When a young girl put a picture of herself, holding a book she had just gotten as a present, on the social networking site reddit, she was immediately subjected to intense verbal sexual assault by reddit readers who aptly demonstrated how awful it can be when boys and young men are left to say and do what they want without the social control of anyone knowing who they are. When Skepchick founder Rebecca Watson casually tossed out some relationship advice for clueless young men attending conferences they mistook for meat markets, she and anyone perceived as a friend, colleague, or ally of hers were subjected to relentless pounding with misogynistic language and faux threats of sexual violence. These are two relatively spectacular recent (and ongoing) examples of behavior that is widely considered unacceptable in our society. This behavior was probably much more common in the past, in workplaces, schools, and other places where humans gather willingly or not. But over time, most institutional and commercial settings have made rules against harassment and implemented systems to monitor and detect poor behavior of this sort, then deal with it. Human Resources (HR) departments, training programs, and diversity-aware hiring practices have reduced (but certainly not eliminated) this kind of horrible behavior. Our society is changing, and hearing men blurting out overt sexual come-ons, carrying out verbal sexual assaults, or haranguing others who do not subscribe to their particular set of behavioral rules is now rare. Young men still shout obnoxious things from passing cars (I just witnessed an example of that last night at the local grocery store’s parking lot) and there are probably workplaces where bad behavior is still much more common than it should be (dog fighting matches, certain locker rooms, and all male dinner parties in private rooms with certain senators come to mind as possible examples). But for the most part our society has moved beyond times when obnoxious, sexist, and misogynistic behavior is the norm
So, if society has moved on, where did all of these horrid people come from, and who are they? Do these people act like this in real life, and if so, where are they doing this? Or do they lead a dual life, one in which social constraints from family, friend, and the HR department keep them in check and the other the Internet where such constraints don’t exist? And, most importantly, does the Milieu of the Internet provide an incubator for poor behavior, or is it simply a place where that which already exists becomes visible?
One way to address this question would be to first find out who these people are. However, there is a problem with that approach, and that problem may be an important clue. Most (but certainly not all) of the misogynistic hoards are anonymous or at least, use pseudonyms which may or may not have been comprised. This indicates that they are not willing to link their real life in meatspace, with their on line life. They may have families or co-workers who would be embarrassed at their bigoted and hateful language. This indicates that the Internet is a milieu that allows for things to happen that otherwise would not happen.
There are also indications that some, perhaps many of the misogynistic masses spend significant amount of time in a different Internet community where their behavior provides less conflict than when they interact with actual human beings. They are serious gamers, often “professional” gamers. (There seems to be an industry where people get paid to play online computer games.) I know a fair number of gamers in real life, and they are not sexist jerks always trolling for opportunities to unleash verbal sexual assaults on unsuspecting victims, so I don’t think this is a “gamer thing.” But it may be the case that some gamers spend enough time shooting, blowing up, slapping around, and raping people or things in virtual reality that they think they can do this in real life, or at least, in discussion forums or other places that allow them to interact with the keyboard and screen but still from a place, alone, in their basement, with the door locked and the light off or whatever else it is they need to bring themselves into the mood.
I do not want to suggest a particular analytical result here: There is controversy over the effects gaming has on young minds, and I don’t mean to draw a specific conclusion here. There is a literature, there are debates, and this is not the place for that discussion. Even if one in 1,000 young men become demented blogospheric haters by playing video games, a small percentage by any measure, there could still emerge hundreds or thousands of such trolls and their energy level is rather high.
Misogynistic males also come from the community known as the Mens Rights Advocates (MRA) subculture. These are often men who have been wronged by women, sometimes with sexual violence as part of that: men raped by girlfriends or their mothers or female strangers for example. Others are men who have gotten caught, as many men have, in the societal adjustment that comes with fairness. Men have spent a lot of effort keeping women out of many job markets. As fairness prevails and women are let in, it becomes harder to get jobs for everyone, and in some cases, a period of time will pass where most jobs that come up in a certain field are given to women in order to balance representation. This is both necessary and not without its negative side effects for some, and this has embittered some men. MRA’s are among the most severe in their hatred of women, and to some extent, society in general, and of any man that does not agree with them. They are a driving force in this mass of mostly men who hate, adding a special xenophobia and an edge of screaming irrationality that even annoys the gamers some times.
Yet another contributor to this community are N’th wave feminists, women who think that the best way to fight sexism is to be as sexist as any man might be, and to demonstrate that their own strength is so great that they can live comfortably in a world where everything is a meat market rape is always around the corner … but not for them because they are the Xena-like Warrior Princesses.
Does the Internet, or in particular, the part of the Internet where self-styled “skeptics” and their in live, need an HR department? Obviously, yes. Can it have one? Probably not. Over the last couple of years, certain conversations on the Internet have either drawn misogynists out of their hiding places or tipped individuals who were otherwise not spending any time threatening and harassing women (and others) over to that sort of behavior. This serves a purpose. It reminds us that no matter how far we may have come in many of our social institution, bigoted hate is not far below the surface (or around the corner or in the basement or wherever). I don’t think the Internet is where we are going to solve these problems, but the activity on the Internet has shows us they still exist, indicated where in meatspace they may reside, and given us clues as to how to address them.