"Until 1935 you didn’t need a driving test in Britain. Until 1967 there was no drink-driving limit, until 1983 no safety-belt law. Until the 1960s you could put up a sign saying “NO BLACKS NO IRISH”. Convicts could be birched till 1962; schoolchildren caned quite recently (it was in South Africa that enraged nuns would lay about me with a ruler, rosaries rattling, but contemporaries in the UK report the same). You could blow smoke in people’s faces in a pub or office till 2006. Thus the borders of what is acceptable and legal in any civilisation naturally change.
They do not always contract: we now have same-sex marriage, and a historically unprecedented range of personal rights. But new things happen (such as mass immigration) or are discovered (such as tobacco causing lung cancer) and philosophical perspectives alter too. So the rules change.
Right now, I sense with cautious fascination the great tectonic plates starting to creak and shift where the internet is concerned. It grew up rapidly as a lawless, bubbling anarchic Wild West, sometimes to excellent effect and sometimes with destructive spite and lethal corruption.
Now, however, the marshals and sheriffs are advancing, carefully trying to impose at least roughly the same standards of behaviour as we demand in the solid world. It’s fascinating. And I believe it really is happening.
The Government’s proposals on online pornography, with a compulsory household opt-in and a ban on depictions of rape, were met with a flurry of argument from all directions. I am a rareish tweeter, but in an idle moment the other day I posted: “Fascinated by the pro-porn ‘freedom’ lobby. Affronted underpant-clutchers emerging on left, right, and feminist wings. Bizarre.”
That attracted a good few “retweets” and the inevitable outbreak of ripe personal insults from those who cherish the liberty to watch strangers having rough and improbable sex, without admitting the taste to their womenfolk. But David Cameron’s regulatory arrangements will stagger on, with the usual hitches and adjustments, and they represent an inevitable and broadly healthy change.
On the subject of Twitter, however, an even more striking creak of the tectonic plates is represented by the fury surrounding the affair of the blogger Caroline Criado-Perez. She campaigned against the Bank of England’s unintelligent intention to drop the only woman (aside from the Queen) pictured on a banknote and successfully got Jane Austen’s image on to the new tenner. This brought on rage from male tweeters threatening or fantasising sexual violence to put her in her place. One of them published what he thought to be her address.
Such abuse is not uncommon when women arouse disagreement; I have had a bit myself. Common advice is to ignore it: “Don’t feed the trolls, don’t let them know you even read it, certainly don’t let them know it hurts, that’s what they want.”
But, like the academic Mary Beard before her, Ms Criado-Perez chose to “shout back” after 12 hours of this abuse. She appealed directly to Mark S. Luckie, the manager of journalism and news on Twitter; his response, she says, was to lock down his personal account — a digital slammed door.
Officially the site suggests merely “blocking” insulters, and has a cumbersome complaint form for every incident; otherwise they suggest that you report it to the police who can “accurately assess” the threat, with the shrugging implication that as a female you are a bit hysterical. This insouciance caused wider fury — 11,000 signatures on a petition in the first 12 hours, 20,000 a night later and more as I write.
One way or another Twitter (a profit-making outfit through “promoted” and “enhanced” offers) will, I suspect, have to clean up its act, provide an instant report button and take the trouble to identify, exclude and report to the police anybody who posts a threat.
Admittedly most trolls are probably harmless, poor crazies shouting at the wall in an imaginary pub. Lancaster University research this year concluded that “boredom” is an important motivation and another psychologist has sapiently observed that their menacing bravura mirrors that of small dogs barking and hurling themselves teeth-bared at the window of a locked car. If you were to wind down the window they would cower whimpering in the corner.
That, however, is no reason not to wind down that window, knock on the door and expose to family and neighbours the details of what these chaps think is their secret hobby.
As digital technology becomes ever more sophisticated this may become easier. Even an unexpected direct message tweet or e-mail, under the formal heading of the local constabulary, could shock a lot of them out of this behaviour. Why not? Even where there is no direct threat but only ill-feeling (as in all those hateful messages that often follow tragedies) we do, after all, have concepts of harassment, breach of the peace and insulting behaviour. If a drunk student can be arrested, as one Sam Brown was, for calling a police horse “gay”, it should be possible to give a salutary fright to online ranters.
Certainly attitudes are hardening, and the ubiquitous internet is being seen as not some separate realm but part of the everyday world. Google, Twitter and the rest have to recognise that. Anyway, the instinct to “shout back” is a healthy one that women in particular do well to embrace.
Years ago, when I was the first woman presenter on BBC Radio 4’sToday programme in the days of green-ink letters, I amused myself, unbeknownst to my employers, with a standard reply to any correspondence that was couched in rudely misogynist terms (many men gave their real address, so secure were they in the patriarchy). I’d write:
“Thank you for your interesting letter. I am sure you will not mind my passing it on to Professor (Fictional name) of the Cambridge University Institute of Psychosexual Medicine, who has a research study about men who write strongly-worded letters to women in public life.”
I had several panicky replies forbidding me to pass on their name and even apologising. Nothing scares a nasty bloke more than the thought of someone knowing all about him. Digital technology doesn’t change that."