Aphrodite Refused

“I would calmly ask, is it reasonable that a candidate for immortality, for the joys of heaven, an intelligent being, who is to spend an eternity in contemplating the works of Deity, should at present be so degraded,” wrote Judith Sargent Murray in her landmark 1790 essay On the Equality of the Sexes.

Judith Sargent Murray, as painted by John Singleton Copley
Portrait of Mrs. Judith Sargent Murray. Portrait by John Singleton Copley, Terra Foundation for American Art, Daniel J. Terra Collection.

One might also calmly ask to what extent our digital culture has become reliant upon a landscape of degradation, albeit one in which immortality is defined as the distance between an immediate impression and a regrettable decision. For women who deign to utilize the Internet as a social tool, that threshold has long been surpassed.

Such was the experience of Kristen Parisi, an unmarried, socially active woman who happens to have a disability. She joined Tinder with much the same expectations as any other user: a low-commitment method of exploring potential dating partners, quickly, without making a significant emotional investment. Ms. Parisi consciously chose to conceal her wheelchair in her profile photos, mostly to protect herself from hurtful comments made by users with whom she had no intention of connecting.

Since Ms. Parisi understood that she would not be able to keep her wheelchair a secret indefinitely to potential suitors, she typically disclosed her disability sometime within the first few minutes of messaging. What she did not anticipate was how quickly the perception of her would change upon discovery:

Even if I had great messaging chemistry with a guy, I would instantly go from being the “sexy redhead” he’s planning to go out with to the “girl in a wheelchair” — and that chair would define me … One guy I told responded, “So why are you on here? Shouldn’t you be dating someone in a wheelchair?” The men on Tinder apparently thought this was an okay thing to say to a woman.

Although the comments Ms. Parisi received only worsened over time (one user responded with an insensitive remark about her imagined sexual habits; another simply called her “gross” and deleted her profile from his list of matches), this story has a relatively happy ending. Eventually, Ms. Parisi pursued a short-term dating relationship and reaffirmed her faith in the male species.

Venu de MiloWhat is of interest here, though, is the steep slide into self-doubt that results from a handful of unfortunate encounters. Ms. Parisi acknowledges the blow she took to her self-esteem, to the point where she questioned whether her disability should disqualify her from the joys of modern sexuality to which she is rightfully entitled.

It’s not only the digital realm where this unhealthy form of self-reflection occurs; according to a study conducted at the University of Chicago, it’s actually a part of our psychological makeup. Researchers at the University’s Center for Cognitive and Social Neuroscience found that the lonelier we become, the more our attention is drawn toward negative social information. As a result, lonely people tend to be hypersenstive to threatening behavior—a scientific tidbit that explains but does not excuse perpetrators of abuse upon those they target.

Clementine Ford
Clementine Ford, Australian writer who fought back against a man who called her a “slut” on her public Facebook page.

Some of those targets are fighting back. Australian writer Clementine Ford discovered that vigilance comes with a price, even if the outcome is conducted in the spirit of support. When a male commenter called Ms. Ford a “slut” on her public Facebook, she openly wondered what the gentleman’s employers would think of his behavior. After being alerted, the company (a hotel chain called Meriton Apartments) promptly fired the commenter and offered Ms. Ford a public apology.

This should have been the end of it, but the tsunami of vitriol that followed led some to accuse Ms. Ford of overreacting to “mean words on the Internet” and “trawling the Internet looking to be offended.” The reaction was severe enough that Ms. Ford felt compelled to explain what freedom of speech really means in terms of personal responsibility, especially within a digital landscape where it’s not always possible to identify one’s attackers:

[Freedom of speech] is not the glorious, consequence-free paradise they imagine in which they get to say whatever they like to whomever they like while enjoying the luxury of that person silently taking it with no pushback. For too long, speech on the internet has been consequence free. It has mainly served to support abusive trolls who, despite the frequency with which they appear to be pictured with families, seem to have nothing better to do than stalk women online to try and scare them into shutting up.

Despite the tendency to attribute these case studies as simply two more examples of why the Internet hates women, the reality is that de-identifying behavior regarding female roles in society has manifested since the inception of modern civilization. Whether worshipped spiritually as divine bringers of life or castigated as second-class citizens, women have traditionally been co-opted to an idealized, largely masculine-influenced archetype of domination, exultation and (ultimately) control.

Lizzie Velasquez as a child
Lizzie Velasquez as a child. “Why would her parents keep her?!” read one of the comments on a YouTube video about her; “kill it with fire” said another. One commenter said people would go blind if they saw her on the street.

Humankind has always had an uneasy relationship with customs of etiquette, especially with regard to women’s place in the ecosystem. What makes Internet unique is how rapidly this decoupling takes place. We see it today in the form of cyberbullying against a woman with Marfan syndrom and a professional violinist who posts messages she receives from anonymous fetishists on Instagram. Perhaps the most appropriate response, such as in the case of Ms. Ford, is to simply fight fire with fire and accept that someone, somewhere is going to bring a bigger torch.

Or maybe, to again quote Judith Sargent Murray, it’s best to just hide away from it all. Once wonders if Ms. Murray were alive to see what today’s Internet subculture has wrought from “the low manners of an injurious multitude,” as she wrote in 1793, she might be compelled to further revisit a desire to “shield [her]self in the fair asylum of conscious innocence” in order to escape it. And who could blame her?

Murder in Soft Words

Participating in a spelling bee is an academic rite of passage that just about every child undergoes at some point. Those who are able to master the gentle art of spelling such words as necessary, occasion and hemorrhoid have the opportunity to advance their skills against more rigorous competition.

Children compete in the Scripps National Spelling Bee at National Harbor, Maryland, on Wednesday. Top left: Sophia Han of Tiajian, China. Top right: Marcus Behling of Chandler, Arizona. Bottom left: Sean Fogerty of Misawa, Aomori Prefecture. Bottom right: Olivia Hajicek of Goshen, Indiana. | REUTERS
Children compete in the Scripps National Spelling Bee at National Harbor, Maryland, on Wednesday. Top left: Sophia Han of Tiajian, China. Top right: Marcus Behling of Chandler, Arizona. Bottom left: Sean Fogerty of Misawa, Aomori Prefecture. Bottom right: Olivia Hajicek of Goshen, Indiana. Reuters photo for The Japan Times.

The Scripps National Spelling Bee Championship took place last week at National Harbor, MD just outside of Washington DC. For 11 of the past 15 years, the $30,000 prize has been won by American youngsters of Indian heritage, who make up one out of five competitors from all 50 states.

In 2014, the Spelling Bee ended in a tie between Sriran Hathwar of upstate New York and Ansun Sujoe, who lives in Texas. Hathwar correctly spelled stichomythia, while Sujoe’s word was feuilleton. Stichomythia is a form of dramatic dialog in Greek theatre, characterized by brief exchanges during a scene of strong emotional intensity. A feuilleton is the part of a European newspaper containing material intended to entertain the general reader. In the US, we might refer to a feuilleton as a “fluff piece.”

The term online troll once referred to users who disrupted Internet chat rooms, often with the deliberate intent of provoking an emotional response. An example might be someone who makes an inflammatory comment about religion or politics, solely to minimize another person’s viewpoint and garner a reaction.

More recently, trolling has been closely associated with other aspects of online harassment, such as cyberbullying and public shaming. A troll might deface an online tribute site commemorating a loved one who passed away, for example, with no purpose other than to cause unnecessary stress to the grieving families. Or in the case of trolls’ response to last week’s National Spelling Bee, it’s to spread xenophobic commentary about the ethnic backgrounds of a group of kids aged 9 to 15:

“One year I wish an American kid could win.”

“Not to be offensive .. but how do kids from India dominate the American spelling bee?!?”

“The kids in the spelling bee should only be AMERICAN.”

Perhaps the most volatile example of troll behavior is in the social crucible of online dating, where women risk inadvertently provoking dismissive and hostile remarks made by rejected males. Except in many cases, the behavior instigating the trolling might be something as innocuous as failing to respond to a text message. Alexandra Tweten created an Instagram account called Bye Felipe to catalog the creepy (and often scary) results that happen when women deign to say “no thanks” to a male suitor.

screenshot of online chat where male calls female a bitch for telling him she's not interested in dating

screenshot of online chat where female says "no means no," and male responds with "to me, no means yes"

screenshot of online chat where male calls female a "stuck up cunt" and advises her to "learn to take a compliment" before recommending she kill herself

It’s not difficult to detect the social influences that compel this sort of behavior. The relative anonymity of online postings often precipitate an increased disinhibition among Internet users. Tom Postmes, professor of organizational psychology and author of the book Individuality and the Group, suggests that trolls are inspired by “the level of trouble they can cause in an environment. They want to promote antipathetic emotions of disgust and outrage, which morbidly gives them a sense of pleasure.”

However, this doesn’t completely explain the level of psychopathic narcissism exhibited in the Bye Felipe examples above. While most forms of trolling can be categorized within an uneasy miasma where free speech and personal accountability overlap, there is something more darkly sadistic in telling someone to commit suicide because she won’t respond to puerile vulgarity. The Machiavellianism at display here is arguably more alarming, implying that the perpetrators might actually feel entitled to the motives behind their actions. The more beautiful and self-assured their target, the more deserving it is of corruption.

Whenever Orson Welles was interviewed about his epic radio broadcast War of the Worlds, he often dismissed suggestions that perhaps he should have toned down his approach in order to spare the widespread panic that ensued: “No, you don’t play murder in soft words.”

In some ways, trolling is really about the power of language. It’s an experiment to verify the schoolyard comparison between “sticks & stones” and “names that never hurt.” It’s a game of identity deception played without the consent of its players, a public exhibition of antisocial tendencies, a form of bullying in which the villains never actually show up to demand their lunch money.

Rex Morgan MD comic on Facebook trolls

Researchers who study the effects of video games often cite the interdependence of experience, in which feelings of arousal can apply beyond a single activity. Playing a game transfers excitement from the digital space to real life, though not always consciously, which generates a level of emotional coactivation. Learned concepts are retained more effectively into the part of the brain known as the effective domain, where long-term memory takes place, and the body produces endorphins accordingly. It is here where we form the basis of our activities involving judgment, consequences, actions and ethics.

It could be that there is a cognitive bias taking place in the minds of today’s trolls. In order to accentuate a moment in their lives in which they derived pleasure, it’s necessary for them to recreate the circumstances in which that moment took place. During childhood, we’re taught that kids pick on other kids in order to bolster their sense of self-worth. We’re expected to mature past that point, ideally, but evidence demonstrates the assumptive path to enlightenment is turbulent at best.

What we do know is that there is an inherent unity to the online body, comprised of many “selves” in which the depiction of information is a commodity. We set standards for what we deem to be acceptable, then adjust our level of resentment or appreciate accordingly. It could be that trolls simply have no filters that prevent unwanted behaviors from intensifying, their physical relevance marked solely by how effectively they’re able to denigrate those who fall below their standards.

 

I Sing the Body Electric

The first recorded instance of body-shaming in modern culture took place in 1863. That’s the year when Édouard Manet’s Déjeuner sur l’herbe (Luncheon on the Grass) made its exhibition debut in the Salon des Refusés, shortly after being rejected for inclusion to the Salon. In the painting, we see a nude woman relaxing between two respectably dressed men in a pastoral setting. When writing about the painting, art critic Jules-Antoine Castagnary used the word “flabby” to describe it. But there is more to the story than a woman’s physique.

Manet's Lunceon on the Grass

The painting generated controversy for reasons other than the stark nudity of the woman in contrast to the male figures. At the time, rampant prostitution in Paris was considered too inappropriate for even casual conversation, let alone to be displayed on an oversized canvas. Viewers expected the presence of a nude woman among clothed men to hold a certain mythological or allegorical significance, neither of which Manet chose to reference in his work.

It was not the nude that most infuriated audiences, however, but rather what appeared to be a lack of technique on the part of the artist. Manet painted his characters in such a way that they didn’t seem to fit inside the composition, his landscape portrayed as a sloppy sketch of monochromatic brushstrokes. The artist’s deliberate exclusion of depth, subtlety and perspective infuriated critics who chided him for seeing the world in high-contrast swatches. Manet’s vision of the world (and the female form it contained) did not align with that of his audience.

proportions of the female formDéjeuner sur l’herbe is today considered a primary departure point in modern culture, gaining significance as one of the watershed moments in art history. Body-shaming endures as well, serving as a form of conjunctive imperialism among those who have very specific expectations of what the female form should represent.

Examples of celebrity body-shaming are rampant in social media. When Selena Gomez posted an image of herself on a Mexico beach, it didn’t take long for the trolls in Twitter, Reddit and Instagram to pile on with comments about her weight. Almost instantly, Gomez joined Demi Lovato, PinkKelly Clarkson and other female celebrities who dared to leave themselves publicly exposed to a jury of online executioners and self-assumed fitness experts. Gomez addressed her critics with a suitably appropriate response:

Selena Gomez self-portrait announcing that she is comfortable in her own body

Mary Poovey book coverBody-shaming isn’t limited to comments about a woman’s dress size. The message being imparted to females is clear and direct: don’t gain weight, don’t get old, don’t wear shabby clothes, don’t cut your hair, and don’t own your sexuality. In general: don’t put forward an image unless it’s been sanctioned by a societal norm. Our expectations of how women are supposed to present themselves are calibrated, at least to some degree, by centuries of misogynist behavior. This is a theme with many cultural precedents. Consider this essay on Charles Dickens’ classic David Copperfield by historian Mary Poovey, which describes how the relationship between the titular character and his mother influences his actions:

“The ideal that David will strive to re-create throughout the novel is the discrepancy between what Clara seems to offer and what she indirectly causes … the gap within himself between the infatuations he suffers and the perfect love he imagines [is] the symbolic reworking necessary to transform woman into the idealized mother. If his mother is not the ideal, then she must be transformed into this figure.”

Rachel BrykFemale celebrities are not the only targets of body-shaming. It could be argued that the transgender community is particularly vulnerable to online trolling, since the affected victims are people who have made the conscious (and often difficult) choice to alter their self-image on a very public stage. Rachel Bryk posted her last words in a posthumous Twitter message last week, after the transgender 23-year-old’s suicidal jump off the George Washington Bridge: “Guess I am dead. Killed myself. Sorry.” Bryk had previously complained about the “constant transphobia” she experienced online. Of note were the anonymous trolls who goaded Bryk to kill herself at a time when the pain she suffered from rheumatoid arthritis and fibromyalgia was unendurable.

The Latin phrase “Mulier est hominis confusio” means “Woman is the confusion of man.” The theological context for this quote was to question whether a woman had a soul, from the Biblical concept of original sin to Helen’s role in the Trojan War. It could also be interpreted, however, as the challenge of ingenuity that men have always held regarding their female cohabitants. The unstated rule is that so-called “feminine” traits, especially those that can be detected by sight, must be accompanied by “feminine” behaviors. In the minds of body-shamers, any deviation risks upsetting the balance of power upon which rests their formulaic assumptions regarding gender roles.

Or maybe it’s not that complicated. Kellie Maloney, a boxing promoter who previously lived as a man, suggests that perpetrators of online abuse have something more on their minds than what a woman is supposed to look like:

“You’re always going to get the keyboard warriors and the guys who want to make a name for themselves. I’ve had some messages like ‘You’re always going to be a man, just because you’ve had your genitals cut off doesn’t make you a woman’. I just laughed, even when it got really abusive and personal. I would think if people want to say these things they are hiding secrets of their own. “

The Words Bounce Back

If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you tickle us, do we not laugh? If you poison us, do we not die?

Portrait of William ShakespeareWilliam Shakespeare’s famous lines from The Merchant of Venice are a reminder that our emotional response to trauma is a natural part of being human. Our nervous systems use feelings of regret and despair as learning signals, helping the prefrontal cortex of our brains frame the best solutions to problems from multiple options.

We like to think in terms of everyone following a moral compass: the inherent understanding that the world around us operates according to a general sense of fairness and doing what is right. As a result, we delicately balance our levels of trust according to the social situation before us. A conversation we have with a longtime friend will have a different weighting than one with our employer, for example, and we expect a certain degree of reciprocity in return.

Rollo MayThe problem is that compasses break. In his book Man’s Search for Himself, Rollo May wrote that “the person who feels weak becomes a bully, the inferior person the braggart; a flexing of muscles [and] cockiness are the symptoms of covert anxiety.” We can take this a step further by stating that bullying is a compensatory exercise, often committed in isolation from the accepted standards of right and wrong in which we believe to reside.

Cyberbullies operate in a sort of anonymous netherworld, whereby they feel unaccountable for the consequence of their actions. Perpetrators of online harassment see themselves from a distance, almost as benign observers psychologically shrouding themselves from personal repercussion: I’m just someone on a computer. Usually, the only way to bring any sense of fairness to the cyberbullying equation is to expose instigators on a public or legal platform.

The good news is that victims of cyberbullying are taking strong steps to reclaim their lost dignity in the digital ecosystem. Consider the case of Cassey Ho, a physical trainer who this week released a video in which she edits her body according to nasty recommendations she received online about her physique:

Or this revealing segment produced by the Canadian Safe Schools Network, showing students reading messages criticizing their weight, appearance, ethnic background and more:

The Canadian example above is indicative of the creative ways in which schools are removing the veneer around cyberbullying. In North Sydney, Australia, a group of touring high school students performed a musical called Connected, which has already been staged at ten schools across New South Wales. Lana Nesnas, a vocal coach and director of the program, reinforced Rollo May’s assertion that insecurity is the root cause of all forms of harassment:

“A cyberbully will pick on everything you don’t like about yourself. They are cowards who think they are anonymous and won’t be held accountable, and while you stay afraid in your room and don’t tell anyone, the bully has the power. You can tell the students that have been dealing with it by the way they react to the show.”

Lana Nesnas, one of the team behind Connected, a high school musical based on the topic of cyberbullying. Picture: Elenor Tedenborg of the Daily Telegraph
Lana Nesnas, one of the team behind Connected, a high school musical based on the topic of cyberbullying. Picture: Elenor Tedenborg of the Daily Telegraph.

Of course, there are more traditional methods of dealing with cyberbullies: lock them up. This week, Robert Campbell received a six-year prison sentence for creating fake social media profiles of people he believed had slighted him in the past. Campbell also sent emails of a crude sexual nature to his victims, sometimes twisting personal details of their lives to portray them as racist. “He studied his victims to find their vulnerabilities,” said Judge Ann Alder during sentencing. “He made it very personal and very real.”

Lest we applaud the use of revenge to get back at cyberbullies, we should remind ourselves that personal vengeance is often the inspiration that drive this behavior from the start. “Revenge porn” cyberbully Kevin Bollaert was sentenced to 18 years in prison for running a website featuring explicit photographs of his victims, which he removed only after extorting money from their accounts. Bollaert’s primary targets were ex-lovers who had rejected him; the website was his way of getting back at them. As with all matters related to the heart, there is a deliciously Shakespearean theme to be unearthed:

But love is blind, and lovers cannot see
The pretty follies that themselves commit.