It’s possible you live under a rock and are unaware that a woman called Caroline Criado-Perez led a campaign to add a woman’s face (other than the queen) to one of the UK’s banknotes.
If so, here’s a summary. Alternatively, you can skip to the bit about free speech.
The Bank of England thought it was fair enough and revealed that they’d already planned for two years to feature Jane Austen.
There were those who disagreed. Their response was to launch a campaign of hatred threatening violence and rape. Criado-Perez thought that was an offensive and abusive thing to do and reported them, then asked Twitter to do something about it. Twitter first buried its head in the sand then quietly added a ‘report abuse’ button (though you still had to fill a form in to explain why). The men-who-like-to-threaten-rape didn’t like that either and their sympathisers began to weigh in about ‘free speech’ and ‘get over yourself’ and so on and on.
On the up-side, Criado-Perez began to get a lot of support from other people, regardless of gender, who thought threatening people with rape and dismemberment was a foul thing to do. Two of them were MPs. They soon began to collect their own rape threats and the police began to take a serious interest. Of course, this upset various comedy “men’s groups” who thought it contravened the principle of ‘free speech’.
You’ll notice that I haven’t documented any of that actual threats. They’re explicit and upsetting. Criado-Perez repeats some of them in her timeline https://twitter.com/CCriadoPerez before disposing of the hapless would-be-rapist with appropriately sharp ripostes. She’s unfortunately had a lot of practice at this. She’s also taken to blocking people who none-too-helpfully suggest that she just “gets over it”.
Possibly those same brainboxes feel that their own right to ‘free speech’ is at risk.
Threatening rape is the opposite to freedom of speech
Why is that? Because when you threaten to rape a woman, you aren’t expressing an opinion. You’re carrying out a performative act, one calculated to wound and hurt the target, to reduce them to a dehumanised state. You’re not indulging in ‘freedom of oppression’. You’re carrying out an oppressive act.
Rape speech is oppressive speech. It has one goal and one goal only – to harass, destroy and bring down anyone the speaker feels threatened by.
In the case of the paranoid, immature individuals who carry out these acts – and make no mistake, these are acts - and their supporters, they feel threatened by the an entire gender attempting to have the space to speak freely (there’s an excellent New Statesman piece relating to this).
How weird is that?
I used the word ‘act’ just now, implying that those who threaten rape are somehow acting in the real world and that their actions have real consequences. That’s because they do. If you walk up to someone in the street and call them a ‘k***’ or a ‘d***’ or a ‘P***’ or a ‘n*****’, you’re committing a criminal act. If you walk up to someone in the street and threaten to rape them, you’re committing a criminal act. It’s nothing to do with ‘freedom of speech’ because society generally agrees that freedom of speech is limited by the potential of language to injure and the intent to use that potential in that way.
If you go to see a comedian who specialises in rape jokes (I wouldn’t recommend it) and whose show specifically states that it is guaranteed to offend and that ticket holders may be personally subjected to extreme forms of offensive ‘humour’, you have no right to complain if the ‘comic’ comes up to you and screams ‘You deserve to be raped’. In context and in the management of the potential to offend through that context, this is, however offensive, the exercise of free speech and banning it is fraught with difficulty. You’re in a theatre. You’ve agreed to be there.
At this point, I need to be crystal clear.
Twitter is not a theatre
Twitter is a publicly used space like a shopping mall or a park. Twitter is a place where you have a right to be free of harassment, regardless of whoever the owners of that space might be.
If you are sitting in your front garden and a passing stranger leers and threatens you with rape, they’ve committed an offense and should suffer the consequences.
If you receive an unsolicited email threatening you with rape, just as if you receive an unsolicited letter, you’ve been assaulted and the sender should suffer the consequences.
If you’re threatened with rape on Twitter, an offense has been committed and the harasser involved should suffer the consequences. It isn’t brain surgery.
Now Twitter includes the following cunning little clause in its terms of service.
You understand that by using the Services, you may be exposed to Content that might be offensive, harmful, inaccurate or otherwise inappropriate, or in some cases, postings that have been mislabeled or are otherwise deceptive. Under no circumstances will Twitter be liable in any way for any Content, including, but not limited to, any errors or omissions in any Content, or any loss or damage of any kind incurred as a result of the use of any Content posted, emailed, transmitted or otherwise made available via the Services or broadcast elsewhere.
Sorry Twitter, that won’t wash. If someone carries out a threatening act, they are committing a criminal act and you ignore it at your peril. If you own a shopping centre and people are regularly getting mugged in it, you need to act or, by heaven, the police will eventually act for you. Though the better class of customer will have moved on long ago.
This is, of course, a long way of saying, stop it. If someone threatens rape or worse on Twitter, report it. If you see someone threatened, support them. And don’t dignify these sorry individuals by calling them ‘trolls’ – they’re harassers of women and girls. They’re cowards. The only thing they have in common with trolls is their taste for hiding in dark places.
Well, that and their presumably unpleasant sanitary habits.
P.S. I haven’t discussed what solution should actually be put in place at any other level. Truth is, I don’t know. Here’s an excellent summary of the possibilities on the Guardian.