The New Virtual Violence

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.


29 thoughts on “The New Virtual Violence

  1. Patrick Maupin

    There is no question that the actions under discussion do not constitute violence; nonetheless the truthiness of statements like:

    No one has yet developed an app that allows someone to strike a physical blow over the internet.

    depends entirely on the philosophical/legal/above-my-paygrade question of whether the internet is merely the intangible concept of connecting stuff together (or perhaps the specialized stuff that allows the connections as well), or whether it is comprised of all of the stuff that has been connected together.

  2. Bartleby the Scrivener

    The use of such justifications to suppress speech is a violent act against my right to free speech.

    …but that doesn’t matter, because feelings.

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  5. Shannon

    “Feelings”? Wow. How can you write about a topic you clearly don’t understand? Online threats are NOT about hurt feelings. Should we criminalize mere insults, no matter how vulgar? — No. But threats describing specific violent acts involving rape are another matter. Rational people agree that there are some situations where the government needs to limit one person’s speech so society can function properly. Yelling “fire” in a crowded theater can lead to chaos where people actually get hurt. Criminal threats are illegal because they make their target legitimately fearful, thereby limiting their access to the outside world. Online threats of violent rape are no less terrifying — in fact they are often more terrifying because at least when the threat-maker is known, their target will know to take evasive action when she sees him. However, with the anonymity of an online threat, it could be literally anyone, making it all the more terrifying. And that’s exactly why they make such threats — to terrorize the target into silence, not to “hurt her feelings.” No, some angry man’s “right” to make violent rape threats anonymously should not take precedence over a woman’s right to not have to live her life in terror. The purpose of free speech is a useful exchange of ideas, NOT for pathetic guys (non-pathetic guys wouldn’t make cowardly anonymous threats) to express their butt-hurt feelings by threatening women who’s ideas they disagree with.

    1. SHG Post author

      That would be “falsely” yelling fire. Come on back and try again when you learn what you’re talking about.

      1. Shannon

        SHG – Obviously I was talking about yelling fire when there isn’t actually a fire — did I seriously need to spell that out for you?

        1. SHG Post author

          Yes, you did “seriously” need to spell that out, as every line of your comment reflects a misunderstanding of both law and definition. You’re laboring under the impression that the rhetoric of feelings is a substitute. The law is not what you feel it should be. Definitions are not what you feel they should be. And that is pretty much the point of the post, that tagging the word “violence” onto the end of another word magically makes it real.

          You are no more entitled to make up your own lexicon and rules than anyone else.

    2. David

      If it was your purpose to come off like an ignorant ranting lunatic, you are a huge success. If you hoped to offer anything even remotely convincing, then you failed miserably. One key point that you fail to grasp: We know there are crazies out there. You’re just another crazy on the female side.

      1. Shannon

        David, I have no problem with you calling me an “ignorant ranting lunatic,” or a “crazy,” and I wholeheartedly support your right to do so. But what have you offered to the conversation? Name calling and opining that I “failed miserably” without providing any explanation adds nothing. What exactly makes me crazy? Because I have a different perspective than you?

        People do sometimes carry out their online threats, which is why it’s not unreasonable to take the threat seriously. And since it seems you’re saying “crazies” are the only ones making threats, you should be aware that part of being crazy is acting irrationally — so anyone who claims crazies won’t follow through on their threats doesn’t know what he’s talking about, because you simply never know what a crazy person might do.

        Furthermore, it’s pretty easy to craft a law that is not overbroad so that name calling like yours is legal but threats detailing specific violent acts are not. And if you’re not one of the people making those threats, why are you so concerned? Why is it so important to you for “crazies” to have the right to threaten others online?

        1. SHG Post author

          Furthermore, it’s pretty easy to craft a law that is not overbroad so that name calling like yours is legal but threats detailing specific violent acts are not.

          Hardly. Of the many mistaken notions you’ve asserted, this one is off the charts. Not only is it not easy, but it’s essentially impossible to do so. There is no language that can create a clear line between lawful and unlawful speech in this fashion, and worse yet, no crim law that can be based on the feelings of the recipient of speech that could ever pass constitutional muster. You are not going to make headway with lawyers by making assertions that are laughably wrong.

          You demonstrate no grasp of the “imminent threat” exception to the First Amendment (Hint: it’s not just a threat of harm, but the ability to execute it imminently, which essentially never exists online). And no, you don’t get to make up your own version. Actual violence is already illegal, and always has been, so there is no need for a new law for conduct already criminal under existing law.

          And if you’re not one of the people making those threats, why are you so concerned? Why is it so important to you for “crazies” to have the right to threaten others online?

          This is an illogical and infantile reaction. Because your demand to silence others by force of law will implicate everyone’s First Amendment rights, everyone (not just the “crazies,” defined as anyone Shannon says is crazy) should be concerned about censors like you, as people like you are the far more dangerous threat to society. Goading someone this way, like cops saying “why not consent to a search if you have nothing to hide,” is for children.

          And David didn’t call you ““ignorant ranting lunatic,” but what you wrote made you come off as such. What he’s added to the conversation is that you’ve written gibberish, which is apparent to anyone who doesn’t share your fuzzy view. Given that you neither demonstrate a grasp of law, definitions nor logic, his assessment is absolutely correct.

          1. Shannon

            “Not only is it not easy, but it’s essentially impossible to do so. There is no language that can create a clear line between lawful and unlawful speech in this fashion, and worse yet, no crim law that can be based on the feelings of the recipient of speech that could ever pass constitutional muster.”

            Essentially impossible? So what would your advice be to women who receive horrific particularized graphic rape threats?

            This is exactly the problem with our criminal system. It’s always easier to poke holes in a law than it is to craft it. You’ve claimed that you “can find a viable solution to any problem if I just keep thinking hard enough.” So perhaps you would be best qualified to craft such a law, which is what you would do if you actually cared about finding a balance between victims’ right not to live in terror while protecting free speech. Your writings suggest though that you have absolutely no concept of the real effects threats have, nor do you have any concern for victims.

            1. SHG Post author

              Your myopic view of the problem is where you go deep into the rabbit hole. You believe (not think, but believe) that every problem must have a legal solution. It’s the source of your misguided views.

              Essentially impossible? So what would your advice be to women who receive horrific particularized graphic rape threats?

              It’s not my job to solve your melodramatic ravings. I agree that “horrific particularized graphic rape threats” are horrible speech, but there can be no solution that ignores the First Amendment. A far better argument can be made about real rape (rather than your “terrifying” noise), and yet we still have the 4th, 5th, 6th and 8th Amendments that apply to actual people who commit actual horrific crimes, rather than make disgusting noise on the internet.

              This isn’t a “problem with the criminal system,” that it won’t give you whatever you want whenever you want it. These are the constraints of civil freedom. That means your (and everyone else’s, because you aren’t special) every feelings doesn’t morph into a crime because you want it to. That’s not a bug but a feature. You’re just too blinded by your own narrow interests to see it.

              So perhaps you would be best qualified to craft such a law, which is what you would do if you actually cared about finding a balance between victims’ right not to live in terror while protecting free speech.

              Ah, back to infantile goading? Disappointing. There can be no legal “balancing,” nor should there ever be. I know it makes you feel bad, but you don’t get to recreate the concept of free speech because you’ve decided that your hurt feelings are entitled to protection. The law offers no remedy for you. Psychotropic medication, on the other hand, might help.

              But your fabricated “right not to live in terror” is caused by your culture of entitlement, victimhood and sensitivity. Do you think women are too pathetic, fragile and helpless to take care of themselves? Nobody has ever been raped on the internet. It’s just noise. If it turns real, then it’s already a crime. Problem solved.

            2. Sgt. Schultz

              For fuck’s sake, Shanoon, do you not realize this ridiculous arg has been made about a million times already, by people far smarter than you? Are you that narcissistic to think you’re the first person to whine that the law is somehow required to fix whatever hurts your feelings?

            3. SHG Post author

              Every time someone goes down the rabbit hole, they believe no one has ever been there before them. It’s kind of adorable, really.

    3. David M.

      You know, this is basically how we do it in Germany. We’ve held that our constitutional right to have the government protect our ‘dignity’ in interactions between private citizens trumps our right to express ourselves in a free and vulgar fashion.

      Guess what? We’re still the same old Germans. Rude as the day is long, whether to women on the Internet or the Turkish guy in the street. But mouth off to a cop, or any government official – or fail to show them the proper respect, like by using the wrong honorific – and you’re looking at a gimme misdemeanor conviction. Kiss your sweet job in Volkswagen R&D goodbye.

      Is that what you want?

  6. Shannon

    “If it turns real, then it’s already a crime. Problem solved.”

    How exactly is the problem solved? For whom is it solved? Prosecuting a rape never solves anything for the rape victim — you cannot undo the rape. Moreover, solving a problem means creating a system where the bad thing (such as rape) doesn’t occur — not just punishing criminals after the fact. Clearly, criminal laws have not been sufficient to deter rapists, and changing the culture and what is considered acceptable within the culture will need to change to “solve” the problem.

    1. SHG Post author

      Yet you want to prosecute non-real-cyber-rape because it hurts feelings? It’s perfectly understandable that you feel the legal system inadequate to the task, as it is reactive. That’s the system. Works that way for murders; works that way for all races; works that way for everybody. Women don’t get pre-emptive prosecutions based on fragile feelings. You want to prosecute people in advance of committing a crime? Because of these “terrifying” feelings? Sorry, but not interested.

      By the way, I’m fairly certain you and I aren’t talking about the same “rape,” but I’m not sufficiently interested in your views to discuss it. It looks like the law can’t help you at all, and frankly, I sincerely doubt society cares to reinvent itself to meet your emotional needs. I know I don’t. As much fun as this has been, it’s now done.

      1. Shannon

        I’ve never suggested prosecuting anything based on hurt feelings, so the fact that you keep characterizing it as such is simply dishonest.

        And yes, balancing can and does exist in many areas of the law, including regarding speech, as I’ve already pointed out, e.g., falsely yelling fire in a crowded room, criminal threats, time/place/manner restrictions, as well as civil torts such as defamation. So why would you even try to claim that “There can be no legal “balancing,” nor should there ever be”? The law absolutely does balance the rights/interests of one individual against the rights/interest of other individuals as well as the state’s interests.

        The principle is the same with online threats as in other types of threats, and some states have found a balance that has protected people’s right to express ideas while also preventing speakers from infringing on another’s liberty (because they are reasonably in fear to move about the world freely after certain types of threats).

        For example, CA Penal Code 422 seems to have articulated an appropriate definition. Whether the speaker has the ability to execute the threat immediately is not determined based on whether the person actually does (the fact that he’s making the threat anonymously deprives her of any way to evaluate his ability), it’s whether he conveyed it in a way so as to make the victim believe that he has the ability to execute it immediately. So for a person like you who has your office address up online, if someone sent you a specific online threat detailing what they planned to do to you — which anyone can do from a smart phone — it might, depending on the circumstances, be reasonable for you to believe that the threat could be immediately carried out. As a criminal defense attorney you know that the law can never specifically articulate every potential iteration of criminal behavior, rather you have to look at the facts of each situation. And because the purpose of a threat is to put the target in a state of fear, whether the target does in fact reasonably feel fear as a result of the threat is indeed the crux of the issue. Just because you, as a cynical older 200lb male New Yorker, wouldn’t take a rape threat seriously doesn’t mean that it would be unreasonable for a 20-yr-old 100lb female to take a rape threat seriously, because rape actually does happen to women, nearly all rapists are men, and nearly all men can overpower a 100-lb female.

        But you’re a criminal defense attorney, and your focus is on getting even guilty clients out of being punished with creative arguments. Your concerns lie only with the relationship between your client and the state. You’re simply not concerned with victims, because in your view, if the law is imperfectly crafted then criminals with the intent to rape or terrorize their victims should have the right to do so. Where does that leave victims? I suppose you feel that the plight of victims is not your problem, rather the state has failed them by failing to craft impenetrable laws. That “not my problem” ambivalence allows mass atrocities to occur. You’re so focused on the specific wording that you miss the spirit of the law, which is to protect the vulnerable, instead of having a “might makes right” society. Your concern that criminalizing online threats will lead down the slippery slope to extreme government censorship is itself tin foil hat material.

        My culture is not one of victimhood, though I do speak for the rights of victims because victims often are too fearful to speak for themselves, but that doesn’t mean that their perspectives don’t matter. And I do believe that all people are entitled to be free from severe forms of harassment (i.e., specific threats of physical harm, NOT merely hurt feelings from name calling), and many people agree with me, as evidenced by the creation of CA law mentioned above and others like it. It seems you have enjoyed a position of power in society where you never were a victim, so you never had to consider the perspective of a victim. But given your age, you might want to do so, because soon you will be a frail elderly man who can no longer protect himself against, perhaps, the angry victims of your criminal clients.

        “It’s not my job to solve your melodramatic ravings.”

        I wasn’t asking you to solve “ravings,” (is it even possible to solve a raving?). I came to this site to see if it’s even possible to have a dialogue about solving an actual problem in society: the problem of hostile posters using threats of actual violence to silence others (it’s almost always anonymous men trying to silence named female bloggers), while safeguarding the principle the founders wanted to protect: the free exchange of ideas. Why should one person have the right to silence another with threats? Just because you FEEL that a woman’s fear of rape threats is unreasonable doesn’t make it so. However it seems that such a dialogue is simply not possible here, as both you and the others have been more interested in insulting me than actually exchanging ideas.

        1. SHG Post author

          The 1st Amendment has categorical exceptions, none of which involve your feelings. If you had a working grasp of the law, you wouldn’t make asinine argument about it. You don’t.

          But a dialogue? We can’t have a “dialogue” because you will only do so if I adopt your fantasy grasp of law, the relative importance of your feelings, and that your self-interest trumps everything else. Since I don’t, and since you are incapable of grasping any view except your own, don’t give a damn about anything but your feelings, and suffer from Dunning-Kruger, there is nothing to discuss. There never was.

          But I knew you would post another comment because you just wouldn’t be able bear to not have the last word, no matter how verbose that may be. How predictable you are.

          [Personal note to Shannon: I’ve allowed you to murder thousands of words in support of your position, but you aren’t entitled to go on in perpetuity. As I already wrote, we’re done. Your five (as of now) subsequent comments have been trashed. You just aren’t as fascinating or persuasive to anyone else as you are to yourself. Sorry if this hurts your feelings. shg]

        2. Lexi

          I am a woman who has received threats online, and people like Shannon make me sad.

          Shannon, in case you’re reading this, you actually gave the answer to the problem you posted. You stated “My culture is not one of victim-hood, though I do speak for the rights of victims because victims often are too fearful to speak for themselves.

          So there you go, if someone is too fearful to speak out, then they can seek a support group for assistance. I cannot understand how the law can define at what point words can, or should, cause fear in someone else. Fear is a feeling. You seem to want to define it as something else. The law is not responsible for addressing yours, mine, or anyone else’s “feelings” of fear. Everyone has a choice on how they react to words. I made my choice not to be fearful, not to be a victim. You, on the other hand, want to make the choice for everyone to be a victim. No thanks. Not interested.

          Furthermore, the laws around what is or is not defined as a credible threat seem fairly clear. If someone receives a credible threat of physical harm whereupon the act, time, place, method, or some sort of plan is outlined, then they should make a police report and let the police handle it and take additional security precautions if truly warranted. Buy a gun if it makes sense. And if someone has emotional issues of fear issues in the wake of what they perceive as a threat, then they should seek a support group, counseling, or better yet take action to empower themselves.

  7. Vin

    Yelling “fire” when a fire doesn’t exist is not subjective. The fire either exists or it doesn’t exist. You either yelled fire or you didn’t yell fire.

    The same level of scrutiny cannot be applied to someone’s feelings of being or not being threatened. Why? Because subjectivity is not objective. 😉

    1. SHG Post author

      It’s only subjective to guys who don’t get it. To reasonable people, it’s obvious.

      –Abraham Lincoln

      1. Vin

        Maybe not as brilliantly short as I initially fantasized about.

        I am on your side in support of the notion that you cannot write laws to accommodate people’s subjective feelings.

        I’ll go now. 🙂

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