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.
Following a damaging and racist tweet from politician Paul Nehlen, Twitter banned the Republican congressional candidate from Wisconsin for what a company representative called “repeated violations of our terms of service.” Nehlen posted a photoshopped image of Meghan Markle with the head of Cheddar Man, whose 9,000-year-old remains indicate the dark-skinned man was an ancient Briton. Along with the image, he tweeted: “Honey does this tie make my face look pale?”
Many interpret the Twitter ban as a clear and welcome message that goes far beyond the digital landscape: Hate and bullying have no place in our culture. Still, many (myself included) are wondering why it took so long for Twitter to ban Nehlen in the first place. And what’s more, what does that delay say about our culture and how we came to be in our current hostile, hate-filled climate? The answer: In 2018, free speech isn’t very free anymore; it comes with a price.
I love Twitter and think it has the power to do great things, but it’s a tool that needs to be used responsibly and with more thought than I’ve seen in the past. That’s undoubtedly true of other platforms such as Facebook and YouTube as well. I’d like to think we’re better than who we’ve been online.
This isn’t the first time Nehlen has lashed out on Twitter with his own brand of vitriol. He has a long history of racist and anti-Semitic posts. His account was suspended for one week in January after he began tweeting the names and contact information of his critics, claiming that many of them are Jewish; some even said they were further targeted with harassing phone calls and messages.
Long before he targeted the future royal, I was a target of taunts from him and his followers. After I called Nehlen out for his bad behavior, my timeline was flooded with misogynistic, downright vile remarks about my appearance and my disability. The insults had nothing to do with my criticism of Nehlen and everything to do with people hurling as many derogatory words as possible – all, as they claim, in the name of free speech.
My encounter with Nehlen happened months ago. Many months. In the roughly 240 days between when he and his followers began bullying me and when he was suspended permanently from Twitter, Nehlen has done far more damage and been given one too many chances.
The amount of time it took for Twitter to decide that enough is enough paints a clear picture of where we are as culture – when we’ve become so desensitized to such overtly charged hate that our first instinct is just to shake our heads and look the other way. Nothing fazes us anymore. We’ve moved from a culture of “oh no!” to “oh well!”
As a blogger for nearly a decade, I’ve received my fair share of not-so-nice comments, and the majority of them mocked my disability. However, what often happens on Twitter feels different and dire. At least with my own blog, I could delete those hateful and demeaning comments, and eventually, the comments occurred less frequently.
But with Twitter, where people can tweet in rapid succession with a few clicks or taps of a screen, the comments are relentless. Sure, there’s the block function, but more often than not, 10 more trolls just pop up in the blocked one’s place.
I’m troubled most of all by what happens when we start taking our online selves out into the real world. As much as we’d like to deny it, our internet interactions are changing the fabric of who we are – and, sadly, this change is not for the better. We’re short with the cashier at Target. We have no patience with the traffic on the drive home. And worst of all, we openly and vocally shun those who are different from us.
Frankly, it all scares me because I see the effects this online culture of hate is having on me. Where I was once optimistic, I’m increasingly bitter. Where I used to think the best of people, I now have seriously low expectations. And I hate it.
The price of free speech seems to be going up every day – as people become emboldened behind the safety of their computers or devices. Free speech shouldn’t give us an all-access pass to say whatever we want without any sort of repercussions.
Nehlen may be gone from Twitter, but his supporters have posted wave after wave of tweets in his defense, some even using the hashtag #ShallNotCensor. This is a sign, clearly, that online bullying is far from over.
So where do we go from here? I wish I knew, but if Nehlen’s story tells us anything, it’s that there are – and should always be – consequences to our behavior online and in real life. Eventually, those in power will be held accountable for their actions, whether they live in Wisconsin or (one can hope) in the White House.