Opinion: Are we really living in an era of “social media menace”? Jessica Williams doesn’t think so.
In these confused and dangerous times, where headlines and front pages scream about a “social menace”, spare a thought for the most marginalised group of all. A group that is hurting. The target of hate speech, harassment, constant challenges to their worldview and lived experience. Their hopes for a new dawn on social media, where they could finally enjoy the kudos and adulation they deserve, have been dashed – and their despair is now palpable. I refer, of course, to Pākehā men.
Wait, wait – before you click that back button, hear me out. White, middle-class, over-educated men are the new victims, the group whose voice is silenced wherever they turn. How do I know? Because I keep reading about them. Boy, do I keep reading about them. Even the Listener’s got in on the act, for goodness’ sake. Men forced to quit Twitter. Others decrying the lack of true expert opinions, such as their own. It’s heartbreaking.
Y’see, it’s like this. For years, these men had carved out their own righteous space. A space they could be, speak and talk freely in, without fear of ever being challenged. They called it “society”. Oh sure, their ability to expound great theories of change might wax and wane depending on the flavour of government in power at any time. But on the whole, their critics were voiceless.
The internet began to change that, with women, people of colour, disabled people, trans people, people of all sizes and shapes and colours and beliefs and ethnicities able to start to use their voices. At first, the blogs and internet journals and websites were ignored. The men would have to go looking for those voices, and of course, they never did. But then came Twitter. And the voices came looking for them.
And now – well, we have a new status quo. Where anyone who can find the @ key on their computer can start a conversation. Where, suddenly, you can’t call women chicks or girls or c***s without someone having a problem with it, damn it. It’s political corr… I mean, tone policing gone mad! What’s the world coming to, when a man can no longer pronounce on a subject he knows little about?
Let’s take the most celebrated example of recent times: that of Richie Hardcore. I won’t recount the whole tale, because seriously, that’s been done and done and done. There’s no doubt the guy’s feeling bruised by what he experienced. But so too are the women who he claims attacked him. And I’m one of them.
I’ll be honest, I was only vaguely aware of Richie Hardcore before he became an ambassador for My Body My Terms. But that project, with celebs telling people not to be afraid of expressing their own sexuality however they damn well chose, was important. In a post-Roastbusters world, it was a powerful feminist message. The campaign told us that if you want to take naked pictures of yourself, revelling in your own beauty, then take them and don’t let anyone make you feel ashamed. So to see Richie’s comments about Kim Kardashian’s infamous mirror-in-the-bathroom shot, well, that jarred. If you attack that, well, you’re attacking any woman who’s ever done the same. That wasn’t My Body My Terms. That wasn’t feminism. And there’s nothing quite like the feeling when a person who portrays themself as an ally lets you down.
Neither the man himself nor the people behind the campaign seemed to understand why so many women felt hurt and disappointed. There’s no doubt Richie Hardcore didn’t deserve some of the vile abuse that came his way. But nor did most of us deserve to be painted as jealous, do-nothing c***s sitting behind keyboards, instead of doing the work he does. Add that to the chorus of other Pākehā men claiming victim status, and it suddenly becomes clear there’s something else going on here.
I’m a feminist to my very core. The movement has nourished and sustained me through some of my toughest times. But through Twitter I started to see and hear how women of colour, trans women, disabled women, felt marginalised, ignored and hated by the movement that was so dear to me. I tried to learn. I screwed up, got called on it, cried, tried to learn again, screwed up again. And then realised this: I had to cede space. Within feminism, other voices were coming through, demanding their own territory. And it seemed I could either do as other white feminists had done, and battle against it, claiming victim status – or I could let some other people take over the mic for a while. This is the challenge feminism faces. I think we’re choosing the latter path. And we’ll be stronger as a result.
So, in a breathtaking irony, our oppressed Pākehā brothers-in-struggle are reaching the same point. They’re having to cede space, too. Gracelessly, a few are choosing to opt out, retreating to their own fiefdoms where they don’t ever have to hear another critical voice. But others are staying. Letting others take their turn on the mic. And if we can just let everyone speak, then maybe the progressive change we all say we want might actually happen.
Twitter isn’t a democracy in the sense most of us experience democracy. The patterns and structures that take away the power of people’s voices are brilliantly absent. As selfies gave women outside narrow media standards a platform to explore their own beauty – so Twitter has given the whole constellation of human experience a platform to explore the power of their voices.
So I say, rise up, Pākehā men, shrug off the yoke of victimhood and be strong. Your time will come again. Reclaim the label of pale, male and stale – and take your place on the stage alongside all the rest of us. We’ll welcome it.