No one has ever called me a stupid cunt. I could write a really dumb column and the worst I might get is asshole or moron. No one would tell me I deserve to be raped, call me fat or ugly, threaten to find out where I live or tell me that getting laid is the solution to my “problems,” aka opinions.
If you’re one of those guys who don’t understand what “male privilege” means, that’s a nice chunk of it right there. It doesn’t mean that your life is a bed of roses, it means that, uniquely because of your gender, you’ll avoid many of the thorns that pick away at most women every day of their lives. You’ll fortunately never know what it’s like to get paid less because of your gender, to suffer constant sexual aggression at work or on the street. You might have your ideas and opinions ignored by your bosses or peers, but it won’t happen nearly as often as it does to women colleagues. Your gender experience blinds you to the reality that most women face. And the fact most women have been forced since childhood to find ways to deal with it misleads you into thinking the problems can’t be that bad, nor all that common.
You might even think that complaining about abuse is a sign of weakness. “Toughen up,” you say to women who experience a constant level of aggression that would have long ago have driven you postal. “Grow a pair,” you’ll say, thinking your clever comment ironic. (It is, but not for the reason you think.)
Women in the public eye know this all too well, and not just those “radical lesbian feminists” that right-wingers see behind every attempt to introduce civility into civil discourse. Interim Conservative Party leader Rona Ambrose acknowledged it loudly last fall, when she commented on a decision by Alberta Progressive Conservative Party leadership candidate Sandra Jansen to pull out of the race because of misogynist abuse and harassment.
“Well listen, you don’t get to where I’m at without experiencing bullying, harassment and intimidation as a female politician. … People need to understand that there is no place for that in politics. Unfortunately, we do see a lot of it and women are the ones who get it the worst. There’s no doubt about that.”
Ambrose advised female colleagues that “you face it, you acknowledge it, you recognize it and you call it out for what it is.”
And what about when you get tired of doing that day after day, when you are assaulted by an endless dribble of misogynist crap that saps your energy, your optimism, your faith in basic human decency? When the era of social media means the trolls follow you everywhere, creating new accounts as fast as you block the old ones? Where the objective is not dialogue but demoralization, to berate instead of debate?
Unfortunately, for all too many women whose voices enrich our public discourse, the price is too high. This week Quebec lost the unique voice of Judith Lussier, a young, insightful and vibrant columnist for the free daily newspaper Métro. She announced Sunday on her Facebook page that she was abandoning the column she has written for the last five years, battered by wave after wave of “insults, public humiliation, dishonest arguments, bad faith, paternalism, harassment …”
As a spokesperson for both feminist ideals and the LGBT community, Lussier was a particularly fond target for misogynist and homophobic vitriol. It was something she accepted was part of the job. “I convinced myself that, to do the job, I just had to be stronger than the others.” Ironically, it was after U.S. Senator Elizabeth Warren was recently silenced in the Senate for trying to read the words of Coretta Scott King, the widow of civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr., that Lussier decided to withdraw from centre stage. When Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell defended the decision to silence Warren with the words, “Nevertheless, she persisted,” it became a rallying cry for women who know that persistence is often the only way they’ll make themselves heard.
“This phrase, which should have given me strength, instead brought me down. Women have been persisting for years, but at what price?” Lussier asked.
It was a price that the young journalist decided she was no longer willing to pay. “No one deserves to experience that much aggressivity in their work.”
I wish I knew what the solution was, what magical cure might exist to rid this world of the misogynists, racists, homophobes and other haters who devote inordinate amounts of their energy to attacking good people for committing the sin of public discourse. We’ve always had these people in society, of course, but social media has given them a platform they could never dream of in the pre-digital world, providing not just a podium to speak from but a curtain to hide behind. Cowards that they are, their targets are often the people who speak out on behalf of our economic, sexual and social underclasses. When they push someone like Lussier off the stage, they silence thousands of people who read her columns and say, “Yes, that’s me. I’m so glad there’s someone out there who can find the words to express how I feel and share them with the world.”
I can’t even bring myself to urge Lussier to keep fighting, because she has done far more than her share and, by doing so, has let too much of the darkness into her life. She deserves a job where her inbox isn’t full of hate every morning. All I can hope is that she and others have inspired enough other women along the way that her voice will be replaced by others who can do it half as well as she.
All I can do is tell her and those who replace her that I won’t sit by and watch as the dregs of society call them cunts or who prescribe rape and violence as a response to reasoned argument.
Ambrose is right when she says the targets of abuse need to “recognize it, and … call it out for what it is.”
We all do. ■