Don’t feed the trolls: it’s probably the most common refrain in online discussions, especially when dealing with misogynists in feminists conversations. The idea is that the best way to deal with sexists is to starve of them of the attention they’re so clearly desperate for. Besides, we think, why sink to their level?
But the high road is overrated. It requires silence in the face of violent misogyny, and a turn-the-other cheek mentality that society has long demanded of women. A vibrant feminist movement has ensured women don’t take injustices laying down offline—so why would we acquiesce on the Internet?
When I started Feministing in 2004, the hate mail started to pour in right away. At first it felt easier to ignore the haters, but it was incredibly difficult to write about feminist issues every day without acknowledging the awful backlash we were experiencing behind-the-scenes. So we created a series of posts called “Anti-Feminist Mailbag”—we published our hate mail, mocking the often mystifyingly stupid prose. (“Why do you have to be for abortion to be for women’s rights? How can it be a part of your body if it is a male?”) It was a way to take back power through humor, while revealing just how much hate is still directed at women who speak their mind.
It was also a way to demand accountability in a space that’s often dominated by hate speech made anonymously. If someone was thoughtless enough to message us from a easily-tracked e-mail address, we outed them. One lucky young man who called me a “stupid cunt” turned out to be the public relations officer for his college republican group. Good times ensued.
For Lindy West, staff writer at Jezebel, engaging with hateful detractors is not just important as a way to bring attention to misogyny—“A lot of those attitudes are poisoning our culture, and it’s too easy to write them off as some fringe opinion,” she says—but also because it can be cathartic. Recently, West has been taking on sexists on Twitter over rape jokes and their cultural consequences. “If talking back to some random idiot makes me feel better—if it’s fortifying for my mental health—then I don’t care if I give some dumbass with thirteen followers the flash-in-the-pan attention he’s been craving.”
“I’m in this for the long haul. It’s not a game to me. I’ve been lucky enough in my career to get to the point where I can talk about things and people listen. And now that I’m here I have an obligation to keep going, and, by extension, to do whatever I need to do to keep my brain intact,” she says.
West also mentions that fighting back online often gives other young women the tools they need to respond to misogyny in their own lives: “I like to cherry-pick certain trolls to give other women (and men) templates for how to respond to the typical misogynist arguments.”
Indeed, one of the questions I’m asked most often by younger feminists is how to emotionally and mentally deal with the incredible amount of hate that gets thrown their way. My advice has usually been not to talk to brick walls—to think of their activist energy as a precious resource and save it. But I’ve never fully taken that advice. Responding to—and making fun of—sexists has always been a part of my feminist work. Not just because it shines a light on misogyny or holds people accountable to their words—but because it’s fun.
The truth is—despite stereotypes that paint feminists as forever negative—doing feminist work requires boundless optimism. It means believing that people have the ability to be better, that culture can change, and maybe even that people who hate can learn to love. It’s exhausting. Sometimes reminding ourselves how hilariously stupid the opposition can be is a necessary break from the burden of idealism.
The downside of engaging with sexists is that in an online culture where common knowledge says ignore trolls, speaking out becomes “asking for it.” You don’t get a ton of sympathy for egging on assholes. While ignoring haters can sometimes be the best move, putting the onus on women to stay silent is not. So though I still believe in picking your battles, I’ll continue to get down in the muck with misogynists from time to time—because the low road needs feminism too.
Why is Dartmouth disciplining students protesting rape? Read Jon Wiener’s take.