Love and Feminism

Well, it’s Valentine’s Day and everyone’s thinking about looooove. So here’s my self-promoting post on why MOTH AND SPARK is a feminist love story.

It’s possible to write a novel where gender stereotypes are flipped, and I didn’t do that; in fact, the societal structure of the book replicates patriarchal norms. So at a quick glance it might look like a romanticization of the status quo, another Commoner Girl Meets Prince Charming And Is Swept Off Her Feet story. (Plus she’s white, straight, well-off, able-bodied, and beautiful.) But the novel is not actually a glorification of the princess fantasy.

The obvious feminism lies in the character of Tam, who is smart and brave, and who is admired by powerful men for being smart and brave. It’s not just her being a person that makes it feminist; it’s also that she is respected as a person. She does her own, equal part in saving the day and needs no saving herself. She’s never abducted, threatened with rape, or abused, and it’s pretty clear that if any of those situations arose she would fight. She has little tolerance for bullshit and less for powerful people taking advantage of others.

There are also subtler traces of feminism, a sentence here, a paragraph there, that could easily be unnoticed by a reader but that thread together to show the patriarchal norm as bad and harmful.

1) The male is the subject of the gaze:

“There were an inordinate number of young women in the hall, and he resigned himself to being on display. This was the last year he could reasonably expect to make it through the summer without ending up betrothed to someone; at twenty-five he was getting too old to stay unmarried. He suspected his mother was beginning to despair of ever making a good match. . . . They were all alike, flittering and fluttering, smiling brightly, pushing and shoving each other with elbows out to throw themselves in his path. He was the grand prize, and everyone knew it.”

It’s not the woman experiencing objectification here; it’s the hero. All eyes are on the man, who is valued not for himself but for what he brings with him. In Corin’s case, of course, what he brings with him is power, so it’s not a complete reversal of the objectification of powerless women. He isn’t forced into being a sex object. I thought it would be interesting, however, to have a male character who experiences being considered a “prize.” In another limitation, he’s a powerful adult man whose personal life is still subject to his mother.

2) The narrative presents abuse and prostitution. Briefly, but as the ugly things that they are: ways to hurt women and keep them powerless.

3) The narrative identifies the sexual double standard. Birth control is explicit, abortion is implied. Female characters have to worry about the consequences of their actions, while men don’t.

4) In my favorite exchange of dialogue, societal inequality is directly challenged:

[He said] “…It’s damn boring having to listen to women prattle about nothing.”

“I’m aware of that,” she said. “But what do you expect them to talk about if they can’t go to university or take part in commerce or politics? It’s damn boring sitting around sewing.”

5) Related to this, women talk to other women. Often it’s about men or marriage, but in those cases the limitations of that as a subject are pointed out.

6) Loving, consensual sex. And consent is rather a big deal.

7) MOTH AND SPARK is mostly an insta-love story, because I was more interested in the conflict between two people who love each other and think they can’t be together than the conflict between two people who love each other but don’t mutually realize it. Also, insta-love avoids romanticizing creepy stalking, power games, and seduction scenarios, all of which tend to put women in the position of victims (often without realizing they’re being victimized). I wanted to write a relationship that was a partnership, not a competition.

So the novel is a feminist novel. It’s also a love story. Because love and feminism aren’t incommensurable.


All Presidential Candidates Should Take This One Simple Test

My husband and I were discussing the gloomy possibility of another Bush vs. Clinton campaign, the outcome of which would mean the presidency was held by a member of those two families from 1988-2020, with an 8 year intermission by Obama. This is undemocratic, in opposition to everything intended in Article II of the Constitution, and unhealthy. We might as well have a constitutional monarchy.

So then we were trying to figure out how else to choose a president. We thought of single combat, a Hunger Games arena, drawing lots, and other such things. Then I suggested a test. It was a joke, but the more I thought about it the better of an idea it seemed. (It would of course be extremely difficult to find the judges.) So I came up with a test that I would like my president to have been awesome on.

It measures the following things: critical thinking and analysis, knowledge of basic economics and political theory, creative thinking, ability to deal with hostile people, perception/observation, and persuasiveness.


Analyze the Supreme Court’s decision in Windsor through the lens of 1) at least 5 different Federalist Papers; and 2) the writings of John Locke. Cite to primary sources only. Explain your reasoning clearly.


Prepare a monthly budget and an annual federal tax return for the following families. Each family has a combined income of 10% less than the county’s median household income. None of the families has a mortgage interest deduction.

A) A married lesbian couple in Contra Costa County, California with three teenaged children. One spouse commutes to San Francisco daily.

B) A widowed woman supporting children aged 2,4, and 7, and her 52 year old disabled mother in Lake County, Indiana.

C) A “traditional” family of 4 with 2 school-aged children in Randolph County, Georgia.

D) A young married couple with an infant in Indiana County, Pennsylvania. One spouse has a student loan debt of $402.78 per month and is a small business owner.


Spend 1 week working the customer service line for a major cable provider. Don’t get fired.


Write a love sonnet to a person you are courting.


Take the train from Washington D.C. to New York City and identify as many infrastructure and economic problems as you can. Write a speech that sells to Congress your ideas about how to fix these problems. Think broadly, but be detailed.

Anthology: Diverse writers writing about writing

I have a new project on the burners – editing an anthology on the experience, process, and craft of writing from a position of diversity or marginalization.

The model/inspiration is Janet Sternberg’s The Writer on Her Work, a collection of essays by women writers about their writing. What I’m looking for are essays that talk about how being marginalized informs a person’s writing. The essays would have a strong autobiographical and experiential component; this is storytelling, not analysis. In the Sternberg book, writers talk about their experiences with discrimination, motherhood, their families, the letters they get from readers, childhood incidents that influenced their decisions to be writers. And I want essays about craft, about writerliness, about finding the writers to read that one wants to be. (If you’re transgendered, where are your models? What’s it like to have no models? If you’re black, do you feel inhibited by the category “Black writers”? etc.) I’d like the anthology to be a positive resource and inspiration for other writers, a description of the challenges of writing when outside the dominant culture, and an offering of a path through those challenges or a recognition of community. Ideally the contributors would be able to able to read each other’s essays and engage in a bit of dialogue with each other as well.

Below is a first rough stab at a proposal that outlines more of the background and content of the imagined anthology. It’s a lot more formal than the anthology itself might be, because that’s the nature of a proposal – this is a general audience book, not a textbook. I’m not looking for contributors yet but if you would like to be included or have suggestions for someone you would like to see, please leave a comment and I will start to build a potential list. Also, if you know of any existing pieces that might fit the bill, I would love to hear about them in order to show prospective publishers some samples. Thanks.

Here’s the Sternberg TOC, as as a sample:

Sternberg TOC





 The push for diversity in fiction seemed to reach a critical point in 2014, with the #WeNeedDiverseBooks hashtag and organization, the publicity surrounding Jacqueline Woodson’s winning of the National Book Award, and panels about diversity at different industry events, including the Nebula Awards, the American Library Association Midwinter Meeting, New York Comic Con, and BEA 2014. The Publisher’s Weekly annual salary survey included questions about diversity. In speculative fiction, Lightspeed Magazine put out an issue called Women Destroy Science Fiction, and similar issues followed (Women Destroy Fantasy, Queers Destroy Science Fiction). In early 2015 Crown Books for Young Readers announced that it was putting out an anthology of short stories by diverse authors. Analyzing literature in terms of diversity has moved from academia to the mainstream.

In diversity discussions, talk has centered in basically two camps: how to add diversity to one’s work, and how to get wider representation by diverse authors. What is missing, however, is any formal discussion of writing while diverse. What is it like to be a person of color in a primarily white writing workshop or MFA program? What effect does transitioning genders have on one’s writing? How much background should a writer give when writing about a little-known culture? What about when a writer needs to reject some of his or her culture because cultural limits get in the way of being a better writer?

Many writers discuss these issues on twitter and blogs, talking personally about disabilities, gender issues, religions, sexuality, being a person of color, and so on. The proposed anthology would formalize and collect these discussions in a series of essays by people from variously diverse backgrounds about what it means to write from the margins. In 1980, Janet Sternberg published The Writer on Her Work, an anthology of essays by women writers, and the book remains in print. The proposed anthology would be of a similar model, with essays encompassing the experiential and the autobiographical while also talking about the act of writing.

The anthology’s audience would include writers of all levels who want to hear more about writing craft and process; readers who are interested in diversity; editors and publishers seeking to increase the diversity in what they publish; and writing and literature teachers in high school and college, who could use it as an instructional text in creative writing classrooms or literary seminars.


What I Learn About Writing When I Read Stephen King

I started rereading The Stand a couple nights ago – it’s probably the fifth time I’ve read it. The last reread was quite a while ago, maybe even 10 years, so there are a lot of specific details and characters I’ve forgotten, and I’m not bogged down with remembering too well what’s going to happen next. At the same time, I know enough about the story line that I can stop and pay attention to the prose if something catches my eye.

As usual when I read Stephen King (and other authors), part of my reading is from the viewpoint of a writer, busy analyzing something he’s done and filing away the technique in my ever growing pile of techniques-I’d-like-to-use-but-never-have. I stayed up too late reading, and woke up this morning with the thought that it might be interesting to actually write down some of these techniques.

This is neither an homage post nor a review. Some of King’s stuff I like a lot, some not so much. On the whole I think he’s a pretty good writer, or I wouldn’t still be reading him. I admire his imagination and productivity; on the other hand, sometimes I wish an editor had reined him in more. He can go a little overboard in the prose department and fall back on formula instead of stretching, and I much prefer implied bad things to lots of gore. But there are a few things he pretty consistently does well that I wish I could do better.

One is his ability to describe mechanical things clearly. I kid you not. The scene that prompted this thought was the scene in The Stand where we first meet Trashcan Man, on top of a gas storage tank, ready to blow it sky high. King writes,

A large pipe projected out of the tangle of pumping machinery, its bore better than two feet, its end threaded to take what the oil people called a clutch-hose. It was strictly for outflow or overflow, but the tank was now full of unleaded gasoline and some of it had trickled out, perhaps a pint, cutting shiny tracks through the light dust on the tank. (182)

He’s got me there, standing on the gas tank, looking at the mechanical stuff. I can see it. And I suck with mechanical visualizations. Further, not only does he describe the pipe clearly, but he knows it’s there in the first place. Remember, this was written before the Internet, when to do research you had to go to a library or get some sort of personal experience. King does this with other mechanical things too – gas pumps, motorcycles, power plants. These are things that are present in day to day life but that we don’t really look at unless we have a specific interest or reason to. I wouldn’t know how to go about describing them without it sounding like a manual.

He’s also really good at juggling a large set of characters and giving insight into even the minor characters. I can step back after I read something by him and say that X character was kind of flat or Y character is just like So-and-so in a different book, but while I’m reading them, I completely believe in them and their world. He’s really good at giving the minor characters a back story which, even if it’s stock in general (e.g. abused child in working-class culture), has specific details that make it that person’s. I still, after all these years writing, find it hard to create multiple characters without it cluttering the narrative, especially if I give them all points of view. The omniscient narrator is tricky to wield, and King does it really well.

The third thing I like about him is his ability to create a sense of place. Not just a setting, but a landscape that is part of the narrative. Whether King is describing a made-up town, a real city, or a secondary world location, I experience it. This is partly a result of his good use of detail and of his characters’ interactions and perceptions, and partly I think because it’s something he cares about. When I read ‘Salem’s Lot I was struck by a paragraph describing the town and the telephone wires humming with gossip – there was a love for place in that, an enjoyment of being there. It reminded me then and still does of Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County. Imaginary, but utterly real, with a history of years and years and years of intersecting stories. Even when King is writing about places that aren’t small towns in Maine, he can still make them integral to the narrative. His best places aren’t wrappings on the story box; they are part of the story box.

Place is hard for me because I moved around a lot as a kid – I went to 3 different elementary schools and 2 different high schools. Western Pennsylvania is the place I am most familiar with, but it still doesn’t feel like home the way it would if I had lived there my whole childhood. This is one of the reasons I write fantasy – I don’t have a Maine or a Mississippi to anchor myself to, so I create one. I think I’ve become reasonably good at this, and I think a lot of that is because of how much work King does with place. While I haven’t consciously modeled my writing on him, King’s Maine is up there with Middle-Earth and Earthsea as examples of worldbuilding.

No one is ever going to call me the next Stephen King. Nor would I want them to – I want to be my own writer. But parts of his work are continual challenges to me to focus on my own writing, to make the style tighter and the content larger and more vivid. And there aren’t a whole lot of other (living) writers out there who do both for me.

The Story Behind the Story

I got asked a while ago to write a piece about Moth and Spark for Upcoming4me, a literary magazine that donates all its profits to charities. They do a column called “The Story Behind the Story,” where writers talk about their writing process. I thought that for this one it would be fun to talk about all the unworkable stuff that got cut over the 5 years of writing Moth and Spark – other characters, different plot lines, changes to setting, and so on. Read all about family members who have since been erased, nefarious plots that didn’t happen, and the other hodgepodge of my imagination! I think this will be especially interesting for people who want to think about writing process and revising in general, not just for people who have read the book.

The piece ran today: It will also run again at the end of the year in conjunction with the PAPERBACK RELEASE ON DECEMBER 30!!


Threats and the Law

Laura Mixon’s report on the actions of Requires Hate/ Benjanun Sriduangkaew has given evidence of the widespread harassment and abuse practiced by this person. In the comments, more victims have been speaking out about what happened to them. I personally have had no interactions with any of the RH personas or with BS, but because the question of legal action against RH has been raised a few times, I thought I would pull together *for informative purposes only* some of the facts and issues that either a criminal or civil case against RH would entail. I’m only speaking about law in the United States.

 DISCLAIMER: This is not intended as legal advice and should not be taken as such. I am not a criminal lawyer, and my knowledge of cyber-crimes is not more than what is general public knowledge. Anyone who thinks there might be a criminal case against RH should take the facts to the police/FBI. Anyone who thinks she or he has a cause for emotional distress should consult a personal injury lawyer.

Criminal Law

 The Law:

18 USC § 875 (c): Whoever transmits in interstate or foreign commerce any communication containing any threat to kidnap any person or any threat to injure the person of another, shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than five years, or both.

The Statute of Limitations runs 5 years (Charles Doyle, “Statutes of Limitation in Federal Criminal Case: An Overview,” Congressional Research Service Report for Congress RL31253, October 1, 2012. p.29m “All crimes not otherwise provided for.”)

Those requirements both seem to be satisfied for many of the incidents reported.


True threats are not protected by the First Amendment. The current prevailing statement on the issue is Virginia v. Black, 538 U.S. 343.

 Virginia v. Black, 538 U.S. 343, 359 (2003):

[T]he First Amendment also permits a State to ban a “true threat” Watts v. United States, 394 U.S. 705, 708 (1969)…. “True threats” encompass those statements where the speaker means to communicate a serious expression of an intent to commit an act of unlawful violence to a particular individual or group of individuals. See Watts v. United States at 708 (“political hyperbole” is not a true threat); R.A.V. v. City of St. Paul, 505 U.S. [377, 388 (1992)]. The speaker need not actually intend to carry out the threat. Rather, a prohibition on true threats “protect[s] individuals from the fear of violence” and “from the disruption that fear engenders,” in addition to protecting people “from the possibility that the threatened violence will occur.” Ibid. Intimidation in the constitutionally proscribable sense of the word is a type of true threat, where a speaker directs a threat to a person or group of persons with the intent of placing the victim in fear of bodily harm or death.

The obvious question is What is a true threat? “I have your address and I am coming to your house with a gun to kill you” is different from “Someone ought to shoot that stinking sack of shit.” While the latter is offensive, I think it would be hard for prosecution to make a case that it is a “true threat.” RH’s speech would have to be analyzed on an individual basis, threat by threat, to determine if it met the standards of a “true threat” or was “just” harassment. (It’s possible that the extent of the trolling might make a stronger case, because it shows a pattern of behavior, but I don’t know how that would be handled by the DOJ.)

This issue is particular problematic right now, as the United States Supreme Court will be hearing this year (oral argument set for December 1, 2014) a case about threats made on Facebook and what level of intent is required for a conviction (Elonis v. United States). The court directed that: In addition to the question presented by the petition, the parties are directed to brief and argue the following question: “Whether, as a matter of statutory interpretation, conviction of threatening another person under 18 U. S. C. §875(c) requires proof of the defendant’s subjective intent to threaten.” This seems to me at a quick read to be pretty similar to the RH case, with the difference that Elonis personally knew the people he threatened on FB. We will have to see the outcome of this to know how courts would be likely to go in any prosecution of RH.

Below is a link to the United States’ initial brief in the Elonis case, setting out the facts and relevant law. It is a long case, and I mostly list it here for people who wish to see examples of what kind of speech is at issue. (It’s really ugly, trigger warnings for about everything.) Free speech advocates such as the EFF have filed amicus briefs in support of Elonis’s case. You can find those and other documents at

Brief of Respondent the United States:

Here are also some news articles that were published when the court took the case:

 Burden of Proof:

Criminal law requires proof “beyond reasonable doubt.” This is a tough standard to meet in any case, and I *suspect* is really hard in situations of anonymous internet communications. The issue in an RH case would be of who is actually making the threats.

A secondary issue would be the fact that a lot of the evidence has disappeared. Without screenshots, there’s nothing to prove there was a threat.

 Jurisdiction: The residence of the victim should provide a solid jurisdictional basis for prosecution in federal district court. However, if RH is in fact in Thailand (or some country other than the United States), she would have to be extradited.


Tort Law:

“Intentional Infliction of Emotional Distress” (IIED) is a common law tort. In the United States, the statute of limitations for tort varies form state to state. In California, the statute of limitations is two years (Code of Civil Procedure Section 335.1). The statute would begin to run from the date of the first injurious communication. Tort cases also have issues with jurisdiction over foreign defendants.

To win a tort case in general, the plaintiff must prove that there is an injury, that the injury was caused by the defendant, and that the defendant had a duty not to inflict the injury and that duty was breached. “Duty” is usually the tough one. In an IIED case in California, plaintiff does not need to prove duty but does need to prove “outrageous conduct” or at least “reckless disregard.” I think that’s pretty clear in this case, but it’s not a slam-dunk; the factors a jury can consider with regard to “outrageous conduct” include whether the defendant was in a position of authority and whether the defendant knew of a particular vulnerability on the part of the plaintiff.

Plaintiff must also prove that there was emotional distress, and this can be really hard to show, for mostly good reasons – nearly anything related to emotions lies in a grey area subject to multiple interpretations, and we don’t as a society want to legislate degrees of emotions. The big weapon for the plaintiff here is medical proof, such as the testimony of a therapist. If the plaintiff has not received counseling or demonstrated outward signs of emotional distress, the case is going to be much harder. The connected problem for the plaintiff is that bringing in a therapist opens up other areas of inquiry that can also be extremely painful, such as childhood traumas, failed relationships, a history of depression, etc.

Damages are tricky too, first because quantifying “pain and suffering” into dollars is extremely difficult, especially when it’s emotional and not physical. Proving economic damages as a result of not writing / not publishing would be hard for any writer without a proven track record. Further, even if a jury awards substantial damages, the damages still have to be collected. If every victim of RH received 100K in damages, it would not be long before RH was “judgment proof” because she ran out of money. A slip and fall case against a homeowner can result in actual cash because homeowner’s insurance covers liability for such things. People don’t generally carry insurance policies for intentional emotional harm to others, though. So winning a tort case against RH might be a hollow victory.

The California jury instructions, which lay out the legal standards for emotional distress cases, are here: (sections 1600-1605).

Tort cases can take a long time and be pretty expensive.

 Other Actions

One possible remedy would be to try to have a restraining order taken out against RH/BS. I don’t know how this would fly with the courts or in actual practice.

Libel (written) or slander (spoken) are other possible civil causes of action but are probably pretty hard to prove.

Wolfhound Century by Peter Higgins (2013)

So I really really liked this book. I’m writing about it not as a review but as way to articulate what I enjoyed so much. I’ve read a lot of books over the last year that were much acclaimed as mind-bending or fantastic or important or whatever, none of which have really bent my mind. I picked up this book without knowing anything about it except that it was some sort of fantasy spy novel. (The British publisher, Gollancz, tweeted out a picture of the first page in a “What’s this book?” game, and I was struck by the concepts.) This one didn’t exactly bend my mind – maybe having read too much literary criticism and modernist/postmodernist/experimental novels keeps my mind from being bent much more than it has been. But I couldn’t predict where this novel was going, and I loved that.

It started out as a secondary world fantasy about a policeman in a Russian-inspired culture. It stayed that, but much more was added: fallen angels, other possible worlds, life under an oppressive Soviet-style regime, greed, magic. I don’t want to get into spoilers here, because a lot of the fun of the book for me was the unexpected – I would think I knew what was going on, and either the plot would twist a little or some element I never would have imagined was added. He had a great imagination for both spooky magic and human art.

One of the things I really enjoyed about the novel was the way Higgins made use of water – rain, river, floods, and marsh. Wetlands are a wonderful transitional place, great for observing a lot of biological diversity, but so often when they are used in fantasy – when used at all, which is infrequently – they are an obstacle to get around or a horror to be avoided. Swamp things and dead corpses, the stench of rot, the lonely pathless waste where one gets lost. Higgins’s marshes were beautiful and eerie. It reminded me more than anything else of Graham Swift’s Waterland, about the fen country of England. He also had a description of falling into a cold river that was amazingly imagined and described, and his flooded river is a force of itself. The flood did not become an action scene of our hero escaping from a bunch of enemies or predators; it was a powerful force of movement, inevitable, inescapable, nature greater than city.

Higgins also does some great work with language. Frequently I am disappointed to read a book that has been highly praised but is clunky or pedestrian in its language. Higgins wrote sentences such as


Lom breathed deeply, concentrating on the air around them, ancient and cold and thickened and still.


He can feel the unseen pull of the moons: a gentle lunar gravity tugging at his hair and palpating with infinite slowness the ventricular walls of his heart.


When he grew tired he lay down to sleep, and in the dawn when he woke his clothes crackled with the snapping of ice.


The words carry their own weight. They have an intensity and a lyrical quality that I haven’t seen in a lot of other fantasy novels. At the same time, they are plain, solid, not overwrought and baroque purple prose. It would be really easy to write that last example as “when he woke his clothes had frozen solid” – accurate, but not evocative. Higgins used strong verbs to convey the imagery, which is one of my favorite things when reading. (As I’ve said elsewhere, I’m a language junky.) As the story becomes stranger, Higgins’s style moves from a straightforward detective type prose to more poetic and nuanced imagery.

The novel has its flaws – nothing is perfect. But since I’m not reviewing it, I don’t have to go into them. It did the best thing any book can do for me – kicked me into my own creative high gear. It’s a book I wish I’d written, and it inspired me to go out and write something that stretches my imagination and my style. So thank you, Peter Higgins.


(The sequel, Truth and Fear, was published in 2014 and I’m hoping to pick up a copy of it today.)

Hate Reviews and the First Amendment

Aaaaaaand – the latest round of blogger issues leads me to throw on my attorney hat and expound upon the First Amendment, because that’s what always gets thrown around when there is disagreement on the Internet. Here’s the context:

This week began with the blogger who ran “Requires Hate” being uncloaked as Benjanun Sriduangkaew, who has been publishing stories to acclaim within the SFF community. The week ended with the Guardian running a piece by YA author Kathleen Hale in which she described stalking someone who gave her a one-star review on Goodreads. In between, Anita Sarkeesian, a feminist critic of video games, canceled an appearance because she thought Utah State University was responding insufficiently to a horrific terrorist threat against her. It was, in short, an ugly week on the Internet.

There has been a lot of discussion, argument, and hurt feelings about all three of these incidents. I have no personal stake in any of them – I don’t even follow the actors on twitter.

Do I approve of “doxxing” (the practice of putting out personal information about an enemy online via documents)? Not generally. I suppose there might be a situation in which I did, but the Requires Hate and the Kathleen Hale incidents are not among them.

Do I approve of stalking? Absolutely not.

Do I think bloggers should be able to write what they want to about a book (even if it’s hateful and vitriolic)? Yes. Criticism and dissent are important to a healthy society.


The text of the First Amendment is this:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.” (Emphasis mine.)

Later the Amendment was expanded to cover all government entities (i.e. state and local governments), not just Congress. The First Amendment was written to protect people from getting thrown in jail for criticizing the government. It has expanded to include lots of other forms of speech and even non-verbal forms of expression (dance, art, film). It is why we are allowed to say that the President is wrong or Congress is full of bone-headed goof-offs.

First Amendment cases that go to court are usually about whether or not the government has the right to prohibit a particular form of speech, such as picketing or heckling the city council. Cases often go to court when a town makes an ordinance forbidding pornography or hate speech, and the question for the court is whether the regulation has a “chilling effect” on free speech. These cases often get muddy because multiple issues are involved and have to be disentangled. It is not an easy issue.

Anita Sarkeesian’s First Amendment rights were trumped by the Second Amendment because Utah State University, a governmental entity, was unable to provide security for her to speak due to Utah’s gun laws. What’s important for this argument is that the person who threatened Sarkeesian did not violate her First Amendment rights by suppressing speech; the threatener was a private person. The threat was horrible and criminal, but has nothing to do with Sarkeesian’s constitutional rights. The University, on the other hand, did facilitate a “chilling effect” on her speech by not providing a safe place, and the Utah gun laws in effect suppressed her free speech rights. So violation of the First Amendment by the state is potentially implicated in the situation. (It would be a tough case.)

However, writing a review panning someone’s book is not protected by the First Amendment. Calling someone a racist is not protected by the First Amendment. Neither is being a racist. Shutting off comments to a blog or deleting an account from a social media network are perfectly legal things to do and infringe upon no one’s First Amendment rights.

Sometimes speech is dangerous or hurtful to a person. The legal system is set up to handle that through civil tort law – injury law – pertaining to defamation of character and libel or slander. As an additional check, some states have anti-SLAPP laws, which keep a plaintiff from being able to use the legal system itself to coerce a particular form of speech or behavior. The criminal system also has ways for harmful speech to be dealt with. Threatening someone online is a violation of federal law. Stalking is a criminal offense. The victim in these situations is protected by the justice system.

But not by the First Amendment.

A person who has made seemingly defamatory statements has the right to be free of threats or harassment from the subject, because those are criminal activities. A person who has been defamed has the right to sue, because defamation is an actionable injury under the American tort system.

When people cite to the First Amendment as the reason person X should be allowed to write mean things about person Y on the Internet, or when they say their free speech rights are being violated by other people arguing with them, or claim that censorship is being imposed because they got kicked off Facebook, or whatever, they are inaccurate. The First Amendment has nothing to do with what people say online provided that there is no law telling them what they can say or not say. Citing to the First Amendment to protect the right to call someone a social justice warrior or to claim a book is full of racism is meaningless.

What protects private speech among individuals is something called a “social contract” – an unspoken agreement that people make with each other in order to keep society functional. If you write something that is outside the bounds of the established social norm for speech, you’re going to get pushback. On the other hand, if people try to restrict criticism too much, they will get pushback. Factionalization in favor of one party or the other arises when there is disagreement about what the limits of the norm are. Social norms evolve over time. Law exists to step in when the social contract is insufficient to resolve a dispute.

Are hate reviews okay? I think they are a pretty vile thing to do (and if you are a person who gets your jollies by savaging other people you might ask yourself what you are afraid of and why you feel powerless), but they are not illegal. On the other hand, if a community as a whole decides it has had enough and wants to ostracize the hate reviewer, the community is allowed to do that. Speech has consequences. Sometimes the consequences are unpleasant. And the First Amendment is not a shield for the violation of the social contract.


An Open Letter to the USU Bomb Threat Maker

Dear Threatener(s) of Anita Sarkeesian:

When I read your threats, here’s what I think:  You are scared shitless. You are terrified that women will take away the things that give structure to your life. You are so scared that all you can do is spew hate and make threats. You fear that if women come into “the club,” it will change and there won’t be a place for you.

You are scared of women because somewhere, somehow, you were broken.

You learned to hate yourself for “weakness,” for love, for taking emotional risks. Maybe you were hit by your father as a boy and told that boys don’t cry. Maybe you were abandoned by your mother and that has made you afraid to trust anyone again. Maybe you were bullied by other kids and there is still a hot core of shame in you which you run, run, run from because it hurts so much. Maybe you were sexually abused. Maybe you had no specific traumas but lived a life of constant stress and loneliness. Maybe you were raised with luxury and things as a substitute for love.

You know what happened to you.

Whatever it was, it made you feel that women are your enemy. I don’t say think because it’s deeper than logic or the rational mind. It’s your emotions, your self, your soul.

Women didn’t do this to you.

You didn’t do it to yourself either.

You need to have compassion for yourself.

You have learned that surviving in the world means having power, and that power is expressed through violence. Games tell you this over and over. You kill to win. You feel powerless in real life, so you crave the power that you have in games. You have now discovered that making threats gives you power in the real world. You finally feel strong.

It’s a lie.

A terrible, hopeless, brutal lie.

You’re going to continue to tear yourself apart with rage and hatred and the desire to kill, and it’s not going to make things better.

The enemy within is more frightening than anything you will face in any game or movie. That’s who the fight is against. Fight against your own self-loathing and despair. The only way you are going to feel safe is by making a safe place within yourself, not outside.

It’s hard. It’s horribly hard to surrender like that. You have to rip away all those scars you’ve built up and make the wounds raw again. You’ll feel flayed, exposed, helpless. You’ll hate yourself for feeling that way and will try to use that hatred to make new scars.

But if you can do it, if you can find the bravery to confront your own pain, that’s how your life will stop being ruined and start being whole.

Online Harassment and Fear of Self


My son and his friends used to play a variation of freeze tag where an extra variable was the “hot lava”; if you stepped on the playlot woodchips, you “fell into hot lava” and were frozen until someone could untag you. This was in addition to the chance of being frozen in the ordinary way by getting tagged by “It” no matter where you were. If the person who was It stepped on the woodchips, she or he was frozen for five seconds and everyone else had a chance to escape. The kids put down pieces of wood, jackets, other toys, whatever they could find to make islands of safety in the “lava.”

This seems to me like a really useful metaphor for social media and online harassment of people, particularly (but not exclusively) women and minorities. You think you’re come to play ordinary freeze tag and then, once you’re in, you learn about the hot lava and the many many many place where you aren’t actually safe. Meanwhile if It steps in the wrong place, It only has to wait a while a few seconds. It will claim that being frozen for a few seconds is fair because the game couldn’t continue if It is frozen. It will claim that the other players have lots of places to go and friends to help them and they just have to avoid the lava. Of course, It is still allowed to tag them if they’re on an island.


It’s hard to know where to start talking about online harassment and hostility. Do I talk about the vile racist tweets made on a Muslim-American writer? Do I talk about women game designers receiving rape and death threats that they fear enough to leave their homes? Do I talk about the woman whose anonymous book reviews have been called toxic and vicious and who is now getting blowback since she’s been outed? Do I talk about misogyny and racism issued from people in many subcultures? Do I talk about the vitriol exchanged on any topic (you name it)?

There will always be some people who harass, threaten, stalk, or otherwise intentionally hurt others online. Nature abhors a vacuum – someone will always be there to fill a vacated spot and continue to spew hate and venom. We can only work to reduce it. Some harassers are probably genuine sociopaths under DSM-V criteria, incapable of feeling empathy. Some of them are young risk-takers, still experimenting with being in the world, who will grow out of it when they realize that there is actual pain on the other end and it’s not just a game. But I think most of the determined harassers are people who are very very frightened. They are so frightened they don’t even know it and have internalized it. It comes out as hate.

Acknowledgment of this fear is what I see lacking in most discussions about online harassment. The conversation turns into what to do about the trolls, not why are they trolls in the first place. They are objectified as soulless hate-mongers who need to be eradicated or barricaded off. There’s little talk about what (besides actual mental illness) leads people to be so angry in the first place.

I should say clearly here that I am not intending to diminish a victim’s sense of powerlessness and defilement. I am not saying harassment is okay. I am not saying people should not take social and legal means to stop harassers.

But solving the problem of one individual harasser, whether by blocking accounts or by sending him or her to jail, doesn’t solve the problem of harassment overall.


The world is full of instability and danger. Norms are constantly changing, leaving nothing to grab hold of. There’s no easy way to get off the spinning carousel.


The world is full of loneliness. Humans are social animals gifted and cursed with self-awareness, with an “I” that is fundamentally single. This is scary.


Online, you don’t have to wait for a reaction, which is an interaction, a strike against loneliness. You know you aren’t solitary. In real life, you go to a shitty, stressful job where you have to work work work fast fast fast for hours at a time, but when you leave you can get online and have power yourself. It’s heady. The insane speed at which American life is lived, in physical life and on the internet, also provides instant gratification and a sense of efficacy.


The world is full of noise. Noise covers up the terrifying silence, the sense of being alone. It hides the danger.


But speed and noise and constant interaction keep you from experiencing yourself. Coping mechanisms address symptoms, not root causes. There’s a reason prophets go out wandering in the wilderness: in stillness and silence and solitude, they gain self-knowledge and authenticity that is difficult if not impossible to learn in daily life. And self-knowledge is usually uncomfortable.

It’s also a crucial part of what makes us human.

We have created a culture that helps us hide from ourselves. Is it any wonder that this internal contradiction sometimes expresses itself in hatred of anything that threatens to strip away that protection? Harassing someone is just one way of holding down the fort that has been built with so much effort. It’s much easier and more comfortable to deride the people who make you start to question your beliefs or who in their otherness make you aware of your singularity than it is to listen to them and go down that difficult path. Hate is safety.


This isn’t where I expected this blog post to go. It certainly doesn’t have any practical applications for people who are being harassed online. I’m not expecting victims of harassment to suddenly turn the other cheek and love their enemy, nor am I expecting harassers to go to a meditation retreat. Most of us are not saints or prophets; we have our breaking points. Further, online harassment should not be ignored. It should be taken seriously and treated as the assault crime that it is. Remedies for victims need to be more immediate, more accessible, and more permanent.

But yelling “These assholes need to stop!” isn’t having much effect either, because social and cultural forces much larger than social media are in play. The only way we’re going to reduce hate in the world is by making the world safer for self-discovery and self-knowledge. This is a group effort, and a long-tem effort, and a difficult effort. Changes need to be made in how human beings grow up perceiving the world, in how we listen and relate to each other, in how we exercise our own agency, in how we rank what we value. When we can, we should forgive more, shame less, and try to be truer to our own best selves.


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