Musings arguments and gig reports from your favourite Goth lesbian transsexual vegan recovering alcoholic and drug addict sceptic rationalist atheist comedian chameleon and caricature.

Monday 5 August 2013

You can't silence the voice of the voiceless.

Interesting times people, that 20th century American faux-Chinese curse "May you live in interesting times" continues.  Maybe it's because I'm a massive twat who doesn't know when to keep their trap shut, or maybe stuff just seems to happen when I'm around.  I don't know.

I am writing this on my partner's weird Swedish keyboard, so if there's an occasional "ö", "ä" or "å"  that is the reason.

In recent weeks there's been a lot of talk about trolls and internet abuse.  People sending rape threats and threats of violence to women who dare to speak out.  Before we go any further I will categorically state a very contentious opinion here, I think it's a bad thing to do.  You should never threaten anyone.  When you are threatened you should go to the police.  Mostly when I've been threatened this is what I have done.

I've had a number of rape threats online.  But this isn't just an online problem, I've had rape threats in the street and on stage, one lovely human being on a Chris Morris forum when I spoke about having been threatened with being raped on stage suggested [misgendering is the writer's own] "I wish s/he would get raped then maybe that would shut s/him up about it"

Clearly they don't know me very well as I'd not shut up about it, I'd probably end up doing an ill advised Edinburgh fringe show which I'd get 2 stars from The List and be told that I was being "Mawkish to the point of absurdity"  But this is how these things go.

It's part of a culture where women are seen as objects, if like me you're a lesbian, mostly heterosexual society defines you in relationship to them, that you're "a waste"  or, as I've heard over and over and over again from men who seem to labour under the delusion that if I were to meet the right man I would change my mind.  Maybe I will meet the right man, preferably one with a vagina though, really not all that fond of penises in general.  Being trans my body is seen as other people's property too, I'm asked regularly very personal questions that most people would never dream of asking a cisgendered (That is, not trans) person.

Sometimes these things threaten the worldview of people so much they feel the need to have a word with me, like the people who come up to me after a gig sometimes when 90% of the audience loved it to tell me that I'm really not funny and should quit stand-up comedy.

I'm a member of a minority, within a minority within the most oppressed majority in the world.  I am aware that being white, and British really does help, but you know being a trans, lesbian recovering addict who's in a relationship with an unemployed immigrant relying on the NHS does put me high on the list of "Most evil things likely to destroy Britain" according to the Daily Mail.  But being trans in 2013 is like being gay in 1970 (which is better than when I first came out when it was more like being gay in the 40's.)

As a result the standard media narrative is that I am a stereotype, I am a bloke in a dress and a wig and that I've made a decision to become a woman in order to trick normal good honest people into sleeping with me and making them secretly gay.  Everything in my life is read in relation to this one aspect of who I am, and I am expected to have been shunned by my family and society and live a twilight existence where I should be massively grateful that someone, anyone could love me at all (and if they do it's most likely because they're a fetishist who's turned on by my state)

We don't get to be represented as we are in the media unless we fit into these narrow boundaries.

Over the last 13 years things have got better and better and in the last 5 years since I've been on twitter they have improved massively because it has finally given us a voice.  It has allowed us to talk to each other and get involved and to overcome some of the societally induced shame that we have had to experience up until now.

We too get abuse, sometimes from right wingers and fundamentallists who think that we're sick individuals pretending to be something that we're not, and sometimes from left wingers and fundamentalist feminists who think that we're sick individuals pretending to be something that we're not.  And most of the rest of it comes from people who think that it's funny when they think they look bad to say "I look like a tranny!"

Like all the groups of women who stand up and put our heads above the parapet we get shot at.

As a comic when I started off my set was littered with really offensive, and not very funny jokes about rape, aids, and homophobic stuff that I wince to think about now.  I have an mp3 of my first gig in a comedy club that I am horrified to listen back to.  For about 3 years I worked under the misapprehention that I should be as offensive as possible and if the audience didn't get it that was their fault.  Then something changed and I totally did a 180.  I decided that I should stop it, it wasn't clever, it wasn't edgy it was childish and boring and it didn't make me happy.  I needed to make sure that there were no targets in my set unless they were deserving.  No sexism, no ablist or classist language, that the only people who could take offence at my stuff should be bigots or prudes.

I try to stick by this rule to this day in all my affairs.  One of my favourite moments in comedy was seeing a very good comic who is a really good friend using the word "spastic" on stage in the pejorative, after the gig a woman with cerebal palsy found him and spoke to him about what that word ment, how it made her feel and why he should maybe think hard about whether he should use it.  It was wonderful to see that, and to see that comic's reaction to that and his heartfelt apology.

It's one of the great things about twitter that it gives a voice to the voiceless, through it I've made some great friends all over the world from Singapore to Mexico, people with severe disabilities, people with none, rich, poor, from all ethnic and religious backgrounds (Though mainly left wing) and so many of them, like me take great comfort in being able to communicate using it and not feeling alone.

People, committing crimes and threatening people ruin it.  They do, there's no way round it they really do.  And they need to be dealt with, the police need to take it seriously and twitter needs to hand over the ip addresses of offenders to the police (Obviously this will make people start using tor and other VPNs if they wish to give out threats of this kind)  This, to my mind is much better than adding an abuse button, which will in itself be abused.  What happens when a woman says something that the guys who orchestrated the recent threats disagree with?  She'll get blocked.  Or what happens the next time I say somthing that fundamentalist feminists disagree with?  will I get blocked?

No, I believe it's better to petition the police in large enough numbers to get them to take this seriously.

They didn't about 5 years ago when I'd upset a London based promoter, who said on an online forum "The next time I see you I'm going to beat you up and knock you out safe in the knowledge that you're really a man."  There was a definite chance I'd bump into this guy and I was afraid for my personal safety, but the police looked at it and said it sounded a bit like banter and they didn't want to get involved.

So yesterday Twitter Silence was held.  Spearheaded by Caitlin Moran.  The idea was to boycott twitter for 24 hours, something that she'd said in a times article was to show them what it would be like if it were left to the trolls.  Having seen a number of friends have run ins with her before after she'd said something offensive and then called her on it she'd blocked them I initially found the whole thing to seem to be some sort of ego boost for her.

Also the fact that doing the twitter silence was basically giving the abusers the outcome they wanted, at least for a day, made it seem to me, as I commented in the early hours of Sunday morning "Like having a pie eating contest for diabetes"  or "Showing the IRA the UK's not to be trifled with by giving them Northern Ireland back to The Republic of Ireland."

It seemed silly, considering that from what I'd been told she'd said about it being "leaviing twitter to the trolls" it appeared she'd condemned everyone who wasn't joining in.  It felt a lot like going "Well I think this and if you don't agree you're obviously a paedophile."  Suddenly the onus is on you to prove you're not no matter how silly the charge levelled against you is.

So I found the whole idea of being silent for 24 hours to show "them" daft, and ill thought through, from people who have a constant platform to share their views.  It was around then that I saw someone had done an audit of her offensive tweets.  I remembered a couple of friends calling her on her use of the word "tranny" and her not apologising and blocking them,  that was the point that I blocked her from my timeline.  But these tweets were showing up, and being the sort of person who gets angry when people are being bigoted I quickly collected them into a storify and tweeted them.  Suddenly it went viral.  I genuinely never expected that to happen.  Within a couple of hours I had a few hundred new twitter followers.

It all still felt stupid, I'd made a few jokes at her expense about her final tweet being the last noise she'd make before disappearing up her own arse for 24 hours,  I was angry about what I'd read, and as far as I was aware she'd never apologised for her language, and use of terms like spazz, mong, tranny and using lesbian in the pejorative.

I found that for her to have spearheaded this particular campaign in light of what she'd said just confirmed my strongly held prejudice that this was all a backslapping exercise by a group of trendy London columnists.

Then there was the backlash, a Times writer went all "Leave Brittney alone!" about her telling me there are worse people to have a go at.  I tried to explain how I have a go at them on other occasions and that I was highlighing the hypocrisy of what she'd done in promoting herself as "one of the nice people"  I got told I was gibbering and then got blocked.  My anxiety levels rose and I got a nose bleed, later some people came in with "is that the best you've got?" spoiling for a fight that I was going to have no part in.

By the time Doctor Who Live was on I had moved on from what had been a weird and fun distraction.  It seemed that the majority of people who were online yesterday felt the same as I did and there was a mellower atmosphere.  After midnight the few who I follow who'd done the silence started coming back on and it was business as usual.

The thing was, obviously it wasn't over.  With the people who were most likely to be offended by yesterday's goings on only just back online today was going to be a different story.

It was lunch time when the comedian Ellis James tweeted me a link to what Caitlin Moran had written about my storify page.  I read it hurriedly anxious and expecting to take offense, which I did, obviously.  Massive twat remember.  Then I gave it five minutes and read it again.  And again.  And a third time when I was calmed down.

She came across as contrite, she apologised for what she'd said and for any offence caused (I initially read that as transfering responsibility onto the offended parties rather than an acual apology).  I appreciated her candour and above all I think I agreed with her.  I was greatful to her for posting it and I tweeted my thanks to her for it.

I felt a bit of a 'nana. I also know that people who had retweeted me or who had latched on to the things I'd posted had probably gone too far.  It's that deindividuation that comes with the realisation of power.  Anyway  I still thought the twitter silence was a bad idea.  I don't think it achieved anything positive, I think all that energy could have been focussed better (and that includes all the energy that went into hating on Caitlin Moran).

One thing I diagreed with her about in the end, I wasn't suggesting that unless you were perfect that you shouldn't be allowed to protest, but that if you were protesting certain actions then you should be held accountable for anything you said which contradicted said protest.

Of course, later on, being told by Mr Bad Science Ben Goldacre a personal hero of mine that being involved in this made me one of "the worst people in the world"  an acolade that he's previously given to others including Andrew Wakefield of the dodgy MMR Autism made up link was the pinnacle of this strange 48 hours.  By this point I didn't feel angry, or upset or anything other than complete bemusement at this.

I mean I know I called an 8 year-old a "fucking cunt" last week in a supermarket, but I'm hardly Robert Mugabe am I?

I did ask if I could see his evidence or at least get this peer reviewed, so far though he has declined to comment.

The worst thing about this whole episode is that we're all on the same side.  We think that people being dickish and threatening is a bad thing, we think that equality is a good thing.  I think that we all come from different perspectives and backgrounds so some of us have had to deal with more erasure of our opinions than others, and that's the thing that's been lost in all this.

I was angry because twitter is the main outlet for my voice in a way that I didn't have before, I wasn't going to be silent for a single day in order to prove a point so in my anger I fixed on to the easiest thing, and then once I built up a head of steam I kept going.

What she said in those tweets was awful, but she apologised and was sincere in her apology.  I may not see eye to eye with her on some things, but I totally respect that.  Also as a comedian I have a responsibility to make fun of those with a position of power who I see doing things that I think are silly or dumb or stupid and in the main that's what this started out as, it just got a little out of hand, and so for anywhere that I overstepped the mark I would like to offer a complete and sincere apology.

And to Ben Goldacre, if we can find some way of scientifically finding out where in the world I rank as worst person (hopefully below David Cameron and Stuart Hall (the disgraced TV presenter, not the lovely sociologist)) I would be very grateful, as it may even help me write a show about all this for the next Edinburgh Fringe.

Maybe not though, I know most comedians go to Edinburgh to be discovered, I'm under no illusions now in my career that the only way I'm likely to be discovered is in a shallow grave in the woods by someone out walking their dog.


bengoldacre said...

Hi there,

I think this is a really good post. And I obviously don't think you're the worst person in the world! I do think the scale of the vindictive hatred directed at Caitlin Moran is amazing, from people on twitter who largely agree with her on most stuff, and from silly commentators on Newsnight, etc. Some of it is truly shocking.

I also think there’s an odd tendency right now, for people to do two things simultaneously: hurl abuse on an intergalactic scale; whilst at the same time being exquisitely sensitive to every utterance from the people they are screaming at. It’s really weird and I’m not sure it helps anyone (though I might be wrong). That’s why I think yours is a really good post.

Bethany Black said...

Thanks Ben, I really appreciate that. And you're totally right about people's duality of taking offence about other people's offence at their offensiveness. It's one of those things that I think is the major downside to twitter, it's easy to do and easy to get swept along in, and normally something that I try to avoid doing because I know the trap.

So thanks again for getting back to me.


Allie Cat said...

The problem with getting them to hand over IP addresses to the police is, that prerogative will be abused as well. The police, and the capitalists who control Twitter*, aren't neutral keepers of the peace. They aren't on the side of the oppressed. They have a direct interest in social stability, and that means the preservation of the status quo. More often than not, these power structures ignore hate crime and hate speech anyway, as demonstrated by the typical police attitude to rape victims for example; and if Facebook is anything to go by, the problem is even more widespread when it comes to hate speech on social networks. I don't know what short/medium-term solution to suggest for the hate speech problem, but I don't think the solution is either to emulate Facebook's reporting function or to emulate Facebook's participation in surveillance.

*The first line of employees responsible for making the decision on a case-by-case basis wouldn't have the class interest of their bosses, of course, and would likely be more socially diverse as well, but the boss for obvious reasons has power over *them*.