Sunday, January 12, 2014

Shutting Down Discussion at Catholic Blog Sites and Amanda Hess on Why Women Aren't Welcome Online: Making the Connections

Some eye-popping statistical data from Amanda Hess's magisterial essay about why women aren't welcome on the internet (each bullet point is a direct quote from Hess's article): 

• Pew found that from 2000 to 2005, the percentage of Internet users who participate in online chats and discussion groups dropped from 28 percent to 17 percent, "entirely because of women’s fall off in participation."

• According to a 2005 report by the Pew Research Center, which has been tracking the online lives of Americans for more than a decade, women and men have been logging on in equal numbers since 2000, but the vilest communications are still disproportionately lobbed at women. We are more likely to report being stalked and harassed on the Internet—of the 3,787 people who reported harassing incidents from 2000 to 2012 to the volunteer organization Working to Halt Online Abuse, 72.5 percent were female.

• A Pew survey reported that five percent of women who used the Internet said "something happened online" that led them into "physical danger."

• In 2006, researchers from the University of Maryland set up a bunch of fake online accounts and then dispatched them into chat rooms. Accounts with feminine usernames incurred an average of 100 sexually explicit or threatening messages a day. Masculine names received 3.7.

• According to the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics, in 2008, only 6.5 percent of state police officers and 19 percent of FBI agents were women. The numbers get smaller in smaller agencies. 

• In 2010, according to the information services firm CB Insights, 92 percent of the founders of fledgling Internet companies were male; 86 percent of their founding teams were exclusively male. While the number of women working across the sciences is generally increasing, the percentage of women working in computer sciences peaked in 2000 and is now on the decline. In 2012, the Bureau of Labor Statistics found, women made up just 22.5 percent of American computer programmers and 19.7 percent of software developers. In a 2012 study of 400 California companies, researchers at the University of California-Davis, found that just seven percent of the highest-paid executives at Silicon Valley companies were women.

• When Twitter announced its initial public offering in October, its filings listed an all-male board. 

I begin my list of statistical excerpts from Hess's article with the one about the drop-off in participation in online chat and discussion groups from 2000 to 2005 due to the withdrawal of women from these groups because that statistic seems to me critically important for the discussion we've been having here (and see also here) in the past week or so about the suspension of comments threads at National Catholic Reporter. Let me explain:

My own admittedly intuitive rather than empirically grounded suspicion about the general trend of internet discussion groups (and of blogs themselves) is that, in the last half-decade, we've been seeing a downward trend in blogs and news sites that support online discussion groups.* To my way of thinking, that downward trend in discussion groups is connected to a gradual diminution of blogs in general--in particular, it's connected to a gradual diminution of blogs that were started to push forward discussion of crucially important news issues of the day, religious issues, etc.

I want to stress again that I have no strong empirical data to back up these assertions. They're impressions, but informed ones, based primarily on my own daily reading of blogs focusing primarily on religion-and-culture and religion-and-politics issues in the period from soon after 2000 to the present. The trend I seem to see in that period is that an initial enthusiastic proliferation of blogs in these fields has, over the course of time, given way to a steady but sure weeding out of many of these blogs. It has given away to the shutting down of many of the blogs I began following around 2000 or soon after that year, or to the slow decline in postings on those blogs, coupled with the slowing down of discourse in the comboxes of these sites. 

Here's how I'm tempted to think about these developments--about the initial exuberant proliferation of many kinds of blogs discussing issues of religion and politics online, and the gradual diminution of these blogs, with a return to the dominance of the "standard" news sites that have long managed religious conversations in the public square: many of us saw the opening of discourse space on the internet as a chance, for the first time, to have our voices heard. We were delighted at that opportunity, particularly if we shared the experience of people like civil rights activist Lillian Smith, who famously asked powerful "liberal" Southern newspaper editors Ralph McGill and Hodding Carter how she was to be heard when even the "liberal" media shut her voice out because she was a lesbian.

For many of us in the field of religion, the advent of the internet was full of utopian promise. It opened doors that had not been opened previously, and which appeared desperately to need to be opened. For me, specifically, as a Catholic theologian, it offered the promise of stimulating dialogue across constituency lines that neither Catholic journalism nor academic theology seemed to be promoting. It allowed layfolks to speak to clerics and to members of the hierarchy; it allowed the laity to give voice to their own profound theological reflection, which is almost always ignored by academic theology. 

It gave academic theologians a chance to talk with lay members of the church, to learn from those members of the church while sharing the fruits of their years of theological research. Perhaps even more important, the internet promised to give a voice to those on the margins, who had seldom had a voice before, in either Catholic academic theology or Catholic journalism--to the poor, to people of color, to gay people, and to women. 

For me, the advent of online discourse spaces opened places in which I could, for the first time ever, speak out as a gay Catholic theologian, when the Catholic theological academy had decisively slammed its door in my face, and when Catholic journals, all of them dominated primarily by heterosexual men, did not intend to listen seriously to my story of discrimination and exclusion, and colluded in making me invisible and voiceless.

And then, over the course of time, the conversation has seemed to me to slow down significantly. At some Catholic blog sites like NCR's threads, it has become well-nigh impossible to continue, due to the deliberate targeting of those conversations by groups that appear intent on shutting these conversations down by lobbing stink bombs into the discussions and making it extremely difficult for people who are at these sites to talk together respectfully as they pursue their conversations.

And since the slowing down of discourse at these sites, which seems apparent to me if to no one else, has occurred in roughly the period in which Pew Forum studies have found a steady, even precipitous decline in the participation of women in the discussion groups at many blog sites--because women have been deliberately targeted and made unsafe at many blog sites where they had begun freely to express their views--I also have to conclude that the gradual shutting down of open discourse at many of the sites I began following soon after 2000 is deliberate.

I have to conclude it's the deliberate intent of some groups that do not want freewheeling, open, respectful exchange of ideas in the field of religion--in the field of Catholic life and practice, in particular. The shutting down of open conversation at these sites is the deliberate intent of people who do not want the voices of groups occupying the social and ecclesial margins to be heard. And when I reach that conclusion, I then begin to think about the other pieces of data that Amanda Hess has accumulated for our consideration in this important article: men still control the field of online communication. Men control the world of computer science.

Men control the world of law enforcement in which women who file complaints or ask for help when they're threatened online are often treated with derision. And I'd add: men continue to control the world of journalism, including the world of Catholic journalism. And they continue to have overweening influence in the world of Catholic academic life.

A wide-ranging conversation that appeared to open with the advent of the internet has brought us back precisely to where we were when the conversation opened, it seems to me. The gradual weeding out of many of the religion-and-politics and religion-and-culture blogs I began following soon after 2000 is actually a flattening out of the discourse, such that the same old voices, the same tired old voices, now once again dominate the conversation. Because as one blog after another begins either to shut down altogether or to shut down its dialogue threads, the voices that remain are the ones that have been there all along.

They're far and away, overwhelmingly so, the voices of heterosexual white men. Of the heterosexual white men who control economic life, political life, life in the judicial and police system, life in the academy, life in the sphere of journalism, life in Hollywood and life in the media of television and radio. The initial promise of the internet has given way to . . . same old, same old, it seems to me.

(And this is why I find it rather difficult now to imagine that a pope presented to me by those same, predictable, tired old voices that have long controlled every conversation in the world represents anything really new, unless he decisively stands against this control and opens the door to some really new voices.)

In conclusion, I want to underscore a point I made above: what has happened to women online, and what has happened to their online discourse, particularly in discussion groups in which women have played an important role, has been deliberate. It has occurred as the deliberate intent of groups determined to shut down the kinds of free, wide-ranging, conversations that began to appear online with the advent of the internet. These groups have wanted the discussion to return to the hands of its traditional managers.

Because this seems apparent to me, I'm very interested in another point that Amanda Hess makes in her article. She notes, 

IN A 2009 PAPER in the Boston University Law Review, [Danielle] Citron proposed a new way of framing the legal problem of harassment on the Internet: She argued that online abuse constitutes "discrimination in women’s employment opportunities" that ought to be better addressed by the U.S. government itself. Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which outlawed discrimination based on race, religion, or gender, was swiftly applied to members of the Ku Klux Klan, who hid behind hoods to harass and intimidate black Louisianans from voting and pursuing work. Anonymous online harassment, Citron argued, similarly discourages women from "writing and earning a living online" on the basis of their gender. "It interferes with their professional lives. It raises their vulnerability to offline sexual violence. It brands them as incompetent workers and inferior sexual objects. The harassment causes considerable emotional distress."

The hounding of women online, the attempt to shut down online conversations in which women's voices have been free to speak without reprisal: these represent a form of discrimination against which women have every reason in the world to fight, as online communication becomes more and more important to the work of many different fields. It also becomes a form of discrimination that any Catholic journalistic blog site worth its salt needs to begin to address--by giving deliberate protection and privilege to the voices of women (and other targeted, vulnerable minority groups), and by beginning to dismantle the structures in Catholic academic and journalistic life that have given such unmerited power and privilege--for far too long--to heterosexual men.

Solely because they happen to have been born heterosexual. And male.

(Amanda Hess's article is rightly garnering a great deal of attention now. See, for instance, Andrew Sullivan's discussion of the article yesterday, with links to other discussions; see also Jill Filipovic's important discussion at Talking Points Memo. And see Ross Douthat in today's New York Times.)

* Well, admittedly, I'm focusing here primarily on the kinds of blogs I read in the fields of religion and politics and religion and culture. I make that point clearer as this posting goes on. But it should probably have been made more clearly from the outset of my remarks.

The graphic: a photo by Emma Riggs at PhotoSensitive, the online gallery of Ridley College's Energy Project.

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