So I have spent quite a lot of time this past weekend thinking about the controversy that has surrounded Mary Beard for the past couple of weeks. For those who are unaware of it, Mary Beard is a professor of Classics at Cambridge and public intellectual. A couple of weeks ago she appeared on Question Time, a current affairs programme in which a panel of politicians, journalists and others discuss questions posed by the audience. Guests are often chosen for their potential conflict, although this being the BBC, said conflict rarely gets beyond eloquent (and not-so-eloquent) disagreement and polite put-downs. The most controversial guest on the night in question was Nigel Farage, leader of UKIP, a political party that wants Britain to leave the European Union and generally dislikes what it sees as an influx of immigrants from Eastern Europe consequent to that membership.
I didn’t actually watch the programme (the frustration of yelling at the television on a regular basis is not worth whatever intellectual gain I might make from hearing opinions spoken that generally appear in other media anyway), but apparently a question was asked relating to the effects of immigration on Boston in Lincolnshire, to which Professor Beard responded quoting a report that viewed such impact as positive. The debate that this provoked extended from the programme itself to many other media, including a large number of extremely rude tweets and e-mails directed at Professor Beard. Many of these were, according to Professor Beard’s own account on her blog A Don’s Life, either withdrawn or led to more polite forms of debate, but significant forms of abuse remained, including the posts on a website, Don’t Get Me Started (which has since been closed). As Professor Beard herself explains, this abuse was vicious and graphically sexual in nature, having little relation to the topic involved and everything to do with Professor Beard’s appearance and identity as a woman.
I followed the controversy via newspaper articles (which picked up the story fairly quickly) and through Twitter, where I follow Professor Beard. In addition to a number of interesting contributions from other women in the public sphere who have been at the receiving end of such abuse, both from the relevant website and other quarters, there have been a number of retweets of some of the abusive comments addressed to the professor. One of these was to the effect that she should grow some balls because she was in the public eye and therefore abuse was only to be expected when she voiced unpopular opinions. The irony of the suggestion that Professor Beard acquire male genitalia in order to protect her from abuse directed at her primarily because, as a woman, she lacks said physical attributes struck me strongly enough that I posted a reply to that effect. It was not a particularly witty tweet and, beyond a rather incoherent response from the original commenter to the effect that David Starkey and Simon Schama showed more dignity by not talking about being abused for their views, it sunk more or less without a trace.
What set me thinking, however, was the fact that, while it took me only a couple of minutes to compose my tweet, it took me a good 15-20 minutes to decide to actually post it in a public forum. As I say, it wasn’t particularly clever or insightful, but nor was it abusive or even unkind. It was simply a rather sarcastic contribution to an ongoing public discussion. Yet I was worried about posting it and, I have realised, that that worry derives in part from the fact that I am a woman.
As a published author, I have received my share of green-pen correspondence. Fortunately they have taken the old-fashioned form of letters signed by a named individual who even gave their address. They were extremely personal about my intellectual capabilities, which was quite upsetting, but never strayed into more personal territory, beyond the suggestion (which I have heard a number of times now) that as a woman I cannot possibly understand what it was like to be a (male) soldier in wartime. I was fortunate to receive strong support from my editor at the time and, while very upsetting, I never felt threatened.
What Professor Beard, and many other women who speak out in the public sphere of popular media, have suffered is of another order. The abuse is explicitly sexual and often both implicitly and explicitly violent. What is for me the most worrying aspect are the number of threats I have read about directed towards the families of these women, including their children. Like the sexual threats and commentary, there appears to be no equivalent aimed at men who participate in public discussion.
Which means that, as the mother of young children, I am uncomfortably aware that publishing an opinion in public may not only put me at risk of the sort of sexual commentary and threat that no individual, whatever their opinion, should be subject to, but may also lay my children open to threats of violence through absolutely no fault of their own. This terrifies me, as it should anyone who values democracy, discussion and freedom of speech. At the same time, as an historian working in a field that is of considerable (and soon to be increasing) public interest, I want my voice to be heard, even if the stories I have to tell may not be the ones everyone wants to hear. Although nowhere near as eminent as Professor Beard and the many other courageous women who carry on contributing to civilised discourse in face of irrelevant abuse, I need to find the courage to carry on speaking out in public, to refuse to be silenced.
So I am glad I posted that tweet, however silly and sarcastic. And I will carry on putting forward my views in the hopes that some day the voices of reasonable argument will drown out the abuse and threats of those who would seek to silence us, women and men alike.