“Not only do you slap us, but you tell us how to react to being slapped.” I first saw that quote tweeted by Ava Vidal, during an argument about racism last year, and now that I know it, it seems to be applicable to almost every argument about racism or sexism since. Sometimes I think bigots have more fun telling us off for reacting to their microaggressions (and macroaggressions) than they do making them. Sometimes I think that’s the point of them: to give them an excuse to punish us for reacting.
When the Spectator published Rod Liddle’s blog referring to the Woolwich suspects as “black savages,” (since edited) there was an instinctive, understandable reaction from a lot of people to not “feed the troll” by reacting. Then, after engaging in debate, Laurie Penny, among others, changed her mind and concluded that public censure was actually a better idea than shrugging and ignoring. This newfangled idea of publically changing your mind and admitting you were wrong about something has upset Louise Mensch so much that she wrote a whole blog post about it, which was then republished in the Guardian. So far, so blah.
Now, if an individual doesn’t personally want to “feed the trolls” by wasting time and energy on someone who either won’t learn anything or will just be given greater publicity for their views, then that’s obviously their prerogative. But last week Mensch was doing something beyond just asserting that she, personally, wasn’t going to respond to Liddle. She was actively telling other people how they should or shouldn’t react to him.
It’s worth pointing out first of all that even aside from the question of whether it’s worth publically condemning racism when it comes from a known provocateur, a lot of the questions people were asking about Liddle’s piece weren’t actually directed at him. After all, it’s not like he was making a point to be debated; he was just calling people “black savages.” A lot of questions were being asked of the Spectator – specifically, its editor Fraser Nelson – about the professional decision to publish that language. Unless Mensch believes the Spectator is a troll, asking questions about how the decision to publish racism was taken is a bigger question than “ignoring” or “feeding” the trolls.
I don’t want the whole blog to be about Mensch, because she’s just a recent example of something bigger; the ugly prioritising that keeps happening within white feminism. And she’s not even the worst offender. Still, I can’t help but feel this assertion about not feeding the trolls is doubly uncomfortable when it comes from someone who has responded to “trolls” time after time again when she wants to. In fact, she got oodles of praise heaped upon her (including some from me), and, I seem to remember, a healthy dollop of positive media coverage for herself when she decided to go through all the sexist abuse she got on twitter one day and favourite it, to highlight the problem of internet trolls. White feminists – including Louise Mensch in more than one instance – have reacted regularly to sexism that could easily be called “trolling” from George Galloway, Austin Mitchell, Brendan O’ Neill, Roger Helmer, Nadine Dorries, Chris Brown, Jan Moir, Samantha Brick, the Socialist Workers’ Party, the Justice for Ched tweeters, some of them anonymous, faceless, internet accounts, and, bless him, Nick Ross. The Everyday Sexism Project has been running a well-organised online campaign to report hate pages (from underage pornographic photos to ‘comic’ rape memes) on Facebook. Most of those pages could be described as “trolling”. We don’t ignore them, we react to them. That’s how we make them unacceptable.
Ironically, the Everyday Sexism campaign is often explained by drawing parallels with racism: if this vitriol was directed at black people, instead of women, we say, would Facebook allow those pages to stay up? Well, perhaps not. But what if it was semi-intellectualised, and written in an article, in a national publication? What then? Perhaps we’d be angry. But perhaps we’d say, calm down, dears. Don’t feed the trolls.
Sometimes, ignoring trolls is necessary for your own boundaries, your own mental wellbeing, or just the reality of there being too many trolls and too little time. But sometimes, “don’t feed the trolls” feels a hop skip and a jump away from “it’s just banter.” Whatever your intentions, when you tell someone “don’t feed the trolls,” you’re still telling the person on the receiving end of the trolling/banter how to react. The problem is with their reaction, not with what was said. They’re taking it too seriously. They’re missing the broader point. They’re distracting from the Real Issues. Ignore it because context. Ignore it because irony. Ignore it because banter. Ignore it because trolls.
And I will be honest: my first reaction to Liddle’s post was the same as Laurie Penny’s. He’s a troll. Ignore him. But then I remembered how Liddle’s trolling in the past nearly prejudiced a trial and cost Stephen Lawrence’s family justice. And I saw tweets from Musa Okwonga, Ava Vidal, and others, about the importance of challenging a racist voice with his platform, and, yes, I changed my mind about it, just as Laurie Penny did. I genuinely cannot see why Mensch finds that so upsetting.
Of all the tweets on the recent #blackprivilege hashtag, the one that I recognised most, both unconsciously manifested in my own behaviour as well as in others, was this one: “#BlackPrivilege is white people telling me how awful racism is, instead of telling other white folk.” (I’d like to credit whoever said this, but I can’t remember, and I can’t find the tweet.) Yes. We do this: lots of us do this, all the time, without even realising it. Because it’s easier to tell Ava Vidal how much we hate racism and expect a cookie and a re-tweet than it is to ask the nice, influential editor of the Spectator why he chose to publish racism in an environment of near civil unrest.
It’s not unique to feminism but it’s just so embarrassing when its white feminists doing it. We are so familiar, after all, with men doing it. You know, the Liberal Dudes who go on and on about how clued up on all that feminism business they are – usually in the most authoritative, patronising way imaginable, too – but when their mates make misogynistic rape jokes, when their colleague hires a man over an equally qualified woman for the sixth or seventh time, when their friend or favourite singer or footie player or just some Dude they think is cool is accused of rape or assault? They explain. They excuse. They tell us it’s a joke. It’s not worth responding to. It’s not the Real Issue. It’s not their problem. It’s banter. Don’t feed the trolls.
Some people might not ever respond to any trolls, and that’s fine. But speaking for myself, if I’m honest, I know perfectly well that if Rod Liddle had made some sort of comparable comment about women, especially if it was in an equivalent climate of increasing sexist hostility, with MRA marches doing pro-rape salutes around London – just imagine, white feminists, how we would feel if that was happening around us – there is no way in the world I would have shrugged and said to myself: “Yeah, I’m not responding to that. Don’t feed the trolls.” What’s more, I don’t believe Louise Mensch would have done, either.