Moira Donegan’s “Shitty” List

It could have been a list of commie sympathizers, a list of Muslims suspected of terrorism, a list of White Supremacists. But it wasn’t. Moira Donegan’s list was of “shitty media men,” and within hours, it went out of control.

None of this was what I thought was going to happen. In the beginning, I only wanted to create a place for women to share their stories of harassment and assault without being needlessly discredited or judged. The hope was to create an alternate avenue to report this kind of behavior and warn others without fear of retaliation.

Donegan, a 2013 college graduate, doesn’t explain her impetus for starting the list. There’s no story of a rape or assault. Rather, she explains it as an alternative to the female whisper network (which can be “elitist or insular”) of guys to watch out for because “police are notoriously inept at handling sexual-assault cases” and HR departments are there to protect the company, not women. Her spreadsheet put it all in one place, judgment free.

The spreadsheet was intended to circumvent all of this. Anonymous, it would protect its users from retaliation: No one could be fired, harassed, or publicly smeared for telling her story when that story was not attached to her name. Open-sourced, it would theoretically be accessible to women who didn’t have the professional or social cache required for admittance into whisper networks. The spreadsheet did not ask how women responded to men’s inappropriate behavior; it did not ask what you were wearing or whether you’d had anything to drink. Instead, the spreadsheet made a presumption that is still seen as radical: That it is men, not women, who are responsible for men’s sexual misconduct.

It was, obviously, subject to all foibles of anon lists, and was criticized as such. It spanned allegations of violent conduct to “inappropriate comments.” The allegations might be true or not, and the list could be used for vengeance or warning. But it was just a list.

At first, Donegan felt that it was fulfilling her purpose, as the names and stories added to her spreadsheet felt truthy. Since the list would go no further than just being a list, evidence was irrelevant. There would be no consequences.

Nevertheless, when I first shared the spreadsheet among my women friends and colleagues, it took on the intense sincerity of our most intimate conversations. Women began to anonymously add their stories of sexual assault; many of the accounts posted there were violent, detailed, and difficult to read. Women recounted being beaten, drugged, and raped. Women recounted being followed into bathrooms or threatened with weapons. Many, many women recounted being groped at work, or shown a colleague’s penis. Watching the cells populate, it rapidly became clear that many of us had weathered more than we had been willing to admit to one another. There was the sense that the capacity for honesty, long suppressed, had finally been unleashed. This solidarity was thrilling, but the stories were devastating.

At this point, what was there to seriously complain about? Women telling each other stories? Whether true or false, people always talked about other people, telling stories of bad things that happened to them. Now it was on a spreadsheet that was moving around a certain circle? So what? They’re allowed to talk. And if so, then they’re allowed to write it down as well.

But like all ideas that seemed relatively innocuous at first, cathartic for sure and, with the caveat that these allegations were unproven, a fair warning within a community of writers about who might do harm, Donegan lost control.

Over the course of the evening, the spreadsheet expanded further: Many of the incidents reported there were physical, but there were also accounts of repeated sexual remarks, persistent inappropriate passes, unsolicited drunken messages. There was an understanding of the ways that these less-grave incidents can sometimes be harbingers of more aggressive actions to come, and how they can accrue into soured relationships and hostile environments. For clarity, I imposed a system that visibly distinguished violent accusations from others: Once a man had been accused of physical sexual assault by more than one woman, his name was highlighted in red.

To Donegan, her red highlight “for clarity” probably seemed like a prudent choice. Her assumption about what other people knew about the list is childish, but she was young and a believer in the narrative that women were defenseless, subjugated victims of the patriarchy. And she lacked the fortitude of more mature feminists.

I was incredibly naïve when I made the spreadsheet. I was naïve because I did not understand the forces that would make the document go viral. I was naïve because I thought that the document would not be made public, and when it became clear that it would be, I was naïve because I thought that the focus would be on the behavior described in the document, rather than on the document itself. It is hard to believe, in retrospect, that I really thought this. But I did.

Word broke yesterday that Harper’s writer Katie Roiphe was going to “out” Donegan. After Roiphe was viciously attacked for breaching the silence of the sisterhood, and Harper’s said that it wasn’t going to name names,* Donegan chose to reveal herself as the person who started the Shitty Media Men list.

Despite what Donegan had in mind when she started the list, that there would be no consequences, there were. There were consequences for Donegan, who says she lost friends and her job,** and there were consequences for the men who were named on the list.

A lot of us are angry in this moment, not just at what happened to us but at the realization of the depth and frequency of these behaviors and the ways that so many of us have been drafted, wittingly and unwittingly, into complicity. But we’re being challenged to imagine how we would prefer things to be. This feat of imagination is about not a prescriptive dictation of acceptable sexual behaviors but the desire for a kinder, more respectful, and more equitable world.

Donegan didn’t imagine her list would grow a mob of angry women, but no one can ever anticipate what a mob will do. She can presume to speak for women, what the mob really wants, but that too is the rosy aspiration of a child. No one tells the mob what it wants. And no one tells the mob when it’s time to stop storming the castle.

While Donegan may have started the Shitty Media Men list, and started it with the best of intentions, she lost control of it almost immediately. If this had been a list of people on the beloved side of social justice, there would be outrage over its intended and unintended consequences.

People do bad things, both male and female. Some criminal things. Some violent things. It’s bad enough when these are judged by a system designed to do so, but this was an uncontrolled inquisition, bolstered by self-righteous ideology and excuses. Women wanted revenge against the men they feared. Women called themselves strong and fierce, and then acted upon weakness and fear, protected by the lie that weakness somehow meant equality.

Donegan started a fire that raged out of control. It’s not her fault, even though she doesn’t appear to appreciate how little she had to do with this. Men who engaged in criminal conduct deserved opprobrium, though it should have come through the means by which society addresses crime.

When the conflagration finally burns itself out, and it will, there will be an opportunity to assess the damage. Many deserved to get burned. Many did not. The mob doesn’t care. And the law of unintended consequences will prevail regardless of the dreams and aspirations of the sad and fragile.

Maybe this fire was necessary, and the anger that fueled it was going to explode no matter what. Maybe this list should remind us why we created a system to distinguish real from fake, serious from trivial, controlled retribution from the fury of the mob. Donegan merely lit the match. She had no control over the mob. No one ever controls the mob.

*It’s unclear whether Roiphe was planning to name Donegan and switched gears following the backlash or whether, as was claimed, she was merely fact-checking. Regardless, before Donegan outed herself, it was clear that Harper’s did not intend to name her.

**There is no explanation for why she lost her job, but she asserts that she did as a consequence of the list.

20 thoughts on “Moira Donegan’s “Shitty” List

    1. SHG Post author

      Who is more likely to inadvertently start a fire than a kid? Especially one indoctrinated to believe the myriad excuses that relieve a woman from responsibility of equality in the name of equality. This is what comes of believing in an untenable ideology, fire.

      In a very real way, I don’t blame Donegan. She was extremely naive. And on the other side, there were men engaged in some awful conduct, even though they should have been dealt with by the legal system rather than the burned in the fire.

  1. Dan

    If she didn’t expect or intend for the document to go public, what was the point? Surely it wasn’t so that she could have a private collection of accusations.

    1. SHG Post author

      That it circulate within the insular community of female media people, apparently under the assumption that the sisterhood of like-minded women would keep their secret accusations to themselves.

  2. B. McLeod

    There have been vague media mentions of this list for over a month, and of media organizations investigating their own employees and competitors’ employees who are named in the list. But of course there is a list. Anonymous lists that damn the accused are a traditional element of The Terror. I smile at the creator’s claim that she did not foresee how it would be used.

  3. Matthew S Wideman

    I for one believe that this black list of filthy communists shouldn’t infect out beautiful media industry…..wait wait which decade are we in again???

    The similarities between the two “red scares” and now are eerie.

    1. SHG Post author

      One lesson we never learn from panic is that it’s a panic. It always seems so real, necessary and proper at the time.

  4. Nemo

    Seems to me that she (and many, many others these days) doesn’t know that “primal screaming” and other cathartic ways of “releasing your anger” have been pretty thoroughly discredited as a means of therapy.

    I imagine it might be useful, if employed only on rare occasions, but on a regular basis, the net result tends to be that the catharsis feels so good that people start looking for reasons to be angry, but that search tends to fly under one’s mental radar.

    Maybe that lesson should be a part of whatever frosh courses colleges require to ensure “a kinder, more respectful, and more equitable world.”. It wouldn’t stop things like this list, but if a mob of people seething with anger is a constant, all it needs is an opening, and then…

    1. SHG Post author

      There are many things that can make a person “feel so good” that don’t risk a massive conflagration. Most of them are forbidden these days. But not all.

      1. Nemo

        Quite true, but doesn’t address the possibility that this “catharsis therapy” is at work under the name “activism”, which provides a simmering pit of outrage just looking for an opportunity for catharsis, one likely to be heavily populated by repeat customers.

        Such a pool’s useful for activism, and provides instant protests when desired – but the pool, collectively, has a will of its own, so when it finds a path to catharsis, as in this case, anything can happen.

        Whether the cycle can be disrupted, I don’t know, but I think it’s worth thinking about in terms of a solution of some sort is possible. As activists are fond of saying, awareness of a problem is the first step to correcting it. Plenty of big brains here, thought someone might care to think about it, but I have some other bases to touch, as well. I suspect that even among the unduly passionate, I imagine there are those who would prefer to not be trapped in a self-perpetuating cycle of outrage-protest-catharsis, especially if it is pointed out to them that simply protesting and hoping that something good will come of it, rinse repeat, has accomplished little good, and a fair bit of damage to innocent people.

        I apologize for running on, but this strikes me as something that maybe can be able to accomplish something, since it isn’t a direct confrontation over issues, but rather over a driver that actually undermines their intended goal. It doesn’t even have to be framed in a personal way, just as a generality about those to indulge in it unknowingly.

        Not that I necessarily would agree with a given goal, but seems to me that exchanging mindless anger reactions for thoughtful plans would be an improvement. Who knows, it might even spread to cool inflamed political passions too, since the same driver’s likely at work there, too. Nothing ventured, nothing gained.

        ‘Course, it isn’t a very mean tactic, so some people may not find it appealing, and the reader’s mileage may vary. Thank you for the time.

        1. SHG Post author

          of course exchanging thought for emotion would be more effective in achieving a goal. But easier said than done.

          1. Nemo

            Getting a goal accomplished isn’t the point. Getting to where arguments, discussions, and debates can actually be held, somewhat more so, even if my causes fail.

            Getting to where the possibility of insta-mobs cropping up at the drop of a hint, only to wreak chaos? That. That in itself’s enough to merit consideration and attempts needing a lot of effort, even if it accomplishes only a moderate reduction.

            Well, folks will do what they are inclined to do, and I want to spend a good deal of time thinking about this and consulting with others. I have friends in weird places, but that doesn’t mean that weirdos are stupid. I’ll leave the topic be now. If something comes of it, I might bring it up again, but I doubt it in anything like the middling future. Again, thank you for the space. You have been very kind, sir.

  5. LocoYokel

    How do I get on this list? It sounds like a wonderful opportunity for a libel suit. Would section 230 cover her as regards this list?

  6. Dan

    It baffles me that a list could be published, naming real names, and that this list could possibly be expected to be published anonymously- that Harpers or any legacy media would think it at all appropriate to let the list-maker throw this faceless bomb.

  7. Scott Jacobs

    There is no explanation for why she lost her job, but she asserts that she did as a consequence of the list.

    Maybe it was fear the inevitable lawsuit might blow back on them? Lord knows this list makes her a huge liability.

    “Look you do great work, but there is no way you aren’t going to end up getting us sued into poverty. Clear out your desk.”

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