Set the record gender-neutral

The Internet allows us to surround ourselves with similar minds and validating opinions.

by Sam Blake

I once saw a discussion âÄî on the Internet, of all places âÄî on the potential value of misandry, i.e., man hating. However, since most of the people in the forum were men, the topic quickly shifted to comparable hatred of the colloquially fairer sex. One particularly loquacious commenter mentioned that it sounded like âÄúpeople [were] just directing their misanthropy towards women.âÄù If only there was a word for that. It is widely believed that the Internet is a breeding ground for misogyny. Certainly there is some merit to such a belief. You donâÄôt have to look very hard to find men more than happy to objectify and deride women, especially given the relative safety of anonymity. And the wide availability (not to mention popularity) of Internet pornography doesnâÄôt exactly help matters either. But it isnâÄôt exactly fair to call the Internet misogynist on this evidence, which is strictly anecdotal. After all, itâÄôs not terribly difficult to find anecdotal examples suggesting that large parts of the Internet are misandrist. Many feminist blogs (not all of them, but more than a few) are good examples. There are more subtle cases too, such as âÄúwhite knighting,âÄù where men take the side of a woman arguing against a man for no better reason than because she is female. And if the straightforward examples werenâÄôt sufficient, consider that the claims that the Internet is a bastion of misogyny require you to generalize all men into chauvinistic pigs who use the Internet strictly because they hate women so much. Hey look, you just had a misandrist opinion. And since the Internet is filled with people making claims like that, you could then assert that the Internet is a wretched hive of scum and misandry, which would make you a misogynist for saying it. So clearly this battle of the sexist riposte is not going to end up anywhere productive. Now, let me be clear: I am certainly not trying to claim that the Internet is intrinsically misandrist. I think such a claim is exactly as ludicrous as its opposite. My point is that those who are ready to jump to accusations of sexism are failing to grasp the big picture. Is there something about the Internet that inherently makes us more sexist than we were without it? Sure, we observe that people frequently act more sexist on the Internet, but we donâÄôt observe any reason this might be the case. And the simple explanation for this is that the reason has absolutely nothing to do with sexism whatsoever. The Internet is a big place âÄî most people are aware of this fact. It is a well-documented phenomenon that, as a result of the Internet being the big place it is, people with particular opinions can easily find people with those same opinions without a substantial degree of effort. If you enjoy pictures of cats with misspelled captions, there are a few million people on the Internet to share your passion with. If you happen to be of the opinion that you are a dragon trapped in the body of a human, you can find other people who believe similarly (though admittedly not as many as those who enjoy silly pictures of cats). Not only is it possible to find these like-minded people, it is almost impossible not to; the nature of social flow on the Internet is such that people naturally fall into communities where people behave similarly. This should hardly surprise us, since this is exactly how people act in real life. The only difference is that on the Internet there are enough people that you can find solidarity for even the most obscure of interests. The ability to find those people who share similar interests is one of the most powerful features of the Internet today. Unfortunately, this power has a nasty side effect: unwarranted validation. You see, some people hold opinions that are, shall we say, less than robust. Say, for instance, you happen to be of the opinion that the Earth, in its daily rotation, traces out a cube which can be interpreted as four days occurring simultaneously (popularly called the âÄútime cubeâÄù). It is not even remotely difficult to find people who sincerely believe this to be the case. And if you surround yourself constantly with people who believe the things you do, you will eventually start to believe it ever more intently. This is why sites like DeviantArt, Newgrounds and YouTube thrive. People who canâÄôt produce content that is even remotely decent can still manage to find people to praise everything they do, and as a result they sincerely believe (despite all evidence to the contrary) that they are actually doing a good job. This unwarranted validation is exactly where Internet sexism comes from. ItâÄôs not that men are born misogynistic or that women are born misandristic. ItâÄôs that men tend to surround themselves with men, and misogyny is a point on which it is easy for them to share common ground. Mob mentality grips them, and their behavior becomes what we would normally call unacceptable. The argument for women and misandry is exactly the same. The comment I referred to earlier about directing misanthropy at women may actually be more insightful than its vocabularic incapacity might lead one to believe. The problem is not that we are sexist, per se. The problem instead is that sexist behavior falls naturally out of the human behavior (which is enhanced by the Internet) of surrounding yourself with similar people and then insulting others to validate yourself. People arenâÄôt born sexist, and the Internet doesnâÄôt make them that way. Sexism online is just a bunch of people who are the same hating people who are different, just like weâÄôve been doing for all of human history. Some things technology will never change. Sam Blake welcomes comments at [email protected].