Silence, the death of activism. Why Troliday defeats its own purpose.

If you're a Twitter user in the UK, you can't help have noticed that it's Troliday today. This is the latest crest of a wave of protest currently ebbing and rising in response to a particularly grisly series of high-profile misogynistic attacks on, among others Mary Beard, and many other women who have the temerity to be too high profile and successful.

The aim of Troliday is for users to spend 24 hours away from Twitter in an act of solidarity and as an attempt to persuade Twitter to police its badlands more carefully, both of which are perfectly noble goals. But I can't find enthusiasm for Troliday. I think it's self-defeating. I think it's a good cause but a bad strategy. Many of my reasons have been exhaustively described already throughout the day, so I'll reiterate briefly:

1. To paraphrase the NRA, if we silence ourselves, then the only people left who get to say anything are the ones with the complicated and unresolved childhoods.
2. A boycott only works when withholding your services or goods actually hurts the organisation targeted. If a handful of people in the media decide to withhold their Sunday sermons, life very much proceeds as it was.
3. When you battle an idea, you need bigger ideas to win.

Memes, and the battle for the bigger idea

I'll explain. For most people, a meme is a recurrent internet funny, like the scowling cat, the Facepalm of Picard, or Gandalf telling some unlucky high-schoolers that they shall indeed, not pass. But the term was coined by Richard Dawkins in his book the Selfish Gene. As opposed to the gene, which was a unit of genetic inheritance, a meme was a unit of cultural or intellectual capital that could be passed on to other members of the species. The important thing was that memes acted like genes: if they offered a survival advantage or some kind of utility, they would replicate successfully and propagate. For example, the habit of washing ones hands before eating has a benefit, and so survives, whereas the practice of trepanning does not.

What excites those who study memes is that it's a model that can usefully describe all kinds of cultural processes. Communism is a collection of memes, as is Capitalism. So is Coca Cola, and Apple, and Hula-Hoops, and social networking, and ... anything that we do. Gangnam Style is a meme that acted like a virus before exhausting itself, having consumed its host, gratefully.

And that's why it's important not to stay silent. Unlike World WarII, this isn't a battle against an enemy with clear ideological and geographical boundaries. This is a contest of ideas. On one side (and I abhor the linear description of two poles, but it'll do for explanation) is the idea that women are objects that exist as a helpmeet to man; on the other, the idea that they are not, that they deserve every privilege and consideration that their male counterparts enjoy. On the first side we have the glass ceiling, the male gaze, patria potestas, feet binding, and the fear of weak men who cannot sustain a reasonable erection without constructing women as vile whores. These are ideas.

On the other side, we have universal suffrage, No means No, Dworkin, Wollstonecraft, Greer, the Equal Rights Movement and JS goddamn Mill if you please. These are other ideas. These ideas are in constant battle with each other, in abstract or concrete battlefields, shifting every day, taking place in new theatres every moment. Justice of any sort will not appear by itself, unless you believe that it exists as a natural commodity, which I do not. It must be constructed. It must be created, constantly, from the atoms of chaos and disorder that constitute our moral universe.

So I cannot conceive of silence in this context. Silence is an abdication of responsibility from wrestling with other ideas. Other than the idea behind the silence, which isn't entirely without merit, the silence itself is a vacuum of ideas. It is the absence of ideas. It is shadow. It is darkness. The only ideas that are left to replicate are the ideas of unhappy and fearful men, cupping their timid viscera and congratulating each other.

How should we conduct ourselves in this arena? By speaking. The internet has bred courage in men who would previously have lived lives of desperate anonymity. The cure for their candour is exposure; confrontation; the spotlight of infamy. Mary Beard so deftly demonstrated this when she was party to the exposure of one such braveheart, whose bawdy boldness stopped at the point his mother found out.

By all means, let Twitter design methods that ease the process of exposure and reporting; they profit from our participation, and should be held responsible for good governance. I couldn't organise a car boot sale without making sure my participants were reasonably safe from harm, so let them spend some money on their algorithms and customer care advisers.

And culture needs to start catching up with technology. When people start to realise that a threat to kill and rape becomes a published artefact once you press send, and redress can be legally sought against it, then they might think twice before airing their vile opinions beyond the pool tables and bars of privacy.

But the biggest weapon against these cruel, selfish and exploitative ideas, is better ideas. Police are essential, but it isn't only police that make out streets safe. We have to reclaim the streets ourselves, police our own corridors too. I cannot change the whole world- no matter what some journalists with odd ideas of their importance think- but I can do something about the spot right in front of me. Any garbage that appears in my timeline gets questioned, just the same way that I'd cross the street to help if an old lady was being hassled. That's something we can all do.

So I can't condone silence. It isn't the non compliance of Rosa Parks, or the Salt Marches. It's cargo-cult activism; it apes activism, but it does nothing. It's activism with no calories. Worse, because it temporarily satisfies the pang for justice, it actually denies justice the opportunity to be performed.

Finally it hasn't been helped by the slightly smug way in which a few of its proponents have implied that their absence would somehow end Twitter.  In fact, for that alone, perhaps the silence served at least some small purpose. Self important, self-elected salons are another idea entirely.


  1. and the silence has certainly served a purpose in the debate it's generated! Irony, anyone?

    Thanks for your thoughts, Tom.

  2. and the silence has certainly served a purpose in the debate it's generated! Irony, anyone?

    Thanks for your thoughts, Tom.

  3. Whilst I'm happy for people to protest, at anything, any way they choose, I must admit I am similarly bemused as to how not doing a thing, that is an optional thing anyway, is making a stand.
    I come from a childhood littered with watching my mum sit in front of lorries, though (mortifying when you are 8, oddly kinda cool now in my 30s). Thus I concede I am old school, and very much in the talking is better than not camp.

    Nor am I sure the argument I saw several times that "twitter will see what it's like when the trolls take over" works. Twitter care about traffic, I'm not so sure they mind who is in the vehicles.

  4. We made this today for #twittersilence THE TROLLY HOLIDAY SONG :>}

  5. I think something has been missed here. The "Twitter" people often refer to is actually a group of people not a social media tool. When people say Twitter can transform/excite/bore them they are mostly referring to the people they follow actually!

    With that in mind I think the main message from the Twitter silence, from those who upheld it, is "I think X is wrong."

    As a celebrity this is a statement which has power amongst their followers. Their followers know that this issue is not being taken lightly by the celeb they look up to. Every celeb is followed by trolls, it goes with the territory, so they have taken their fuel off that fire for a day. Every celeb is also followed by adoring fans who are more likely to take notice of something if their chosen celeb stands up to it or makes a statement of any kind.
    With every protest we need to look at human element first and in this instance the human element was a load of celebs, smugly or otherwise, saying to their Twitterati - this is who I am. And that is nothing to be mocked. Or scorned. Or rewarded. It just is. It exists as their personal stance just as this blog is yours.

    Silence can speak volumes. It isn't to say that is the only thing these people will do! Many have stood up and been counted as speaking out against the trolling. I feel the silence was actually in part a mark of respect for those who were wronged - much like the silence for respecting death. If respect was upheld in any form by everyone we wouldn't have these issues full stop.

  6. Dear Mr Bennett,

    My name is Ant Parham and I am currently working as an intern at The Education Foundation, the UK's Education Think Tank.

    We are currently preparing a Report on 'The Rise of Teacher Blogging' and its importance when it comes to Education in the UK today.

    I would be grateful if you you could send any views you have concerning EduBlogging. One way in which you could frame your views would be to answer the following questions as a reply to this email...
    What are the reasons why you started to blog?
    What aspect do you blog about: a) policy b) CPD c) life as a teacher ?
    What impact do you want your blog to have?
    Do you follow other teacher blogs? If yes, which ones and why?
    Where do you see teacher blogging in the UK going in the future?
    Many thanks, and I look forward to hearing from you soon.

    Ant Parham

    The Education Foundation


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