If there’s one thing most Americans can agree on, it’s that internet comments are the worst. Or, at the very least, they can attract some of the ugliest elements of society, the most incorrigible misogynists, racists, homophobes, and worse—even in relatively (relatively!) civil commenting sections, like Slate’s But what if I told you that even trollish, virulently anti-PC internet commenters can change?
As a member of Slate’s comment moderation team, I see more than my share of vile behavior by dyed-in-the-wool miscreants. I also see signs of hope, when people with differences of opinions talk to one another and open themselves to new perspectives and change. One of the clearest examples of a shift in Slate’s commenting culture has happened in the wake of the Harvey Weinstein scandal and the #MeToo activism that followed it. Some who once mocked the idea of rape culture have come to recognize the meaning behind the term as they ponder how a culture of silence enabled abusive men. Others who thought that sexual harassment was a very rare occurrence, overinflated by feminists, have seen people close to them sharing stories under the hashtag #MeToo and come to believe it is more common and more urgently in need of fixing than they previously thought. Many have begun to feel more empathy for women put in impossible situations when before they might have tuned a single story out.
I asked three commenters who are representative of these evolutions (as well as one who has been the victim of sexual harassment) to expand on their thoughts. While I quote them under their commenter names, I’ve confirmed their real identities—some of them may have been trolls, but they’re not sock puppets. Here’s how they’ve changed.
Patient Complains of Knife in Head
I first had the idea to write about Slate commenters’ shifting views after one of our regulars, Patient Complains of Knife in Head, wrote that he had changed his mind about rape culture over the past six weeks, although, he said, he still preferred to call rape culture “power-worshipping culture.” PCOKIH is 54 and lives in the greater Boston area.
It wasn’t hard to find jokes about rape culture in PCOKIH’s past. They hardly amounted to terrible stuff by internet-commenting standards, but they were still evidence of a point of view, widespread among our commenters, that rejected the possibility that anything real might lie beneath feminist descriptions of a mainstream culture where assault and harassment is normalized and rapists are let off the hook.
Now, PCOKIH writes:
My thoughts have changed on sexual harassment and “rape culture” pretty dramatically. One report that crystalized it for me is hearing of an actress who endured an attempted rape on Harvey Weinstein’s yacht in Cannes and when she reported it to some group of people, they replied “that’s just Harvey being Harvey.” That, in combination with the other cases in the news where there was a web of people who remained silent, sort of opened my eyes to how perpetrators were being supported by a culture that devalued the victims. So, similar to systems that were in place during segregation. People use euphemisms and glib deflections to hide from themselves that a certain class of people are being treated with less dignity and as having less worth than others.
I’m not crazy about the term “rape culture” because it seems more like “power-worship culture.” Those who pull the strings are really above the law and whatever excuses people need to make are made.
PCOKIH still thinks that there are ways in which feminists overreach or play games with statistics and that the overzealous liberal enforcement of PC culture may discourage people from taking these issues seriously. None of the commenters I spoke with had changed every single opinion they once had, but for PCOKIH, his prior tendency to mock and dismiss rape culture in the comments has morphed into sober consideration and a good-faith willingness to engage with others’ views.
I used to think of commenter Oledeadmeat as a troll. Not Slate’s worst troll ever—that would be the guy who keeps me up at night creating screenname after screenname to try to get around our moderation tools—but someone whose comments carried a distinct whiff of l’eau de bridge. Minimizing rape culture was one tool in his troll box, along with needling Democrats and decrying identity politics. So, I was surprised by the sensitivity he betrayed when he first volunteered to speak with me about the ways his thinking about rape culture and sexual harassment has evolved.
This sure sounded like a guy who was reflecting, and reflecting hard, on the ways that women everywhere experienced harassment and abuse. In contrast, here’s the Oledeadmeat I knew:
As the stories about sexual assault and harassment have piled up, Oledeadmeat, who is 49 and hails from San Antonio, described for me the ways his thinking has evolved:
I would say what is coming out now from all quarters, Moore, Weinstein, and others, has revealed a deep problem. More than I expected, men with power will feel no restriction on using that power for personal gratification, regardless of another’s feelings. And other people wanting the support of that power sometime feel tempted to tolerate or enable them. We need to agree that this is no longer something we will overlook.
Some of the shifts I’m seeing in the comments have been smaller, but these small adjustments are no less significant for the overall tone of the conversation we’re having on Slate. The Jolson, a 32-year-old from Columbus, Ohio, never mocked rape culture outright, but he does say that his assessment of how pervasive sexual harassment is has changed, both through conversations with women he knows and because of the accounts that have been making news.
Below are a couple of examples of comments The Jolson made on the topic of sexual harassment and rape culture in the past. When asked about them he said, “I’d still stand by them overall, though I’d try to highlight that I don’t deny that women are disproportionately affected in terms of objectification, although I still want consistency in approach. As for the assault statistics I referenced, as far as we can tell people are still safer now, but obviously we have work to do in helping foster an environment where they feel OK to come forward.”
I’ve always tried not to be dismissive but I’ll admit to apathy when someone would use the phrase “rape culture” due to it seeming to be more of a bogeyman. Now I put more effort into being more empathetic and look to why they use the term and what they're intending.
I am glad that more women (and men) are feeling like they can come forward with their stories and hopefully pursue justice. I still believe due process is important so I’ll never push the concept of unconditional belief when someone makes an allegation but I do want to build a culture where people do feel that they can bring their stories forward and expect their allegations to be taken seriously and investigated properly. I’m not content with where we’re at but I don’t pretend to have a solution.
Finally, here are some of the thoughts of C.H., a 38-year-old woman on the East Coast, who describes herself as a lurker who regularly reads the comments and has herself experienced sexual harassment and assault. She wrote, in part:
I appreciate Slate’s commentariat for being more open-minded and coherent than most. However, there are always people who protest: Why didn’t she come forward earlier, she had to know 20 years later she wouldn’t be believed, she just wants her 15 minutes, or money etc. etc. But … That is why victims don’t come forward. They have to divulge granular details of a traumatic experience and risk people disbelieving or blaming them anyway.
Commenters throughout the internet were even lambasting the woman who was fondled at 16 by George H.W. Bush. Why didn’t she just speak up at the time? Really? Why didn’t a teenager publicly accuse the president of grabbing her ass during a photo op?
I’m thinking of things that have happened to me and others I know, plus the attitudes of people that I grew up with when the conversation shifted to sexual lines being crossed in our community. Looking back, I’m surprised at just how many instances of harassment that I can remember happening both to myself and others. Even the comparatively “tame” stuff that women put up with daily, inappropriate comments from authority figures, strangers staring fixedly at our bodies, frotteuring, groping: they used to seem like one-off aberrations. Now, thanks to the brave women who have come forward lately, it’s become obvious that this behavior is rife. Not just that of the perpetrator, but also the public pressure for the victim to brush it off and keep quiet.
As male commenters look back on having freely made jokes about rape culture or minimized the existence of sexual harassment, it’s important not to lose sight of the fact that there were always women watching and listening to it all. While high-profile celebrities reckon with criminal behavior and other serious transgressions that have made national news, millions of others are reckoning with their own past behavior and looking for ways that they can learn to support women who have experienced rape or harassment, now that the prevalence and seriousness of this issue has belatedly hit home.