Twitter harassment adulterates good faith discussions

Nothing, If Not Critical

Admittedly, I had an interesting summer this year. As soon as last semester ended, The New York Times used my editorial column about trigger warning activism in a feature story about trigger warnings in collegiate education. The BBC and Huffington Post LIVE proceeded to interview me about my work, as dozens of national and international publications introduced me as “the Rutgers student who called for trigger warnings in the Great Gatsby.” 

Being at the center of attention in social activism was entertaining, but tiring. Due to my prominence within the discussion, I faced continuous harassment throughout May and early June. Inflamed right-wingers constantly harassed me, complaining about my upbringing and support of “censorship.” One Redditor privately messaged me, asking me to kindly jump off a bridge (which I politely declined to do). Although I had a positive support network surrounding me, the harassment I experienced was disheartening, to say the least.

Facing scrutiny on an international stage is humbling enough. However, I learned quickly within the last few months that I am no stranger to controversy — in fact, I seem to be oddly attracted to it, like a firefly to a cheap bug zapper. 

In mid August, the online video gaming community combusted under allegations of abuse, nepotism and unethical journalistic standards in independent video gaming. The controversy was kicked off after Eron Gjoni, former boyfriend of independent video game developer Zoe Quinn, released a call-out post identifying Quinn as an abusive girlfriend. Gjoni’s post used Facebook chat logs in order to show that Quinn regularly practiced gas lighting, suicidal threats, guilt tripping, emotional manipulation, inappropriate contact and outright lies in order to control her boyfriend. 

However, Gjoni’s call-out exposed another issue: Quinn’s sexual relations with several prominent colleagues within the video game industry. Any serious concerns with Quinn’s abusive behavior were quickly swept aside, as Quinn’s sexual history became a backdrop for sexual harassment. Misogynistic slurs were slung at Quinn on Twitter, her personal identification information was openly leaked for public access and explicit sexual photos from her former sex work were shared across the Internet for open consumption. 

However, I quickly found myself disillusioned with my fellow social justice activists. When a call-out for Quinn’s PR rep, Maya Felix Kramer, identified Kramer as an abuser and confessed misogynist, many activists refused to take Kramer’s abuse seriously. Likewise, when video game developer Wolf Wozniak admitted that Quinn had sexually harassed him at a wedding, several prominent video game developers harassed Wozniak: calling him “slime” and “a disgrace” for outing his harasser. 

Although I despised the sexual harassment that Quinn was facing, I felt that Gjoni was right in calling out his abusive girlfriend. 

Yet, many of my former trigger warning allies disagreed with my support for Gjoni, and many were quick to harass me for my beliefs. My credentials as an activist were questioned. I was misgendered by a prominent Twitter feminist and publicly called out in highly confrontational ways. I was accused of being a “gatekeeper” for claiming that abusers should have no place in intersectional feminism. And several of my friends and comrades faced death threats for simply voicing their opinion on the matter.

As a non-binary intersectional feminist, I despise sexual harassment. Quinn may be an abuser, but she does not deserve to be harassed and humiliated by the Internet. 

However, I’ve been left to conclude that social justice communities also sanitize harassment. In progressivism, toxic behavior — from physical insults to death threats — remains highly common, and creates a tense, unsafe environment for good faith discourse. Strained tempers lead to strong words, and strong words leave others feeling vulnerable, attacked and personally targeted — demolishing the ability to create a “safe space” and instead encouraging harassment toward vulnerable identities disagreeing with the flock at large.

Part of becoming a mature adult is understanding that every individual is capable of unhealthy behavior. We all make mistakes. However, harassment remains a common tool toward silencing others on the Internet. Harassment can come from any individual and works to make its victim feel violated or unsafe through invasive behavior. Whether sexual harassment or otherwise, harassment commonly appears across communities, and social justice is certainly no outlier in this regard. Indeed, we must hold our social justice communities to a higher standard. We must identify harassment for what it is: a form of abuse.

Of course, there is a major difference between sexual harassment, which is in communication with misogynistic systems of oppression, and personal, apolitical harassment. Harassment is nuanced. However, we must start by acknowledging that harassment, in any form, is abusive toward others. Sexual harassment is bad. Harassment against others is bad. This is not a binary: Any form of abuse is inherently unacceptable for a good faith discussion. 

Abuse and harassment is a serious concern among communities, and any individual is capable of perpetuating harassment. In social justice, we must take initiatives to make this concern clear. Abuse can never be accepted, regardless of who is perpetuating it. Only when we identify harassment as inherently problematic can we begin to end its toxic hold on Internet discussions.

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