil, even friendly terms.
I have to admit, I did not join Public Address to engage in discussion in a comments section, because I knew, whatever the demographics of my own readership and private correspondence, a comments section is always a white boy's playground. But hey, white boys gotta play somewhere, and at least it's clean!
Still, of all places, this sandbox featuring the nicest play in the New Zealand blogosphere doesn't have a lot of girls, possibly even fewer non-whites, and the blogroll itself has its share of silent, but very busy, female writers who have passed out the other side of the children/career wormhole. The comments don't reflect the readership (what is the female readership Russell?), but even on what one might think is a girl-biased topic - what David Slack could buy his daughter for her birthday - a quick scan of gendered names will reveal that 20 men had an opinion on this that they felt compelled to share, compared with 7 women, and that Che Tibby really should get back to work. (Those are our tax dollars, buddy!)
What are the women doing instead of commenting on blogsites? Maybe they're busy doing things that they think are more important. When I've asked my fellow ethnic minority correspondents to start commenting more on the System rather than just writing to me, they give me virtual shrugs and say things like: 'but I have real work to do. You know, the revolution.' When I was asked at my very first Great Blend why there is a gender imbalance in political blogging, I hazarded an uneducated guess that
women committed to social justice might actually be going out there and doing something about it instead, by teaching our children, nursing our sick, organising our unions, and occasionally getting elected. I would also hazard a guess now, that less overtly political women might also have a little less time to participate in cyberdiscourse for the same reasons that they have less time to devote to their careers. So is it unrealistic and counterproductive, another time and energy burden on already double-burdened women, to hope that they Take Back this particular Blog by wasting more of their precious time mucking around online? Possibly.
Maybe Robyn, Joanna, Emma, Deborah, Jackie and Anjum could register again under fake names, and create the illusion of having doubled the number of regular female commentors. You go girls!
However, for you nice, liberal white boys, if you feel like you're missing out on some quality opinion from the other 50%, you could do worse than drop in regularly on Span & Maia who, although they're girls, don't just write about flowershops and periods but also unions, racism, ideological bankruptcy, and nationalism; and of course my favourite US f-worders at Feministing. If you spend serious time in geekworld talkboards, or sites with serious winger constituencies, here is some very practical misogyny-fighting advice from a weary geekworld woman who has tried and failed, because she is not one of you: Caveat Lector: 'What some folks can do, if they choose'.
And for kicks, here's a Youtube clip from the Sonic Youth gig I went to in Beijing last Monday. Kim Gordon is still asking the age old question, one that we could ask the internets. It was the New Kool Thing we could use to break down social, political and economic hierarchies of information and debate - but
we've known for some time now that it is just another space, just another tool, and at its worst, just another replication of existing patterns of domination and segregation - and as ever, we're going to have to liberate ourselves. But I suppose, dear blogosphere, when pushed... we can still be friends.