‘Did you know?’ Thursdays

17 Nov ‘Did you know?’ Thursdays

Is talking about sexual assault on social media a bad idea?

We spend a lot of time online, posting, tweeting and sharing articles about current affairs and social issues. Social media pose no restrictions: everybody can have a say. When cases of sexual assault make the headlines, many people are eager to share their views and express their opinions.

Although social media can provide a useful platform to raise awareness, they can also cause unwanted, detrimental effects. Today we reflect on this challenge, by sharing the transcript of Ione Wells’s TED talk ‘How we talk about sexual assault online’ :

‘It was April, last year. I was on an evening out with friends to celebrate one of their birthdays. We hadn’t been all together for a couple of weeks; it was a perfect evening, as we were all reunited.

At the end of the evening, I caught the last underground train back to the other side of London. The journey was smooth. I got back to my local station and I began the 10-minute walk home. As I turned the corner onto my street, my house in sight up ahead, I heard footsteps behind me that seemed to have approached out of nowhere and were picking up pace. Before I had time to process what was happening, a hand was clapped around my mouth so that I could not breathe, and the young man behind me dragged me to the ground, beat my head repeatedly against the pavement until my face began to bleed, kicking me in the back and neck while he began to assault me, ripping off my clothes and telling me to “shut up,” as I struggled to cry for help. With each smack of my head to the concrete ground, a question echoed through my mind that still haunts me today: “Is this going to be how it all ends?”

Little could I have realized, I’d been followed the whole way from the moment I left the station. And hours later, I was standing topless and barelegged in front of the police, having the cuts and bruises on my naked body photographed for forensic evidence.

Now, there are few words to describe the all-consuming feelings of vulnerability, shame, upset and injustice that I was ridden with in that moment and for the weeks to come. But wanting to find a way to condense these feelings into something ordered that I could work through, I decided to do what felt most natural to me: I wrote about it.

It started out as a cathartic exercise. I wrote a letter to my assaulter, humanizing him as “you,” to identify him as part of the very community that he had so violently abused that night.

Stressing the tidal-wave effect of his actions, I wrote: “Did you ever think of the people in your life? I don’t know who the people in your life are. I don’t know anything about you. But I do know this: you did not just attack me that night. I’m a daughter, I’m a friend, I’m a sister, I’m a pupil, I’m a cousin, I’m a niece,I’m a neighbor; I’m the employee who served everyone coffee in the café under the railway. And all the people who form these relations to me make up my community. And you assaulted every single one of them. You violated the truth that I will never cease to fight for, and which all of these people represent:that there are infinitely more good people in the world than bad.”

But, determined not to let this one incident make me lose faith in the solidarity in my community or humanity as a whole, I recalled the 7/7 terrorist bombings in July 2005 on London transport, and how the mayor of London at the time, and indeed my own parents, had insisted that we all get back on the tubes the next day, so we wouldn’t be defined or changed by those that had made us feel unsafe.

I told my attacker, “You’ve carried out your attack, but now I’m getting back on my tube. My community will not feel we are unsafe walking home after dark. We will get on the last tubes home, and we will walk up our streets alone, because we will not ingrain or submit to the idea that we are putting ourselves in danger in doing so. We will continue to come together, like an army, when any member of our community is threatened. And this is a fight you will not win.”

At the time of writing this letter —

(Applause)

Thank you.

(Applause)

At the time of writing this letter, I was studying for my exams in Oxford, and I was working on the local student paper there. Despite being lucky enough to have friends and family supporting me, it was an isolating time. I didn’t know anyone who’d been through this before; at least I didn’t think I did. I’d read news reports, statistics, and knew how common sexual assault was, yet I couldn’t actually name a single person that I’d heard speak out about an experience of this kind before.

So in a somewhat spontaneous decision, I decided that I would publish my letter in the student paper,hoping to reach out to others in Oxford that might have had a similar experience and be feeling the same way. At the end of the letter, I asked others to write in with their experiences under the hashtag, “#NotGuilty,” to emphasize that survivors of assault could express themselves without feeling shame or guilt about what happened to them — to show that we could all stand up to sexual assault.

What I never anticipated is that almost overnight, this published letter would go viral. Soon, we were receiving hundreds of stories from men and women across the world, which we began to publish on a website I set up. And the hashtag became a campaign.

There was an Australian mother in her 40s who described how on an evening out, she was followed to the bathroom by a man who went to repeatedly grab her crotch. There was a man in the Netherlands who described how he was date-raped on a visit to London and wasn’t taken seriously by anyone he reported his case to. I had personal Facebook messages from people in India and South America, saying, how can we bring the message of the campaign there? One of the first contributions we had was from a woman called Nikki, who described growing up, being molested my her own father. And I had friends open up to me about experiences ranging from those that happened last week to those that happened years ago, that I’d had no idea about.

And the more we started to receive these messages, the more we also started to receive messages of hope — people feeling empowered by this community of voices standing up to sexual assault and victim-blaming. One woman called Olivia, after describing how she was attacked by someone she had trusted and cared about for a long time, said, “I’ve read many of the stories posted here, and I feel hopeful that if so many women can move forward, then I can, too. I’ve been inspired by many, and I hope I can be as strong as them someday. I’m sure I will.”

People around the world began tweeting under this hashtag, and the letter was republished and covered by the national press, as well as being translated into several other languages worldwide.

But something struck me about the media attention that this letter was attracting. For something to be front-page news, given the word “news” itself, we can assume it must be something new or something surprising. And yet sexual assault is not something new. Sexual assault, along with other kinds of injustices, is reported in the media all the time. But through the campaign, these injustices were framed as not just news stories, they were firsthand experiences that had affected real people, who were creating, with the solidarity of others, what they needed and had previously lacked: a platform to speak out, the reassurance they weren’t alone or to blame for what happened to them and open discussions that would help to reduce stigma around the issue. The voices of those directly affected were at the forefront of the story — not the voices of journalists or commentators on social media. And that’s why the story was news.

We live in an incredibly interconnected world with the proliferation of social media, which is of course a fantastic resource for igniting social change. But it’s also made us increasingly reactive, from the smallest annoyances of, “Oh, my train’s been delayed,” to the greatest injustices of war, genocides, terrorist attacks. Our default response has become to leap to react to any kind of grievance by tweeting, Facebooking, hastagging — anything to show others that we, too, have reacted.

The problem with reacting in this manner en masse is it can sometimes mean that we don’t actually react at all, not in the sense of actually doing anything, anyway. It might make ourselves feel better, like we’ve contributed to a group mourning or outrage, but it doesn’t actually change anything. And what’s more, it can sometimes drown out the voices of those directly affected by the injustice, whose needs must be heard.

Worrying, too, is the tendency for some reactions to injustice to build even more walls, being quick to point fingers with the hope of providing easy solutions to complex problems. One British tabloid, on the publication of my letter, branded a headline stating, “Oxford Student Launches Online Campaign to Shame Attacker.” But the campaign never meant to shame anyone. It meant to let people speak and to make others listen. Divisive Twitter trolls were quick to create even more injustice, commenting on my attacker’s ethnicity or class to push their own prejudiced agendas. And some even accused me of feigning the whole thing to push, and I quote, my “feminist agenda of man-hating.”

(Laughter)

I know, right? As if I’m going to be like, “Hey guys! Sorry I can’t make it, I’m busy trying to hate the entire male population by the time I’m 30.”

(Laughter)

Now, I’m almost sure that these people wouldn’t say the things the say in person. But it’s as if because they might be behind a screen, in the comfort in their own home when on social media, people forget that what they’re doing is a public act — that other people will be reading it and be affected by it.

Returning to my analogy of getting back on our trains, another main concern I have about this noise that escalates from our online responses to injustice is that it can very easily slip into portraying us as the affected party, which can lead to a sense of defeatism, a kind of mental barrier to seeing any opportunity for positivity or change after a negative situation.

A couple of months before the campaign started or any of this happened to me, I went to a TEDx event in Oxford, and I saw Zelda la Grange speak, the former private secretary to Nelson Mandela. One of the stories she told really struck me. She spoke of when Mandela was taken to court by the South African Rugby Union after he commissioned an inquiry into sports affairs. In the courtroom, he went up to the South African Rugby Union’s lawyers, shook them by the hand and conversed with them, each in their own language. And Zelda wanted to protest, saying they had no right to his respect after this injustice they had caused him.

He turned to her and said, “You must never allow the enemy to determine the grounds for battle.”

At the time of hearing these words, I didn’t really know why they were so important, but I felt they were, and I wrote them down in a notebook I had on me. But I’ve thought about this line a lot ever since.

Revenge, or the expression of hatred towards those who have done us injustice may feel like a human instinct in the face of wrong, but we need to break out of these cycles if we are to hope to transform negative events of injustice into positive social change. To do otherwise continues to let the enemy determine the grounds for battle, creates a binary, where we who have suffered become the affected,pitted against them, the perpetrators. And just like we got back on our tubes, we can’t let our platforms for interconnectivity and community be the places that we settle for defeat.

But I don’t want to discourage a social media response, because I owe the development of the #NotGuilty campaign almost entirely to social media. But I do want to encourage a more considered approach to the way we use it to respond to injustice.

The start, I think, is to ask ourselves two things. Firstly: Why do I feel this injustice? In my case, there were several answers to this. Someone had hurt me and those who I loved, under the assumption they wouldn’t have to be held to account or recognize the damage they had caused. Not only that, but thousands of men and women suffer every day from sexual abuse, often in silence, yet it’s still a problem we don’t give the same airtime to as other issues. It’s still an issue many people blame victims for.

Next, ask yourself: How, in recognizing these reasons, could I go about reversing them? With us, this was holding my attacker to account — and many others. It was calling them out on the effect they had caused. It was giving airtime to the issue of sexual assault, opening up discussions amongst friends, amongst families, in the media that had been closed for too long, and stressing that victims shouldn’t feel to blame for what happened to them. We might still have a long way to go in solving this problem entirely.But in this way, we can begin to use social media as an active tool for social justice, as a tool to educate, to stimulate dialogues, to make those in positions of authority aware of an issue by listening to those directly affected by it.

Because sometimes these questions don’t have easy answers. In fact, they rarely do. But this doesn’t mean we still can’t give them a considered response. In situations where you can’t go about thinking how you’d reverse this feeling of injustice, you can still think, maybe not what you can do, but what you can not do. You can not build further walls by fighting injustice with more prejudice, more hatred. You can not speak over those directly affected by an injustice. And you can not react to injustice, only to forget about it the next day, just because the rest of Twitter has moved on.

Sometimes not reacting instantly is, ironically, the best immediate course of action we can take. Because we might be angry, upset and energized by injustice, but let’s consider our responses. Let us hold people to account, without descending into a culture that thrives off shaming and injustice ourselves. Let us remember that distinction, so often forgotten by internet users, between criticism and insult. Let us not forget to think before we speak, just because we might have a screen in front of us. And when we create noise on social media, let it not drown out the needs of those affected, but instead let it amplify their voices, so the internet becomes a place where you’re not the exception if you speak out about something that has actually happened to you.

All these considered approaches to injustice evoke the very keystones on which the internet was built: to network, to have signal, to connect — all these terms that imply bringing people together, not pushing people apart.

Because if you look up the word “justice” in the dictionary, before punishment, before administration of law or judicial authority, you get: “The maintenance of what is right.” And I think there are few things more “right” in this world than bringing people together, than unions. And if we allow social media to deliver that, then it can deliver a very powerful form of justice, indeed.

Thank you very much.

(Applause)

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