Saturday, January 7, 2012

Nothing Else to Say: Rhetorical Choice in Internet Name-Calling

Margot Magowan has a great post on her blog Reel Girl about name-calling and writing on the internet. She says that she's glad she's writing now as a woman in her forties because she doesn't think she would have been able to keep writing in the face of name-calling in her twenties. She goes on to encourage young women to write despite the things they will be called.

But she does nothing to alleviate fears that they will be called names. In fact, she says:
 "Think of the worst, most horrible thing you can ever imagine someone saying to you. Got it? If you want to write or speak publicly, that will be said. Count on it. Multiple times. In ways you never imagined."
But write anyway.

It's no secret that the internet and its anonymity and distance can bring out the worst in people. All you need to do to verify this is go to a random YouTube video and read some comments; don't worry, you won't have to scroll down very far, as Bill Burr explains here (and he's Bill Burr, so there's profanity):

Racism runs rampant across various parts of the internet, as partially explored in this article from Resist Racism.

Or look at this story about a Reddit atheist community that quickly devolved into rape jokes, taunts, and downright sexual threats against a fifteen-year-old girl who just showed a picture of herself holding a book.

Or check out the #mencallmethings Twitter tag, started by Sady Doyle to demonstrate the sexism aimed at women writing on the internet. (Here's another article about it, as well).

Yep. The internet can be ugly.

The thing that struck me the most about Magowan's piece, however, was a line from her former co-worker. When she worked in radio, one of the hosts would get a lot of angry callers:
"When someone lost a heated argument, invariably, they would shout, 'You fat fuck!' and hang up. 'How do you handle it?' I asked. The host, Bernie Ward, laughed, shrugged, and said, 'I know when they get to that, they have nothing else to say.'"
And that made me think. It made me think about a time when me and my husband were walking across my mom's front lawn. My mom was in an altercation with the neighbors that had nothing to do with us (and everything to do with their untrained Rottweiler that had recently charged my nephew while he played on his swing set, but that's a story for another day). When we left her house, their anger was boiling over. They started screaming profanities at me and my husband, quickly falling into repetition of the one word that they spat with more vigor than the rest: the n-word.

Likewise, my Facebook argument over gay rights (which I wrote about here) ended  with a name-calling dismissal. After the post that I showed, Guy I Don't Know came back explaining that I couldn't possibly know what I was talking about because my "girth" would prevent me from being in the military, so I couldn't possibly have an opinion on DADT. After someone pointed out to him that I had blogged about our earlier exchange, he proudly declared that it didn't bother him because I was just a "fat liberal feminist." Oh, and fat people can't have ideas or thoughts. Sorry. I forgot about that rule. You win.

I don't think that being called fat is the same as being called the n-word--at all. I know that the n-word has a much longer, deeper, and more painful history of systematic oppression, and I'm not trying to compare or contrast racism and sexism.

I do think, however, that in many cases they are both the argumentative equivalent of "Oh yeah, well you're a doodoo head!" They're the things people resort to when they've lost but won't give up. They're the things people say because they're almost guaranteed to get a reaction. While that reaction may vary from a punch in the face to tears, they're words that are almost guaranteed to push some buttons and distract us from the fact that they can't come up with a response based in reason.

So the best response? Recognizing their last ditch effort for what it is. And keep writing. Keep speaking. Keep having ideas. We need them.


  1. Wouldn't it be awesome if we lived in some parallel game-show world where any time someone said the n word they actually got punched in the face? :)

  2. And since you said game show, I'm picturing a giant, cartoonish boxing glove. Bright red, of course.

  3. This is SO good!

    I stay away from comments on most websites because I just end up feeling frustrated that some people just can't seem to stay away from name calling. But I do read all the comments posted on my blog and, obviously, on Facebook.

    I've never been called nasty names on either forum but there will come a time, I'm sure, where I will be faced with intense criticism and name-calling. I'm going to bookmark this post to remind me to just plow right through it and keep on keepin' on. Thanks!

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