Richard Dawkins is a bestselling author and atheist pundit who’s been credited with “redefining the role of the public intellectual in Western culture.” As recent events have shown, he’s also part of a largely unacknowledged problem with online harassers.
Late last month, Dawkins approvingly posted a video of a feminist activist known as Chanty Binx, blasting it to his more than one million followers. The video, created by men’s rights activists, features a cartoon caricature of Binx singing a duet with an “Islamist” about how similar they are. It concludes with the cartoon Binx inviting the man to rape her, because “it’s not rape when a Muslim does it.”
When feminist writer Lindy West noted on Twitter that Dawkins was actually pointing his followers at a real woman who’d received death threats for her views in the past, Dawkins deleted the post. Then he apologized for deleting it and went right back to name-calling, declaring that Binx was probably lying about her (documented) harassment. “I was momentarily persuaded, probably wrongly, that a human life (however vile) might be threatened,” he wrote. (Dawkins has since had a minor stroke and has yet to respond to requests for comment. He said in a message recorded Feb. 13 that stress related to his involvement in recent controversies–and his subsequent disinvitation from an upcoming conference–may have contributed to his stroke.)
When we talk about online trolls, we tend to cling to the stereotype that they are anonymous types who wield little power offline. These are the kinds of trolls we associate with GamerGate or the men’s rights movement. But we need to start acknowledging that men with real power and authority are fostering online harassment. Such public intellectuals are perhaps even more dangerous—both because they give online harassment a larger and more mainstream audience, and because they give those campaigns the stamp of moral or intellectual seriousness.
Dawkins is certainly not alone. Consider the case (sigh) of the Bernie Bros.
Bernie Bros was once a playful nickname for a certain white, male, and self-serious segment of Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders’s base. Now it’s become the tag for the multivalent harassment mobs who crop up on social media to hurl reams of uncomfortably gendered, personal hatred at his Democratic primary rival Hillary Clinton and anyone who supports her—or fails to sufficiently support Sanders. (Full disclosure: the Bros have not been kind to me.)
Yet according to no less an authority than Glenn Greenwald, Bernie Bros are mythical creatures. Greenwald declared in a recent article that “pretending abusive or misogynistic behavior is unique to Sanders supporters is a blatant, manipulative scam” orchestrated by Clinton media operatives. Several writers, male and female, have also weighed in with opinion pieces on whether Bernie Bros are “real,” or whether, indeed, sexism in the primary election exists at all.
To be clear, Greenwald acknowledges that some Sanders supporters have subjected female Clinton supporters to abuse. But “such misogyny on the left long pre-dates and has flourished quite independently of the Sanders campaign,” he tells Quartz.
He adds that as an openly gay journalist, he knows firsthand how destructive online harassment can be. “That’s precisely why I object to its being weaponized as a tool for the Clinton campaign, and object even more vehemently to the obscene notion that Sanders supporters are uniquely guilty of it.”
Thoughts on whether women who report being harassed in Sanders’s name are “obscenely weaponizing” their experience or merely “describing what is happening” may vary. Regardless, the debate about whether Bernie Bros exist seems odd, given that they are not a shadowy, reclusive bunch. In fact, the community has coalesced around several well-known, left-leaning journalists. These include Doug Henwood of The Nation, Matt Breunig of liberal think-tank Demos, and a long succession of men (H.A. Goodman, Walker Bragman, Shane Ryan) who have advocated for a Republican victory in the event of Clinton’s nomination in Salon.
Greenwald is an investigative journalist—that Snowden thing was pretty big! So it’s surprising that he somehow missed the high-profile men at the heart of the Bernie Bros movement. In his refutation of accusations of Bernie Bros harassment on the left, he approvingly quotes Sanders supporter Carl Beijer’s blog as “debunking” the claims. Yet just two posts down on Beijer’s blog, he admits to–and defends!–going after Vice Motherboard contributing editor and author Sarah Jeong because of her comments on Sanders supporters.
In fact, Jeong has faced so much backlash from Sanders’s supporters that she temporarily locked her Twitter account. She explained the comment that set off her harassers on Twitter:
As you would expect, public wishes for Jeong’s death and threats of physical harm were a part of the conversation. She documented much of it, and has mentioned “a guy tweeting about ripping my breasts off my body.” Screencaps circulated on Twitter of Demos’s Breunig discussing his involvement in the harassment. He seems to admit to intentionally coordinating the Twitter attacks:
Breunig appeared to brush off the news that Jeong was receiving death threats, in part because Jeong had offended staffers at Jacobin years ago: “I think she deserves to reckon with that stuff, got some messages that the time has come, did my part, moved on,” he tweeted. He later published (and deleted) a lengthy blog post rationalizing his role.
One of the greater ironies here is that Jeong is herself a supporter of Sanders. Still, the Bros had spoken.
“I don’t believe that the guy who said he would ‘rip each one of @sarahjeong‘s hairs one by one’ and ‘twist her tits clear off,’ and later created a Twitter account dedicated to sending me 30 second videos of him repeatedly saying ‘hello’ in baby voice, is one of Bruenig or Beijer’s friends,” Jeong tells Quartz. “Who knows if he’s even a Sanders supporter, let alone a leftist. But people piling on like that is a foreseeable consequence of inciting harassment and framing my harassment as a moral good. Which is, well, what Bruenig and Beijer did.”
Jeong’s case is not unique. Along with Clinton-leaning women, other Sanders supporters (like Arthur Chu and Ta-Nehisi Coates) and women and people of color who have not pledged support for either candidate (including Anil Dash, Imani Gandy, and Elon James White) have reported similar waves of harassment from the Bros.
In many cases, online attacks are set in motion when well-bylined men publicly point their followers to the offenders in question. It’s hard to document every incidence of this, because it’s a bit like a fish documenting water. I called Doug Henwood’s anti-Hillary book cover sexist and blocked him. He began tweeting about how I’d blocked him and suggesting that I was lucky he wasn’t planning to sue. Soon enough, I was getting hundreds of angry tweets.
Greenwald and similarly left-leaning writer Matt Taibbi, meanwhile, linked to an old article about left-wing sexism against Hillary Clinton by Rebecca Traister. “We got more or less the same argument about ‘Obama Boys’ years ago,’ Taibbi complained. Traister reported that a few hours later, her mentions now include “many suggestions that I am a paid shill hack who should suck a vinyl dick.”
Greenwald tells Quartz that his point in tweeting the link was to highlight the fact that anti-Clinton misogyny predated Sanders. “I unequivocally condemn misogynistic abuse, and am no more responsible for the misogyny experienced by Doyle and Traister than they are responsible for the anti-gay abuse I regularly get from Democratic partisans furious over my criticisms of Obama and Clinton,” he wrote in an email.
Yet the same few names tend to be at the center of these events. Scroll down Breunig’s timeline any given day for a list of hostile RTs, then check to see if those same people are currently Tweeting about being horrified by their mentions. Still we have to continue debating not just whether online harassment matters but whether it’s even happening. That’s because public figures have power, and they can dish out or instigate harassment with one hand while shaping the media narrative to deny its reality with the other.
For the record, the harassment-prone contingent of Sanders supporters is not unilaterally white and male. But it doesn’t seem coincidental that women and people of color, across party lines, have disproportionately reported being targeted for failing to sufficiently Feel The Bern. Nor is it insignificant that Binx was apparently collateral damage in Dawkins’s ongoing crusade against Muslims.
Greenwald’s right in at least one respect: The issue of online harassment is not about Bernie Sanders. In fact, his official campaign has reached out to personally apologize to some women who have gotten the worst of online harassment. And Sanders, to give him full credit, has told the Bros to lay off: “We don’t want that crap,” he told CNN, adding, “Anybody who is supporting me that is doing the sexist things—we don’t want them.”
Rather, the root at the problem of this kind of online harassment is that political and intellectual authority has for centuries been the domain of white men. The rise of feminism and civil rights; increased cultural awareness of Islamophobia; and the very real possibility that a woman may soon break the 200-year-plus lock that men have had on the United States presidency are all challenging that authority. Intellectual spaces have become more accessible for everyone. And that’s caused some men to wield their authority more anxiously, and brutally, to those who challenge it.
These anxieties are profound and pervasive. We’re used to seeing them expressed by people with the luxury of anonymity and unaccountability. To see them coming from “legitimate” sources is depressing. But there is an upside. By bringing online harassment out into the open and signing their real names to it, Dawkins, the Bernie Bros and others have let us know that the people ready to attack anyone who threatens the status quo are not necessarily strangers or faceless losers. They can also be people with real power.
That shows us exactly how entrenched ancient attitudes about authority really are. What’s at stake is not simply one election, or what a few people have to say on the Internet. It’s whether marginalized people have a place in the public conversation at all.