09/11/2014 03:05 pm ET Updated Nov 11, 2014

Rejecting Violence, Both Real and Virtual


It's a tale as old as time: When faced with the loss of power, the human reaction is to react with violence. You see it on a worldwide scale with military action used to gain power and to prevent the loss of power. And now, you see it on the Internet with violence used in comments and reactions to silence voices that are not meant to be heard.

The Internet in many ways has democratized voices. Women, people of color, LGBT writers, and other marginalized communities now have a space where they can participate in public forums in which were previously largely excluded. It is no longer a world in which white men, who have long held the power, are the only voices that are heard. The reaction to this loss of power and space is one of violence.

A few days ago Leah Flannigan wrote a tongue-in-cheek piece on Gawker ranking the top 100 worst white men. The piece was clear satire but the comments it elicited were nothing to laugh at. Flannigan captured the top responses -- the top one starting with, "I don't say this a lot, but wow, I really hope you get raped." The threat of rape to silence an individual is the threat of the use of violence to stop them from speaking out.

And it happens not just on popular culture websites. I wrote a piece at The Hill recently advocating for a minimum wage increase. Most of the comments questioned my credentials, intelligence, and other insults. One, which has thankfully since been removed, called for people to find my home address and telephone number and "do what comes naturally." You don't agree with what I have to say? Hunt me down and "do what comes naturally." Use violence and power to silence me. If this is the reaction to something as dry as a policy debate, you can imagine how it escalates on more touchy issues.

Surely, men also receive their share of online harassment. Recently, the British think tank Demos released a study showing male celebrities received more online abuse than women. The Daily Beast commented that the report was "only one of several studies that cast doubt on the assumption that the Internet is a hotbed of male hostility toward women." The article goes on to point out that men also get threats of rape and harassment and concludes with, "As we search for that middle ground, we should beware of paternalism based on the mistaken view that Internet nastiness is a particular problem for women."

However, the same Demos report showed that in the category of journalists, women received more abuse than men. And, recognizing the undertones of violence and power is not paternalistic. The abuse of power in a relationship -- any relationship, whether in the workplace or at home -- is a real issue that we often sweep under the rug. Calling it out and not allowing this type of harassment shows solidarity with victims and starts to shift responsibility from the victim onto the victimizer.

The tendency to place blame on victims was clearly on display in the commentary around Janay Rice, who was assaulted by her now husband Ray Rice. The constant chorus of, "But why didn't she just leave him?" so infuriated domestic violence survivors that it prompted the hashtag #WhyIStayed. The problem is not with the message. Indeed, people should not stay with their abusers and we should ensure they have the proper support and resources necessary to leave. However, when the first response to a video of domestic assault is, "why did she stay," we place the blame on the domestic violence victim. We make them justify their abuse. We should instead be asking "how can we stop this from happening?"

Calling out and rejecting violence is not a response to quell dissent or discussion. Disagreeing with someone's argument is done through facts and analysis, which is completely necessary for healthy debate. Disagreeing by calling for violence is an attempt to silence a voice you think doesn't have a right to speak. There is a clear difference.

By rejecting the use of violence as a means of discourse we can begin to change online culture and, more broadly, start changing cultural norms. There are already glimpses of this with the many people who have slammed the NFL for not acting sooner while never questioning what Janay Rice should or shouldn't do. There are thoughtful pieces on the impact misogynistic comments have on female journalists. And, there is the tenacity of the people who continue to write and take up the space they deserve while calling out the trolls, as Leah Flannigan did with humor and style.