I’ve never been a fan of Jessica Valenti. Not because she’s an outspoken feminist, but because she’s the feminist version of Shaun King. A forceful, passionate voice that’s a few quarts low on knowledge and credibility. She spews ignorant hatred at males and gets ignorant hatred in return. Of course, she’s allowed. Her detractors are exhausting.
But now, Jessica Valenti says she’s leaving social media because she received a rape and death threat directed at her five-year-old child.
A prominent feminist writer and columnist said she is being forced to abandon social media after receiving rape and death threats against her 5-year-old daughter.
On Twitter, popular writer Jessica Valenti wrote: “This morning I woke up to a rape and death threat directed at my 5 year old daughter. That this is part of my work life is unacceptable.”
The “threat” she claims to have received remains a mystery. She has not, as far as I’m aware, disclosed the threat. Given her history, it’s difficult to take her word for it. But that only applies to people disinclined to believe the victim just because. In the feminist and social justice worlds, not only do they believe with every ounce of their being, but they are outraged that anyone could doubt the victim. Proof plays no role in the religious life of zealots.
That said, there are threats made. Threats of rape and death. One of the first things you learn when you spend any serious time online, and voice opinions that are in any way controversial, is that there are sick, disgusting people out there, and they buy keyboards. And for reasons no sane, intelligent person can accept, they react to other people’s opinions by threatening them with things like rape and death. So much as Valenti failed to prove her claim, it’s hardly outside the realm of possibility.
No, she does not “deserve” it. If you think in any way, no matter how slight, that anyone deserves to be threatened with harm for an opinion you find disagreeable, leave here now and never return. If you think that threatening harm is an appropriate response, same deal. Don’t explain it, just leave.
And if you think any of this is tolerable or understandable, you can go too.
Valenti’s claim has given new life to calls for criminalization of internet speech.* At Room for Debate, the New York Times provides a platform for the usual cast of characters to promote their perpetual calls for censorship and prosecution. Naturally, Danielle Citron is on board, a long-time advocate for censorship of internet hate speech.
Threats can actually be more terrifying when they are made online and anonymously — through email or a direct message on Twitter, for example — because they are stripped of important cues. Victims do not know who is targeting them, so they imagine the absolute worst. They have no reason to believe otherwise.
From her perspective, the breadth of “terrifying,” a word chosen to mirror our societal fear and hatred of terrorists, knows no bounds. Everything is terrifying. You would think she trains cops. But to Citron’s credit, she doesn’t call for new laws, but enforcement of existing criminal law.
When it comes to threats of physical violence, there are applicable laws on the books. Under federal and state law, it is a crime to threaten bodily injury to another person, regardless of whether it is threatened over the internet.
Threats are punishable if they are specific, unequivocal and unconditional enough to make victims reasonably fear for their safety. Speakers can be prosecuted if they harbor intent to instill such fear, or if they are reckless to that possibility. Thus, the legal question of online threats is not whether to write new laws, but how to enforce the ones we have.
Putting aside the question of the constitutionality of any particular law, there’s a practical flaw with this idea. Let’s say that on any given day, there are 10,000 twits, comments, whatever, that are arguably threatening. The dedication of resources would be overwhelming. There would be no cops left to direct traffic, no less investigate murder, as they would all be dealing with complaints of internet threats.
Then there’s Ari Waldman, who fails to demonstrate Citron’s modesty.
Online harassment is particularly pernicious because it is cheap, fast and permanent. It costs virtually nothing to post threatening comments and gather a posse to join in on the abuse. One threat can unleash a cascade of torment from often anonymous or pseudonymous armies that, due to the nature of internet search, can permanently attach to a victims’ online footprint.
Notice that he’s not really talking about threats of harm, but the cybermob of hateful “torment.”
Often cyberharassment mobs begin as loose communities connecting over a shared idea or topic like online gaming. Some members find a grievance — perhaps they oppose women making inroads into their world. They then organize around a hashtag or on a sub-Reddit and, with the help of professional trolls like Milo Yiannopoulos, their anger metastasizes as it feeds on itself in an intensifying loop. The group takes action and lashes out at its perceived enemies, most of whom tend to be members of traditionally marginalized groups, from the L.G.B.T.Q. community to women and racial and ethnic minorities.
The usual tropes. The usual complaint, that his team is right and the other team is wrong, so his team gets to express their anger and the other team is evil and should be silenced. And his solution is similarly facile.
And laws must not only make it easier for victims of cyberharassment to obtain justice, they must also reflect the seriousness of the problem. Congresswoman Jackie Speier’s Intimate Privacy Protection Act, which would make nonconsensual pornography a federal crime, is a great first step. But victims need stronger civil remedies, as well. Platforms that promote or solicit cyberharassment, or continue to let it happen even after notification, must be held accountable for their role in making the problem worse. Law enforcement must be trained to recognize online harassment when desperate victims come to them for help. And school districts need bullying policies that integrate antiharassment education into curricula and improve school climate for all. Only this kind of comprehensive approach could begin to contain this devastating epidemic.
Laws! More laws! Laws upon laws, a “comprehensive approach” to end this “devastating epidemic.” Not an epidemic of threats of harm, but beloved vagary of “harassment,” utterances that are disagreeable by opinion or tone.
There are two separate battles to be waged, wars to be fought. One deals with those nutjobs who think it’s acceptable to react with threats of harm. The other deals with those nutjobs who think it’s acceptable to silence anyone whose views they find disagreeable, to whom every challenge is harassment and bullying. These two will be conflated. These two will be fought simultaneously.
The former nutjobs, the ones who threaten harm, in conjunction with the latter nutjobs, the ones who cry for censorship of speech that hurts their feelings, have a symbiotic relationship. The end result may be the death or impairment of free speech and ideas. There is serious doubt whether free speech can survive this.
If those who appreciate free speech either engage in this insanity or condone it by others, the nutjobs will win. Don’t threaten anyone, ever, with harm. Don’t feed the censors. Don’t be the engine that drives the death of free speech. Don’t be the asshole. Don’t be the nutjob. And don’t make excuses for why any of this is okay.
*Conspiracy theorists will immediately leap to the assumption that this was Valenti’s true purpose, to create a false claim that evokes sympathy to generate support for censorship and prosecution. Save it.