I Spent a Month Thoughtfully Engaging With My Anti-Feminist Critics Online And It Was Pretty Terrible

Stereotypes of MRAs and Internet trolls are comforting, but are they true?
Publish date:
March 16, 2016
trolls, anti-feminism, MRA

When I was in high school, I stumbled across the Wikipedia page for masculinism while researching feminism. I thought the movement’s goals, like more custody for fathers and more attention to male rape survivors, sounded commendable and, well, actually quite feminist. After all, men’s rights activists branched off from the men’s liberation movement, which, like feminism, is against patriarchy and traditional gender roles.

When I became a feminist writer, however, I gained a very different view of the men’s rights movement. Like many feminists online, I regularly get bombarded by MRAs with accusations of man-hating, slights toward my personality and lifestyle (or their fantasy of it), and sometimes threats and encouragements of suicide.

When I’ve reached out to other writers for support to deal with online abuse, they’ve taught me about the ugly side of men’s rights activism to put my harassment into perspective. “They don’t want to give up their privilege,” one explained. “He’s a 16-year-old in his parents’ basement. You win,” another likes to say. These stereotypes of MRAs and Internet trolls are comforting, but are they true?

Online, I imagine I come off dogmatic. It’s my job to present issues with a liberal slant and be unequivocal in that position. That’s not how I am in person. I have friends who aren’t feminists. I’ve dated Republicans. I manage to get along with people I disagree with by finding common ground between seemingly disparate stances. I approach disagreements with the assumption that my opponents and I have more in common that we realize. Maybe, I thought, I could put my diplomacy skills to use online.

So, I decided that for a month, I would go against my better judgment and reply to my trolls rather than ignore or block them to preserve my mental health as usual. Would we be able to find some common ground, perhaps in our distrust of gender norms, or would our interactions simply confirm what feminists often assert: that MRAs are just an anti-woman hate group?

Some readers of this article will probably point out that it’s not feminists’ job to cater to those who the movement wasn’t even created to help and who aren’t willing to empathize with women’s struggles. First of all, I think feminism is a basic human movement that should be aimed at liberating everyone from patriarchy, including men. Secondly, even though it’s not my job to make men feel more included in feminism, I chose to go beyond my job because feminism can only get so far if only half the population embraces it.

In my conversations with MRAs and my other antifeminist critics, I was as courteous and understanding as possible. If I was going to dismiss men’s rights activists and self-identified egalitarians as mere misogynists, I would first give them the chance to prove otherwise. I let people know I valued their perspectives, even when they made it clear they didn’t value mine.

I eased into my experiment by addressing my more benign criticism, starting with someone who liked an article I wrote featuring a transgender person but “disagreed” with their “lifestyle.” I got a friendly reminder that many Americans aren’t familiar with basic vocabulary around LGBT issues, but he acknowledged I “might be right.” No harm done so far.

I also had a long, mostly one-sided discussion with a man (whose name I’ve covered since it was a private conversation) who sought me out to defend pickup artists. Apparently, you can be a pickup artist and a feminist. Who knew?

He sent me 37 messages in total, culminating with this gem.

And then I moved on to my less civil critics.

Many of these people were happy to criticize me. Yet, when I asked for their feedback to help me improve, they didn’t bite — which left me thinking, why did they tag me in the first place? Why didn’t they just make fun of me in private?

The only answer I could come up with was that they wanted to make me feel bad. And then I realized: I don’t ever do anything online to make people feel bad. I don’t snoop on MRAs’ Twitter feeds in search of opportunities to disparage them, and I don’t know any feminists who do. I don’t even usually argue with the opponents who seek me out.

My trolls’ efforts to hurt me just for the sake of hurting me confirms one study’s findings that Internet trolls have the personality profiles of sadists. "Both trolls and sadists feel sadistic glee at the distress of others,” the authors concluded. “Sadists just want to have fun ... and the Internet is their playground!”

To be fair, there was one person — a woman — who gave me some feedback, though it contained a verrrry healthy dose of sarcasm.

Granted, these people don’t represent all anti-feminists or men’s rights activists. (They weren’t even all men’s rights activists, to be clear.) I’d imagine the troll-y ones are the most hostile of the bunch, and I plan to further investigate feminist-identifying pickup artists and less extreme men’s rights activists in order to gain a broader picture of these groups’ less hostile members.

Nevertheless, I am truly thankful to once again have my own permission to block, mute, and ignore my trolls. Engaging with them was emotionally exhausting and not productive, except insofar as it taught me how unproductive these conversations really were. Besides, they didn’t even want to discuss anything. They just wanted to wound my ego and get on with their lives.

Are men’s rights activists just an anti-woman hate group? I can’t speak to all of them, but the ones who troll women online are definitely pretty hateful, and for no apparent reason. On the other hand, I don’t see feminists tagging MRAs on Twitter to tell them they’re “underfucked” or call them fat. Feminists and MRAs may be adversaries, but for the most part, only one side is playing dirty, no matter how clean their target’s game is.

Promo image credit: Ron Frazier/CC