From the Desk of Bailey Poland

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Poland

The following contribution is from Bailey Poland, author of Haters: Harassment, Abuse, and Violence Online (November 2016). Bailey Poland is a writer, feminist, and activist, as well as the creator of the literary journal Leaves and Flowers and is a regular contributor to numerous print and online journals, including Line Zero. She is the editor of Involution: Stories, Poems, and Essays from the First Two Years of “Line Zero”.

One of the key facts any person working against online harassment must get across is that the interactions we’re combating go beyond the level of rudeness—they’re a form of abuse. That’s the message repeated by the Just Not Sports #MoreThanMean campaign, which features a 4-minute video of men reading real comments made to female sports journalists.

The video is uncomfortable to watch. Sarah Spain and Julie DiCaro exhibit impassivity, wry amusement, and distress as the men sitting just a couple of feet away read off a series of comments. The men’s reactions are, if possible, even more intense. The first few comments they laugh about, but as the comments ramp up in misogynist hatred, the men become visibly uncomfortable. A couple of them end up near tears, and struggle to even read the comments aloud, apologizing to Spain and DiCaro once they do so.

After several minutes, the video ends with a call to action: “We wouldn’t say it to their faces. So let’s not type it.” Unlike many videos that only include rapid-fire recitation of the vicious hatred directed at women who dare to have opinions online, the Just Not Sports video directly addresses the people who may be tempted to engage in abusive behaviors. It’s one of the few times I’ve seen a video that confronts the issue so bluntly, and it represents a change I find encouraging.

For the past several years, most videos about the online abuse women face have been solely about getting people to acknowledge that the problem exists in the first place, which has been a steep uphill battle all its own. “Look,” the videos have seemed to say. “Look at what we are dealing with.” After a certain point, however, the awareness has been raised, and such videos end up feeling more like a way to exploit women’s pain for pageviews than a method of solving anything. #MoreThanMean is taking two valuable and necessary next steps—getting men involved, and targeting people making abusive comments as the source of the problem.

Since online harassment and abuse disproportionately affect women, and especially women of color, the issue is often pigeonholed as a gendered problem and none of men’s business. Women deal with it, therefore women are expected to solve it. That mindset, while common, will never lead to resolution, since it treats online abuse as a ubiquitous feature of online life. Online abuse isn’t like the weather, however: harassment is not an inevitable environmental hazard women should just be expected to prepare for. Abusive activities online are something people—disproportionately men—deliberately choose to engage in.

Having women rattle off a list of the worst things men have said to us can only go so far, and often reinforces a sense of helplessness. A response I see all too regularly when discussing online abuse is, “If it’s so common, what can we really do about it?” #MoreThanMean presents a simple, concrete method of dealing with the issue, aimed right at the sports fans from whom abuse comes: stop abusing women online. Take responsibility for the fact that what you say in online spaces is, in this day and age, not any different from saying it to a woman’s face.

Just Not Sports’ video also creates the opportunity for men not just to be empathetic, but to make real change in their communities, to call out abusive behavior when they see it, and to change the direction of online cultures. Recreating the scene of online abuse with real people drives home how shocking, painful, and traumatic it is to be on the receiving end of a total stranger’s vitriol and anger, but it doesn’t stop there. #MoreThanMean reminds viewers that there is a solution to online harassment and abuse, and the solution is us.