Thursday, December 08, 2011

Being horrid to women

I sort of missed the great furore that erupted last month about the rampant misogyny that lurks in the bottom half of the internet. My initial reaction was that this was another illustration of Gabe and Tycho's Greater Internet Fuckwad Theory, that Normal Person + Anonymity + Audience = Total Fuckwad, but on reflection I think it's pretty much uncontroversial to say that female commentators, both the proper grown-ups on the newspapers and the ones down in the blogging playpen like the rest of us, get both a greater degree of vituperation, and a nastier, sexualised variety of it.

So, how guilty of this am I? Well, I don't post threats to dismember or rape people (of either sex) so I think I can be excused of the greater sin here, but what about the lesser? Am I effectively sexist in the way I treat female commentators? It's a slightly tricky one this, because the case for the prosecution is a bit haphazard. Look at Nick Cohen in the Speccie, where he damns young Daniel Knowles of the Telegraph as being, (or at least encouraging others to be) a "hollow-eyed masturbator". This is a touch unfair on Daniel, (whose greatest sin is really that he's increasingly unsound) but Cohen's main point is really this one:

No male writer gets the kind of going overs Polly Toynbee, Laurie Penny and Melanie Phillips receive as a matter of routine.

I don't tend to mention La Phillips on this blog that often (basically because she strikes me more as the sort of person to back away slowly from than the sort to argue with or poke fun at), but I can add two more columnists to this list - Yasmin Alibhai-Brown and Mary Riddell. All of these have at one time or another caught my attention and been subjected to my irrelevant savagings. But does that make me a woman-monsterer? Why concentrate on these women in particular?

Two things: the first is that these women make near-perfect blogging fodder. If you want to write an interesting post about a column (interesting to write that is, I don't flatter myself about them being interesting to read) then it needs to be either a genuinely new and fascinating point of view, or an infuriating and easily rebuttable argument. Lets just say that Toynbee, YA-B and Laurie are pretty reliable at fulfilling one of these requirements.

The second thing is that, as far as I'm concerned anyway, I have two far greater journalistic bug-bears, on whom I've wasted far more time and vitriol than any of the three above could ever aspire to - Simon Heffer and Johann Hari. And the reason is the same - they write things that infuriate me, and that I want to respond to. In that sense, the amount of vituperative reaction that these writers get is almost a good sign (again, obviously this excludes the deranged stuff) - it would be far worse, surely, to drop your words into the ether and receive absolutely no response.

So, let's distinguish between the acceptable and the unacceptable forms of abuse and, while acknowledging that women fall foul of far more than their share of both varieties, at least consider that the former may occasionally be more of a compliment than it might at first appear.

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