The myth of “Just don’t listen to it.”

I just read a great article about how some online communities are taking steps to curb harassment. It’s awesome. I commend it to you.

Then I made a mistake and read the comments. “Never read the bottom half of the internet,” my friend says. I should have listened. Because almost right off the bat came the cry “i agree, it should be addressed as it is in the real world. if you don’t like what someone says, don’t listen to them.” That’s a quote.

This particular argument befuddles me coming, as it almost always does, from someone who lives in a world with police.

Imagine, for a moment, that you go to work every morning in some nice, pleasant cubicle farm. And then one morning, some person wearing all black SWAT technical gear shows up in your cubicle, waving a pistol and knife. This person screams invective — “I’M GONNA TAKE THIS GUN AND SHOVE IT SO FAR UP YOUR ASS I’MMA HAFTA CUT IT OUTTA YOUR THROAT WITH THIS FUCKING KNIFE!”

What would you do? You’d immediately call the cops, right?

Now imagine if the cops came and took a look at the black-clad figure, waving that knife menacingly near your face, and says “How do you know it’s not a toy knife? And you know what? That doesn’t look like a real gun to me. Most of these times, these are toy guns. If you don’t like it, just don’t listen to it.”

You’d be befuddled, right? Because we have rules of behavior and laws. And threatening someone is assault and that’s against those laws. You’d expect the cops to take that person away.

But the cops declare that you should just not listen to it. So you turn back to your computer and try to work with some maniac screeching full volume in your ear.

And then that night you go to the basketball court because you really like basketball, and that’s how you unwind after getting screamed at by some asshat with a knife all day. And while you’re there, someone walks up to you and starts to whisper in your ear, “I am going to perform the Viking torture of screaming eagle on you, I am going to slowly slit your belly and pull out your intestines…” and goes on, at length, with great and vivid detail. Such detail that you kinda think this person has spent a lot of time fantasizing about this particular act. Maybe done it before, too. You hear descriptions of the feeling of the intestines running over fingers, maybe a recording of the sound of a knife puncturing the diaphragm, there’s a picture (surely Photoshopped?) of this happening to someone….

This amount of detail is disturbing, right? You feel threatened, obviously. And this person is getting in the way of the basketball game. Keeps stealing the ball.  You’d call the cops, right? Or at least the folks running the basketball court.

Imagine how you’d react if they shrugged and said, “Well, I don’t see why they can’t say that you?”

Now imagine one of your co-workers actually gets gutted and shot by a screaming black clad figure. Dies horribly. Would you take your own personal screaming figure more seriously?

But somehow, on the internet, it’s totally OK to do that. In fact, on the internet, this happens so often to women who speak out that we have gotten used to threading our way past hundreds of gun-waving nutballs to get to our office. (Are saying to yourself that I’m exaggerating? Please read this article at WeekWoman and realize that pretty much all feminist bloggers deal with the same stuff.)

And when I say get to our office, I mean exactly that. I actually work on the internet. It’s where my job is. And many of my hobbies. But not video games. I don’t play video games for many reasons, but one of them is because I don’t have fun when I have to wade through detailed descriptions of my rape.

We live in a world with rules of behavior. Rules that allow us to interact. Those rules may vary from place to place, situation to situation, but where you have humans interacting, you have rules.

Only the most examined sort of person would look at a simple set of these sorts of rules and declare that we don’t need rules, that instead  he is all “for a world of sharp edges, risk, and terrible things in the dark.” I suspect that the dude who wrote that quote has never been mugged, beaten, and run over with a car. I suspect he’s never lived in fear of his physical safety.

And I suspect that if he did get a gun-toting psychopath following him home down a dark alley one night, he’d dial 911 pretty fast.

The internet is not a lawless state. We need rules to govern our interactions. “Just don’t listen to it,” isn’t a rule.

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