The Washington Post recently published an article by Michelle Goldberg about the “psychic costs” that come with being a woman who writes about feminism online. The women who were interviewed described the persistent retaliations from men as ranging from insults to threats of sexual violence and death. This has led to some women wishing they had remained anonymous or even retiring from online activist work. In this short article I would like to pose how or whether technological progress follows what we may call “moral progress.”
We live in peculiar times when it comes to activist work. At no point in time has it seemed easier to learn about the struggles of others, forge coalitions, or enter the so-called “marketplace of ideas.” With the advent of the Internet as it is now it would appear that traditionally marginalized populations have never had greater access to technologies that allow them to make their voices and particular experiences heard. No longer can those in positions of power assume that all women experience the world in the same way and neither can we ignore the everyday harms of sexism. It would seem that we have never been better positioned to change our behaviors and our (imagined) antiquated thinking of those who came before us, those who “grew up in a different time.” Knowledge and education have never been more available.
But we live in peculiar times. With every seemingly apparent movement forward there is a backlash—a fact that, historically speaking, is nothing new (the end of slavery and Reconstruction was met with Jim Crow). But there is something new—or something very old—in our times. The men who threaten and intimidate writers online are able to do so from the cover of anonymity while the writer’s name (and sometimes address) is visible and knowable. Goldberg writes, “…what’s different now is the existence of organized misogyny, with groups of men who are angry at feminism gathering under banners such as the Men’s Rights Movement and Gamergate, a diffuse network of video-game enthusiasts furious at attempts to curb sexism in the industry…‘There is this cadre of incredibly enraged men who have found each other.’” But what I want to argue is the technical progress of the Internet has allowed certain repressive strategies against progress to be redeployed. We should not forget that during the Civil Rights Movement the difference in power was often proportional to one’s visibility. Those who attempted to register to vote could have their names and addresses published in the local paper which would allow those threatened by progress to know whom to target. What do we make of these same strategies still being used today and accomplished through the Internet? A tool that seemed to hold so much promise for spurring on the expansion of rights and equality?
Michelle Goldberg’s article is a sobering reminder that the progress of technology can allow for the continuation of repressive practices that we had hoped had been left behind. But there is a deeper question that we must ask: since we now live in the so-called “Information Age” we can no longer plausibly claim that these men act out of ignorance, that they lack the required access to knowledge that would be able to change their behavior, so how is progress, true progress, won?