Should Sexist Comments Mean the End of a Petition?

This week 38 Degrees took down a petition to sack Laura Kuenssburg as BBC political correspondent due to her anti-Corbyn bias. As might be expected in this day and age of anonymous social media trolling, the petition attracted sexist commentary. Citing the sexist comments that had been linked to the petition 38 Degrees wrote that their decision to remove it was a difficult one and even that it "may not have been the right one" but they wanted to show that "sexist bullies can't win". 

The removal of the petition was wholly backed up by Everyday Sexism Project Founder Laura Bates who said of those who thought sexist comments less important than freedom of expression and the right to take valuable action that, 

"suggesting that such issues can wait until later sets up a hierarchy of priorities. It ingrains the idea that sexism is acceptable, if we are told that there are certain circumstances in which it is an unfortunate but tolerable price to pay for victory."

There is no doubt in my mind that sexism is institutionalised and ingrained in this country. There is no doubt in my mind that everyday sexism exists and that people of both genders make comments that are sexist without even knowing it due to our conditioning. There is no doubt either that this is an issue we need to address constantly and thoroughly by calling it out when we experience it and checking ourselves for sexist behaviours. However I disagree that we should give those behaviours, when uncontrolled in others, the power to dictate what we can and cannot do. Taking down this petition because it has attracted sexist comments means that any petition about a woman that attracts similar comments (and my goodness they will, like flies to shit), should be taken down. Taken down along with the right of people to express their rational concerns, objections, differing viewpoints. Taken down along with the potential to build online communities of like-minded voices. Taken down along with the right to the free expression of opinion and the taking of valuable action.

I was once working on a committee alongside a woman whose views were quite different to mine. We both felt passionately about our common cause but were quite sure that our own way of approaching it was the best. I tried to meet and converse with this woman about what we both wanted to achieve but every time I put my view forward she would cry. The same thing would happen in meetings in front of the rest of the committee. She would become upset at my opinion, tears would stream from her eyes, and meaningful discussion halted for fear of upsetting her further. After a while my compassion dried up - I felt manipulated by these tearful episodes. They had the effect of drowning my arguments and eliciting sympathy for hers from fellow committee members convinced that she must have something to cry about and that I was The Bad Guy. Eventually we muddled our way through, but debate and issues were clouded by the power of her tears, and I became convinced that she was using them strategically. The moral I learned here was to be awake to the abuse of sympathy and interruptive short-term compassion. 

Joe, who originally started the petition, said in a statement that it had been "hijacked" and that sexist trolls had attempted to "derail it". Forgive me, but by taking it down, isn't that exactly what he has done? Derailed it?

My fear is now that any petition can be taken down if it attracts sexist comments and that we will lose the potential for valuable change, as we may have just done with regard to Kuenssburg's fitness for her job. My fear is, ironically as it may sound to Laura Bates and 38 Degrees, that at the end of the nasty day, sexism has actually won.


Karen Dobres,

Chef Freedom Fighter