Priyamavada Gopal writes on her experience of online hatred, and calls for an end to a politics of hate.
They land in your inbox with the force of sulphuric acid, the unmistakable smell of vomit rising from typeface laced with capital letters and exclamation marks. Some have racist slurs in the headers – you have to open them to check for threats – while others will pretend to contain queries or good wishes. While many are popcorn strings of ‘n-words’ and ‘c-words’, lavishly peppered with rape and death threats, those written in grammatical prose are often more chilling. They articulate racism and white supremacy with stark lucidity as they inform me that I should be grateful to the empire that lifted me up from an excrement-filled Indian society, and should revere the white men who enacted that emancipation. Otherwise, I had best pack my bags. My crime? A two-sentence tweet pointing out that whiteness should not be the basis for valuing lives.
These missives are usually copied to my employer or accompanied by the promise that they will be writing to ask that I be fired. And they do. Senior colleagues and administrators also receive messages demanding my removal. Some are written by dentists, bankers, estate agents, and, yes, United States Homeland Security agents. An eight-page snail mail (how quaint!) arrives from the USA, the name of the sender and his medical doctor credentials proudly displayed on the envelope and inside. It is bursting with illustrations, made-up historical claims, racist observations, and fury that I am employed at a prestigious (and meant-to-be-white) institution. It is laced with paeans to the world-shaping powers of the white man and his supposed epitome, Donald Trump. Reading it, you are again starkly aware that the Trump presidency has fully enabled not just far-right thugs but many middle-class citizens to boldly display their white-supremacist selves.
How does this feel? In the early days: much like the onslaught it absolutely is meant to be, co-ordinated with intent by right-wing websites and far-right forums like 4Chan. Initially, my inbox was receiving ten to twelve emails every five minutes, a figure which tripled when I was subscribed on to nearly every mailing list in existence. The threats feel both horrific and unreal, though they have, of course, to be collated and reported to the police. You are keenly aware that, while most threats issue from proverbial keyboard warriors hunched over spit-flecked screens, it only takes one deranged individual to carry them out. The appearance of my face on laminated posters across the university town in which I live – again, egged on by a right-wing website – was also meant to intimidate.
Why imagine, then, that keeping quiet or mincing words will keep one safe?
Yes, I register the threats and intimidation, but also feel a degree of detachment. It is possible that years of reading internet abuse have desensitised me. Bursts of anger at the vulgarity wrestle with a vague sense of pity: what must it be like to sit at a terminal and scream threats at a stranger? One rape fantasy on Facebook is so detailed and vicious that it appears to issue from a poorly written book, nothing to do with the person reading it. I see graphic pictures, some using images of me, marked with guns and nooses, and the cultural critic in me makes scholarly notes. The many uncomplimentary observations about my appearance don’t have the effect on a middle-aged woman quite comfortable with herself that the jibes of classmates had when she was fourteen in the changing room. They do, however, remind me that more vulnerable and younger people are subjected to this kind of abuse, and that it could undermine, as it is intended to, their confidence. The stress on me has more to do with the impact on my reputation of selective quotations and outright hoax tweets, one of the latter reprinted in a well-known tabloid after it was circulated by prominent conservative columnists, and even the journalist spouse of a Cabinet Minister. It sucks up time and energy trying to ensure deletions and corrections to fake claims, and contacting legal professionals.
I am often asked if the abuse and threats make me afraid to speak or write frankly. Given that the naked intention of abusers and harassers is precisely to intimidate and suppress, my predictably defiant answer is ‘no’. After all, so many people experience violence targeted at them even when they have said or done nothing, for just being who they are by virtue of gender, gender re-assignment, caste, sexuality, race, religion, ability, economic strata. Why imagine, then, that keeping quiet or mincing words will keep one safe? What the abuse does do is highlight those subjects which are the real targets of suppression, of an aspirational ban – anything that threatens to up-end or even merely reform hierarchies of power. Race is certainly one such. At least as sobering is the realisation, given the volume and range of hate mail and social media attacks, that much of it issues not from a ‘small minority’, but from people we interact with daily – our neighbours and co-workers, the people from whom we buy things, and the people who assist us or seek our assistance as we all go about our daily business. It is the everydayness of the vicious hate that both dismays and explains why the world is as it is.
It is the everydayness of the vicious hate that both dismays and explains why the world is as it is.
A few weeks after the abuse trickled down to occasional salvoes, with the help of a few friends who did not want me to be subjected to the vitriolic acidity again and lovingly undertook to compile it – though it was hard on them – I published a dossier of some of the hate messages I received. In doing so, I noted that not all of the messages came from people self-identifying as ‘white’. A small but significant number came from my Indian compatriots, mainly Hindu and upper-caste, who castigated me for my ingratitude. This abuse was largely casteist, deploying familiar slurs wielded against Dalit communities in India, and predictably sexist in scope. Having experienced in the past the sharp end of organised trolling in the name of ‘Hindutva’ or ‘Hindu-ness’, I was unsurprised: like white supremacism, this is an ideology of caste and religious superiority, but it occurred to me anew that chauvinists of different stripes gain succour from each other. It was another salutary reminder that hatred is not simply something that emerges from elsewhere, but rather stalks our own communities, neighbourhoods, societies and institutions. Ultimately, it is this recognition that I felt most keenly – despair and wretchedness at the ubiquity of viciousness. I feel it still, but the awareness is accompanied by a determination I share with many others: the politics of hate cannot and must not be allowed to prevail.
Priyamvada Gopal is Professor of Postcolonial Studies at the University of Cambridge. Her most recent book is Insurgent Empire: Anticolonial Resistance and British Dissent (Verso, 2019).
This piece was commissioned in collaboration with PEN Canada.