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Jen Gerson: Don't threaten to harm Margaret Atwood
Don't threaten to harm anyone you disagree with is a good general rule, come to think of it.
Don't threaten to harm Margaret Atwood.
No, really, that's the thesis of this column. Don't threaten to harm Margaret Atwood. Don't threaten to harm or kill other people you disagree with. Don't even make some kind of quasi-ironic gesture of same, as, frankly, not everybody can tell whether you’re being serious or not, and for the purpose of criminal law, the distinction may not matter.
This shouldn't be a controversial point to make, but then it also should not be a necessary one.
Last weekend Atwood became the Main Story on Twitter for a few days after she re-tweeted several articles that indicated that she may not be entirely comfortable with the direction and tactics of some transgender activists. Among them, a piece by the Toronto Star’s Rosie DiManno on disappearing "women" and another by a self-identified transgender person who wrote at the CBC that some of the more militant activism is counterproductive.
The response, predictably, came in the form of dozens of Tweeters telling Atwood —that "bitch," "cunt" and "hag" — to shuffle off the mortal coil; one particularly lovely example featured a person wearing a black mask, standing in front of a transgender flag and pointing what looks to be an assault rifle at the camera. "Bitch please get a clue," the tweet read.
Look, I don't really have a particularly sophisticated point to make about all of this. A few of these tweets crossed the line from mere rabid criticism of a prominent public figure to outright threat of bodily harm. Intimidation is the intent and at the risk of sounding truly radical, I think that threatening to kill Margaret Atwood — or even implying such a threat — is a bad thing.
Unless you're trying to build a high-density condo in the Annex, Margaret Atwood is not your oppressor. She's just a person with a point of view, and she has no obligation to shut up and die for anyone's comfort. (Just as no one has the obligation to do the same for hers.)
Most of these tweets are merely mean, and that’s fine. Meanness is fine. Incivility is fine. But taking a picture of yourself holding a gun, real or otherwise, and pointing it at the camera is not just mean, to my mind, it's a pretty clear abrogation of Section 264.1 of the criminal code prohibitions against uttering threats. "Every one commits an offence who, in any manner, knowingly utters, conveys or causes any person to receive a threat (a) to cause death or bodily harm to any person."
And if you think that uttering threats against an 81-year-old CanLit author is morally justified as an act of civil disobedience, then you best be prepared to heed the consequences. In this case: "imprisonment for a term not exceeding five years; or an offence punishable on summary conviction."
Now I have no doubt that many will try to deflect this truly red-hot "threatening Margaret Atwood is bad" take by suggesting that I'm picking on some rare and isolated example. Okay. Except that it's not isolated. From trending hashtags wishing death upon J.K. Rowling, to signs at protests threatening to punch and kill TERFs, these kinds of threats are becoming increasingly common and normalized. In some circles, threatening those uppity bitches who take issue with the more arcane aspects of trans activism passes without criticism or comment.
That's worth unpacking a little.
A few weeks ago, Maxime Bernier took umbrage to several journalists' questions about his party's links to racist figures. Bernier had a Twitter tantrum and published the emails and phone numbers of several of the journalists, leading to a horrific round of harassment. The worst of it targeted racialized female journalists, and it included death and rape threats.
We at The Line joined a chorus of media condemning this crap because … of course we would. Put us on team "this meets the bar for criminal harassment and should be pursued as a crime." Because it did, and it should.
Of course threats of violence made against TERFs are probably not as common, nor are the victims of those threats generally in the media, but the underlying principle is the same.
In both cases, we see people who feel marginalized and disempowered turn to threats of violence in order to assume the power they've failed to achieve through ordinary means. Unable to persuade, they use intimidation to silence critics. In both cases, it's easy to recognize that this behaviour is indefensible in a liberal-democratic society. In both cases, the current of palpable misogyny is impossible to ignore.
In the latter case — in which racists and PPC supporters went after journalists — we had a person or group with low status attacking a group of people with a comparatively large amount of social capital. So journalists, media organizations, and civic institutions had nothing to lose, and every public relations point to gain, by condemning aggrieved basement-dwelling Pepe trolls. This is not to diminish the very real fear and trauma endured by the individual journalists who became targets. However, for the organizations involved, these kinds of harassment campaigns and personal attacks presented an opportunity to score social status and credibility by showy, virtuous opposition. (Include The Line among them here, if you must.)
By comparison, individual trans activists might understandably feel as if they are isolated and vulnerable — and it’s certainly much easier to empathize with them. I understand why people who are marginalized would turn to militant forms of activism to assert themselves. I understand the justifications. But whatever stress a person may face, publicly threatening to harm another human is illegal. The media understood this just a few weeks ago when reporters were the target.
The feelings of the individuals aside, as a group trans activists have acquired real cultural power and cachet. Publicly opposing them on any point now presents real professional and psychological risks; see above. Some targets, like Atwood and Rowling, have the financial and social status to withstand these consequences. However, many of the people who have been threatened by this behaviour don't enjoy that status.
Standing up for a principle only when doing so will make you look good isn't brave. It's brand management. So here we are again: don't threaten to harm Margaret Atwood. As a general rule, don't threaten to harm anyone.
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