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Melissa Blake: After I challenged a Republican politician on Twitter, his supporters insulted my appearance

Blake: Even though I felt exposed, I'll always stand up -- and speak out -- for women everywhere

Editor’s Note: Melissa Blake is a freelance writer and blogger from Illinois. She covers disability rights and women’s issues and has written for The New York Times, Good Housekeeping, Glamour and Racked, among others. Read her blog, So About What I Said, and follow her on Twitter. The views expressed in this commentary are solely hers.

CNN —  

It takes more than guts to be a woman in 2017.

This is especially true on social media, where Donald Trump and his supporters have become 21st century schoolyard bullies and Twitter is their playground.

Melissa Blake
Courtesy Melissa Blake
Melissa Blake

I’ve been navigating that playground since the November presidential election. In fact, I spent two solid days blocking vile people on Twitter recently after witnessing a truly scary side of humanity – a side that, sadly, has only been swiftly gaining steam.

After I challenged Paul Nehlen, a former Republican congressional candidate, on Twitter this summer, his supporters insulted my appearance and mocked how I looked, with one even going so far as to say I should be euthanized.

What egregious sin had I committed? I dared to stand up to misogyny – to a man hurling vile words at a woman.

After Nehlen insulted comedian Sarah Silverman on Twitter (he called her a “skank”), I simply suggested that he shouldn’t be calling women names if he wanted to run for public office. From there, things went downhill pretty quickly. He proceeded to mansplain to me and criticize the publications I’ve written for, and pretty soon, his followers were piling on.

The 140-character insults quickly devolved into jabs about my appearance (I’m physically disabled), going so far as to ask if I was a human. Is this the price of being a woman who speaks online in 2017?

Here are just some of the words that were hurled my way:

–By the look of things diabetes will claim you before the next election.

–Jesus, you might want to rethink that three dozen donuts.

–That’s pretty funny coming from a chick that could play Jabba’s long lost daughter w/no makeup or cgi. #MovesLikeJabba

– Do you think it’s human? Looks like a species of great ape.

– Why are you offended on behalf of women? Potatoes don’t have genders.

There may have been other taunts. As I sat there scrolling through my feed, I felt more exposed and vulnerable than I’d ever felt before. Strangers who knew nothing about me reduced me to an object. I felt violated, and that broke me.

Through all those emotions, though, one conclusion became crystal clear: Women aren’t safe anymore. Not in real life and not in cyberspace. Because what happened to me? It was assault. Sure, it may not have been the physical kind, but make no mistake about it, as I read through those cruel words, it felt like I was being ripped apart.

Thanks to social media, assault can’t be so narrowly understood anymore.

Does any of this remind you of anyone? More and more, President Trump’s high-profile treatment of women online highlights a dark and dangerous trend. The leader of our country has shown no hesitation in going after women who challenge him and shown no interest in restraining his supporters from attacking everyone.

As a candidate, he targeted Megyn Kelly and took no action against his supporters who threatened her. He also attacked an 18-year-old who challenged him at a political forum on Twitter in 2015, and his followers then harassed her viciously. As president, he mocked Mika Brzezinski for “bleeding badly from a face-lift.”

There’s already a long history of men tearing women down. Now, social media gives men more access to do this than ever before, as each tweet is perpetuating a culture of hate – one where the strongest and most powerful are whoever can intimidate others or ridicule them into silence.

“In a culture that seems to value women for how they look over what they say or do, it’s no surprise that many use attacks on women’s looks as a go-to method of silencing them,” says Renee Engeln, psychology professor at Northwestern University and author of “Beauty Sick: How the Cultural Obsession with Appearance Hurts Girls and Women.”

“In the past, if all you knew about a writer was what that writer said, you were limited to attacking ideas instead of physical appearance.”

This is the culture women face every day. This is our reality. It’s disgusting.

Since when is it a bad thing for women to be outspoken, have opinions and express them, anyway? Until those tweets filled my notifications, I’d never felt like I had to silence myself – in any part of my life – and speaking my mind has always made me feel empowered. But men like Nehlen, Trump and their supporters seem to be threatened by the very thought that a woman will speak up.

There will be those people who say that I shouldn’t say anything, that I’ll never be able to change people’s minds. They’ll caution me not to rock the boat or make too big a deal of this. And to those people, I say this: What if you had said that to Susan B. Anthony during women’s suffrage or to Rosa Parks during the civil rights movement? What if you had told them they shouldn’t be so outspoken? And what if they’d listened?

We’d no doubt be living in a very different world. I shudder to think what humanity would be like, don’t you?

Because every time we choose silence over speaking up, that line of normalization widens the circle just a little, as if to say, “Yes, this behavior is perfectly acceptable.”

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  • I won’t lie – I’m afraid of this world we’re living in, but I’m more afraid saying nothing. I often wonder what future generations of women will think. As Engeln says, “We look to the behavior of others to learn about cultural norms and appropriate behavior. When our leaders model humility and kindness, that can increase our tendency toward humility and kindness. When they model cruelty, cruelty becomes normalized and loses its shock value.”

    In that tangled web of hateful tweets, someone called me the Purveyor of the Matriarchy. It was meant to be an insult, but I couldn’t help but see it as a compliment – a call to duty, even.

    I’m never going to be quiet, especially not on Twitter and social media. I’m not going away. And I’ll always stand up – and speak out – for women everywhere.