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Saturday, March 16, 2013

Online misogyny, Sarah Thomson and the new culture of backlash

Sarah Thomson. The latest in a long line of women, from before Anita Hill on, to fall victim to the reality that many men (and sadly women) will take the word of a rich or powerful male, or excuse their behaviour, over the completely plausible claims of a woman. Even when, as in this case, the man in question has a long history of having a problem with the truth.

To those who have somehow missed the latest scandal to hit Toronto's Ford administration, Thomson is a former mayoral candidate who ran against Toronto's present mayor Rob Ford in 2010, and who says that Ford groped her and made inappropriate comments to her at a social function a week ago.
Her account has been disputed, of course, by the mayor, as well as by his staff (a hardly disinterested group) and others, including a Richmond Hill City Councillor who has himself been accused of inappropriate conduct.

Much ink has been wasted on entirely unproven whisper campaigns about Thomson, when we know the actual, public record truth about Rob Ford and his past conduct.

Ford is a rich man, raised with a silver spoon firmly in mouth, who has somehow managed to get out of drunk driving and drug possession charges in Florida that would have landed most in that state in jail, who has a proven track record of behaving inappropriately when drunk, who has had his wife call the police on him on multiple occasions, including one time where he was actually charged with spousal abuse, who broke the rules when it came to campaign finances and got off only due to the cowardice of a municipal committee, (to name just a few of many incidents), and whose entitled arrogance is not only predictable... it is justified by the fact that he is never held to account for the actions that would end the carriers of so many others.

Yet we are supposed to doubt Thomson's account?

Beyond the self-evident idiocy and misogyny of this, and beyond the totally reactionary nature of disputing a woman's claims of sexual assault or misconduct based on her "character" or her supposed "mental instability," a week later what has happened to Sarah Thomson is a case study in the nature of today's online and media misogyny.

It is as if the last 40-plus years of feminist struggle and education around issues of sexual assault simply never happened.

This is not a question of Ford's guilt or innocence in a legal sense, which would be for the courts to decide if Ms. Thomson were to lay charges. It is the fact that so many are so outright dismissive of, indeed hostile to her claims, finding the very idea that a powerful man  could do such a thing so brazenly and publicly must either automatically be a lie or that what he did was really no big deal. The fact that so many would act as if rape culture didn't exist. The fact that so many feel it is acceptable to attack a woman who says she was victimized either because they like Ford, dislike her, or both. And that they would use all the historic methods of attacking a woman's claims as if we have learned nothing as a society about just how, sadly, rather ordinary and commonplace such incidents of groping and sexual assault actually are (A very good overview of the legal issues around this, and, among other things, why going to the media instead of the police may have been a sensible choice, can be found at Slaw, an online legal magazine).

Take the completely irrelevant claims that Thomson is "not playing with a full deck" put out to discredit her by Ford, and parroted all over the place by his supporters and others. This is not only unsubstantiated, but even if it were true that Sarah Thomson had mental health issues, this has no bearing, at all, on the legitimacy of her claims. This tactic of claiming that a woman who suffers from mental health issues is disqualified from being taken seriously when she makes accusations of sexual assault is an old and particularly vile one. One would have hoped that it had been relegated to a previous era unenlightened as to the realities of sexual assault, but apparently this is not the case.
Much of the print media has joined in the action, casting doubt on Thomson's claims in columns and opinion pieces in ways they never would were it to involve someone other than the far right's Teflon mayor.  Examples range from a totally disingenuous column in the Toronto Sun by Jerry Agar stating that Thomson's story "lacks consistency" (and, among other things, citing the online news poll of a right-wing talk radio station as "evidence" that Torontonians agree with him!) to the appalling column by Christie Blatchford that starts with a heart-warming anecdote about how proud her dad was when a famous hockey player grabbed her knee under the table at a dinner event when she was a young woman and ends by telling Thomson that if she was unwilling to go to the police and if "she believed the mayor had just been a boor, she should have kept her mouth shut; wherever did the notion of discretion among ostensibly capable adults go?".

How very original of Ms. Blatchford, telling a woman who says she has been groped or assaulted by a powerful man to shut up and show some discretion.

Much worse are the deeply disturbing and profoundly misogynist  comments that can be found all over the Internet from her Facebook wall to almost any article on the subject you will find online. They are indicative of a new climate of hate towards women and a newly emboldened sense among many men (and some women) that they can publicly say whatever they want and not have to fear being held to account for it, no matter how disgusting.

From the commenter who said " Maybe you'd be better accommodated in jamaica (sic). cheap pot and genuine ass-grabbers.", to the one who opined "You Kevin are a complete fucking idiot. Typical liberal. Stating she is a role model when she is nothing more than a lying, deceitful whore," to "There was a lot nicer looking women at that party, so WHY would he grab your wrinkly old ass? And get rid of the dreads.", to much, much worse. And these were taken from her Facebook page alone!
This is by no means, as we all know, happening to Thomson only. Disgraceful misogyny is normal online and is regularly directed at women; whether public figures or otherwise. One aspect of this is what is known as the "manosphere," the online web of misogynist hate sites where the type of rape culture denial and language we are talking about is commonplace. The Southern Poverty Law Center drew attention to this in the spring of last year.

More insidious and pervasive is the daily misogyny one runs into on mainstream websites in the comment sections. With the advent of the Internet  most North Americans now constantly and repeatedly  encounter such explicitly misogynist language anytime they look at online discussions or forums that have anything at all to do with specific women or women's issues, never mind discussions of female movie stars, sports figures, singers, etc. This no doubt helps to fuel the politics of backlash as this relentless online misogyny makes every sexist pig aware that they are not alone.
Constant exposure to it also leads many men to feel that it is acceptable to talk this way in public, and it is impossible not to think that it is having an impact on the way young men, raised on the Internet, see and talk about women.

Rebecca Meredith, asking rhetorically after being subjected to misogynist heckling at a university debate, writes:
Worse still, outside the world of debating there are those who think nothing of posting on the internet terrifying and often violent threats towards women they have never met, and happily discuss on forums how they will ‘bag the next honey’ on a Saturday night by plying her with alcohol.
How on earth did this happen? And why? Years ago such behaviour was regarded as not merely ungentlemanly but a symbol of the yob. How has it now become acceptable among some well-educated young men?
What has heralded this tide of fury and disregard for women? After all, these men must have mothers, sisters or girlfriends.
Yet they seem to find the topics of rape and abuse hilarious, or worse, typical ‘water-cooler conversation’.
One of the many millions of girls and women publicly abused and denigrated by the rise of this newest, latest, internet driven culture of misogyny.

When women come forward, as Sarah Thomson did, to face a barrage of hatred, not only do they not deserve to have their characters, mental health and motives insulted and dragged through the mud, they also deserve our support.

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Guess what's coming to U of T: The Men's Rights Movement, Janice Fiamengo and Paul Elam

The Canadian Association for Equality (CAFE) is back in action on the University of Toronto's campus through its campus Men's Rights Awareness group. CAFE, as I have previously outlined, is an umbrella group for a variety of MRA sub-groups, many targeting university students, that claim to be about "fairness" and "equality" while promulgating a variety of falsehoods and inaccuracies that seek to both undermine feminism and also to perpetuate their reactionary ideological myth that men also face systemic injustice and discrimination as men. They describe this as "misandry," which they posit as a counterpoint to misogyny.

However, CAFE, unlike most of its American counterparts, is always sure to put on a face of openness and tolerance to mask their agenda.

Back in November CAFE hosted an event at which Warren Farrell, a guru of the MRA, spoke. This was protested by student activists, a protest at which the activists attempted to block access to the event, which led to some arrests. It also led to a subsequent campaign of vicious and obscene intimidation specifically targeting female anti-MRA U of T student activists by the U.S.-based misogynist hate site, A Voice for Men (AVfM). Information about this campaign was posted on the CAFE website, despite their outward claims of not being associated with AVfM, and details of the protest, as well as the subsequent actions by AVfM,  can be found in an article about this I wrote for rabble at the time.

Now CAFE's U of T branch is hosting another speaker; a speaker whose rejection of the social progress that society has made to redress centuries of injustice and discrimination goes well beyond her attacks on feminism.

Janice Fiamengo, an English Professor at the University of Ottawa, was proudly announced by CAFE to be the latest addition to their Advisory Committee on January 5th. Not long afterwards CAFE (1) announced that she would be speaking at their next on campus event, to be held Thursday, March 7th, What's Wrong with Women's Studies? Academic Censorship, Feminism and Men.
CAFE describes the event in this way:
Dr. Janice Fiamengo, U of Ottawa English Professor, discusses the problems of academic feminism at Canadian universities: dubious scholarship, indoctrination, dogmatic teaching approaches, limitations on free speech, effects of “equity hiring,” and the consequences for men in the humanities.

According to CAFE:
The University of Toronto has kindly offered us complimentary use of one of their beautiful theatre venues, for reasons related to the law-breaking protest that occurred at our last event. CAFE offers its appreciation to the University for its strong commitment to free speech on campus.
In a recent Metro News article (2) we find Fiamengo:
 In her upcoming talk, Fiamengo will say that feminism has changed from the pursuit of equality to the pursuit of women’s power.
“It became about women’s power in certain areas and it came to represent men in very negative ways, as oppressive, as dominating, as violent, as discriminatory, as exclusionary,” she said. “It became about women’s victimization and their moral superiority as victims.”
Fiamengo believes that feminism, through the influence of women’s studies courses, has alienated young men in humanities courses.
“If I were a young man going through university, I couldn’t bear to sit through course after course drumming home that I am part of one half of the human race that is violent, responsible for the ills of the whole society,” she said. “In English, there are fewer and fewer young men and I can certainly see why.”
Fiamengo and the self-described "moderate and inclusive" CAFE are seeking to redress a new injustice.

Interestingly and tellingly, the same article includes an interview with a U of T activist who has clearly, and understandably, been intimidated by the actions of the Men's Rights Movement after the November protest:
Heather, a feminist and social justice advocate, says at least one of those young women has been exposed to online bullying and harassment. For that reason, she doesn’t want to see the Janice Fiamengo talk go forward. However, she doesn’t know if she will take place in any kind of protest because she fears the backlash.
Heather, who asked her last name be withheld because she doesn’t want to become a target for harassment, said she doesn’t think a talk criticizing women’s studies belongs at the University of Toronto.
Heather may be right. In fact, the gutless Texan thug, Paul Elam has this to say, about the upcoming event:
University of Toronto Student Union, it is time for you to just shut up, get out of the way and let other people share ideas whether you like them or not.
Of course, it is up to you. You live in a free country as long as people like you are not running it. But whatever you choose to do, you might want to consider what happened the last time you had a bright idea.
And last November, we were not even prepared for anything to happen.
You can bet we are now.
Subtlety  is not his strong suit. Given that "we" cannot possibly include him, as he is in Texas, one can only assume he is talking tough for his brothers in Canada. Namely, CAFE and the U of T Men's Right's Group. Given that they did not disavow his previous campaign of intimidation, they are unlikely to disavow this one.

I wonder if the U of T administration sees this as just more "free speech"?

But it would seem, returning to Fiamengo, that anti-feminism is not her first attempt to strike at the politics of modernity and inclusion, and it would seem that there are other reasons that many might doubt the legitimacy of a campus club that, while claiming to be a moderate and inclusive voice, would have her as a speaker and adviser.

CAFE's newest front person is an outright reactionary and Islamophobe who is rising through the ranks of the extreme right online community by writing for hard right American websites and espousing obviously  extremist views.

In fact, in the most recent article she posted, on February 25,  Fiamengo (who is, one might add, notably obsessed with, and largely only published in, the United States, with its Fox News, talk radio ultra-right subculture) led in with:
Proclaiming himself a conciliator and a moderate with a vision of Americans “stand[ing] with each other” and “paying their fair share,” President Barack Obama is in fact one of the most partisan presidents ever to occupy the White House. Fine-sounding words notwithstanding, he is a leftist ideologue and no-holds-barred political fighter whose practice has consistently been to demonize the American equivalents of the hated kulaks (farmers) and petit-bourgeoisie (small business owners) persecuted in the Soviet Union. Obama’s enemies include those “bitter” people who “cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them” as well as the presumably benighted bigots who fail to realize that “the future must not belong to those who slander the prophet of Islam.” With his anti-American, neo-Marxist outlook shaped by mentors and heroes such as Frank Marshall Davis, Bill Ayers, Saul Alinsky, and Jeremiah Wright, Obama is naturally inclined to be suspicious of freedom and to feel sympathy for groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood.
This is, to say the least, a fascinating way to characterize the President of the United States. A President who has, in fact, been astonishingly aggressive, imperialistic and  violent in his on-going extra-judicial war murdering people in the  Middle East (including hundreds of innocent bystanders) without any pretense of a trial or due process. To say that this would be the characterization that would be made by an extreme-right zealot would be obvious.

Fiamengo posted this, as she has many other anti-Islamic articles, on David Horowitz's notoriously bigoted, a website that promotes Horowitz's outright racist musings like those found in his joint diatribe, Black Skin Privilege, which is promoted as showing that "in fact the most insidious bias in our culture today is black skin privilege."

It would seem that not only have women and feminists unjustly taken power, but so have blacks and other groups.

Fiamengo is not at all shy about this, attacking Islamics directly and vociferously. She wrote an article on Horowitz's racist site in praise of Gavin Boby, an English bigot who crusaded against mosques in British neighbourhoods, sadly often successfully. She writes glowingly:
Only in a nation hobbled by political correctness of the most mind-boggling sort could a speaker proposing nothing more shocking than residents’ right to defend their neighbourhoods be so vociferously denounced. The self-righteous outcries at Boby’s “fearmongering” came not only from the predictable sources -- in this case the Canadian arm of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR-CAN), fawningly reported on by the press despite its close ties to terrorist organizations -- but also from self-proclaimed free-thinkers and mainstream journalists. When everyone involved declares their commitment to free speech while seeking to suppress, distort, and censor Boby’s message, one is left staggered by the House of Mirrors confusion passing for informed debate in this country.
Of course, she is writing of the "right" of residents to "defend their neighbourhoods" from mosques. Places of worship. In an article decrying the supposed lack of "free speech" she praises a bigot and others who would seek to deny freedom of speech to Islamics by denying them the very ability to build houses of worship.
She then, as she is aiming at an American audience, goes on to condemn the "notoriously left-wing Canadian Broadcasting Corporation" for not taking up Boby's cause.
But Fiamengo is not content with Islamics. She also "outs," in the extreme right American Libertarian site, PJ Media, the supposed preference given to Canada's Native People and other peoples in a stunningly offensive diatribe in which she belittles fellow academics who come from backgrounds that she sees as having been "favoured".
In one of her multiple attacks on the very students she teaches, who she herself holds in total contempt, she states:
Indeed, some students become so immersed in Leftist ideology -- a kind of secret society whose code language they have learned in fear and trembling and now exercise with pride -- that they believe it the only possible view of the world and have never seriously considered alternatives except as the deplorable prejudices of the hateful unwashed. Their conviction of rightness has revealed itself in a multitude of anti-intellectual and repressive behavior on university campuses across the country.
One could go on and on. There are many more examples of her work that are readily available online.
I have contended, as have others, that the so-called Men's Rights Movement is little more than a wing of a broader North American reactionary movement that uses false and grotesque arguments of reverse sexism ("misandry") and reverse racism to oppose efforts by historically oppressed communities to redress this oppression. They do so by claiming to be "radical" and fighting for "justice" and "freedom of speech" when in fact they are nothing but a continuation of the same old racist and sexist counter-movements that have sought to keep things the way they are from the beginning of all the movements for social justice of the 19th and 20th centuries.

These movements are interconnected. They all share the essential false analysis and they are all equally lying when they claim that all they want is "fairness". They are all explicitly either racist, sexist or retrograde. Often they are all of these.

Crossover backlash reactionary Fiamengo simply proves this.

(1) As an interesting side note, it is well worth checking out the demented, juvenile and misogynist ranting and "commentary" on the Facebook wall for the event.

(2) Humorously and pathetically Paul Elam of AVfM requested that his followers comment collectively on the Metro article, which they did. The comments on the article require no commentary.