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What to Do When Anonymous Trolls Throw You Hate? Heed Leslie Jones

Like the Ghostbusters star, I too received sexist, racist screeds as a female newspaper manager.

Jody Paterson 20 Jul

Jody Paterson is a B.C. writer, editor and communications strategist who wrote a newspaper column for the Victoria Times Colonist from 1996-2011 and now blogs regularly about whatever strikes her fancy.

Poor Leslie Jones. The U.S. comedian and star of the new Ghostbusters movie has had to endure a deluge of racist, hateful tweets since the movie opened, to the point that she almost considered closing her Twitter account just to get away from it.

But joy of joys, instead she decided to retweet all of that ugly stuff – so that the world could see the idiot vitriol coming her way for having the audacity to be black, female and up on the big screen in a movie in which men were not the focal point.

I had my own small version of the Leslie Jones experience back in 1996-97, when I was the first female managing editor at the Victoria Times Colonist and had offered to write a column a week for the editorial page to help generate more local content (and add a female voice to an almost exclusively male-dominated space).

The reaction to my weekly columns caught me completely unaware. Nobody had raised an eyebrow at me being a female reporter, but a female manager with something to say seemed to shake at least a few Victorians right down to their conservative core.

It was a delayed reaction back in those days, mind you – people tended to write ugly little unsigned letters rather than emails or tweets when they were all hopped up about something, which then had to be sent via the post office unless the hater was bold enough to drop the note off at the front desk. But trust me, reading a stack of screeds about how unattractive and stupid you are is equally unpleasant, whether you receive it within minutes of publishing your thoughts or a couple of days later.

Haters and idiots come in both genders. To reduce this issue to men silencing women is not only an over-simplification, but would let women off the hook for their own mean-spirited ways of shutting down and shaking the confidence of voices that feel threatening to them.

But having said that, my own experience was that most of my haters were men. And it was like they’d all taken some secret course on how to tailor their insults just right to hit me where they’d hurt. Rather than tackle me intellectually on the arguments I had made, they presented as a crowd of jeering playground bullies humiliating me for my physical appearance.

My hair was a particular target, as for some reason it just outraged these little idiots with its unkemptness and ever-changing style/colour. (My photo was included with every column I wrote.) But sometimes they insulted me for whatever race they thought I was – which was never the right one – or for my body type, my clothes, my supposed naiveté. I quickly saw they had no intention of smartly refuting whatever I had written about, they just wanted to shut me down with personal taunts.

‘You write as badly as you look’

Anyone who’s out there with strong opinions probably has similar tales to tell. More and more newspapers are shutting down their comments sections now due to all the hideous trolls filling them up with useless, mean and stupid tripe. The problem of public voices being taunted by ugly little people who contribute nothing has only worsened with technological advance.

But I think there might be a special level of vitriol reserved for strong female voices. And I suspect that the nature of the insults is much more personal when aimed at women, as if nasty trolls have special knowledge that even smart, well-educated and powerful women still have insecurity about how they look to the world.

“The people leaving the nastiest messages on my voice mail will say as a last parting shot, ‘You’re as ugly as your picture,’ or ‘You write as badly as you look,’” Postmedia columnist Christie Blatchford told me in 1997 when I started calling around to other women writers to find out if they were having similar experiences. (Here’s the column that came out of those conversations.)

“When people really want to insult me, they come down on my looks,” Blatchford added. “I must say, I find those comments more wounding. I don’t know a woman in the world who is at peace with her body or her looks, and I think most men know that.”

What to do about it? Well, I wish I could tell you that 20 years on, we’re just so much nicer and more respectful as a society that it never happens anymore. But it does, aided ever so much by the sheer number of options now available for shouting someone down across a multitude of platforms.

I wish I could believe that the fix was more human-rights legislation, or gender-equality education. Or another government commission. More study. Unfriending. A revised school curriculum. Less television. A new handbook for parents on helping their children avoid growing up to be cowardly idiot twerps. Vigorous policing of comments. Anti-hate laws, fewer cellphones, better knowledge transfer. Whatever.

But as painful as this revelation will be for she who must endure these ugly shout-downs, the only approach I can stand behind so far is to just to try to tough it out. Take it, and throw it right back at ‘em. Make it look like water off a duck’s back, and never mind that it feels more like acid rain melting your feathers.

Stupid trolls relish any sign that their missives have hurt you, which makes it vital that you look impervious, at least in public, while meanwhile seizing any opportunity to hold the trolls’ ugliness up to the light of public scrutiny and ridicule. Leslie Jones’s reaction was perfect.

So when anonymous gollums are saying mean and horrible things to you that have nothing to do with the arguments you are making, take it as a sign that you are rocking their world way past their comfort level. Celebrate. Revel in the idiot comments of the creepazoids, because it means you’re saying something that matters.  [Tyee]

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