Some online commenters have sunk to new depths this week. The continuing misogyny directed at outspoken women in the media has produced a stream of death and rape threats which have finally provoked the authorities to take action. Following the success of her drive to place the image of Jane Austen on our bank notes, campaigner Caroline Criado-Perez has been subject to a terrifying barrage of assaults, similar to those suffered by such high profile professionals as historian Mary Beard, MP Stella Creasy, and writers Laurie Penny, Helen Lewis and Caitlin Moran. Two arrests last week, plus the introduction of Twitter's new "report post" button, are a step in the right direction but only begin to touch on a problem that highlights a worrying disconnection between online commenters and the real, living breathing individual to whom they are responding.
This was illustrated further by the thoughts readers shared following a piece that appeared in the Telegraph on Tuesday August 6, by Jessica Ebner-Statt. I was Really Hoping for a New Female Hero was an interesting piece exploring the opportunities lost by the BBC's decision to cast a male actor, Peter Capaldi, as the twelfth Doctor, in the long-running drama series Doctor Who. The writer argued that a female Doctor would have provided an important role model, an "inspiration" for the legions of young fans who are known to tune in avidly every week. Whilst acknowledging that Capaldi will, no doubt, prove to be an excellent choice, the article pointed out that the fluid nature of the character's regeneration could have introduced an interesting new dynamic into the series, relevant to the twenty-first century. The writing was considered, fluent and thought-provoking, giving an insight into the opinions of the series' fans. Most impressive of all, it was written by an eleven-year-old girl.
Almost straightaway the negative reactions began. While there is always a valuable place for disagreement and the sort of comment that can develop an article's argument or add to it, this eleven-year-old's writing incited such descriptions as "feminist bull-shit" and ambiguous statements that the author belonged "to a certain tribe." The comments ranged from the generally patronising, stating that Jessica should be "out playing on her bike" at her age "like most 11-year olds do" and had no "hint of childlike innocence left," to the insulting notion that she had been "indoctrinated" by a "beta-father" and had been "parroting what she had been told." One saw fit to tell the writer that she was "ignorant" and "naïve," "forcing her bull-shit feminism down our throats to make us feel bad." Some readers seemed incapable of recognising that a young woman of Jessica's age is capable of independent thought, or of expressing it. Having spent a decade as an English teacher and co-ordinator for Gifted and Talented pupils, I have encountered a wealth of Jessica's contemporaries making contributions to their fields of interest, with confidence and skill. There are some fantastically talented young people currently in our schools; such talent will build the future wealth of the nation and is to be welcomed and fostered. The criticism levelled at Jessica is as much an anti-intellectual snobbery as a general ugly misogyny.
Jessica's age is clearly a sensitive issue here. While, as an ex-teacher, I could not help but be deeply impressed by her clear voice, articulation and maturity, the best compliment we can pay Jessica is to consider her article on its own merits, rather than as the work of a child. As such, it remains an impressive and valuable piece. It has been published in the Telegraph because it is of considerable quality to hold its own in an adult arena. Yet sadly, many of those commenting are not behaving like adults. It is not appropriate to respond to any article in such terms, regardless of the age of the author. Whilst the language used is by no means on the same scale as the vile intimidations received by public figures such as Criado-Perez, Beard and Penny, the latter Jessica cites in her article, the anonymous disconnection of comments following her piece shows how deeply embedded the problem is.
No doubt there will be some who criticise Jessica and her parents for stepping into the spotlight. These will be the same voices who told the Twitter campaigners that they should simply switch off their laptops and disengage. But why should women not participate in the media, the most significant current forum for their careers, simply because others do not know how to behave? Should women be seen and not heard? Should they refrain from engaging in life, because life can be difficult? Sadly, Jessica's success has probably been bitter sweet, as she learns an ugly life lesson this week. We should not lose sight of another headline story; the suicide of a fourteen-year-old girl, Hannah Smith, who had been subject to terrible abuse on the Ask.fm site. The internet is merely a tool; its power to destroy has been much in the news lately but we should not forget its ability to promote, connect and support.
Any young woman, or young man, dreaming of a career in the public eye cannot avoid using social media, no matter how anti-social it may become. Those who might criticise Jessica and her parents should consider the advantage her peers would gain over her in the race to find a voice, were she to take these criticisms to heart and bow out. Her article show the promise of a young, critical mind, attune to the issues of the day. Hopefully it will prove to be the first stepping stone in her career. What Jessica's readers, as adults can do to help, as well as to help the current ugliness directed against all those in the public eye, is to speak up whenever such responses are made. Twelve hours after the article appeared, it had received 206 shares but only 24 comments; if all those who found something to praise in the piece or something objectionable in what followed, had added their voice, the nastiness could have been drowned out. From the inappropriate comments to the downright criminal, every time we see these comments, we must report, react and drown these voices out. We must not stay silent. It is a war that every internet user must engage in, wherever and whenever it occurs. The answer is not for women to withdraw from a forum essential to their careers but to engage more and to unite.