My knowledge of international politics is unimpressive, but I stay up to date on American pop culture, thanks to buzzfeed.com. Among the links to uninspired humor writing, long-form journalism makes an occasional appearance, and as an ardent feminist I take special note of articles dealing with rape culture and sexual assault. A recent post detailed the story of a Columbia University student—not Emma Sulkowicz, who carried a mattress around the school to protest the university’s lack of prosecution of her alleged rapist, but another young woman manhandled by the same male student.
She went by Josie, a pseudonym, both in the essays she published on jezebel.com about the ensuing court case, and in this article. Why? The Buzzfeed article ended as follows: “When [Jessica Testa, National Reporter for Buzzfeed News] asked why she’s decided to stay anonymous, Josie told me, ‘It’s not because I have anything to hide. I’ve just seen what people do to women on the internet who tell their stories.’”
The internet is king of the counterpoint; blogs and op-ed pieces seek to undermine the status quo with good or malicious intentions. See every piece written about Caitlyn Jenner’s Vanity Fair cover—some respondents called her a hero, some respondents vilified her for her wealth, power, and subscription to antiquated and restrictive gender roles. Jenner is a celebrity, so the attention she received is at least understandable. Emma Sulkowicz and Josie are university students, younger than me, who have experienced trauma and spoken about it. But the internet made them famous, and made them heroes to some and villains to others.
I’m aware that humankind is capable of some terrible, terrible things. I’ve been spared witness, but I’ve heard the stories. I wonder, though, if the internet makes it easier to justify evil to ourselves. It seems we collectively struggle to extend our ethical convictions to Facebook profiles, Twitter handles, avatars—they aren’t technically people; they don’t obviously warrant our compassion or respect. When people become symbols—html or cultural—we all think we’re allowed an opinion on their behavior, their past, their person. That’s why I’d never want to be a politician. I don’t want to lead a movement—one’s life is scrutinized for any indication of indecision, for youthful errors used to discredit mature convictions, for a single indiscretion or ill-timed joke, because the internet likes nothing more than to make a villain from a hero.
Joshua Rothman calls it “web culture’s increasing tendency toward anger as an end in itself… the Web’s continuous pageantry of outrage, judgement, and punishment has become an inescapable element of contemporary life.” It’s why I don’t post about controversial issues online, even when they deserve my attention, why I culled my Facebook timeline of adolescent status updates that might embarrass me later. A single misstep can draw the ire of either ‘side.’ You used the wrong pronoun. Your words upheld colonial legacies. You’re a liberal nutcase. You’re a conservative nutcase. You’re a nutcase—but your words are not absurd enough to escape a vicious retort.
I’ve seen what people do to women on the internet who tell their stories.
I’m a Calvinist, of course. I’m not sure how anyone could live in this world and doubt our depravity. But I’d also like to believe that people make choices for reasons—perhaps not good ones, perhaps misguided ones, but reasons nonetheless. And I’m unlikely to change their position by mudslinging, mockery, or outright malice. Most people, I think, respond to traumatic experiences and painful circumstances in a manner that is both courageous and flawed. Neither characteristic fully eclipses the other. I have never responded to challenges without griping about them or blaming other people or turning inward, but I have overcome them. And I have made brave decisions, good decisions, for reasons that included spite, insecurity, and self-advancement. That’s what makes me human—I’m not a hero. I’m not a villain. I am, like Josie and Emma and Caitlyn, somewhere in between.
My analysis and rebuke of them or others does not preclude me from the same sins. Pointing fingers at someone else’s misogyny does not excuse my own sexism. Pointing out someone’s racial micro aggression is not the same as repenting of mine. Making someone else a villain doesn’t make me any more a hero, nor do villainous actions discount heroic ones. Please, good people, focus your feeling on holding together the sides of the paradox—that we are each marked by light and darkness. The light will win out when grace abounds—in person, and online. In other words: “if you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all.”
Katie is a doctoral student in English and education at the University of Michigan. She loves the New York Times crossword puzzle, advice columns, oceans, and dogs of all kinds.