Ed West

Why do people write abuse on the internet? Because they can

Why do people write abuse on the internet? Because they can
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I was away last week, filled with joy and love following the birth of our child, but just occasionally I’d check the multi-character psychodrama that is Twitter to stop myself getting too soppy.

I sort of agree with Caitlin Moran’s stance in principle; if people are behaving appallingly on Twitter, Twitter should kick them out. If I ran a pub and people were driving away women with foul language, I needn’t call the police, but I’d have every right to bar them.

What is problematic is that the organisers of Trolliday do not see this as a question of manners, but of misogyny – hate crime, in other words. Considering the outrage there was over recent plans to restrict pornography just a tiny bit, few people ever object to the far more illiberal and authoritarian concept of criminalising misogyny, racism and homophobia.

And the women-hating trolls do not show that society has a problem with misogyny. All they show is that, where there is little or no possibility of future reward or punishment for good or bad behaviour, a number of people will act badly. Not a majority of men or even a significant minority, but enough to poison the well – for it only takes a very small number of wrongdoers to ruin things for the many. Where violence and disorder increases (including verbal violence) there will always be a rise in attacks on women and racial and other minorities; it doesn’t mean that discourse should be policed, or that we need yet more identity politics, only that order should be restored.

There are good reasons why people write anonymously, in particular a concern that if they express controversial views there could be repercussions in their workplaces (a not unjustified fear). But as others have pointed out, the internet is in its wild west stage, and one aspect of such transient societies is that the chance of stumbling upon the person you have wronged, or gaining a reputation by your behaviour, are small.

In contrast the most pleasant places to live are those where people have a reputation to defend (not just their own, but their posterity’s), and where men in particular have an incentive to be viewed as gentlemen – a word sadly missing from this debate about the treatment of women.