Guest post by Madeleine Davies (English Literature): update 20th April 2017, due to the 8th June General Election this talk will be postponed until some time in October to be confirmed.
In Jess Phillips’ recently published book, Everywoman (Hutchinson, 2017), the Labour MP discusses the ways in which female voices are silenced. She declares that this problem has deep historical roots as she observes the male and female gargoyles decorating the central lobby and the committee rooms in the House of Commons: Phillips notes that the men are depicted open mouthed in speech while the women are gagged, their mouths literally covered with stone muzzles (p.56).
The silencing of women’s voices is by no means a recent phenomenon but it has assumed a disturbing new manifestation in the digital age. In a particularly compelling section of her book, Phillips discusses online trolling and abuse and she explains ‘dog-piling’ which is a technique used by online trolls to shut down someone (often a woman) who speaks out. ‘Dog-piling’ involves hundreds or even thousands of people bombarding a Twitter account with messages over a short space of time. It is designed to drown out other voices, to intimidate the tweeter, and to effectively ‘block’ the voice.
Phillips recalls a horrifying example of this being used against her when a men’s rights activist made a comment about how ‘he wouldn’t even rape me’. As a statement, this is shocking enough, but what followed is even worse. As soon as the initial comment had been made, Phillips recalls the ‘dog-piling’ attack it initiated:
‘A glance at my twitter feed that day was a bit like reading a sinister Dr Seuss:
I will not rape her on a plane
I will not rape her on a train
I will not rape her in the car
I will not rape her on a star
I will not rape her HERE or THERE
I will not rape her anywhere
I will not rape her on a tram
I will not rape her, MAN-I-AM (pp.215-6)
That sufficient numbers of people required for a ‘dog-pile’ can find this abuse either funny or acceptable in the C21st staggered me. I am not a regular user of Twitter or Facebook, and reading Phillips’ book seemed to confirm my instinct that it might be a good idea to retain this policy.
But as Phillips notes, ‘dog-piling’ and other tactics (including ‘isolating’) are designed to coerce women into silence and she forges a connection between witch-hunts and the contemporary digital world when she notes that the feeling of being the victim of dog-piling is ‘akin to being stood in front of an enormous angry mob waving burning torches and pitchforks’ (p.215).
When women give in to the bullying and absent themselves from social media, the bullies win, so Phillips is firm in her argument that such tactics must not deter women from asserting their voices online, painful though the consequences can be. For this reason, Phillips was involved in the launch of Recl@im, an Internet campaign looking at laws and regulations that could be better used to stop abuse. She is also involved in #NotTheCost, a campaign led by Madeleine Albright to combat the violence inflicted against politically active women around the world. Phillips’ engagement with this issue is clear – Jo Cox was one of her closest friends.
Phillips does not whine – she takes action and she asks all of us to do the same. She is, I think, an inspiring woman and it does not matter whether you agree with her politics or not. That she is willing to become the voice for all people who have no access to platforms from which to speak, positions her as a woman to be admired.
Jess Phillips is giving a talk at the University of Reading on June 1st. The Vice-Chancellor will introduce her at 6pm, and there will be a Q & A session and a book signing (for Everywoman) following the session. The talk takes place in the Van Emden Lecture Theatre and the book signing will be in the First Floor Foyer (both are in the Edith Morley Building, entrance 1a).
I have invited Jess to the University because I believe that she has a voice that needs to be heard by us all. Our students need fearless role models like her (though Phillips says she feels anything but ‘fearless’). I hope that colleagues and students from across the University will come and hear Jess and contribute to the debate afterwards. After all, as she states:
‘By demanding to be heard, by dealing with our
imposter syndrome, by being cheerleaders,
doers not sayers, creating our own networks
and by daring to believe that we can make a
difference, we can.’