Private Eyes

More than a few times now, people have compared the HollaBack movement to websites like I Saw Your Nanny or youparklikeanasshole. An article in the Wall Street Journal even had the nerve to state, "The most trivial missteps by ordinary folks are increasingly ripe for exposure... There is a proliferation of new sites dedicated to condemning offenses ranging from bad parking (Caughtya.org) and leering (HollaBackNYC.com) to littering (LitterButt.com) and general bad behavior (RudePeople.com)." In addition to being completely unaffiliated with these other sites, our intentions and work are radically different and, inasmuch as we hit the target for which we aim, we think that addressing the spectrum of sexual violence against women is unmistakably a larger social problem than people who park badly. It furthermore makes NO sense to lump HollaBack in with the type of Internet vigilantism that, for example, documents people who steal newspapers or don't pick up after their dogs.

We do recognize that sites like ours contribute to the erosion of privacy, and are aware of the issues of default public space, shame versus (or as) education, and technology without limits. But we don't share Michael Zimmer's concern that, "If I start ranting at someone and someone posts it to show how much of an idiot I am, now there’s 10 million people who know I’m a jerk." We like Zimmer's analysis and work, but if you're a jerk, maybe there should be some accountability for that. And if you harass others in public - invading their privacy and space without legal or societal accountability, how is that creating a more equitable world?

The Village Voice raised similar concerns a while ago as well. And again, although the Village Voice article is critical of "sousveillance" or ground up attempts of public watchfulness, it misses the point entirely: women are repeatedly threatened, assaulted, and made to feel unsafe everyday by incidents that violate their privacy. Taking pictures of people in public is perfectly legal. Posting on the public space of a blog is perfectly legal. Yet, harassers are repeately defended when they violate our privacy; and when we engage in perfectly legal public recourse, suddenly we're suspect of violating their privacy. Talk about a double standard. Nearly hidden in this discussion, the Voice admits in a one-liner that it if a guy disruptively catcalls, then "it's near impossible for that person to cry privacy invasion when someone takes his picture." Oh, ok. Then why all the fuss?! The Wall Street Journal similarly claims, "...lawyers say alleged wrongdoers shamed online typically have little legal recourse under libel and privacy laws if the accusations in postings are true, or if they are posters' opinions about behavior witnessed in a public place." Thanks again. So, let the women speak up already!

In the Voice article, Bill Brown, an anti-surveillance activist, argued, "I'm taking pictures of you, you're taking pictures of me. And all in the name of keeping people safe from some pretty soft crimes". Bill, last time we checked, sexual harassment and assault are in no way crimes of a "soft" nature. Same goes for the Wall Street Journal's unbelievable use of the phrase "most trivial missteps." Why did they not include the sexual violation of women within their distinguished alotment of "an online vigilantism movement that tackles meatier social issues: Community organization Cop Watch Los Angeles encourages users to send in stories and pictures of people being brutalized or harassed by police, for posting on the Web." Hmmm. Police harassment vs. sexual harassment. How did the latter possibly get characterized as a most trivial misstep?!!

Same goes for the argument that hollabackers are violating a "social" or "ethical" law, by supposedly promoting a punishment, noted by the Voice as a "digital scarlet letter," that far outweighs the crime. Interesting choice of metaphor; the scarlet letter being a historically gendered mark for regulating women's sexuality. Indeed, if holla'ing back is subverting an age-old gendered practice by instead effectively regulating men's sexual violations, then fantastic! The Voice makes a crucial mistake here: it equates hollaback with the scarlet letter timelessly; thereby ignoring what historical subversion means. To subvert is to turn the norm on its head, by simultaneously questioning the very ground that preserves that norm. The ground, in this case, is the imbalanced power differential between women and men; the one that preserves "Big Brother's" rights, while immediately questioning and silencing "Little Sister's."

Ultimately, we're still debating - personally and publicly - about the value of being called "vigilantes." We're sure of HOW we courageously take wrongful matters into our own hands in violating moments, not to mention WHY: for the very reason that women have had no other effective recourse. Recall that Thao Nguyen was completely disregarded by the police when she brought the picture of the NYC subway masturbator to them, hoping for action. It was only when the online circulation and media took up the case that the public and privates spheres started to take her violation seriously.

In the future, if and when hollabackers are cast in the role of cyber vigilantes, we would prefer that it's for the meatier reason that sexual harassment has to be vigorously and seriously combated, which includes elevating public opinion of gendered assault to an EQUAL standard of social significance as other forms of assault. And, speaking of, we could do without the comparison to dog shit.

Written by Hilary Allen, Michelle Riblett, & Brittany Shoot. Creative Commons 2.5.

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