I have been known to advocate boycotts. I'm not opposed to boycotts. Consumer boycotts can be a great way of showing protest in an asymmetrical situation. A company is dependent on its customers. If I don't like the way it conducts its business – because its parent company whales, perhaps, or its head has made entertainingly robust statements about LGBT people – I have every right to withdraw my business. That, a strongly-worded letter and perhaps the ultimate weapon, an online petition, is often all I can do.
Boycotts can be problematic, though. They can be invisible: their message is absence, silence. Is an athlete or tourist boycott of the Sochi Olympics the right thing to do, in light of Russia's utterly appalling anti-LGBT laws?
Few remember today that there was an organized call to boycott the 1968 Games by African American athletes and their supporters. When the boycott fell apart, Lew Alcindor (Kareem!) boycotted the Games anyway. Tommie Smith and John Carlos took their protest to the medal stand. Whose political statement do we remember today?
I called John Carlos to get his thoughts on the boycott vs. protest debate.
"The bottom line is, if you stay home, your message stays home with you," he said.
Others argue that a boycott would hurt the athletes more than it would the Russian government. It seems unlikely that any boycott would be wide-spread enough to have dramatic impact, and the decision would indeed end up placed on individual athletes, some of whom face arrest if they compete. You know what? That shit is fucking complicated.
Which is partly why I've waited until after Caitlin Moran's Twitter boycott was over to write about it. Because I think she's wrong. And a bunch of those people who think she's wrong? I think they're wrong.
Look. What happened to Caroline Criado-Perez and Stella Creasy was utterly unacceptable. Not exceptional or even that uncommon, but utterly unacceptable. Twitter's lack of action over the maelstrom of abuse was simply not good enough. And it's very sweet of tech guys to tell us that this shit just happens, and we should just block people, and if we really can't hack it we should lock down our accounts, because in no way have women ever heard that message before.
Yes, it's good that Twitter are adding the "Report Tweet" button. No, it's not good enough. There is nothing in that piece which commits to changing their threshold for deciding a tweet is abusive. Making reporting inappropriate material easier is a good thing*, but not if that simply makes it easier to be ignored. Reporting racism or rape threats on Facebook is easy, but apparently nothing is too racist or rapey for those guys.
Here's the massive "however" you knew was coming. I can't help thinking that a whole bunch of women voluntarily going silent is an odd response to tactics which are clearly intended to silence women. I understand the protest was aimed at Twitter itself rather than the trolls. A side-effect, though, was that it gave Twitter to the trolls. The effect of the protest being as successful as possible would have been a day when nobody was saying, "Hey guys, that's Not Fucking On."
That's not to say, though, that I think the people who did join in with #twittersilence shouldn't have. I'm just saying that for me, the act of shutting up in the face of being told to shut up was far too problematic as a form of protest. But I can be fundamentally Not On Board with something without being actually opposed to it.
It's indicative of how conflicted I find all this that I find myself most solidly behind a comment Dan Savage made (I know), while talking about the Russian vodka boycott, which I don't support:
If there isn't a boycott—if gay and pro-gay athletes compete at the Olympics in Sochi this winter—there must be a protest during the Sochi Olympics that is as powerful and indelible as Tommie Smith and John Carlos's protest during the Mexico City Olympics.
If you don't stay home, state your message. If you're not giving silence, speak. This is me speaking. Twitter must not put 'keeping our users safe' in the Too Hard basket. I'm saying this as someone who knows how hard this is, drawing the line, and who understands the sheer scale of the problem. When they tell us we should deal with this stuff ourselves, they side with our abusers.
I want to say this isn't good enough, and I want to articulate that as a complex and nuanced position. I don't shut up for anyone, and that includes Caitlin Moran.
*Sort of. If it's done properly. Any reporting system is open to abuse. This shit is complicated too.