Misogyny Via E-mail

by Peter Goldsmith | 11/20/95 6:00am

Last week more than 300 women (mostly students) at Dartmouth received a copy of an extraordinarily misogynistic electronic-mail message that had been written by a group of men at another Ivy League college. It appears that one or more Dartmouth students received the message from friends on other campuses, and they in turn forwarded it to women -- including many that they did not personally know -- on various Dartmouth BlitzMail lists, with the intention of sharing their outrage over its content. The message enumerates 75 reasons why women should not have freedom of speech, and while not a particularly imaginative example of this despicable genre, it expressed hatred of women in vicious and angry ways.

Over the course of the week, the Dean of Students where these men study was inundated by calls from students, administrators and faculty on other campuses, by the school's own students and alumni and by lawyers. The dean assured the callers that the men had publicly apologized for the message in the student newspaper, and that the judicial officer of the university was investigating the possibility of disciplinary consequences. Undoubtedly this is small comfort to those who received this unwelcome broadside from the dark ages.

I will refrain from mentioning the school from which the blitz originated. Its name is known to the many women at Dartmouth who received it, and it seems that the perpetrators and their university are paying the price of their behavior.

But we should take no satisfaction in the fact that it happened elsewhere; it could have happened here. In any community of this size, there are inevitably some who are capable of hateful words and deeds, such as those directed recently at Dartmouth's gay community. At the same time, this is not to say that misogynistic sentiments are characteristic of men at Dartmouth overall. I most assuredly do not believe that they are.

This episode raises another set of questions that are worth pondering. This message was forwarded to more than 300 Dartmouth women in order to provoke their reaction and in order to have them respond to those responsible. Yet there was another option -- they simply could have put the message in the trash.

Why is this an option worth considering? First, it is not apparent that all of the recipients of this message wished to receive it. Some might have wanted to have been spared from seeing it, but they did not have a choice (I learned of the message from one person who wished she had not received it). Second, those, here and elsewhere, who forwarded it gave the authors and their hateful message an audience of thousands. While the forwarded message was framed by a set of condemnatory comments, its hateful content was intact. For some, the difference between receiving the message directly from its authors and receiving it from those who denounced it might be slight.

Those who passed this message along likely believed in the importance of periodically reminding our community that misogyny is alive and well, and they took this message as evidence. That is, for them the consequence of burying the message might have been to risk complacency. While doubtlessly true, it does not seem to me that we are without evidence of misogyny within our own community.

Additionally e-mail is a medium, we are learning, with its own special qualities. With the press of a computer key, a localized incident becomes a national event; four bone-headed college boys attract attention that is out of proportion to their importance in their own community.

E-mail is far better at communicating emotion than nuanced thought. When we send E-mail messages, we lose the ability to control the scale of our communication; whether our words are read by one person or thousands depends on the judgment (or whim) of the recipients. In this instance, as in others, E-mail presents us with choices, and it is important that we exercise them self-consciously and thoughtfully.

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