Thursday, October 06, 2016

Mannegruppa Ottar - a man's group for real jokes

A lot of the links in this post are in Norwegian. I am still writing in English because this event is so similar to other, international events.

The digital space is a weird place, and when it starts to become a place for identity politics, it gets weirder. In Norway a group of men who just wanted a safe space for their stupid jokes and occasionally annoying sense of humour crossed the line. Their safe space was invaded by people who thought that this was a group for aggression against women, immigrants and children, and acted on that. One of the things they did was to attack a Norwegian blogger, known as Sophie Elise. She is a fashion blogger who has spent quite a lot on her looks, she likes make-up, she poses in bathing suits and shows off her tattoos.

For some reason, some of the members of "Mannegruppa Ottar" decided that writing harassing and hateful comments about her, including threats, belonged in a "closed" group of more than 30 000 random Norwegian men. (Mannegruppa Ottar means "Men's group Ottar" and refers to an infamous radical feminist group, which I assume represents their idea of the arch enemy.) But if we go with the "boys will be boys" school of thought, responding to them to tell them to stop being so mean ought to have been fairly unproblematic. It wasn't real, you know, just joking...

One of Sophie Elise's followers, a 13 year old girl, wrote what she felt about their harassment of one of her favourite bloggers. That was not acceptable, thought the group members. The minority that felt it was OK to be mean about women in this company immediately had a new target, and started describing what they wanted to do to a 13 year old girl - and it was NOT offering her a soda and some ice cream. The language was deliberately aggressive and upsetting, like the jokes about how to kill and rape babies, also a fun topic in this group.

As this became known the other members in the group that never did any of this, and who tried to speak up against it, wanted to do something about their image. Being a member of the group had turned them into outcasts, people were unfriending them, and they expressed distress about the posts and about how other viewed them. In order to try to fix their image they did as so many big businesses have done: they wanted to give money to charity, in this case to a group working to fight children's cancer. This was, to the sorrow of some of the men who had children with cancer, rejected. This is pretty much the same as happened to GG when they tried to buy forgiveness for their sins by donating to Ablegamers. Both the benefiting organizations are worthy causes - both refused because they didn't want to be used as pawns in an ongoing conflict.

Some, however, said "good riddance, now I know who hates freedom of speech." Well, no, not really. The activities they wanted to be allowed to keep on with included harassing women into silence, and with the help of the Norwegian police, they got one of their goals, as Sophie Elise removed the blogpost where she called them out. Using the well-known tactic of making threats until women are silenced isn't really free speech. It's a criminal offense. Because by Norwegian law, social media are not private communication if you have a certain number of followers - the limit is around 50. So a closed group of more than 30 000 people is clearly public, searchable mass-communication online.

I have to admit I am not fan of the more extreme fashion bloggers, but it's their choice how much they expose of their bodies, with or without silicone and photoshop. Also, I understand that men want to be allowed their space for bad jokes. I am a member of groups that post academic memes and groups with uplifting quotes to deal with chronic illness - I am not going to judge anybody for tasteless humour. But these are not jokes. What they are being criticized for goes beyond that. And it isn't like it is hard to understand these distinctions. It's not a matter of trying to decode subtle clues for political correctness, and finally finding a place where they don't have to guess what they did wrong now. This isn't making jokes about never being able to understand what your wife means when she says "fine".

The people I really don't understand are not the few who felt that it was fun to use this opportunity to be as offensive as possible. I have seen their language, their "humour" and their online nests. What I don't understand is how the ones who were offended, who tried to speak up against the worst offenses, could just keep being members. Is it so hard to find female-free jokes online that they have to suffer through a Facebook feed full of harassment, rape-threats, racism and homophobia to get to them? And how can they consider themselves victims? At this point, if they leave the group, people will forget about the membership in a couple of days, and they can leave the stigma of somebody unfriending them behind easily. The threats against Sophie Elise and the 13 year old girl may keep popping up in their feeds forever. In other cases we have seen that speaking out against harassment just makes it worse. And the more than 30 000 non-harassers of the group are hurt because they might be mistaken for somebody else, and unfriended?

If you happen to feel offended by such stigma, think really hard the next time you laugh at a joke about women, immigrants or homosexuals, and remember what it feels like to be included in a group others criticize, attack and make snap judgements about without checking if you are really one of those. Because not every woman who wears make-up is a fuckdoll, not every gay man is constantly cruising for anal sex, just like not every member of Mannegruppa Ottar agreed on the harassment and threats. If you want the respect to go both ways... then it has to go both ways.

PS: I have no idea if I know any members of this group, and I do not plan to find out. It's their business. But I monitor my comment field like always.