Jezebel blogger Lindy West has long been a voice in the debate over how comedians should handle jokes about rape, drawing on her own experiences to write a guide on how to construct bits that target rapists rather than rape survivors. Her latest intervention in this multi-round conversation was an appearance on W. Kamau Bell's late-night FX show, Totally Biased, where she talked about the issue with comedian Jim Norton. While their segment was respectful and substantive, the response West's gotten since is not.
In this striking video, West reads just a sampling of the deluge of ugly comments, tweets and emails she’s received in the past few days, gems like “There is no way a straight dude would fuck or even rape that ugly heifer.”
I’m surprised that we’re still surprised. In the last year alone, angry trolls targeted video blogger Anita Sarkeesian when she announced plans to explore the way women are portrayed in video games and attacked commentator Zerlina Maxwell when she argued that telling women to buy guns wasn’t a solution a solution to rape. But whereas in 2007, tech writer Kathy Sierra cancelled public speaking appearances after being harassed and defamed online, feminists like West and Sarkeesian have taken a different approach, forging ahead with their projects—and in some cases, collecting their harassers' remarks and handles, and publishing them.
So does this approach change any minds? Is that even the point?
It doesn't seem particularly likely that publicly shaming the men who harass women on the internet will make them suddenly recognize the error of their ways. And the rest of us have become so desensitized to the assholes online, that it’s hard to get riled up when they are exposed in a video like West’s. The Internet has simultaneously lowered the barriers to harassing someone and lowered our cultural standards for what is acceptable behavior. And you can't really shame people for acting precisely as badly as we expect them to.
But shaming the trolls, rather than engaging in actual debate with them, isn’t always about changing minds or exposing terrible behavior. Sometimes it’s just catharsis. At the Nation, Jessica Valenti argues that baiting the trolls can be part of a mental health strategy for feminist writing online. "Responding to—and making fun of—sexists has always been a part of my feminist work. Not just because it shines a light on misogyny or holds people accountable to their words—but because it’s fun," she writes. "Sometimes reminding ourselves how hilariously stupid the opposition can be is a necessary break from the burden of idealism."
And far from driving West off the web, her trolls have given her a ton of good material. The publicized attacks inspired prominent supporters like Michael Ian Black and Lena Dunham to speak up in defense of West’s arguments about rape and comedy. And as of this writing, West’s post on Jezebel has more than 320,000 page views.