On death threats, trolls, and truth


Violent transgender activists cooking up a juicy free speech stew

The center has shifted in the debate over last week’s Observer letter. What was once an argument about grave human rights abuses against trans people and sex workers has now become an argument about grave abuses against Peter Tatchell, mostly between him and him. I had no intention of writing another word on this; but then I read Peter’s self-defense. It’s headlined “Peter Tatchell: Twitter mob who vowed to kill me over transgender letter have it all wrong.”

Screen shot 2015-02-23 at 5.22.20 AMThis was strange. I’ve heard warnings of “killer trans people” from Turkish police trying to justify torture; never from a human rights activist before. So I spent a few hours searching on Twitter for Tweets containing Peter’s name plus any of a thesaurus of threats (“murder,” “kill,” “beat,” “stab,” etc.). I also searched for a variety of Anglo-Saxon terms of abuse.

First finding: this “Twitter storm” was maybe not so stormy. Peter laments that “I received 4,000 to 5,000 mostly hostile comments” on Twitter, “from Saturday [February 14] to Monday [February 16].” An advanced search on Twitter uncovers all the Tweets sent to and from @PeterTatchell during February 14 – 17 (that’s one extra day). By my count — my eyes are misty– there were only 2621, of which 174 were Peter’s own. Many of the rest had nothing to do with the Observer letter. Perhaps 2000 did, over the four days.

Second finding: this “Twitter mob” was no mob. So far as I see, Peter got one Tweet that contained threatening language; it’s the one he’s cited and retweeted everywhere.

Screen shot 2015-02-21 at 5.37.35 AMThat Tweet is disturbing. I’d support Peter if he reported it to the police. On the other hand, it’s not exactly a clear threat — it’s riffing abusively off Peter’s use of the “MURDER of trans people” and his implication that trans activists didn’t care enough about their own, an assertion that infuriated many. The Tweeter seems to be a nasty kid (a self-described “Marxoteen”). Somebody else advised Peter:Screen shot 2015-02-21 at 6.50.19 AMWhat’s also important is that this Tweet was a complete outlier. I saw no other message that could be taken as threatening (nor has Tatchell cited any). (Again, all Tweets to and from Peter during the period are here; I encourage others to analyze them in detail.) Some Tweets tried to start a dialogue, some tried to explain why others were angry, some were critical, some raised questions of identity no doubt destined to discomfit Peter, but most were civil and none were menacing. These were typical:

Tatchell trans tweets 1

Only a few Tweets used language I might find abusive:

ab Screen shot 2015-02-21 at 6.29.11 AM

It’s disconcerting to find several hundred Tweets clogging your notifications, but volume isn’t the same thing as violence or abuse. I generally agree with trans activist Sarah Brown, who wrote Peter:

sb Screen shot 2015-02-21 at 6.55.33 AMI also feel for the trans member of the Green Party who wrote:

Screen shot 2015-02-21 at 6.31.46 AMThere was no trans “Twitter mob” threatening to kill Tatchell. What is clear is that Peter turned to the media to create the belief that there was. And mainly he went to the right-wing media, because they loathe trans people anyway. On Monday Milo Yiannopoulos at the far-right website Breitbart Tweeted:

Screen shot 2015-02-21 at 10.42.15 AM

(A commenter below notes that Yiannopolous was one of the wannabe-jock jerks who last year fanned up Gamergate and its misogynistic, anti-feminist vitriol. He wrote “column after column slamming feminists” and “sociopathic” women gamers — making him an odd partner for Tatchell, but a productive place to seek support.)  Later that day Breitbart published its article claiming Tatchell was being “persecuted” by the “vocal, and vicious,” “increasingly shrill and intolerant transgender lobby.” On Thursday Brendan O’Neill in the Spectator upped the transphobia, warning that the “grandfather of gay rights” was under assault from “vicious, narcissistic cowards,” “self-styled queers and gender-benders” who “went berserk,” a “petulant mob of moaners … hurling abuse.” And of course O’Neill, like Peter, said they were ungrateful. Tatchell’s

risk-taking and street-fighting over 40-odd years helped to secure their liberation, to create a society in which they could live and speak freely. And how do they repay him? By tweeting their fantasises [sic] about him being murdered for being a ‘fucking parasite’.

That’s characteristic of Tatchell: when a person or group offends his amour-propre, he turns to the media to make them sorry. Using a single Tweet to discredit trans activists in general, however, shreds the claim to be an “ally.” Instead, Tatchell consciously strengthened gendered prejudices against trans people as hysterical, shrill, and dangerous. Sara Ahmed, in a thoughtful post last week that I’ve cited earlier, predicted exactly what he did:

Those who are oppressed – who have to struggle to exist often by virtue of being a member of a group – are often judged as the oppressors. …  The presentation of trans activists as a lobby and as bullies rather than as minorities who are constantly being called upon to defend their right to exist is a mechanism of power. … These dynamics are familiar to me from my work on racist speech acts (racism is so often defended as freedom of speech). Racists present themselves as injured/ under attack/a minority fighting against a powerful anti­racist lobby that is “busy” suppressing their voices. …

Of course people protested against this letter. It is deeply offensive in so many ways. I protested too: I felt deeply enraged by it. But this will happen quickly …: those who protest against the letter will be understood as the harassers. Mark my words! The protests against the letter can then even be used to confirm the truth stated by the letter; this is what is generative about it; that is how it is working.

And of course the opponents of trans people’s identities and rights took their cue:

Screen shot 2015-02-21 at 12.07.58 PMI’ve gotten a small but significant number of threats in my life. I’ve been a public voice on LGBT rights in a variety of places where the rights and their claimaints were violently despised — Romania in the early 90s, for instance, or Egypt now; threats go with the territory. Much more comparable to this kerfluffle was the flurry of opposing e-mails I got about a post on sex work a while back. Some of these raised important questions, most were no more angry than your average letter to the editor, a very few were abusive, and one — which stood out — said I should be “disemboweled”: “I want you to die in agony feeling the blood run down your thighs the way it runs between the thighs of a woman who has been raped by 27 johns in a single night …” There’s a certain kind of pseudo-human rights talk that imaginatively colonizes the experience of victimhood, like mystics meditating on the wounds of Christ. It’s distasteful, particularly when it’s used to tag you as a supposed abuser. But I didn’t assume this was representative of all sex work opponents, or radical feminists, or feminists in general, or people with Earthlink accounts, or Vermonters, or any other group identity I could have extracted from the e-mail. Now I see: I don’t dramatize myself enough. I should have run to the press with an op-ed saying, “I forgive the radical feminists who want to disembowel me.” I do forgive radical feminists who want to disembowel me. I just don’t think there are any.

One more thing. That phrase “fucking parasite” turned up amid my search results in one other place. A week before this controversy started, Tatchell Tweeted a complaint about why Muslims weren’t protesting the right things (not unlike his lament that trans people were ignoring murders of trans people). A Muslim woman responded to him. A nasty troll — prone to obscenity, misogyny, and racist browbeating — then intervened in Tatchell’s defense with a slew of Islamophobic messages. Tatchell was copied on all these; but he didn’t raise a keystroke on the woman’s behalf, neither to demur nor or to reproach the racist. He stayed indifferently silent, even at the culmination, when the guy shouted she was a “fucking parasite cunt”:

Screen shot 2015-02-21 at 7.45.50 AMI guess it all depends on who’s being abused.

NOTE: I’ve updated this post twice since it was published: once, to add information about a Breitbart editor to which I was directed by a commenter; and a second time to include, and explain, a link to the Twitter search results.

21 thoughts on “On death threats, trolls, and truth

  1. I might be glad I missed all this living out in the sticks in Spain. Blogging seems to me more thoughtful than tweeting. But…thanks for your insights and did listen to Peter Tatchell speak at a conference on peace issues.

  2. That Milo guy is one of the leaders of the infamous Gamergate – a movement that harasses people who speak out against sexism in the video game industry. It’s gotten so bad that people have been forced to leave their homes because of death threats. Says a lot about Tatchell that this is who he aligns himself with.

      • He is terrible in multiple ways. Prior to GG (which was wholly opportunistic) he was taken to court for not paying staff at The Kernal. Oh and he tweeted a bunch of slut-shaming stuff at Zoe M.

  3. Transgender activists, the loudest of whom are young immature males pretending to be female but with male hormones and anger well intact, spend a lot of time verbally abusing and, yes, threatening anyone who understands, say, that penis is male. They’re happy to attack “allies,” too, as you have documented here. In fact, all you have documented is that Tatchell mildly exaggerated the abuse he was getting. Transgender activists on Twitter are quite often abusers.

    If you are trying to say that transgenders are always the victimized party, please be honest enough to say that. You know it’s untrue, but at least we could have a reasonable conversation then.

    • You’re funny. I want to assure you that whatever feelings you are struggling with that have caused you to become so obsessed with this issue are valid, and you can drop the overcompensatory, fragile but TOTALLY red-blooded macho heterosexual act.

    • You’re funny. I want to reassure you that whatever feelings you are struggling with that have caused you to become so obsessed with this issue are valid, and you can drop the overcompensatory, fragile but TOTALLY macho heterosexual red-blooded masculinity act. It’s going to be okay. Please don’t kill anyone if you do attempt to continue to suppress whatever it is.

      • Here are my “feelings”:

        The people who beat up and kill transgendered persons are males. The people whom transgenders think are the enemy are gays and lesbians who know penis is male.

        If and when this dichotomy vanishes, my feelings will change. But this would require transgenders to accept reality, and that’s the one thing they aren’t good at.

      • If it’s something that doesn’t affect you, it’s something that doesn’t affect you. Hopefully you’re not one of those males who are violent toward trans women, but one HAS to wonder if this is something that has nothing to do with you, why on earth you are so obsessed with it.

    • Not only is your comment dehumanising to trans people “transgenders”, but it is out and out sexist as well. “Hormones” do not make people act with anger, whenever women and men are compared (even cis men and women!) there are little differences. Implying men are abusive and angry on Twitter and women are demure and I assume “ladylike”, is classic sexism.

      Tatchell mildly exaggerated the abuse!? One comment from someone who doesn’t appear to be trans, let alone a trans activist, is a torrent of abuse and death threats. 4000+ pieces of “hate mail”, 4000+ abusive comments on Twitter … That’s mildly exaggerating, ok O_o

  4. Thank you again for this. It’s perhaps worth adding that Mary Beard, the other person said to have been “deluged with abuse and threats” (New Statesman), has been honest enough to state on her blog: “Some tweeters have been very polite in their disagreement; for which, thank you. Others not quite so (i should be clear, though, there have been no threats of violence).”

    So, yes, basically the whole thing is a pack of lies. And you’re right to draw attention to the fact that this is a familiar and well established practice, and a mechanism of power. Since you were kind enough to compliment one of my recent blog posts on this issue, I hope you don’t mind my pointing you to one that I wrote during an earlier spate of anti-trans articles that followed a very similar trajectory, in which I made some observations about the nature of trans “collective responsibility”… http://steepholm.livejournal.com/280897.html.

    • so you are denying that women and feminists are frequently “deluged with abuse and threats” on the internet when they speak up about feminist issues?

      “TERF,” as a term (arguably a slur), facilitates a culture of reflexive and hyperbolic abuse towards women who are not percieved as centering trans issues in their feminism. This is a huge, huge part of the trans activist M.O. on social netowrks like Twitter. That’s just a fact. It’s an unfortunate fact, but a fact nonetheless.

      I mean, I hope I’m misunderstanding you, but it seems like you are suggesting that in large part women are making up or overblowing the degree to which their feminism–especially if at any time it does not CENTER the issues of trans people, e.g., if it centers the issues of women born women alone at any time–incites abuse on the internet.

      It seems really unfair of you to suggest that women aren’t recieving abuse, especially abuse based on slurs like “TERF” (and the attendant notion that “terfs” are not just feminists who disagree with you on some issues but people who are “scum,” who are “more dangerous than white men,” who are “the opressors,” and who therefore deserve abuse).

      It’s difficult to say what is “representative” of how things are on a place like Twitter, and what isn’t. However, I am a little surprised that anyone would deny that abuse and threats directed at women, especially feminists, from trans activists is in any way rare. It’s absolutely everywhere.

      I also wanted to mention that perhaps some of the threats people recieve on Twitter are not going to be found by a simple search, either because the threats and abuse are sent in private messages or because people delete tweets, or have tweets removed by Twitter because they are abusive.

      • so you are denying that women and feminists are frequently “deluged with abuse and threats” on the internet when they speak up about feminist issues?

        I’m not denying that at all; it happens distressingly often. Gamergate, which Scott references above, is one obvious example but there are myriad others. I am however denying that Mary Beard was “deluged with abuse and threats”, as claimed by the pseudonymous writer in The New Statesman. I’m denying it on the grounds that Mary Beard herself has denied it. Of course, if you want to call Mary Beard a liar, go ahead – but that really would be abuse.

        I don’t much like acronyms myself – I come across too many at work – but I’m not sure why the concept of a “trans-exclusionary radical feminist” should be an insult. Any word can of course be an insult if it’s used insultingly, but if you don’t exclude trans people, or you’re not a radical feminist, then of course it doesn’t apply to you anyway; and if you do exclude trans people and you consider yourself a radical feminist, then it’s a pretty neutral description, The New Statesman writer, for one, appears to have embraced it.

        More relevantly I didn’t even use the term, so your criticism of me for doing so seems, shall we say, misplaced.

        I’m not on Twitter, so can’t comment on its culture first-hand. I do know that trans people are a pretty general cross-section of humanity in most respects, and that people who are on the receiving end of abuse and discrimination sometimes react intemperately, so I can easily believe that some trans people do that too. (In addition I understand that 4chan types sometimes like to pose as trans for the lols, and that trans-exclusionary radical feminists, right-wingers, etc., sometimes set up “trans” sock-puppet accounts to show trans people in a bad light. That’s the kind of malarkey that keeps me off Twitter.)

        But really, what does all this show? There is plenty of abuse from feminists and others flying in the other direction, too. Indeed there are whole sites set up by self-styled feminists to persecute, doxx, ridicule and threaten trans women and men. (You could try googling dirty white boi for a taster – but I don’t recommend it.) Does that prove that feminism is a busted flush? Of course not. It just shows that some people who call themselves feminists really aren’t.

        As I noted in the blog I linked to above, it is a very common tactic to blame all trans people for the misdeeds of a few (or none, as in this case). As a general argument against trans people (or anything else) it is fairly vacuous, though as a way of muddying the waters of an argument you have lost it appears to have some utility.

  5. I do not understand well the topic but I support the writer of this article by Heart.

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