After reading all seventeen thousand words of Ken White’s “few comments” on the United Nation’s Broadband Commission Report on “Cyber Violence Against Girls and Women,” I posed a question that could be alternatively viewed as socratic or snarky:
Help me out so that I can better understand the post. Can you define online harassment and violence. If they’re the evils to be cured, it would be very useful to know what conduct would give rise to a violation.
Ken replied that while the report failed to offer definitions, it was inconsequential until they “proposed specific laws against undefined violence,” the report being long on dubious rhetoric but otherwise largely noise, much of it sounding like weeping.
It’s a fair perspective, but the report indulges in a problem that has plagued us in the past, as words were disconnected from meaning, and found their way into common usage by mere rhetorical connections designed to convey some vague sense of wrongfulness. Cyber violence? The words paired together suggest something awful, yet mean essentially nothing.
The report offers a list of six categories that, it claims, constitute “cyber violence”:
1) Hacking (use of technology to gain illegal/unauthorized access)
2) Impersonation (assuming the online identity of a person)
3) Surveillance/Tracking (stalking, monitoring a person’s activities e.g. GPS tracking via mobile phone)
4) Harassment/Spamming (continuously contact, annoy, threaten and/or scare the victim; defined as ongoing/persistent behavior, not one isolated incident)
5) Recruitment (luring potential victims into violent situations, e.g. by fake employment opportunities)
6) Malicious Distribution (of defamatory/illegal materials related to the victim and/or VAWG organizations; e.g., threatening to or leaking intimate photos/video; using technology as a propaganda tool to promote violence against women)
Whether, and to the extent, these categories frame conduct that’s unacceptable, there is nothing in there that suggests the use of force to do physical harm to anyone. It’s possible that, by factual extension, conduct could lead to actual violence, but that’s true of a great many things. Until violence comes from otherwise non-violent conduct, it’s not violence.
The problem is that this report addressed wrongs in the virtual realm, where the hurt is psychic or emotional but not physical. No one has yet developed an app that allows someone to strike a physical blow over the internet.
Does this discount metaphorical violence, that the harm to another person’s feelings is the equivalent of a physical strike to the head? That’s the explanation suggested in Time Magazine:
Cyber violence is just as damaging to women as physical violence, according to a new U.N. report, which warns women are growing even more vulnerable to cyber violence as more and more regions gain internet access.
It’s been asserted here in the past that I just don’t appreciate how painful hurt feelings are, “as damaging” or more so than physical violence. Perhaps I’m just an insensitive lout. Perhaps as a male, enjoying the privilege of my gender, I can shrug off feelings that wreak havoc with a female’s head. Whatever. I just don’t get it, I’m told.
The U.N. defines violence against women as “any act of gender-based violence that results in, or is likely to result in, physical, sexual or psychological harm or suffering to women, including threats of such acts.” The report notes that cyber violence is an extension of that definition, that includes acts like trolling, hacking, spamming, and harassment.
It’s not that the U.N. is in the definition biz, pushing Funk & Wagnalls off the shelf. It’s become common practice for words that carry heavy baggage to be usurped by a cause and then mainstreamed to create the false equivalencies attributed by the U.N.’s wordsmiths.
The report aligns three things as equivalents: “physical, sexual or psychological harm or suffering to women.” Physical harm is, certainly, the core definition of violence. Sexual harm isn’t particularly clear. Presumably, it refers to a subset of physical harm involving sexual conduct such as rape.
There are plenty of morons who suggest that women online ought to be raped, or any variation of a threat of some sexual offense, as if this somehow convinces anyone that they’re wrong. These idiot children are a very serious problem, as they feed these reports and, in time, the laws and policies that will undermine the rights of others.
In other words, their stupidity and mindless offensiveness will be the most likely cause of limits placed on everyone’s speech. And yet, telling these infantile clowns that they’re ruining it for everyone does little good, as stupid people can’t grasp that they’re doing something wrong.
That said, even the stupidest voice on the internet is just making empty noise. If and when it morphs from noise into real life conduct, it becomes a different problem. Then it’s real. Then, it can be actionable violence. But as long as its virtual, it’s just the noise made by the idiot children.
And then there is the “psychological harm and suffering of women,” which is the catch-all for what the report defines as cyber violence.
Even if women don’t end up dead, the Under-Secretary-General said, cyber violence can still dramatically affect women’s ability to participate in the modern world.
If the internet isn’t a safe place for them, Mlambo-Ngcuka added, they risk swearing off it altogether. “If the woman is tormented, she may then decide that ‘I don’t want to have anything to do with technology,” she said. “To be disconnected from technology in the 21st century, it’s like having your freedom disrupted: your right to work, your right to meet people, your right to learn, your freedom of speech. So if women become so intimidated and traumatized from the experiences they may have, it’s a whole world that will be lost to them for the rest of their life.”
And this is what the inapt use of the word “violence” is intended to do, to create the confused mindset that there is a “right” to feel safe that is infringed upon by hurtful words, thus making those women who feel “intimidated and traumatized” forego online participation. And their right to participate without fear of words that hurt their feelings requires, as Under-Secretary-General Mlambo-Ngcuka urges, laws prohibiting such hurtful words.
As Ken rightly notes, the U.N. report has yet to propose laws to end this problem, and so it may be premature to challenge the U.N. Report until it becomes clear what they demand, rhetoric aside. At this stage, it merely sets up a claim that virtual “violence,” even if women don’t end up dead, impairs their “rights”:
[I]t’s like having your freedom disrupted: your right to work, your right to meet people, your right to learn, your freedom of speech.
And so the response is to inflict the same on everyone else; to protect these rights of women by curtailing these rights in general. And critical to this line of reasoning is that they aren’t silencing speech, but preventing “violence.” In time, the word, with all its baggage, will be accepted as an ordinary descriptor of offensive words on the internet, causing harm to feelings that’s every bit as damaging as a punch to the nose or a bullet to the head. Or a forcible rape.
It’s hard to argue that cyber violence is worthy of protection. That’s why it’s worthwhile to stop this degrading of language before the laws based upon it are proposed, and the rights at stake are lost.
Is it premature to criticize the U.N. report’s solutions? Perhaps, but now is exactly the time to stop the use of the word “violence” in connection with online communications. Speech on the internet can be patently offensive and monumentally stupid (and those of you doing so really need to STFU), but this isn’t violence.