There have been many high profile instances in recent years of the online harassment of women for airing feminist views online.
In my recent talk, ‘How not to be a woman on the internet: Understanding cybermisogyny and anti-feminism online’ – held, appropriately enough, on International Women’s Day 2017 – I addressed some of these issues, although the sheer scale and scope of online misogyny makes it far too large an area to cover completely in such a short space of time.
As a social psychologist, I am particularly interested in exploring how we can understand adverse reactions to feminist debate online, using social psychology to shed some light on the perspectives and motivations of those with anti-feminist views.
Women who receive harassment online are often told to simply ignore it, and reminded that anyone can experience harassment on online. However, women expressing feminist views appear to be particularly targeted, with a recent study showing that 80% of women who reported engaging in feminist debate on Twitter had received online harassment (60% for Facebook and 46% for other sources such as online blogs).
In 2014 the Women Against Feminism Tumblr site, where women posted images of themselves with anti-feminist placards, went viral and garnered coverage from many mainstream media outlets. Clearly anti-feminism is common, and is not being addressed by current attempts to change attitudes about what feminists and feminism are all about. Many people still refer to stereotypes of ‘man-hating feminazis’ when they see feminist debate online, and are reluctant to claim the label ‘feminist’ themselves because of the negative stereotypes the word conjures, even though they claim to believe in equality.
However, social psychological explanations of intergroup interaction can help us begin to understand this.
Social identity theory proposes that we think about ourselves primarily in terms of our personal identity (what makes us unique) and our social identity (made up of the groups we are members of). It is therefore possible that feminist ideals are interpreted as threatening to people of all genders at a group level.
There are several ways other groups can threaten us according to intergroup threat theory.
Firstly there can be realistic threats; competition for money or jobs. Secondly, these other groups can cause intergroup anxiety; we are not sure what to do or say around members of other groups. Finally, the group may represent a threat to our values.
Ironically, feminist activism (for example calls for affirmative action to combat sexism) is often seen by anti-feminists as threatening equality by aiming to advance women over men, and it can be especially threatening to group self-esteem – our feeling of worth linked to the groups we are members of – if someone points out that we are members of a privileged group. Being told to ‘check your privilege’ can be extremely threatening to group self-esteem and is frequently met with defensive reactions.
Another idea from social psychology which may help us to understand anti-feminism is system justification theory, which proposes that even members of disadvantaged groups are motivated to have positive views about the society in which they live, and that they will only support attempts to change the status quo if they are motivated to do so by a strong sense of group commitment.
However, accepting that the current system may be flawed is psychologically uncomfortable – it threatens our belief that the world is just.
The belief that everyone gets what they deserve and deserves what they get (a just world belief system) is, after all, a very comforting one. And accepting that the world is not just and that the system is flawed, working for some groups and against others, suddenly makes unfair treatment and misfortune seem more likely.
The psychologically comforting notion that the world is just and the system is working is not one that people are willing to give up easily.
Ultimately drawing on these social psychological concepts can help us understand why some people are willing to so eagerly and energetically dismiss examples of injustice and reject calls for action, and help to explain not just why we find it so easy to discriminate against people who are not in our group, but why some women themselves object to feminist calls to combat sexism.