Most people reading this will be well aware of the recent so-called ‘Twitter spat’ between Joanne Rowling and Natalie McGarry MP. McGarry raised with Rowling that Twitter user @brianspanner1, who Rowling has a supportive online relationship with (in that Rowling endorses him and converses with him regularly online) is actually a well-known misogynist who tweets extreme abuse to women. Women who are mostly but not exclusively Scottish female politicians, almost all of whom are pro-independence. Indeed he regularly refers to women as the c-word, belittles them, abuses them for how they look, abuses them specifically in relation to being female – including abusive comments tying in appearance with the menopause and female genital mutilation; none of which I would want to reproduce here but all of which has been well documented. See the ‘Tweets You Won’t Read’ here for some samples. And this didn’t just start recently; Spanner began abusing women online like this two years ago.
It seems it was McGarry’s view that having the kind of supportive relationship with a known misogynist that Rowling has with Spanner (who she also follows) was a reflection on Rowling herself. This is a view she has a right to as surely we all have a right to assess character for ourselves. And let’s be clear – McGarry never accused Rowling of overtly supporting misogyny and in fact went out of her way to say so. She just made the point that Rowling’s endorsements of Spanner were endorsements of someone who is a misogynist.
It’s important to mention here than unlike some have contended, Rowling’s endorsement of Spanner isn’t about one statement she made when he helped raise money for her charity. Compliments, approval and agreement characterise her interactions with him; she has referred to him as ‘simply brilliant’ and even joked that she is the real person behind his account – and that is when she isn’t complimenting his ‘wisdom’, like she did when he tweeted that nationalists tend to be people with ‘hum drum lives’, or indeed wishing him happy birthday. However Rowling, instead of addressing the real issue McGarry raised – i.e. misogyny – responded by threatening to sue McGarry with what she later referred to as her ‘island’ full of lawyers, in what can only be described as an effort to silence another woman. No surprise that threats of legal action from a billionaire worked. No surprise either that Rowling isn’t actually suing her.
It’s also no surprise that Rowling felt she could ignore Spanner’s misogyny altogether; for two years he has been able to be a misogynist of an extreme kind largely due to the fact that while the Scottish media has been obsessed with ‘cybernat’ abuse (mostly consisting of some people calling some other people ‘traitors’ on the internet) they have left the most abusive, misogynistic account on Scottish political twitter completely alone. Indeed recently the Herald even blurred out his anonymous twitter handle when it had to be included in their reporting of said argument, which is particularly unusual in media reporting of tweets, possibly even unheard of.
So whilst our media has been quick to publicly identify and condemn so-called cybernats for much less, now – even though journalists have said online that several of them know the identity of this extreme misogynist and indeed have even met him – they have chosen to protect him. Apparently his misogynistic tweets at the heart of the disagreement between McGarry and Rowling are completely irrelevant to the story and something the public are ‘just not interested in’. But someone saying ‘meh’ in response to hearing about the death of David Bowie, or deciding to no longer eat Tunnocks Teacakes – and also being pro-independence – well that will be reported in newspapers and news-sites as a story in itself – twitter handles and all.
Indeed it’s interesting that ‘writing for the public interest’ invariably tends to mean only printing stories detrimental to those on one side of the constitutional question, however petty, boring and unrepresentative the particulars are. Only now it also seems to mean actively protecting the identity of unionist abusers the public would be very interested in having revealed – and definitely more interested in than reading about some random who stopped eating a specific kind of cake.
Even though these double standards inherent in our media and indeed the unhealthy conditions they create have been clear for some time, I think the extent to which the unionist establishment are trying to protect Spanner has still been a surprise for most of us. Despite his proven misogyny having now been presented to many of them directly (although most are his twitter pals and follow him so were likely already aware of much of it, if not all) not one prominent unionist (and the term is used here loosely) has publicly condemned it. Some, like Rowling herself, didn’t refer to the abuse at all and instead tried to present Rowling as the victim; others like journalist Stephen Daisley simply commended Spanner for apologising to two of the women he had abused (which Spanner only did after his tweets had been published in online articles) although Daisley made no mention of the fact that Spanner also stated he had no intention of deleting his misogynistic tweets and as such they are still there at the time of writing. Others like journalist Ross McCafferty (and indeed Spanner himself) resorted to whataboutery, despite the fact he didn’t provide any evidence of anyone with prominent yes support tweeting misogynistic abuse at all, let alone at the same level as Spanner (indeed no-one has because it doesn’t exist). Then there are those such as the author Muriel Gray who appeared to reduce Spanner’s misogyny to just being a bit ‘rude’, and added that he was ‘hilarious’.
All these reactions amount to condoning misogyny.
Misogyny is something we either condemn or condone – there is no in-between. This doesn’t mean that every single incidence of misogyny we come across is something we have to involve ourselves in, but it does mean that when we do involve ourselves, especially when we are faced with the misogyny of a person we endorse, that we must overtly condemn such damaging hate being clear we absolutely do not endorse it. This is at the very least and indeed is especially important when it comes to prominent and/or establishment figures.
We must do this because otherwise we are tacitly condoning their actions. This is what our silence does. Misogynists and abusers who see silence (from those other than their victim(s)) in response to their abuse, especially from those who endorse them, obviously take this as vindication as it is a form of acceptance. Ignoring abuse or overtly supporting it both mean the same thing – accepting and allowing it. Indeed this is well-evidenced in Spanner’s misogyny in the fact that it has been continuous and persistent – he obviously thought it was fine to publish his attacks and that he could do so without repercussion and indeed he has done because it has been ignored by the people who support him. Thus it’s pretty clear acceptance not only allowed his abuse, but perpetuated it as well. Acceptance after all is also vindication – i.e. the absence of blame and accusation of wrongdoing. Every single abuser of women who is aware of the silence/failure to condemn Spanner’s misogyny, and indeed the continued endorsement of him, will very likely feel vindicated somewhat by the acceptance and thus condonation this portrays (it’s hard to imagine how anyone could ever argue that it would cultivate anything other than this in the eyes of abusers). And anyone who has ever been the victim of abuse/worked with the victims of abuse will very likely know that vindication only leads to continued and often worse abuse; indeed anything that contributes to the idea that what they are doing isn’t really so bad or so wrong will usually have this effect. Thus the issue here isn’t just the anonymous troll account @brianspanner1 – the real issue is protecting women. If you are accepting misogyny you are not just condoning it but you are also thereby encouraging both misogyny and the abuse of women in general – because this is what acceptance cultivates.
Another result of such silence is that it leads many people to deduce (or at least to pretend) that it cannot be misogyny at all. I personally received a number of tweets from Rowling’s followers defending Rowlings’ silence, many of whom alleged that Spanner’s misogyny wasn’t really misogyny and that women like me who said so were idiots. This denial is an inevitable ramification and the effects reach far beyond the confines of social media, as all of this does.
Silence in the face of misogyny: one of the most effective ways to cultivate both denial of abuse and actual abuse towards women – both on and offline.
It is of course for prominent unionist figures who endorse Spanner and/or who have commented on this situation to decide how they wish to respond to such misogyny and indeed for which ends they use their platform. But they should understand that if their choice amounts to condoning misogyny, not only will that choice be clear, but the bigger the platform they themselves have, all the more damaging their choice will be for women in the end.