On Civility & Sexism Online

Content note: cyberbullying, abuse, sexual assault

Some interesting news in the world of electronic incivility: 1. a police officer was fired for using profanity, including racial slurs, on X-Box live, and 2. Reuters reported on the sheer depth and breadth of electronic violence against women.

First, let me say electronic abuse is a serious problem, one whose danger and breadth we are only just beginning to comprehend as a society. Its severity probably has something to do with the combination of anonymity and entitlement that encourages behaviors for which one might normally be held accountable. I think about it a lot and have written about it at least twice, maybe more. But misunderstandings about its rise and the media’s passion for reports on “cyberbullying” have led to skepticism by some, ably voiced by none other than Tyler, The Creator of American hip-hop outfit Odd Future:

But it is real. Emotional abuse leaves scars on the brain, and there’s no longer any meaningful definition between the “real” world and the digital world that would allow one to say that online emotional abuse isn’t real abuse. Our friends are online, our families are online, and we are all constantly checking our phones. The internet has gone from a tool to something that surrounds, enhances, and alters our lives. If you need evidence of how devastating even the most innocuous of online abuse, check out the Canadian Safe School Network’s take on Jimmy Kimmel Live’s “Mean Tweets”:

It goes from amusing to just plain ugly, fast.

Of course, online abuse takes the form of stalking, harassment, the publication of compromising photos against one’s will, messages encouraging one to commit suicide, doxxing or anything else a particularly spiteful individual can dream up. It has the most severe consequences, as in the case of Carla Jamerson, whose mother says her suicide was caused by cyberbullying by classmates, or as in the case of Rehtaeh Parsons, whose story may be difficult to read for some with triggers for rape. It may even be as seemingly innocuous as trash-talking on headset, which brings me back to my first news item.

Last week, a sheriff’s deputy in Jackson County, Michael Slater, was fired pursuant to comments that he made in an X-Box chatroom with a young man named David. It seems that David insulted him in the chatroom, as is often the case. Apparently, former deputy Slater was so offended as to say a number of troubling things, including, “You about to come to a f—king paid police officer’s house. I get paid to beat up n—gers like you.” He would then go on to provide his badge number as proof that he was, in fact, a police officer.

A couple of things here. One might think that a police officer would be able to exercise more personal restraint, even in the vitriolic world of online gaming. Given recent events, one might not. Several police officers have been caught behaving very badly in text messages and online. What is more significant, and perhaps even funny, is that he felt behooved to give his badge number. Has the world of internet tough guy one-upmanship become so contested that one doesn’t think twice about sacrificing their job to make a point to some shitty guy named David? If so, it only lends credence to my conjecture that the internet is losing what civility it has.

My second news item is this: while we consider the march of progress to generally have been good for women it is clear that with new technologies, new shitty people will find new ways to abuse women. Joy. At the UN’s 59th Commission on the Status of Women, Australian politician Michaelia Cash said, “We can’t allow technology to (become) another way to silence women,” according to an article by Reuters. That same article has it that almost half of Americans under thirty-five have been harassed, threatened, or abused online, with more than half of those victims being women.

Cindy Southworth, of the National Network to End Domestic Violence, was therein quoted as saying:

Another challenge has been educating women to use technology safely and respond to abuse, while avoiding at the same time inadvertently “creating a how-to guide for offenders.”

This is in line with my experiences as a gamer. I’m not a woman, but while online, I find disparaging remarks against women to be quite common. But, my experience is small and completely unscientific, so why not take it from Communication in multiplayer gaming: Examining player responses to gender cues, a study out of Ohio University. As described by TheMarySue, the study was conducted as follows: the researchers pre-recorded comments in male and female voices and then played Halo, transmitting the prerecorded comments to teammates by voice chat. It seems that “on average, the female voice received three times as many negative comments as the male voice or no voice,” and the comments were of a vile and unwarranted nature, as follows:

When the female condition said ‘hi everybody’, the other gamer responded with ‘shut up you whore’…’nigger lover’. When the female condition said, ‘alright team let’s do this’, the other gamer replied, ‘fuck you, you stupid slut.’

The harassment that women face across electronic media is real, prevalent, and severe. While it may be a fact of the modern era, it should not go unaddressed.

I dare to mention these two very different things in the same post because they are indicators of a lack of civility that is both general and specific. Why is that important? Why is it not enough to just say, “eh, people are shitty, what can you do?” The internet is increasingly becoming a part of our real lives. App after app, device after device, we are quickly deleting the line between the digital world and the actual one, and like any community, the online world is composed of agreements, social contracts. But as more and more examples make clear, an unspoken notion that civility is important, that police officers shouldn’t use their position to intimidate people online, that women shouldn’t be abused just for being women, isn’t enough.

So, I write this blog entry as a plea. On Xbox Live, on Tumblr, on Facebook, endeavor to be civilI should note here that I’m not suggesting that anyone should stand for abuse or oppressionand keep your head level. Discourage harassment or stalking behaviors. Signal disapproval and refuse to participate in online violence, racism, sexism, transphobia, homophobia, or ableism, and report abusive behaviors when you encounter them. Technology is mindblowing, but amoral, and thus it’s up to the people that populate the increasingly overlapping real and digital worlds to provide a standard for social engagement and respectful treatment

I, for one, would prefer to live in a world where women don’t feel they have to hide their gender just to play a game. I would prefer to live in a world where no one thinks of bullying a person to the point where they kill themselves as funny. I would prefer to live in a world where all police officers conduct themselves professionally on and offline. Wouldn’t you?


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3 thoughts on “On Civility & Sexism Online

  1. I’m constantly shocked at how uncivil people can be online. It scares the shit out of me, and makes me concerned for the future of mankind. And I’m not exaggerating how I feel about this.

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