How #cyberviolence Legitimizes Real Violence

This past week, the United Nations office UN Women released a report on #cyberviolence against women that gained a high profile by inviting controversial figures Anita Sarkeesian and Zoe Quinn to speak at their conference. The report itself, entitled Cyber Violence Against Women & Girls: A Worldwide Wake-Up Call, contains shocking and disheartening facts: 73% of women have experienced some form of “online violence,” young women aged 18–24 are particular targets of online stalking and sexual harassment, nine million women in the EU alone have experienced “online violence,” one in five women live in jurisdictions where online harassment is unlikely to be punished. UN Women have done an admirable job at pointing out that the Internet is an hostile place, where anonymity and the free exchange of ideas allow for the transmission of anti-social ideas as easily as pro-social ones.

Unfortunately there are problems with the report. Some critics have decried that the UN is concerning itself with activity on Twitter and YouTube during the largest refugee crisis since World War II and amidst controversy over inviting Saudi Arabia to head a human rights council. The United Nations is a large organization, however, with many different arms doing many different things. One department can’t be expected to pause its projects because of an issue being dealt with by other departments.

A more reasonable complaint is that the report gives no context by excluding the figures for how many men have experienced “online violence.” Much like figures for domestic violence and violent crime, the exclusive focus on women gives the false impression that online abuse and harassment is a problem faced exclusively by women, with the implication that it is perpetrated exclusively by men. Based on that definition and how it was articulated by members of the panel, I myself have been a “victim” of sustained #cyberviolence since the age of 17. By excluding data on harassment against every gender (as well as race, class, religion, and orientation), a comprehensive and productive understanding of the problem cannot be had.

Under UN Women’s definition, #cyberviolence includes “online harassment, public shaming, the desire to inflict physical harm, sexual assaults, murders and induced suicides” and concepts like “cyber touch” which “is recognized as equally as harmful as physical touch.” One might reasonably ask how murder and sexual assault become acts of #cyberviolence versus acts of real violence. Nevertheless, the problems outlined in the report are atrocious and need to be taken seriously… More seriously, in fact, than UN Women intends to take them.

Anita Sarkeesian inadvertently undermined the gravitas of the issue by stating at the conference that:

Harassment is not just what is legal or illegal, harassment is threats of violence, but it’s also the day to day grind of “you’re a liar,” “you suck”…

As a public figure who makes a living by saying controversial things on the Internet, she apparently defines harassment as being impolitely disagreed with on a regular basis.

But even the fuzzy borders of what constitutes harassment is not the real problem with the concept of #cyberviolence. The problem is the whole concept of #cyberviolence in and of itself. Namely, how elevating these activities to the status of “violence” acts to legitimize real violence.

How this works is twofold. In the first place, it trivializes real violence. The Oxford English Dictionary defines violence as:

1 Behaviour involving physical force intended to hurt, damage, or kill someone or something:
1.1 Law The unlawful exercise of physical force or intimidation by the exhibition of such force.

While genuine online harassment is vile, it is not violence. Calling it violence clouds the issue of what violence actually is, and in this case trivializes the real violence suffered by the victims of domestic abuse, violent crime, government oppression, and warfare.

This is especially acute in the case of Sarkeesian’s trivialized definition of harassment. Being disagreed with on the Internet, even impolitely, is not at all equivalent to actually being raped, or ethnically cleansed, or flat-out murdered. The effects of being harassed and having sexually explicit things said of you online may be traumatic and it is a problem, but it is not violence.

In the second place, by clouding the issue of what violence is, the concept of #cyberviolence inadvertently delegitimizes nonviolence. That is to say, it legitimizes the accusation that resistance to violence is itself a form of violence. By delegitimizing nonviolence, it enables both the philosophical dismissal of nonviolent resistance as hypocritical and the violent suppression of nonviolent resisters as criminals.

Contrary to the common misunderstanding that pacifism is just passivity and nonviolence is the same as nonresistance, both are active agents in the resistance against violence. Pacifism is the principled opposition to war and violence as an ethical, political, and even spiritual commitment. Nonviolence is the tactical application of techniques designed to oppose or resolve conflict through means other that violence. One does not need to be a pacifist to utilize tactical nonviolence, though being a pacifist does obligate one to nonviolence.

Tactical nonviolence is a broad category that includes some 198 different tactics of resistance and resolution. These include such tactics as declarations of indictment and intention, lobbying and picketing, rude gestures, “haunting” and taunting of officials, social and civil disobedience, marches and assemblies of protest, social and consumer boycotts, literature and speeches advocating resistance, humorous skits and pranks, and nonviolent forms of harassment, raids, obstruction, occupation, and land seizure. Nonviolent resistance is not easy, or gentle, and fundamentally relies on affecting the moral sensibilities of both bystanders and the perpetrators of violence. And most astonishing of all, it works!

According to Maria Stephen and Erica Chenoweth, authors of the study Why Civil Resistance Works: The Strategic Logic of Nonviolent Conflict:

The historical record indicates that nonviolent campaigns have been more successful than armed campaigns in achieving ultimate goals in political struggles, even when used against similar opponents and in the face of repression. Nonviolent campaigns are more likely to win legitimacy, attract widespread domestic and international support, neutralize the opponent’s security forces, and compel loyalty shifts among erstwhile opponent supporters than are armed campaigns, which enjoin the active support of a relatively small number of people, offer the opponent a justification for violent counterattacks, and are less likely to prompt loyalty shifts and defections.

Already, opponents accuse pacifists of hypocrisy on the grounds that many of these nonviolent tactics are a form of supposed “violence.” Critics assert that because they do damage to property they are violence, or because they shame and hurt someone’s feelings they are violence, or because they encourage disobedience to the law they are violence. When this objection becomes codified as law, it has the potential to do real injury to the safety and civil liberties of people resisting governments, corporations, and entrenched power elites.

For example, in the recently passed Bill C-51, Canada’s Conservative Party government has already given itself far-reaching powers to suppress groups that perform many of these sorts of activities, under the guise of “fighting terrorism.” Who are the terrorists? According to a Royal Canadian Mounted Police report, anyone engaged in “activity that undermines the security of Canada,” such as environmentalists, civil rights activists and Aboriginal groups.

Thankfully Bill C-51 has become an election issue for Canadians heading to the polls in October. Unfortunately the crisis it represents for civil liberties is not limited to Canada or political conservatives. Whether by the left-wing or the right-wing, criminalization of nonviolent dissent in the name of security sets a dangerous authoritarian precedent.

Expanding the definition of what constitutes “violence” both justifies and trivializes the forceful suppression of resisters. While enforcing laws against genuine criminal harassment is critically important (as are those laws being governed by due process), we have already seen that this noble end is not where such practices lead. The open door to silencing dissent through the redefinition of violence is already being walked through by those in authority.

Far from protecting women, the concept of #cyberviolence ultimately supports entrenched elites whose power rests on their capacity to threaten, perform, and justify violence. Undoubtedly this is not the intention of UN Women, but those in authority do not need to be afforded even more excuses.