Shaping Stories of Violence: Power of the Online Bystander

The way we talk about violence shapes the way we think about it. Today, many of these discussions take place through our keyboards online.
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By Julia Daye

We don't have to go further than our own bedrooms to get global news 24 hours a day. From all corners of the planet, we watch incidents of gender-based violence unfold daily before our eyes on our computers and smart phones. And there's no shortage of ways for us to add to the conversation as we post, share, comment, opinionate.

Modern technology gives us a widescreen view of violence all over the world, and through this, we have become a global society of bystanders. A bystander is anyone who witnesses an incident in which he or she is not the target or perpetrator. And like bystanders to violence on the street, we virtual bystanders can have a powerful hand in the way the violence we witness does or does not perpetuate. The issue of sexual violence doesn't end when the rapist walks away. The course of this story relies on the language we assign to the narrative we tell afterword.

Take conversations that surrounded the Steubenville rape trial, for example. The mainstream media's rationalist story frame for the convicted rapists' violent choices was followed by a slew of twitter-born death threats targeting the victim, Jane Doe. Shortly thereafter, a professor from my alma mater, economics "guru" Steven Landsburg blogged his musings on the subject of rape:

"As long as I'm safely unconscious and therefore shielded from the costs of an assault, why shouldn't the rest of the world (or more specifically my attackers) be allowed to reap the benefits?"

This kind of gross rationalization of sexual violence in our media and twitter feeds, though upsetting, is not really surprising at all. Online discourse such as this exists within the context of society's systematic rationalization of gender-based violence. When it comes to dealing with gender-based violence, our society affords essentially no feedback mechanism for addressing it appropriately. When we talk about anything from street harassment to rape, scrutiny tends to land on the shoulders of the victims of sexual violence instead of on the offenders. "Oh, he didn't mean it," we justify, "he was just having fun."

Our homey "Boys will be boys" tune forgives and forgets the actions of harm's perpetrators, subsequently turning the scrutinizing lens onto those targeted by violence: "she should have known better than to go out alone," or "come on, look at what she was wearing." And when a women does speak out about being targeted by violence, she very often hears something to the effect of, "Quit getting so worked up" or "Let it go, he probably just thought you were cute."

The way we talk about violence shapes the way we think about it. Today, many of these discussions take place through our keyboards online. When reading coverage of sexual violence, what kind of language are we using in the conversations we have afterwards? How do we present these issues to others? And if we, as online bystanders, passively go along with rationalist story frames to sexual violence, are we then more likely to justify violence we encounter in real life?

Rehearsal becomes internal. Both actors and humanists know this. Whether as bystanders or targets of violence ourselves, when we rehearse a passive standpoint over and over, this behavior becomes habit just like anything else. Part of the problem when it comes to sexual violence is that most women are taught from a very young age to fight fire with sugar, to quietly tolerate any invasive or aggressive advances on our body and space. We listen to the rampant dismissal of everyday encounters with sexual aggression, then turn and apply this dismissiveness to our own experiences. With little knowledge that active feedback behavior can be an option, or that these experiences even have names (i.e. street harassment, groping, assault, rape), it is all we can do to rationalize the offender's behavior.

The power of the bystander and use of effective discourse seem to go hand-in-hand when it comes to changing a culture of sexual violence. Derailing the rationalist discourse that often surrounds these experiences requires a conscious feedback mechanism that must be implemented and rehearsed to normalcy. Hollaback! alongside countless other incredible organizations work to give people a vocabulary and response mechanism to everyday sexual aggression. Truly, a lot of power comes in just knowing what to call something ("That's street harassment" or "That's assault") when you see it happen or when it happens to you, whether you're walking outside or watching it pop up on your news feed.

We all know that stepping into public space is not an invitation for violence or harassment. Regardless, women experience uninvited sexualization of their bodies regularly and across the globe. Our "that's normal" or "he didn't mean to" talk is not the sort of productive dialogue necessary when working toward safer spaces. When it comes to reports of sexual violence, the online bystander's call to action is to tune the listening ear (or reading eye) to a heightened level of literacy, and to recognize our own power over how this story is shaped via the language of our fingertips.

Julia Daye is a writer and movement artist based in New York City. She is currently the Communications Intern at Hollaback! Follow her on Twitter @Julia_Daye

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