We Are the Left: Why I Joined the Movement After Years of Internet Abuse from My Supposed Political Allies

The costs of staying silent are too high. People need to understand what is happening to the left, and who is suffering.
Publish date:
July 14, 2016
abuse, harassment, internet, the left

In retrospect, I'm not sure which death threat broke me. It might have been the person lovingly describing how he'd like me to be raped to death with a gorse bush, or perhaps it was the person who sent me graphic and painstakingly photoshopped images of my face tacked on to horrific murder scenes. Of course, it could have been the umpteenth person sliding into my Twitter mentions with an ardent desire to tell me exactly how they hoped I'd die.

What I do know is that I've spent a decade living a highly public life on the internet, and at no point has a single day gone by without one or more of the following: a death threat; a rape threat; an expression of hope that I'll be violently beaten; an attempt to discredit me with colleagues; a campaign to get me fired; a threat against my animals; menacing comments about my family and friends; copies of personally identifying information including images of my home; or any number of other things. They are sent to me with a clear and calculated purpose: To shut me up.

I've also spent the last decade slowly shrinking into myself. I used to speak out about abuse. Now I don't: The stakes are too high. I used to stand up for others who were being abused. Now I don't: The stakes are too high. I used to discuss a broad range of subjects without hesitation. Now I don't: The stakes are too high.

I can't tell you about the measures I've taken to protect my personal safety, because that would defeat the purpose, but I will tell you this: The vast majority of attacks on me, from the everpresent doxing to the growing file of threats I've forwarded to the friends who might have a chance to take action if something happens to me, have come from the political left.

It is the left that is eating itself. The left that persecutes anyone who doesn't meet an arbitrary and very precise purity test. The left that venerates white, cis, middle class, mostly heterosexual men. The left that continues to elevate the opinions, beliefs, and attitudes of those in a position of dominance above those who are in a state of oppression.

It sometimes pays lip service, when it thinks people are watching, but it quickly returns to its old ways. The left thrives on devouring itself and calling it radical activism. It eats its young. Either you become so hardened as to be nearly dispassionate in the face of abuse from the people who are supposed to be on your side, or you disappear — I have seen so many activists and thinkers vanished from the internet not because they're "weak" or "can't handle the heat" but because they decided that the costs of participation had become unacceptably high.

When you're arranging for security at events because of people who are ostensibly on your side, you have a problem. When someone approaches you on public transit with an expression of recognition in their eye, an outstretched hand and a "hey, are you..." and you look desperately around the train car to see who is most likely to help you if this person attacks you, you have a problem. When you decline invitations to events because the organizers don't have the ability to protect your safety, when you have to book hotel rooms under a false name when you travel, when you have to pay for friends to fly with you because you are too frightened to be caught alone in an airport, on an aircraft, in customs, you have a problem.

When the organizers of 'An Open Letter on Identity Politics, to and from the Left,' approached me to ask about signing on, I was hesitant at first. Their email happened to land in my inbox on the same day that a woman had been harassed off Twitter for an off-hand comment, when my own inbox was filled with festering pustules of nastiness from people who didn't like something that I had written. I agreed with every word of the first draft of that letter, but the idea of signing my name to it was also terrifying: What would I be getting myself in for?

I thought about it for a few days, weighing the risks and benefits. Like many people who experience systemic abuse on the internet, if I hadn't been mentally ill before, I certainly had mental health issues now, and surprisingly few therapists have any real competence when it comes to internet-induced trauma. I thought about the panic attacks I've endured for years, the multiple stashes of Ativan around the house, the tremendous mental health toll of speaking up — because every time I've spoken up, I've entered yet another nightmarish and terrifying world.

I thought about the people I know who have been stomped into silence, the friends who have begged me to find other work. But then I thought about something else: The stories that pass through whisper networks, the horrific things my friends and colleagues have told me. I thought about the stalkers and harassers and abusers embedded within the left itself, about how the notion of "social justice" has become a twisted weapon to use against people, and I emailed back a single word: "Yes."

Because I decided that the costs of staying silent are too high. People need to understand what is happening to the left, and they need to understand who is suffering. They need to understand that the targets of abuse, torment, and hatred are human beings, not abstract concepts. Abusers need to understand that we are watching them, and while we've done it in the shadows before, we're done with that now.

I've been thinking a great deal lately about the power of a single voice when it speaks up. Sometimes all it takes is a single brick to make the wall fall. It's my hope that by speaking so publicly, and with the force of so many names, we will make it safer for other people to come out of hiding, to have an honest conversation about how this is not an isolated or one-off problem, but a serious, systemic issue that a huge percentage of the left is complicit in, whether it's doing the abusing, or watching it and saying nothing, not out of fear, but out of indifference.

Because a world where so many are unable to speak freely is not a just world, and it never will be.