further to rebecca solnit: angry men attack me online

I recently completed three booklists for library customers, part of a system-wide readers' advisory project. The lists use good gender balance, and a strong representation of people of colour and LGBT themes. I did classics, award-winning nonfiction, and essay collections. I love readers' advisory, and I really enjoyed the challenge of writing about each title in about 45 words.

In the list of essay collections, I included Rebecca Solnit's Men Explain Things to Me. Then I decided it was time to read it! She's a brilliant essayist, one of the best I've ever read, and an important feminist voice. This slim collection packs an enormous punch.

Reading Solnit's now-famous piece about mansplaining made me think of another, related phenomenon. Both my partner and I have noticed this in discussions online, in a context where the commenters are mostly male. Here's how it goes.

A man comments. 

Many people disagree with him, including me.

The man attacks me. Only me. 

This happens consistently and predictably. 

We first noticed this pattern on The Joy of Sox, the popular baseball blog written by my partner, Allan Wood. For some years, I was a frequent commenter and "gamethreader" in the Joy of Sox community, so we had ample opportunity to observe this pattern. 

Allan writes from a progressive point of view, and like all the best sports writing, views the sport through a larger lens -- racism, labour, the militarization of sporting events, and so on. Although most members of the Joy of Sox community share this worldview, the world of men's professional sports is notoriously conservative, and Allan's politics drive some fans absolutely insane. (A side benefit, as far as we're concerned!) 

Post, progressive perspective.

Comment, right-wing perspective.

Responses, progressives.

Right-wing attack, directed at me.

Let's say Allan posts a positive view of a player who is getting a lot of negative media attention. The post is likely shared in many online baseball fan spaces. A commenter appears at Joy of Sox, angrily disagreeing (as they do). 

The Joy of Sox regulars disagree with the negative commenter. I am one of five, six, maybe 10 people disagreeing with him -- but his response focuses only on me. And he doesn't just respond to me. He foams at the mouth. 

The attacks can be especially vicious if the commenter doesn't know that he's flinging his verbal feces at the blogger's partner. If he does, he is more restrained -- the online equivalent of not getting harassed on the street when you're accompanied by a man.

To be clear, no member of the Joy of Sox community does this! JoS is an inclusive, egalitarian space, where a feminist, anti-racist perspective is the norm. The angry commenter is an outsider. Everyone disagrees with him -- sometimes quite derisively, mocking his ignorance. No matter. He focuses his attack on me.

Apparently the male commenter cannot abide being "contradicted" by a woman, no matter how polite or respectful her comments. He cannot bear her voicing an opinion, so he tries to bully her into silence. 

I don't feel the slightest bit bullied or harassed in these situations. I have nothing but contempt for these regressive men with their delicate egos and myopic worldviews. But they are clearly attempting to bully me.

Back to Rebecca Solnit. In a powerful and deeply disturbing essay called "The Longest War", Solnit quotes the writer Laurie Penny: "An opinion, it seems, is the short skirt of the internet". (What a brilliant line!) 

When I read this bit, all I could think was: poppies. Do you remember poppygate? It was during the 2018 Ontario election, when I was the NDP candidate for my riding. A right-wing rag ran a hate-piece on me, focusing on something I had written four years earlier, pulled out of context and (of course) purposely misinterpreted.

The response was so intense that the NDP took over my email, so I could focus on the campaign without reading daily threats of rape and murder.

Men arguing with me in comments on a baseball blog has never risen (or sunk) to this level. But it's on the same continuum. The other end of that continuum is murder. If you feel that's an exaggeration, give that essay "The Longest War" a spin. Trigger warnings galore.

Men arguing with me in comments: I wish I came up with a great word for this, the equivalent of mansplaining. Any ideas?


allan said...

The attacks can be especially vicious if the commenter doesn't know that he's flinging his verbal feces at the blogger's partner.

This was, of course, back before I used comment moderation. A favourite scene was when an idiot attacked L (not knowing her connection to me) and I had not yet weighed in, but other commenters (who had seen this play out before) were making cryptic comments about it! Inevitably, every time I'd say "That opinion you hate? I expressed it first. Why not criticize me?", there would be no response and the guy would never return.

(Re Poppygate: "Why Women Aren't Welcome On The Internet")

Amy said...

It's a more hateful variation on what I experienced at faculty meetings. We'd be debating some academic issue, and I'd offer a suggestion for resolving the dispute. Man #1 would repeat what I'd said without any recognition of the fact that I'd just made the same suggestion. From then on, Man #1 would get credit for his brilliant suggestion, and I would get none. Once I got tenure, I would just chime in with, "Excuse me, but I just said that same thing." Eventually the men noticed I was in the room. (This was also when there were only three women on the faculty alont with 25 men.)

I am sure if I'd said something they all found distasteful, they would have happily labeled it as my suggestion!

laura k said...

That must be so incredibly frustrating. I'm sure you know (not that it helps -- might make it worse!) that it's also incredibly common and well-documented.

I'm fortunate in that most of my collaborative pursuits, whether work or activism, have been predominantly female. When there are men involved, they tend to be feminist, and very aware of the need to be respectful.

laura k said...

Last year I attended a learning retreat with my union. One of the "ground rules" for the group was to "make space for all voices". This meant making sure that male voices don't drown out female, white voice don't drown out POC, and -- most relevant to me -- people who are comfortable speaking don't drown out voices of the less assured.

It was brilliant. The next time I find myself in a group setting where we are setting ground rules, I will suggest this.

Amy said...

What was odd and sad about my experience at faculty meetings was that these were all very intelligent men who would never consider themselves sexist. These were, after all, law professors---very much aware of problems with discrimination and, I hope, sensitive to these issues in their classrooms---making sure women and other generally silenced groups were encouraged to speak. But they were so socialized to hear only men that in a faculty meeting setting, they regressed to their less-evolved state.

In my political campaign work this year we had Zoom team meetings once a week where the "make space" rule was announced. And these were mostly women. Yet there was one woman who never seemed to realize how much time she monopolized with her own stories and comments. So how did your union enforce that rule without embarrassing those who took too much time?

laura k said...

I don't find that odd at all. Those men have not been taught to recognize their own privilege. My view is also coloured by having grown up with a parent who was passionate about civil rights and social justice... except in his own home. :)

In my experience, there is always someone who doesn't know how to stop talking. Often there is more than one. It's the moderator's job to interrupt and ask them to wrap it up.

One of my HUGE !!! pet peeves is when moderators don't do this.

Amy said...

Our moderator was a wonderful 22-year old recent college grad who did a masterful job of organizing and inspiring us all. She was remarkable. But my guess is she was reluctant to cut off a woman three times her age. She might have been more willing had it been a man.

laura k said...

Wow, that's amazing. In New York I worked with a bunch of 20-something recent grads, doing abortion-access work, and I couldn't believe how great they were, how focused and mature. Hope!

Amy said...

It really did give me hope to see how devoted to progressive causes she was and how very smart and effective she was. I told her many times she was an inspiration to me.

With God's Help said...

I like this: "One of the "ground rules" for the group was to "make space for all voices". This meant making sure that male voices don't drown out female, white voice don't drown out POC, and -- most relevant to me -- people who are comfortable speaking don't drown out voices of the less assured."
I'm going to use it at my staff meetings, but flip to ivibg space to hear the often lone male voice in the room full off women.

MSEH said...


And... OMG. Amy's comments re faculty meetings. Yes, yes, yes.

laura k said...

WGH, making space for others to speak is not about gender per se. It's about the power imbalance in the larger society. I've been at plenty of meetings where there is one man and eight women, and the man still monopolizes speaking time, interrupts women, talks over them, doesn't hear them.

In a predominantly Black space, I don't think we need to make space for the white people.

Perhaps in your situation, it is more about making space for quiet people to speak up.

Just my thoughts of course!

laura k said...

Thank you MSEH!

M@ said...

It can be very instructive, as a man, to stop and consider why you react so strongly to certain expressed points of view. It's also uncomfortable as hell, which is probably why we rarely do it... and society has taught us that that is perfectly okay. Whew.

(Also: I still get a little eye twitch when I think of poppygate...)

laura k said...

Thanks, M@ :)

I think for some men, it's so uncomfortable that it can't be done -- a lot of work would have to be done first. Because society has also taught them being "shown up" by a woman makes them weak, unmanly -- makes them a pussy. (My least favourite taunt, equating being female with being weak.) And if this happens in front of people, even online, it can't be tolerated.

IRL, a man's perception that he's been embarrassed by a woman often leads to violence.