There’s a scene in Tumbledown, a BBC drama from the 1980′s where a young Colin Firth, playing a soldier fighting in the Falklands War, stumbles in the heat of battle across an Argentinian soldier on the film’s titular mountain. The soldier is young, probably no more than 20, unarmed, scared, dirty and trembling. Firth’s character, adrenalised and battle-crazy, instinctively plunges the bayonet into the soldier. As he does so, the young Argentinian, mortally wounded, looks pleadingly into Firth’s eyes and says in broken English: “Please….please!”. Firth’s character, for the first time, sees his target as a victim, as frail and human as he is, and the image haunts him for the rest of his life.
This kind of hand-to-hand fighting is rare these days. The machinery of modern war removes the aggressor from the aftermath of their actions. Much easier to press a button and launch a missile at a target hundreds of miles away, then plunge sharp metal into someone’s ribs. There’s no messy eye contact, no pleading, no tears, no blood up your shirt. If you can’t see the look on their faces as you destroy them, it’s a lot easier to sleep at night and repeat the procedure the next day.
So it is on the internet.
The threats of rape and violence directed towards Caroline Criado Perez and MP Stella Creasy in the last few days have highlighted the problem of online ‘trolls’: the sad keyboard warriors, usually teenage boys and directionless, unhappy men, who engage in painful, personal abuse for fun.
I’ve encountered many bullies in my time and none of them were what you’d call happy individuals. Bullies usually require one of three things to flourish: status, physical intimidation or the safety of the pack. Social media has done away with those rules. Bullying is now much more egalitarian, a blood sport for all. And it’s SO easy! In the past, writing a poison-pen letter was a real faff. You had to buy stationary, stamps, green biros, find the victim’s address, then sit down and using your left hand to avoid detection by the police, laboriously scrawl out your threats on paper. I mean, who could be bothered?
Today, Facebook and Twitter make it much easier to call a stranger a prick for supporting UKIP or liking Mumford and Sons, than would be possible or advisable in everyday life. Online opinions are more vociferous because consequence is removed. Danny Dyer’s Twitter timeline for example, consists largely of young men calling him a cunt: an action that would surely result in a ‘dry slap’ if attempted face to face. The rough and tumble of Twitter and Facebook is not for the faint hearted: I can attest that being told to kill yourself by a stranger who takes umbrage at a gag, can really put you off your cornflakes. The banter is often caustic, but the price of being involved in social media, is that society, in all it’s guises, may pay you a visit.
And some of these members of society are damaged, unhappy and downright nasty. The kinds of spoddy wanker who in the past would’ve only been a bully’s victim, can now hide behind a Hentai avatar, come up with an appropriately controversial user name (Pussykiller69) hashtag themselves as #RAPECREWZ and send semi-literate threats and abuse to anyone who has the temerity to own a vagina and have an opinion contrary to their own. Of course, real men don’t need to intimidate women. Sad, dick-less, unformed ones, do. The frustration for the victims and the authorities, is that anonymity always gives the aggressor the upper hand. And it should be remembered that anonymity IS powerful, but only really for those who are anonymous in their own lives.
It’d be a deluded soul who would describe as ‘banter’ the levels of sexual abuse directed towards Caroline Criado Perez or Stella Creasy. There are those who say that the victims should ignore or simply block the trolls. There’s an argument for this, of course. There’s nothing a troll craves more than attention. Denied it in his everyday life, a retweet and a reaction is the closest many of these people get to any sense of personal power. But should the emphasis always be on the victim to tolerate such abuse? As Joe Orton said; “The freedom to swing your fist ends where someone’s nose begins”.
The argument that threatening someone with rape is ‘freedom of speech’ misunderstands what the phrase means. It’s like saying that a hit and run driver shouldn’t be prosecuted because stopping for a pedestrian would’ve infringed his right to travel. A ‘report’ button might be a start, but educating a swathe of disappointed, misogynistic males that ‘freedom’ means the freedom for a woman not to be threatened, might go a whole lot further.