Enjoy the Silence?

It may come as news to most people, but yesterday was ‘Twitter Silence’ day. People were encouraged not to Tweet for a 24-hour period in solidarity with the women who’ve recently been experiencing horrendous abuse at the hands of online bullies, or ‘trolls’, on Twitter and on other forms of social media. Some of this abuse has truly been stomach-turning: women have been threatened with physical and sexual assault; their home addresses and personal information have been published online; at least one woman (an eminent professor of Classics at the University of Cambridge) was told a bomb had been planted outside her house. In response to this treatment, a day of silence was proposed, in order to ‘show what Twitter would be like if trolls over-ran this place [Twitter].’



I’m not sure whether the day achieved its desired effect, or whether it will make any difference to the lives of the targeted women – or, indeed, women on social media in general. All I know is, it has certainly generated a lot of news, and a lot of comment, which is probably a good thing. For me, personally, it demonstrated how difficult it is to make a stand on an issue which will suit everyone’s point of view, and which has any hope of gaining a wide base of support. I did send one Tweet yesterday, which I’d sent before I remembered about Twitter Silence; I hadn’t specifically pledged to take part, but I did think it was a good idea. I thought I might take part by default, by just ‘observing’ rather than actually making a conscious decision not to Tweet for a particular reason. During my observation, I was surprised to see how many people felt that the idea of boycotting Twitter for a day, taking part in a ‘silencing’, was the worst possible way to make a stand against abuse and bullying online. ‘Why would we silence ourselves,’ they argued, ‘when what these bullies want to do is silence us?’ As many women as took part in Twitter Silence also took part in ‘No Silence’, whereupon they went about their normal business on Twitter and made no attempt to curb their normal usage of the site.

I can see their point of view, too.

I think there’s a huge difference in ‘being silenced’, and ‘choosing to remain silent,’ though. I thought the idea behind ‘Twitter Silence’ was a good one, a principled and dignified stand against a tide of hatred that shouldn’t even be a part of public discourse in a civilised society. The women taking part weren’t ‘being’ silenced against their will; they were choosing to remove themselves from a forum for discussion where they felt their voices were being crowded out and ignored, and where their contributions were seen as meaningless merely because they are women. So, I had no problem with the idea of Twitter Silence itself – passive and peaceful resistance can often be a very effective way of getting your point across – but I respect the choices made on both sides, either to take part or not take part.

But the question remains: Why does this sort of thing even go on in the first place?

It terrifies me that women in the public eye can expect such vicious threats and disgusting attacks on their personal appearance, their safety and that of their families, simply by existing, and having the temerity to hold and express opinions. It terrifies me, too, that people feel they can treat one another so viciously on the internet, when – perhaps – they wouldn’t be quite so vitriolic if placed in a face-to-face situation. What makes communicating with someone on the web so different from having a telephone conversation, or a discussion in person? Why is it so easy for us to forget that the people with whom we communicate on the internet are people, plain and simple, deserving of respect and consideration? Could it possibly be because (and this is the truly horrifying thing about all this) treating others with respect and consideration is now passΓ©, something which isn’t done any longer in this new world of ours?

I think the bullying mindset – I refuse to use the word ‘troll’, as some online bullies do, almost like it’s a badge of honour or something to be aspired to – has always been there. If a person who is inclined toward hatefulness thinks they can get away with harassment and bullying because they’re doing it anonymously, chances are high that’s exactly what they’ll do. ‘Poison-pen’ letters are nothing new! Sometimes, though, it amazes me how short-sighted people can be, or how completely incapable of seeing another person’s point of view they can be. I, personally, don’t see the point in engaging in behaviour designed to destroy another person, to intimidate or upset them, purely because you don’t agree with what they have to say or you don’t believe they should have a voice because they are female/differently abled/of a certain ethnicity or sexuality/any other completely meaningless distinction. I do see the point in engaging in protests designed to make political points, draw attention to important issues, and effect change, and I believe the internet can be the best tool we have to achieve aims like this, but I just wish it could be done in a spirit of mutual respect.

If we turn the greatest invention of the modern age into a place where all we do is spit hate at one another behind a veil of anonymity, what does that say about us? And how unutterably sad would that be?

Welcome to a new week. Let’s hope it’s the start of a new era, too.

8 thoughts on “Enjoy the Silence?

  1. Maurice A. Barry

    The more anonymous we are, the worse we are. I used to enjoy “Reddit” for example in its early years. With it’s focus on ‘no names’ though it’s become such a nasty place that I’ve given up on it. When we forget we’re people we do lose humanity–it stands to reason.

    1. SJ O'Hart Post author

      That’s exactly it – when we forget we’re people, we lose our humanity. Exactly. It’s tragic that we live in a world where people are so disenfranchised that they don’t feel they’ve any other way of expressing their rage than by attacking someone else, someone who cannot hit back. It makes me sad. And angry. And, to be honest, worried.

      Thanks for reading, and for your perceptive comment, Maurice.

  2. MishaBurnett

    Interesting–I had not heard of the day of silence. I am very familiar with the incivility of Twitter, though, I know of some commentators who have pages of collected death threats on their websites.

    In theory Twitter has a policy of suspending accounts that are used to broadcast threats, in practice they seldom do (and when they do, it’s easy enough to make a new one.) I believe that the “KillGeorgeZimmerman” account is still live, despite the fact that it violates Twitter’s stated policies.

    1. SJ O'Hart Post author

      Exactly – I should’ve mentioned that aspect of the controversy in my post, too – i.e. the difficulty of getting your complaint listened to, and the difficulties of taking meaningful action. Twitter UK issued an unreserved apology to the women affected in this case, and pledged to do better; as you point out, though, on something like Twitter it’s impossible to really ‘ban’ anyone (and, *should* anyone be banned? Where do we draw lines re. free speech, and so forth?) I suppose we’ll have to make the law as we go on things like this.

      At least people are finally starting to take death threats and threats of physical violence/violation made over social media seriously. That, I guess, is a step forward.

  3. anna3101

    I’ve never been on Twitter but I guess it’s the same everywhere on the Internet. Some people (sometimes even good people) assume that what they do online and what they do offline are different things and that those are two different people. I’m pretty sure many of the bullies would not be have the courage (if you can call it courage…) to say the words they are typing to their victims face, in a real world. But in a virtual world? Sure, why not? Why not stain everyone with your hatred when you think you’re nonpunishable and anonymous… 😦

    And what does it say about us, I don’t even want to think… Each time I read some article in the local online newspaper I see so many hateful, ugly comments that I start to feel dirty by just seeing them 😦 And they target everything and everyone… Supporters of this or that political party, gays, people of other race, people of a different nationality, atheists, religious people, women, men, children, the list goes on and on. It makes me feel hopeless. Makes me feel like half of humanity does nothing but attack and beat others with their venom. Makes me feel like tolerance is a concept completely unknown to far too many people :(((

    1. SJ O'Hart Post author

      I think ‘don’t read the comments!’ is a general rule when you’re reading any sort of news article online. It shouldn’t be that way, but sadly it is, a lot of the time.

      Try to take heart in the fact that there are plenty of people in the world who think just like you do, Anna. Not everyone in the world is out to attack others with their venom, and tolerance is still alive, and going strong. *hug*


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