An Argument Against “Free Speech”

Yes, really. In the wake of Jezebel’s rape gif problem, the phrase is a glaring misnomer.
Written by

Shortly after noon on Monday, the staff of Jezebel called out their parent company with a post entitled “We Have a Rape Gif Problem and Gawker Media Won’t Do Anything About It.” Over the last several months, trolls have been posting animated images of “violent pornography” in comments, several at a time. There’s no mechanism for ridding the site of these, except for Jezebel writers to manually delete them and ban the commenters. And because of the nature of the commenting platform all Gawker sites now use, “literally nothing is stopping this individual or individuals from immediately signing up for another, and posting another wave of violent images … It's like playing whack-a-mole with a sociopathic Hydra.”

Higher-ups were aware of the problem long before the post went up, but until then had made no effort to enact changes—such as blocking “burner” accounts or disabling images in comments—that might discourage the people regularly subjecting its employees to images of rape and abuse. “If another workplace was essentially requiring its female employees to manage a malevolent human pornbot,” says the staff post, “we'd report the hell out of it here and cite it as another example of employers failing to take the safety of its female employees seriously.”

Apparently, reporting the hell out of their own problem was a great idea. Gawker editorial director Joel Johnson tweeted almost immediately, “Re: Jezebel. 1. They rule. 2. I've dropped the ball and they're right to call me out. 3. I don't have a solution yet but that's my problem.” Forty-eight hours later, significant change is afoot. “I have to admit, this situation has been a steaming pile of bullshit,” Jezebel editor-in-chief Jessica Coen told me via e-mail, “but I’ve been very impressed with the company response.”

To many of us who write online for a living, the Jezebel staff post felt like a watershed moment: the constant harassment of female writers finally being treated as the workplace safety issue it is. For too long, employers have held fast to the myth that unmoderated or lightly moderated comment sections encourage free and open dialogue that creates a sense of community. Maybe that works on low-traffic sites with no controversial content—I doubt it—but it has exactly the opposite effect on popular websites featuring work by opinionated women. Trolls and haters drive away people who care about the site and sincerely want to respond to the work there, or to other reasonable commenters.

It’s not always rape gifs, but there is a constant stream of sexist nastiness directed at women writers, whose bosses too often respond with some version of “Grow a thicker skin.” I was told almost exactly that by a previous boss (a woman, no less) who kept pushing writers to “engage” with these commenters, in hopes that our charm would mellow them out. Based on no evidence—and contra to everything we reported about the reality of venturing into comments—we were told time and again that making ourselves more visible in these shitstorms would probably solve the problem, and if not, so what? They were just words.

Imagine this going on in a bricks-and-mortar workspace: a couple dozen (on a good day) men running through the office, stopping to shout obscenities at female employees. A crowd of them forming around a single woman, calling her a dumb bitch who’s terrible at her job, every time she turns in a new project. Strangers who do not work for the company hovering over all of the women in the office, waiting to react with anger every time those women speak.

Sometimes, when one of these strangers actually pulls out his dick and shouts “Look at this!” to the entire office, or someone in charge hears the “C-word,” a security guard will come along and escort the stranger out. But beyond that, the female employees are on their own. The most senior people in this workplace refuse to install tighter security, because they’re afraid they’ll lose valuable clients if they screen who gets past the front desk. When women complain, management issues a memo instructing them they should try talking to these men, and see if that will defuse the situation. And P.S., you are grown people and independent workers, so we expect more from you than this whiny hypersensitivity.

And if the women ever take their complaint public, they hear more of the same, along with lots of helpful reminders that they can always quit, and plenty of people would love to have their job.

I’m inclined to agree with Pacific Standard editor Nicholas Jackson, who’s made a strong case in favor of banning comments altogether. “An argument for the end of comments isn’t actually an argument against the value of comments,” he writes. “They just don’t belong at the end of or alongside posts, as if they’re always some extension of or relevant to the original. They belong on personal blogs, or on Twitter or Tumblr or Reddit, where individuals build a full, searchable body of work and can be judged accordingly.”

Divorcing content generated by paid writers from the opinions of any yahoo with internet access would be an enormous step in the right direction; everyone could have their say in a public forum, without writers being required by their employers to read vile sexist, racist insults toward them (or look at rape porn). But if you’re not already familiar with the typical reaction to that section, go have a look at the comments on that Jezebel article about the changes now being instituted. People go berserk when you threaten their right to have their opinions published on a commercial website, as often as they choose, without actually being hired or submitting to any editorial oversight.

It’s censorship! It’s groupthink! It’s a slippery slope to an echo chamber! Free speech must be protected!

Oh, please. These are arguments serious people need not entertain, when we’re talking about the ability to post comments on a privately owned website, as opposed to the ability to criticize one’s government without loss of life or liberty. Banning comments—or moderating with an iron fist—is not squelching honest and open debate in the public sphere, anymore than refusing to publish every letter to the editor, unedited, in a print publication. Telling people to take their bullshit to Reddit is not a harbinger of Orwellian dystopia.

You know who wants you to think it is? Trolls. Haters. The kind of people who find it hilarious to post violent pornographic images on a website run by women, just because it is run by women. These people aren’t concerned about the openness of public discourse, but about their own ability to get attention. If they’re forced to publish only on their own blogs and Twitter feeds, or on sites with less civilized rules for discourse, they’ll have no audience, because a very limited number of people will actually want to read the opinions of dudes who think harassment equals humor, or that every citizen deserves to waltz into a stranger’s workplace and give her hell for doing her job, every day.

I’ll go to the mat for the First Amendment, but as far as comments on private websites are concerned, I say squelch ‘em all. The right to speak your mind does not include the right to parasitically attach yourself to a high-traffic website in order to reach an audience you could never earn on your own.

 

Kate Harding is co-author of "The Book of Jezebel" and "Lessons from the Fat-o-Sphere," and author of the forthcoming "Asking for It: The Alarming Rise of Rape Culture—and What We Can Do About It." Find her on Twitter @kateharding.
More by:
Kate Harding