I remember the first time I realized the Internet truly was a boiling cesspool of bullshit. Embarrassingly enough, it was not all that long ago.
I was watching a video of a former colleague of mine, Lindy West, as she read aloud the comments and tweets she'd received after speaking out against the irrefutable sexism that exists in today's comedy culture.
I've always admired West for being bravely outspoken. As a writer for Jezebel — she wrote about race, feminism and pop culture for the site for two years before leaving to pursue other projects earlier this month — she had an enviable ability to deliver her hard-to-swallow observations with sharp wit and hilarious, relatable prose. Even when addressing something as not at all funny as rape culture, she could turn a phrase that pulled a laugh.
But in this four-minute video, with a straight face and in monotone, West doesn't pause or crack a joke as she recites comments such as, "No need for you to worry about rape, uggo," "Lindy West is a fat cunt who is completely unfuckable," and "Kill yourself, you dumb bitch."
For four minutes she did that.
I remember watching the video in tears. As a writer whose work is also posted on the Internet, I have faced my own onslaught of brutal comments. I've been told to kill myself and had death wished upon me. I've had my appearance critiqued and dissected by strangers. One especially unsettling specimen wrote some kind of fucked-up fan-fic about all the sexual abuse they imagined I'd suffered as a child, after I wrote an unfavorable review about a band they loved. (Keep up the good work, Coheed and Cambria fans.)
For years these comments have followed me. And for years I've shrugged them off, even congratulating myself for having a thick skin. I convinced myself that this abuse was part of my job, in essence blaming myself for being as outspoken as I am. While watching that video of West reading the same kind of comments that I, too, have received — as have lots of women who've dared to voice a strong opinion in an online public forum — it hit me: This is horrific and unnecessary.
West was no longer going to stand for the verbal abuse and threats that had become a part of her daily life. And no one in their right mind could blame her. She was proving to all of us who've ever been the target of a troll that it's not our fault, and we don't have to accept it.
I remind myself of that every day. Her inspiring efforts to make the Internet (and the world, really) a little less terrible continues with her new project: a website that she launched in July called I Believe You | It's Not Your Fault. IBY|INYF is a collection of essays, described as "Notes from your big sibling," where contributors share stories about their own traumatic experiences with harassment, rape, abuse, mental illness, death and other things that can crush your spirit into pulp.
Many of the essays are heartbreaking, and some are so brutally forthright that they're nearly unreadable. (It helps if you keep the Emergency Elephants Twitter feed open in a nearby tab, so you can quickly jump to a happy place.) But the message throughout all of the stories, and what makes them all worth reading, is that it's never the victim's fault. That message is powerful and much-needed, given society's inclination to blame the wife for marrying the man who hit her instead of looking at the man who threw the punches. (By the way: Fuck you, Ray Rice, the Baltimore Ravens, and the NFL.)
Along with having dozens of personal stories, IBY|INYF also invites readers to ask questions about how to get through their own difficult times. A panel of regular contributors has helped young people deal with everything from depression to sexual abuse.
The Internet can be used for so much good — the aforementioned Emergency Elephants, for example. (And Beyoncé GIFs.) But it has also fed a culture of abuse. Hateful comments have become part of the status quo — so much so that "Don't read the comments" is an oft-recited piece of advice. Even at age 34, I still need to be reminded that I don't deserve to be mistreated. One kid at a time, IBY|INYF is ensuring that future generations don't have to accept the existing cesspool as their new normal.
None of us do.