Long before Donald Trump painted journalists as enemies of the state, the process of dehumanisation had already begun writes Chimene Suleyman
Already, in the spaces beneath our articles, open for public comment, we were dumb bitches and the perpetually mistaken, racial slurs and upcoming rape victims of our future. We were (as we sometimes feared might come true) our own death threats waiting to happen. “I hope you die,” rattled in our inboxes, the catchphrase of interchangeable hatred masquerading as response and opinion. “Hope they kill you in whatever backwards country you’re from,” another wrote to me. On a different occasion, a photograph of two women waited in my Twitter mentions, noose wrapped tight around their necks, hanging from the branch of a tree, a crowd gathered at their lifeless feet.
Somehow, I had come to accept it. I learned to feel grateful had the comments been personal, but excluded threats. Then, grateful had the threat only been one, not five, or ten. Then, grateful had the threats been five, or ten, but still I was alive. Somehow, we had come to understand this as part of the job. Had a job-spec circulated before every article, perhaps it might have read, “Experience in long-form writing, also, in graciously turning a blind eye to mistreatment.”
Or, as we had all come to understand it: Ignore the trolls. Do not feed them: Mythical creatures whose gross misconduct might not count, somehow. And yet, there is great danger in such terminology—a minimisation of what words like this do, and the spaces in which they have been allowed to fester. Verbal violence towards us had been presented as faceless avatars, as non-real things, fictitious suppositions. What is not real cannot harm us, seemed to be the theory. And yet, this did not belong to the chimerical: these trolls, as we have come to call them, were real, they existed, they were not trolls at all, not insubstantial rascals—these were people, onscreen and off. What’s more, these were our harassers; these were our abusers.
In the days before one staffer and four journalists were murdered at the Maryland’s Capital Gazette by a gunman with a history of harassing the paper, Milo Yiannopolous had said, “I can’t wait for the vigilante squads to start gunning journalists down on sight.” Yiannopolous has been quick to remind us that his remarks were a joke, that such murderous incitement came, not from any reality, but from the position of troll.
Still, Yiannopolous, is not a harmless internet provocateur. Nor did he grow to fame simply for being an ineffectual internet scamp. He is a fascist. And it is for being a fascist, not a negligible online antagonist, that he is enjoyed by his vast supporters, of which the president is one.
No matter. As Yiannopolous encourages us to accept threats against journalists as flippant and harmless, we remain accustomed to having our lack of welfare tolerated anyway, from our readers to employers, alike. Below-the-line comments remain, encouraged by mainstream media outlets for whom we write. If that is unfair to say, our employers certainly do not deter it. Perversely, mainstream media has benefited like this. Benefited from the click-bait it has generated from the spectacle that unravels beneath our work (and into our lives), positioned to be just as inviting as the article itself.
I can think of few other jobs where abuse is positioned as merely part of what we do. We are under-appreciated by media outlets who have often turned a blind eye to our harassment, offers no counselling, and no salary high enough to comfortably seek our own. In fact, barely a salary at all.
The abuse experienced by journalists is far worse for women of colour, then white women, then men of colour. The message for what we are expected to tolerate, and who is expected to tolerate it, is clear.
Perhaps Yiannopolus’ comment came after the preconceived plans of a murderer. Perhaps, the killer had never come across the risqué joke, that was not a joke at all. What is known, however, is that killer, Yiannopolous, president, and troll have each understood the dehumanisation of the journalist: bulls-eye for disgruntled reader, negligent employer, and government, alike.
Our mental and physical safety has not mattered for some time. None of this is new.
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Chimene Suleyman is a writer from London. She has written about race for Media Diversified, The Independent, IBTimes, The Pool, The Debrief, to a name a few. She has appeared on BBC Newsnight and BBC radio. She is a contributing essayist to best selling book The Good Immigrant, and her poetry collection Outside Looking On was featured in a Guardian’s Best Books of 2014 list. She currently lives in New York.
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