It’s been almost two weeks since Facebook announced it was no longer allowing misogynist content on its site: images of murdered women, young girls being raped, women gagged, bound and beaten with the implied suggestion (under the guise of “humor”) that boyfriends and husbands do the same to the women in their lives.
The public response since then has ranged from elation to cynicism. Women’s rights groups hailed the decision as a watershed moment for gender equality, guardians of free speech denounced it as censorship, and jaded realists said the campaign was successfully only because it hit Facebook in the pocket-book: the company doesn’t give a rip about violence against women.
Facebook’s decision was a result of an online campaign led by Jaclyn Friedman, executive director of Women, Action and the Media, Laura Bates of the Everyday Sexism Project and Soraya Chemaly, author/activist. They wrote an open letter to the Huffington Post challenging Facebook to take gender-based hate speech as seriously as it does racist content. Some of the Facebook sites they specifically mentioned were Violently Raping Your Friend Just for Laughs and Fly Kicking Sluts in the Uterus.
The movement urged advertisers to stop promoting their products on Facebook as long as Facebook continued allowing content that glorified violence against women. The letter was signed by a broad coalition of 40 organizations. Within one week, over 5,000 emails were sent to Facebook and 60,000 Twitter posts were up at #FBrape. Several companies, including Nissan, responded by withdrawing their ads. The campaign succeeded even the organizers’ expectations.
The New York Times quoted Friedman:
“We thought that advertisers would be the most effective way of getting Facebook’s attention. We had no idea that it would blow up this big. I think people have been frustrated with this issue for so long and feeling like that had no way for Facebook to pay attention to them. As consumers we do have a lot of power.”
In their company response, Facebook said it would no longer allow anonymous posts of such violent content, but would require users to use their real identity, would better train employees to monitor content, and would open up true communication with women’s groups.
I think there is a degree of veracity in the different responses the campaign’s success elicited, but one particular comment from a reader of the Times article stuck out.
“Who cares lets worry more about the women being violated than words on a facebook page!” (Sic)
Sticks and Stones
I understand the reader’s sentiment: why waste time wringing our hands about what people are saying about women when we need to be doing something about what is actually being done to women. Echoes of “Sticks and stones will break my bones, but words will never hurt me,” hover around this comment.
Broken bones often heal, and sometimes mend together stronger than before the injury. Words can bounce off of us, but sometimes they can lead to fatal consequences. We should, indeed worry about words on a Facebook page. Or words on any page, or any other medium, that eventually result in violence toward women (or anyone else, for that matter).
Because of their commonality, we are lulled into believing words exist in a vacuum, floating in their own cloud and not affecting the rhythm of our lives. But words are not simply utilitarian utterances that move us from one task to the next. They shape our lives. They hurt. They heal. They encourage. They destroy.
Violence against women doesn’t originate in isolation. It comes from attitudes that are shaped and reinforced by words, even seemingly innocuous ones. We live a casual culture that detaches the words used with the actual meaning behind them.
Women and girls are often referred to as sluts, hoes and bitches not because they are promiscuous, hateful females, but because that’s the current monikers these days. It is analogous to broads, dames and skirts of yesteryear, also demeaning, but not quite as sexually graphic. And it is not just men and really bad rappers using these labels. I work in education and have heard girls refer to each to other with these words, even among the best of friends: “Hey slut, what’s the history assignment for tomorrow?”
Hardly Batting an Eyelash
I am in no way suggesting teenage girls using these words in their friendship circles are the cause of violence against women: I am noting that the flippant use of derogatory references to women is so widespread that even females use those labels among themselves without batting an eyelash.
The Facebook sites promoting violence against women didn’t appear overnight devoid of cultural influence. For a long time our culture has tolerated words in music, books and publications that advocate gender-based hatred. That has desensitized us to atrocities against women. This campaign wasn’t the first to try to get Facebook to take down offensive sites, but it is the one that finally united women in a pushback that it’s not okay to degrade women through social media. And maybe it didn’t hurt either that it was targeted at advertisers.
Whether moved by the profit margin, or a true desire to curb hate speech toward women, I am glad Facebook changed its policy. Yes, there is the perennial dance between free speech and responsible conduct, but as a private company Facebook can set its own policies and I think this is a good one.
No doubt, those actively advocating the rape and abuse of women are the minority, trolls looking for attention. It would be easy to say, “Yeah, well I am not like that.” I know you are not. Neither am I. Neither are the majority of Facebook’s 1 billion users. Let’s be thankful for that.
But let’s also use this opportunity to pause for a moment and evaluate our own speech patterns. Are we creating an atmosphere that builds up or tears down people? Are we “polluting the relational atmosphere” as one pastor recently asked?
Redemptive and Destructive Qualities
We don’t have to go far in wisdom literature to see that words have redemptive qualities.
“Anxiety in the heart of man causes depression, but a good word makes it glad.” – Proverbs 12:24
“Pleasant words are like a honeycomb, Sweetness to the soul and health to the bones.” -Proverbs 16:23
Conversely, they also have destructive consequences to ourselves and others.
“A false witness speaks lies and sows discord among brethren.” – Proverbs 6:19
“You are snared by the words of your mouth; you are taken by the words of your mouth.”- Proverbs 6:2
Are we using words that have derogatory meanings in a flippant way under the guise of humor? Are we mindful of the power of our words? We have all felt the sting of a careless word tossed in our direction:
- You’re just a girl.
- You don’t have the smarts.
- That is beyond your abilities.
- You’re an idiot.
- You’re too lazy.
Honestly, very few of us are going to wage a campaign against a social media giant like Facebook, or any other big corporation. But we can launch a campaign in our own hearts to speak affirmation, dignity and worth into the lives of others.
We each have one voice. Let’s use it to speak wholesome, life-giving words into a culture that so desperately needs it.