Words May Sometimes Harm You

        When we named this civil liberties blog “free for all,” Harvey Silverglate and I signaled not just our intellectual commitment to free speech but our visceral enjoyment of vigorous debate, unbound by popular caveats about offensive speech, which both of us have frequently protested.   I imagine that, like me, Harvey has received his share of hate mail over the years.  So while we have both frequently protested the effort to subordinate free expression to a regime of inoffensiveness, I don’t think either one of us romanticizes what a free for all can entail.  But it's probably worth noting that neither of us came of age in a digital world.
        Salon editor Joan Walsh’s thoughtful and disturbing
post about sexism on the web (sexism of the crude and threatening variety) and other controversies over the viral nature of vicious or libelous internet speech, made me wonder about my own impatience with women who hesitate to enter the fray, or demand that it be governed by some rule of civility  -- depending, of course, on how civility is defined.   If by civility they mean restraints on what now passes for offensiveness – suggestions that women are inferior to men, harsh criticism of a woman’s ideas or expressions, or heated debate about unpleasant or controversial topics – then I’m against it.  But, if by civility they mean an agreement not to voice or publish vicious personal attacks on a woman’s appearance along with implicit or explicit threats of violence, they have my sympathy (which doesn't necessarily include my support.)
        Like Joan Walsh, I am ambivalent even about this expression of concern over the misogynist ravings of a relative few.  I have always cringed at women who cringe in the face of insults and schoolyard taunts. I considered former Harvard President Larry Summers’ famous, thoughtless remarks about women and science much less insulting to women than the reaction of a female scientist who said she had to leave the room after hearing Summers to save herself from blacking out or throwing up.  I have no patience for such feminine fragility, much less for women who flaunt it.
        Over the years I’ve developed a carapace, which I don’t believe has come at a cost; it needs to be hard but only skin deep, and it’s liberating:  The more you can take, the more you feel free to dish out.  I’m quite accustomed to being branded a strident bitch, or worse, when I argue an unpopular point strenuously or criticize sharply without apology.  During my recent battles on the ACLU national board, I was referred to obliquely, but clearly, as a fucked out boozy bitch and told obliquely, but clearly, to fuck off and die. 

        If such misogyny can flourish at the ACLU (where it was even applauded,) it’s no surprise to find more vicious and threatening expressions of it on the web, where it’s cloaked in anonymity.  And if we’re all obliged to tolerate insults and slurs without swooning, none of us should be expected to shrug off or refuse to be silenced by threats.  I can't scoff at the chilling effect of threats, or vicious, sexist personal attacks on the web, all of which which women are apt hear against the backdrop of sexual violence that has placed so many of us on alert since puberty.  That’s no excuse for censorship – just an acknowledgment of what free expression demands and sometimes takes from us.

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