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A new documentary highlights online violence against women
This corner offers no endorsement among the impressive-sounding films in the competition for Best Canadian Documentary at the Calgary International Film Festival, which opened today. But I have seen one of the films and can commend it to everyone’s attention. I would say it arrives at the right moment, except the moment has been here for years and seems unlikely to end soon.
Backlash: Misogyny in the Digital Age follows five women who’ve been the subject of online harassment, including degrading comments, racism, threats of physical harm and sexual assault, and death threats. Despite its matter-of-fact tone, Backlash is a punishingly hard film to watch. Perhaps in that, it gives some slight hint of what it must have been like to live through the barrage of hate it chronicles. Here’s the trailer.
One of the film’s subjects, a French actor named Marion Seclin, posted a Youtube video complaining about street harassment. She stopped counting after she had received 40,000 online insults, rape threats and death threats.
Vermont state representative Kiah Morris resigned in 2018 following a concerted campaign of racist online harassment. Swastikas were carved into trees on her property. In the film, her husband loses his composure as he describes the night somebody broke into their house while his buddies were out front distracting the Morrises. On the day she resigned, one of her admitted tormentors, a white supremacist, showed up at the news conference, wearing an alt-right Pepe the Frog t-shirt. The police had already told Morris they couldn’t do anything about the guy.
Laurence Gratton, an elementary-school teacher in Montreal, has been harrassed for five years by a former colleague, who appropriates other people’s identities to track and harass her, and has posted on a porn site using her image and contact information. The police have told Gratton she should simply spend less time on the internet, which I suppose isn’t quite the same as saying all this is her fault, but it remains spectacularly useless advice.
Laura Boldrini was the first woman Speaker in Italy’s equivalent of the House of Commons. A mayor from an opposing political party wrote in a Facebook post that four immigrants who had been arrested for rape should be put under house arrest at Boldrini’s house. “Maybe then she’ll smile.”
The film’s last subject, Rehtaeh Parsons, is represented by her father, Glenn Canning. Rehtaeh killed herself after images of her sexual assault were posted online.
The film is directed by Léa Clermont-Dion, a feminist author who’s long campaigned against harassment in its various forms, and documentary filmmaker Guylaine Maroist. The two Montrealers shot French and English versions of the film. The French version, Je Vous Salue, Salope (“I greet you, slut,” obviously one of the assaults these women received) drew the largest audience of any Quebec-made film in Quebec last weekend, largely because people have been calling local theatres and asking for it to be screened. A hell of a lot of theatres have done so. People living near English-language theatres could feel free to do the same. It’s playing in English at the Cinema du Parc in Montreal, and again, starting this weekend in Calgary. It’ll be at Ottawa’s Bytowne Cinema Oct. 11 to 13, and Maroist tells me that if anyone wants to screen the film on Parliament Hill, she’s all ears. I can make introductions.
(I’m not impartial here. Guylaine Maroist is one of my oldest friends. When she was at Le Devoir in the 90s, music writers from Le Devoir and The Gazette used to hang out at Bar 5 in the old Spectrum music club during the Montreal jazz festival. Following the documentary production company she and her spouse Éric Ruel have built, La Ruelle Films, has been a great pleasure.)
I heard about this project more than a year ago, yet watching it in late 2022, it feels like some smart editor ordered it up a couple of weeks ago. Canadian women journalists Erica Ifill, Saba Eitizaz and Rachel Gilmore have recently faced a huge amount of often violent online abuse. The federal Liberal government promised a bill regulating “online harms” as part of its alphabet soup of proposed laws to regulate internet expression.
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I’m well aware of the arguments against putting such an effort into law. How can anyone decide where the line between acceptable and threatening expression lies? How could such judgments be made and applied in anything close to real time, when Twitter and Facebook are dumping gigabytes of new data online every hour? And who believes such choices can be made in the absence of loaded political judgments?
(For a real-world application of these questions, consider a transparently stupid tweet a colleague posted yesterday, which Pierre Poilievre has seized on with discernible opportunism. There’s no gender aspect to the example at hand, and if you think I’m going to join you in debating the merits of the various parties to this dispute, you may have a wait on your hands.)
I’m agnostic about whether a new law in this domain would offer help that would outweigh the side effects it would cause. To me these are hard questions, made harder by the absence of an actual bill to examine. But what Backlash reminds us is that while we debate angels on the head of a pin, countless women are being marched through Hell every time they open a browser. And the excuses offered up for this hateful behaviour — often, in the case of the Canadian colleagues I mentioned above, that they wrote something someone disagrees with — would seem laughably slim if they weren’t offered in the service of frightening behaviour.
How about this. Instead of complaining about what others write, maybe each of us could police ourselves. If you disagree with somebody, disagree. And consider doing it quietly, under your breath, and then moving on. Above all, don’t threaten. Don’t muse about somebody else hurting them. Don’t use sex to instil fear. Don’t dump a barrage of hate. And maybe go offline instead of forcing somebody you believe to be smaller and weaker to go offline first.
I know it’s fantasy to believe most of the men who are doing this will even begin to contemplate the possibility that they’re the problem. Which is why I’m not certain this doesn’t need a law. Something about the internet makes too many of us default to spewing hate and instilling fear. But that wouldn’t happen if we didn’t have it in us. In each of us, for each of us to try to control. Forty thousand messages to one woman for one post. What’s wrong with people.