image by Anna Piovani
I don’t remember exactly when I got into my first argument online. I don’t remember who I was fighting with or what it was about. I was probably angry. I don’t ever remember being afraid.
I’ve written before about how the process of saying things online was liberatory. That the expression of self in this space was the very cliche of spreading new wings. That’s not a radical statement. It’s not revolutionary. A lot of us were the weird kids – everyone is the weird kid, in one way or another, but some of us feel it so much more keenly. Some of us are cut by it. Some of us are cut literally. Do you remember how it was then? The word floating around was that awkward, uncooperative bodies wouldn’t matter here. We could all be beings of pure intellect and engage on the edge of some kind of new and more enlightened frontier.
And implicit in that was that when someone tried to hurt you, it wouldn’t work.
Being a child is a nearly constant process of being lied to. By adults. By each other. By ourselves.
I don’t remember exactly when someone said something that truly hurt me online. I don’t remember who it was or what they were saying. I know I got angry; I might have cried. I don’t remember ever being afraid.
For a tremendous number of us – it seems – speech is not just surface levels of political. It’s deeper than what we usually imagine by politics. It’s in the viscera. Speech is the assertion of self, of agency when all other forms of agency seem elusive and impossible to grasp. We all, all of us, regardless of whether or not we have any conscious understanding of privilege and power, have some understanding of what it means to be able to speak and to be prevented from doing so. No history class had to teach us. We fight for it, we’ll ride and die for it, and when we perceive that anyone intends to take it away from us we’ll rear up like startled cobras and strike.
Not in all places or at all times or all people in the same ways, but bear with me.
What I’ve come to see and what I’ve come to understand I was and am a part of is a raging torrent of voices, of people screaming over each other, people boring through mountains of interference to deliver a message that might be meaningful and important to someone or might be utter incoherent drivel. It can be very difficult to tell the difference and probably no one person or persons should be permitted to adjudicate. I think of an ant hill, ants crawling all over each other, intent on whatever they’re doing but also keenly aware of each other at all times.
It’s loud, is what I’m saying. I’m not sure exactly how that figures in here but it’s very loud.
Sometimes there’s one voice apart from the others, one voice marked by a very precise element of difference in tone and content, and the ants turn and as one they swarm.
I don’t remember exactly when someone I knew was threatened online. I don’t remember who it was or what it was about, or who threatened them or what they did in response if anything. I’m sure I was angry. I was probably afraid for them. But I don’t remember being afraid for myself.
I hold very firmly to the belief that a significant number of the people who write do so because, on some level, they really want attention. I want attention. I absolutely do. Obviously I want that attention to be positive, so I try to do what I do as well as I can under the assumption that, if I do well enough, positive attention will result. So far that’s generally holding true. There are always critics, but you know. That’s fine. There should be.
But I also write because I don’t know what I would do or what I would be if I didn’t. I can’t imagine not writing. I can’t imagine a world in which stories weren’t battering their way out of me, tearing literal holes in my skin. Fucking with my head in ways you wouldn’t believe. Or maybe you would. The point is, silence isn’t an option. Silence is terrifying. Silence is unimaginable. I have a story; I write it. I have an opinion; I write it. Once we were confined in terms of who saw these things and how many of them there were, but now sharing is a fundamental component of how we move through the world, of how we understand the disparate elements of who we are and how we live. We share. That’s how we make things a real part of all of our real stories. I imagine not doing that anymore and it feels like being locked in a very small closet.
Fear was never part of that for me. Not really. Or if it was, it was fear of rejection. Which is a real fear, legitimate and painful, but come on.
I don’t remember exactly when I first learned about stalking online. I know it hadn’t happened to me, and so far as I know it still hasn’t. I do know that it was during the initial to-catch-a-predator panic of AOL chatrooms and who-is-talking-to-your-kid-on-ICQ. I heard all about not meeting people you met online in “real life”, I heard about not going along with suggestions to perform sexual acts, I heard about all of it. It was all about kids. Just kids.
No one warned me about what would come after that all died down. I don’t think anyone warned any of us. I don’t think anyone knew.
I genuinely wonder, if we had known then, how much of the world would have cared.
When I was asked to start writing here, I was terrified, and that terror never really went away. It’s the kind of terror that’s always with me, generated by a background hum of abusive internal voices. You’re not good enough. You’re not smart enough. You’ll never be able to come up with interesting things to say on that regular a basis. They don’t really like you. They’ll kick you out when they realize the mistake they made. Next Monday I’ll be writing about how this last year on Cyborgology has been for me and where I want to go in the future, what I’m excited about doing and the things about which I want to write, but the truth is that I’m scared, still, for all of those reasons.
But today is about something else.
This last year has been very instructive where fear is concerned.
I’ve watched people stalked, people threatened, people killed. Women, trans people, queer people, people of color. For speaking. For saying things. About the most innocuous stuff, on the face of it. For just being themselves. People I know, people I care for, people I don’t know at all. People I’ll never have the chance to know, because someone ripped them away from the world. I’ve seen brave, amazing people shouted down and intimidated into silence, driven into hiding, for doing something I’ve come to take for granted. I’ve seen men – some of them close to me – write it all off, insist that this is all a fluke, that it’s a few bad apples, that it’s not actually about racism or transphobia or misogyny, and I’ve wanted to grab them and shake them and scream do you even see what’s happening, do you even care about any of this, do you care about the fact that people you supposedly love are in danger. I’ve watched men speaking out against this, and that’s great and I’m glad for it, but I want to grab them and shake them and scream do you understand why you can do this, why you can laugh at them, what it means that you don’t have to be afraid.
Do you understand that we’re afraid all. the. time.
I wasn’t afraid. I’ve learned to be. A lot of us have learned to be. We’ve had very good teachers.
Over the last few months I’ve had to make some hard choices. For the first time I can remember, I’ve had to consider what I say and how I say it, not out of fear of being disliked or rejected but out of fear for my safety and the safety of my family. And the decision I’ve come to is to be silent. This is will be the last post I make on Cyborgology about this stuff. This will be the last post I make anywhere about this stuff. At least for a while.
I know I’m angry. Of that much, I’m very sure.
I’m not going to forget.
Sarah is on Twitter – @dynamicsymmetry