Well, victimhood really is the new black, isn’t it?

I suggested at the beginning of the year that we look out for victimhood on the part of, inter alia, right-wing commentators, but it’s alarming just how quickly it was served up.

Victim-in-chief at the moment is Christian activist, anti-abortion campaigner and censorship advocate Melinda Tankard-Reist. She is threatening to sue Jennifer Wilson, who blogs at No Place For Sheep, for … well, that’s where it gets tricky, because it’s not entirely clear, except that Tankard-Reist, who had a long stint working for Tasmanian reactionary Brian Harradine, seems to believe it’s been suggested she’s tried to obscure her heavily religious background.

Since then, the #MTRsues debate has gone off on a tangent about whether Tankard-Reist can call herself a feminist. It’s a bizarre discussion. Putting aside the threshold issue that one cannot be anti-abortion, only anti-safe, legal abortion, no one who seriously advocates that the state ought to have the right to control women’s bodies can accurately be called any sort of feminist. Anne Summers demolished the contrary view succinctly on Sunday. No amount of criticisms of “cliquishness” and “clubbiness” can change that.

Still, if Tankard-Reist insists on calling herself a feminist, that’s entirely her right. She can call herself whatever she likes. It may not be accurate, but that’s her lookout. It’s only a problem when others, and especially journalists, uncritically repeat her self-description.

On Sunday, Tankard-Reist was also given a platform by Fairfax, to complain about the level of “online vilification” directed at her since her legal threats to Wilson. That same day, News Limited commentator and avowed Catholic Miranda Devine weighed in to run the same line — Tankard-Reist was a victim of “cyber-bullies”, “miserable Orcs who lurk in the dark recesses of Twitter and the blogosphere” who had poured calumny on her. Devine’s piece was littered with abuse of her own. Leslie Cannold was nastily termed an “abortion enthusiast”, bringing to mind Sarah Silverman’s line “I want to get an abortion, but my boyfriend and I are having trouble conceiving.”

Oddly absent from Devine’s rant was her own memorable “rogering gerbils” tweet. Rather, she insisted anyone who thought you couldn’t be anti-abortion (she used the misleading term “pro-life”) and a feminist was living under a rock. It must be a pretty big rock. There’s an awful lot of us under there.

Conservative lawyer Cathy Sherry joined the fray today, complaining that she had been driven from debate because “unaccountable bloggers” directed “exclusionary vitriol” at her.

Tankard-Reist and Devine were trying to do two things: delegitimise all critics of Tankard-Reist by conflating their criticisms with the worst kind of abuse on the internet (“there is so little engagement with or critique of my arguments,” complained Tankard-Reist, palpably wrongly) and hijacking the issue of online abuse of women.

I don’t doubt that Tankard-Reist unfortunately receives a lot of misogynist abuse. There is a lot of misogynist abuse online. Female bloggers, tweeters and commentators attract not merely gender-based abuse and threats or implications of violence, but get taken less seriously. Whether this is a primarily online phenomenon or if it reflects underlying levels of misogyny in the community is unclear. Some of it is deliberately transgressive, along with racist comments and wholly inappropriate humour, aimed to troll rather than reflecting actual views.

But regardless, women of all ideologies get abused online — made the subject of s-xual remarks, threatened (“jokingly” or otherwise) with violence and rape, accused of being humourless or hysterical if they object. There’s always some jibbering male cretin online ready to make a cheap shot or reduce an issue to a woman’s appearance or s-xuality.

But conflating the worst misogynist abuse with genuine and accurate criticism is a sleight-of-hand that is not acceptable, and that’s exactly what Tankard-Reist and Devine appeared to be doing. One can find Tankard-Reist’s arguments and behaviour profoundly wrong-headed while not being a woman-hating orc.

It’s also rich indeed for Tankard-Reist, using one of Canberra’s best defamation lawyers to threaten Wilson, to use a platform of a major newspaper to claim she’s somehow a victim in all this, reminiscent of Chris Mitchell seriously claiming Bob Brown was bullying The Australian.

And true to form, Tankard-Reist used her particular experience to demand more internet censorship. “Social media lacks the inbuilt filtering system of traditional media. This corrosive behaviour contributes to a narrowing of public debate because many don’t want to participate when they are eviscerated in a savage online environment,” she complains. She wants “decent ground rules” and suggests offensive online material is equivalent to “blackmail, invasion of privacy, s-xual or racial intimidation and harassment, conspiracy, extortion, libel, fraud …”

Of course, it’s nothing of the sort, but the censorial reflex is strong among conservatives.

The way to combat misogynist abuse online isn’t to attempt (yet more) futile internet regulation as Tankard-Reist wants — or at least it isn’t if you’re serious about stopping it rather than merely playing the victim. The way to combat it is for women and men online to respond to it — to call it out and call out the perpetrators, to identify remarks that make women feel uncomfortable. Most of all we need more women to get online and claim their rightful role and share of voice in online communities and by both their presence and their voice make misogyny unacceptable.

It’s all a little utopian, yes, and creates a circular problem when women are driven offline. But that merely cedes the space to the trolls. These are our communities and best “regulated” by the behaviour of community members themselves.

And things might be a little more civil if we didn’t threaten to sue each other, either.

Correction: The article originally incorrectly referred to “Sherry Jones”, rather than Cathy Sherry; this was my mistake. The article has been corrected – BK

Peter Fray

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