Swatting butterflies

I used to have a boyfriend who, like many of the people I deal with, had what I call “a hole in the head”. Things that were obvious to others were not obvious to him. Most attempts to point these things out went through his ears and straight out of the hole in the head, leaving his eyes blank and his brain untouched. (Of course, we split up, not because he had a hole in the head but because his hole in the head didn’t match mine.)

He was once stopped in the street by a woman doing a survey about something like satellite telly. As he explained to me afterwards, he stopped to give her a long rant about the survey topic “because she had big tits”.

Now, I have plenty to say about badly-designed surveys that don’t let you get across your real opinions, and about people who stop you in the street when you’re just trying to daydream, and maybe she did ask a lot of stupid questions, but this still bothered me.

“Wait a minute,” I said. “You’re saying that BECAUSE she had big tits, BECAUSE you found her attractive, you decided to stop and give her a big angry rant about satellite telly?” My boyfriend looked confused, but I could tell this was one of the times where I’d got through to him. I think he was confused because the woman, in his mind, was very much secondary to his killer arguments about satellite telly or whatever the hell it was. I followed up with some predictable comments about how she certainly wasn’t going to fancy him back after that display of aggression, and I really think it got through. At least, he’d remembered she was a person, rather than a pair of breasts attached to a clipboard, and that was progress.

I’ve said before, in passing, that wolf-whistling is not about attracting women; it’s about reinforcing dominance of public space. It’s about reminding other people: I am the looker here, I get to judge stuff. Reacting to attractive women by trying to make them listen to your boring opinions is part of the same set of behaviours. You’re using their social conditioning against them, for a start, but you’re also reminding them that drawing any attention is dangerous because it sets up more social traps to avoid. You’re putting yourself in the comfortable role of “inevitable consequence” and them in the uncomfortable role of “person who needs to be careful”. Effectively, you’re punishing them in some small way for their attractiveness.

It’s a similar thing on social media. I don’t get much street harassment these days, and for that I am unambiguously grateful. But on social media, every day, I get micropunishments for being too interesting.

I’m on Twitter. I’ve built up a few hundred followers by being reasonably interesting, and I get retweeted when I say interesting things. But the more followers and RTs  I get, the more attention I attract – and lots of that attention comes in a form that makes my heart sink a tiny bit every time. I can guarantee that if something I say gets retweeted more than ten times, I will get a reply I don’t want. It might be outright aggressive and/or insulting and/or weird, e.g. “Your not only boring but your ugly [sic]” or “Christians like you think you’re helping charity but you’re actually supporting jihad”. But more often than not, it’s just a little “correction”. I’ve done my sums wrong, you see, or I’ve made a general statement that – shock horror! – isn’t true of that particular individual, or I’ve made a spelling mistake, or I’ve shown too much sympathy for a group in society when that group has placed itself beyond sympathy by behaving in an irrational way.

The commenters are saying to me “You’re wrong, you know” but the subtext is “You’re wrong, and I have a right to correct you and have you listen to that correction”, and the deeper subtext is “You’re wrong, but if you weren’t interesting with it then you wouldn’t have to put up with being told so.

Mostly, I think “OK, this person is boring and humourless, they lack both empathy and reading comprehension skills, and they make me tired, but they mean well.” But when it happens over and over again, it has an effect and it does force me to change my behaviour. I think twice, three times, before posting a funny remark even if I know my friends will find it funny, because I can’t bear to see the flurry of humourless responses – and feel my social conditioning tugging on me to deal with them politely. “I think you’ll find the story about the chicken crossing the road is a hoax. Check Snopes.

We’ve heard a lot about the abuse meted out to women for the crime of being visibly female on the internet. I’m not saying that I have it anywhere near as tough as some of the high-profile women who’ve spoken out about this.

What I am saying is that every day, the drip-drip-drip of “corrections” and of drive-by nastiness starts to get to me. Not a day goes by when I don’t get “corrected” about something. And I don’t think a week goes by in which a complete stranger doesn’t seek me out online to tell me exactly why they’re not following me, or to tell me how they think I should change what I say to be more pleasing to them. I don’t know if they think I’ll welcome the criticism; maybe they’ve forgotten that I’ll have any reaction to it at all. Either way, their conviction that their own opinion is too important to suppress overrides any consideration of how I’ll feel. (Needless to say, these are very rarely people who have any interesting, original content of their own.)

I don’t know what to do to stop it. I already know that “I was joking” and “Yes, thanks, already Googled that, see my next tweet” and “I wasn’t asking for your opinion” have very little effect in terms of stopping the flow of micropunishments. And when I don’t know what to do to stop it, that’s usually a big clue that it’s not my behaviour that should be changing.

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