Culture Clash: Tackling The Abuse Of Online Harassment

Published in Culture Clash — a biweekly column in The Tribune — on July 12, 2017

“Talkin’ to people bad” is the Bahamian way. That’s what they want us to believe. We play into the narrative that to be Bahamian is to be abrasive, rude, and condescending without second thought, apology, or recompense. We imagine that adulthood gives us the right to say and do as we wish with no consideration to the impact we have on other people. A “Christian nation,” we spin, bend, and reshape scripture until it tells us what we want to hear. We convince ourselves that it is our job to give people what they deserve. We cut their skin, we hit their car, we vote them out, we embarrass them on Facebook. In our minds, there is justification for this. There is righteousness in this. Vengeance is ours. We are doing The Lord’s work. Right?

Online harassment is seldom discussed as it is generally viewed as a minor issue, its impact ignored and trivialised by most. Taking various forms, online harassment is a growing beast, used to disempower, embarrass, and defame people. When discussed, whether it affects a celebrity or a community member, too much attention is put on the personality, politeness, and profession of the victim. Many are quick to search for reasons to justify the attack and blame the victim for the harassment they experience and its subsequent effects.

Most recently, Blac Chyna and Rob Kardashian have entered the headlines, dominating online conversations for days after Rob posted nude photos of her on Instagram. Public dialogue centred around Blac Chyna’s career as a stripper, perceptions about her reason for being in a relationship with Rob, and the amount of money Rob spent on her. It is telling that people are more interested in excusing Rob’s behaviour, using Blac Chyna’s behaviour to somehow cancel out Rob’s, or painting Blac Chyna as the villain in this situation than seeing online harassment for what it is — abuse.

As a human being, Blac Chyna — like all women and all adults — has bodily autonomy. This means she can strip. This means she can be a sex worker. This means she can take photos and videos of herself in all states of dress. This means she can share those photos and videos with people of her own choosing. These are her rights. You, too, can do all of these things. Maybe you do. You may even do one or more of these things without realising it. None of these things makes Blac Chyna (or you) deserving of online harassment.

Rob’s Instagram post was revenge porn — the nonconsensual sharing of sexually explicit images by a former sexual partner for the purpose of embarrassment. It was the distribution of images Blac Chyna did not intend for public consumption. Using her work history as justification of Rob’s actions is both ridiculous and counterintuitive. If Blac Chyna’s body and the ways she provides access to it is a means of income-generation, why are Rob’s actions not recognised as theft? Why would he not be sued for loss of potential income? This happens in cases of copyright infringement and intellectual property disputes, so why not with the body? In any case, the act is classified as revenge porn.

Revenge porn — a form of abuse — is illegal in California, and Blac Chyna has since been granted a restraining order. Instagram responded by suspending his account. These two consequences are a validation of the real impact of revenge porn and other forms of online harassment.

We need to understand online harassment as abuse, a crime, and the cause of emotional distress and, potentially, professional ruin, for those experiencing it. We have to be able to separate personality from the details of criminal acts.

When we start to respect people’s bodily autonomy, we may finally be able to talk to our children about consent. We may be able to help young people recognise early signs of abusive relationships, and create an environment where they can report incidents without fear of being blamed or ridiculed. When we are able to see sexual violence as a spectrum, from harassment to rape, we may be able to address it at multiple levels — not just enforcing punishment, but implementing effective preventative measures.

Online harassment has many faces. It is not always sexual in nature. It can seem innocuous at the start, and build to become a scary, damaging, embarrassing experience. At a time when so much of our national dialogue lives on social media, it is important that we are considerate in our communication with others, especially those we do not know personally.

Divergent points of view should not lead us to participate in hate speech, threaten, or defame others. There are ways to disagree respectfully without losing “stripes” or the argument. Even more, there is a responsibility to intervene when we witness online harassment. The intervention may not be of the Sermon on the Mount variety, but should be a visible form of support for the person being attacked, and a clear message to the attacker that their behaviour is being monitored and is condoned or welcomed in the space.

If you see someone sharing sexually explicit images or videos without consent of the people depicted, report it to the platform and to the Royal Bahamas Police Force Cyber Crime Unit. If you know the person, take the opportunity to tell them to delete the post because it is a form of abuse and a crime, and there is no excuse for it. If you see other forms of online harassment, say something to the harasser.

The experience of online harassment is compounded when people standby in silence, failing to rebuke the asinine behaviour of the harassers. There are many ways to intervene. You can be direct and speak to the harassers on the post, in their inbox, or in person. You could also ask someone with a better relationship to the harassers to address the issue. If you are not comfortable with any of these options, check in with the person experiencing harassment. Knowing someone sees it, knows it’s wrong, and supports you makes a big difference.

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