Mary Beard, professor of classics at Cambridge University, has a theory: that men and the culture-at-large have been telling women to shut up and stop talking publicly in one form or another since antiquity and the Internet—and its vocal population of rape-threatening trolls—represents an extension of that very bad habit. The lively academic expressed that thesis in a March lecture, entitled Oh Do Shut Up Dear!. It gained her international attention, including a New Yorker profile.
Her opinions have won the esteemed academic her fair share of troll-ish detractors, too. But she’s dealt with that bravely, often reaching out to those that trash-talk her in the hopes of making them consider both the basis and the baseness of their nuclear reactivity when a woman ventures to speak.
We asked Beard for her backstory and best advice on how to deal with trolls.
What prompted you to write “Oh Do Shut Up Dear!”? To be honest, it was a bit of serendipity. I had agreed to do a lecture for the London Review of Books at the British Museum, and I wanted to “join up” the ancient world and the modern world. I couldn’t quite work out how. Then the excellent editor of the LRB [Mary-Kay Wilmers] said, Why not do something about the woman’s voice? That instantly seemed just right, and I saw how I could really bring together my own experience and the classical literature I was keen on. Then the BBC heard about it, and it became “Oh Do Shut Up Dear!”.
The lecture suggests that the history of public discourse involves telling women to shut up, basically all the way back into antiquity. How does the Internet fall in line with that history? It falls in line very well, and that is hardly surprising. We tend to think of the Internet at something revolutionarily new. In some ways it is. But in many ways it is a new way of saying the same thing.
What is it about the female voice in the public sphere that triggers this response? I would put it the other way around. What is it about contemporary society that hears authority in the male voice? And that is where I think we have to see it historically. As far as we can go back in Western history, authority has been seen to rest with the male of the species. Okay, there are a few queens, but very often these [women] get presented as, in some way, androgynous. Think about England’s Queen Elizabeth I, or how Margaret Thatcher took lessons to deepen her voice. In fact the word “deep” says a lot—meaning both low-register male, and profound.
Why do men feel threatened when women influence culture by speaking publicly? Various reasons I think. In some senses it is the sheer difference that seems unsettling. I remember, for example, the first time I was on a plane and the pilot’s voice was female. The passengers were not hostile, but their faces registered surprise. It can be worse though. Although I would rather not have come to this conclusion, I do think that there are some men (a minority… and probably some women too) who think that women should NOT be in positions of power.
Your lecture pointed out how women come under greater fire and attack online than men, and disproportionately. Why is this so? For the reasons I have just said. I don’t think that the internet is a place that operates much differently from society at large.
Is this simple misogyny? Misogyny is never simple, and there is a whole spectrum of views out there from outright vicious woman hating to a much more low level, unthought-out sexism. What interests me is the way that the rhetoric and idiom of misogyny is so readily adopted to attack both women and men. Men are reviled as c-nts, too!
You’ve been attacked not just for your opinions, but for daring to have them at all, and you’ve also had your appearance assailed in print and online. You’ve chosen to address this directly. What prompted you do so? It just seemed the obvious thing to do. Partly, I guess, my day job is teaching people how to argue. Partly I have always thought that you [should] treat the online world as if it works by the same rules as the face-to-face world. So if someone says, “You stupid old bitch, you stink,” you would say,“Hang on!” I mean if someone came up to you in a bar and said that, what would you do?
What has been the result? Overall I am very pleased I did so. It has been a bit time-consuming, but I think that it has felt like the right thing to do. And I know from the thousands of emails and tweets I have had that it has helped to empower a lot of other women. But, to be honest, I didn’t do it to set an example; I did it for the much more down to earth and sensible reason of not lying down under this tosh!
Has anything surprised you after reaching out to these people? How have they explained themselves? It has led to surprising friendships! I think the point is that people who say these stupid and nasty things come in many forms. I have no interest in reaching out to people who threaten to come round, cut off my head and rape it. That stuff is a criminal offence and gets reported to the police. But most online abuse isn’t like that. The perpetrators are drunk, a bit disinhibited, sad, angry or whatever. When you call them out on it, they often feel dreadful and want to apologize. That’s fine by me. We all say and do stupid things. The important thing is to apologize and think harder next time. Overall my aim is not to punish “trollers,” but to make sure that they don’t do it again!
How should women deal with sexist and/or threatening trolls? There is no single way to handle this and I don’t think one should lay down the law about how other people should handle it. But people often say, “Block them, don’t reply… they are partly attention seeking, so don’t give them what they want.” Another way of seeing it is like this: when there are bullies in the playground, we don’t tell the other kids to quit and leave the bullies in occupation. I’d like to add though how striking it is that we talk about how women should “deal” with this as if it was their problem. The problem is with the people doing it!
How do women tackle misogyny and this irrational response to their speaking up? As my last answer suggests, I am a bit torn. Part of me wants to say that we need to support each other, we need to help each other be a bit resilient and stand up to this rubbish. Part of me thinks that we should be asking how we can make those who talk this misogynistic talk realize how dumb (as well as nasty) it is.
The New Yorker called you The Troll Slayer. Do you like the title? What’s the best way to slay a troll? It made a good catchy headline, and like all such headlines it was a bit misleading. It made it sound as if there was some heroic (slightly macho) combat involved. The truth is I didn’t slay anyone, thank heavens. I’m a middle-aged academic, whose habitat is the library—not a warrior.
Should we aim to slay internet trolls? I certainly wouldn’t. “Love the sinner and hate the sin” is not a bad motto.