Friday, November 15, 2013

Famous Speech Friday: Caroline Criado-Perez on talking back to cyber bullies

Criado-Perez at far right
If you heard about the recent decision in England to feature a woman--Jane Austen--on the ten-pound note, you might have thought that it was just a nice feature story. But behind the successful campaign to stop featuring all-male historic figures on British currency was a woman, Caroline Criado-Perez, who used social media tools to rally support for the decision. And then those same tools were used to harrass her, as retaliation, with death threats, rape threats, and more. Cyber bullies sent emails, letters and tweets to tell her they knew where she or her family lived and what they were going to do to her.

If you think that the barriers to women speaking in public are long gone, consider this, just one of the messages she received: "WOMEN THAT TALK TOO MUCH NEED TO GET RAPED." There were many worse, but it's significant that her speaking up prompted the rage. It's 2013, and we're still not used to women being vocal.

In her speech at the Women's Aid conference, Criado-Perez didn't focus on her successful campaign so much as the campaign of rage against her, tackling it head-on. She shared the words used to harrass her, noted that both men and women were telling her to shut up and not complain, and saved a special place for the advice that she received over and over again, rejecting it as just another way of getting her to be quiet:
If there’s one thing I want to come out of what happened to me, it’s for the phrase “don’t feed the trolls” to be scrubbed from the annals of received wisdom. Not feeding the trolls doesn’t magically scrub out the image in your head of being told you’ll be gang-raped till you die. What are victims meant to do with that image, the rage and the horror that it conjures up? We’re meant to internalise it until it consumes us? Well I’m sorry, but I’m not having that. Victims have to be allowed to stand up and shout back – they need to be allowed to ask for support, without being accused of attention-seeking. They need to be allowed to draw the attention of the world to what so many women go through on a daily basis, and make it front page news. Because, make no mistake. Not talking about this is not going to make abuse and misogyny go away. On the contrary, it will help it to thrive.
Underscoring that her harrassment was an effort to shut her up, Criado-Perez ended her speech saying, "I want my freedom of speech back. And if we stand together and keep shouting back, I believe we'll get it." What can you learn from this famous speech?
  • Make abuse public: Using a public speech to share abusive language from social media is both brave and important: It's the opposite of hiding, and brings the threats out into the light of day for all to see and hear. Anita Sarkeesian did much the same in her TEDxWomen talk on the cyber-harrassment she experienced, although her talk projected the threats behind her as she spoke. Criado-Perez read them out in her speech, in two lists that got progressively more violent and abusive in tone. She included a warning at the start of her remarks to let the listeners know that abusive language would be included. Her message about the usual "don't feed the trolls" advice helps other women facing similar attacks to speak up.
  • Advance concrete proposals: Told by the police that they couldn't do anything because no crime had been committed, her speech pointed out that hate speech is a crime and urged that police be given the training and resources to keep women from being attacked in this way. Criado-Perez also offered proposals for social media companies, prompting Twitter to respond with a "report abuse" button. Don't just raise issues when you speak. Make proposals and urge their adoption while you have the floor.
  • Be your own media corrections service: Media reports continually tagged Criado-Perez as haaving pushed for Jane Austen to appear on the 10-pound note, when she never advocated for a specific woman, just an end to the all-males-except-the-queen policy. "(Note to media, I really didn’t campaign for Jane Austen’s face on a banknote, please stop saying I did, thank you!)" she says, early in the speech. It's a good use of the microphone. In the same way, you can publicly put to rest rumors, accusations and other misinformation in your speeches.
You can read the speech in full, which was published in the news media in an unusual move. And while you might think it's a disturbing trend that this is the second Famous Speech Friday post about a woman whose speech detailed the violent and sexual harrassment she experienced publicly and privately by cyber bullies, I think it's a good sign that women are using public speaking to name and shame these types of attacks.

(Bank of England photo)

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