Tucker Swanson McNear Carlson has a reputation for unleashing frenzies of contempt and vitriol toward individuals of his choosing. His Fox News talk show is known not so much for considering the viewpoints of its guests (be they live or featured via clips in the public domain) as drawing targets on them for thousands of angry viewers to act upon. He also, perhaps unsurprisingly, considers himself a victim of “the mob.” About a decade ago, so the world learned thanks to audio clips excavated in early 2019, Carlson expressed a number of opinions during regular appearances on a radio show, including: “Iraq is a crappy place filled with a bunch of, you know, semiliterate primitive monkeys” who should “shut up and obey” Americans; white men deserve credit for “creating civilization”; women are “extremely primitive”; and, of seventeen-year-old beauty pageant contestant Caitlin Upton (who was, by her account, driven almost to suicide by this humiliation), that he “was thinking about tapping my foot next to her stall” because “she’s so dumb, she’s vulnerable, she’s like a wounded gazelle, separated from the herd.”
Following the unearthing of these past comments, an anti-racist group staged a protest outside Carlson’s family home in Washington, D.C., and graffitied his driveway. Amid widespread bipartisan media sympathy for his ordeal at the hands of these activists, Carlson announced, without ever apologizing, that apologizing when one is in the wrong is what “we” at Fox “have always” done because “that’s what decent people do. . . . But we will never bow to the mob. Ever.”
There were no professional consequences for the racist misogynist millionaire who had so valiantly braved “the mob.” The show ranked second among all cable news shows in 2018, helping Fox to exceed the combined prime-time showing of rivals CNN and MSNBC, both in total viewers and in the demographic of twenty-five-to-fifty-four-year-olds targeted by advertisers. I’m in that demographic, yet, as of June 2019, I knew just a handful of things about Carlson: that he is a white nationalist, self-styled populist maverick, and Republican Party millionaire whose “red-brown” talking points (brown as in “brownshirts”) have won him the time of day from far too many leftists.
What I didn’t yet know was that, in condemning contemporary pro-abortion feminism (like mine), Carlson likes to ventriloquize first-wave feminist eugenicists. For instance, in his Ship of Fools: How a Selfish Ruling Class Is Bringing America to the Brink of Revolution (a putrid pile of veiled anti-Semitism and xenophobia for which Simon & Schuster, incidentally, paid $10 million), one can find the following perfectly correct statements: “The earliest feminists saw nothing virtuous about [abortion]. Elizabeth Cady Stanton, one of the first suffragettes, called abortion the ‘murder of children.’ Susan B. Anthony referred to it as ‘infanticide.’” Carlson privileges, in other words, some of the same information that I do in my published critiques of (historic and actual) white feminism—only with opposite intent and opposite conclusions.
Had I realized this, I wouldn’t have been so surprised Tucker found his way to a soundbite on YouTube in which I say: “Abortion is, in my opinion, and I recognize how controversial this is, a form of killing: a form of killing that we need to be able to defend. I am not interested in where a human life starts to exist.” From his point of view, this quote—which, by the way, I stand by entirely—is the ultimate “gotcha”; proof positive of whither feminism was always tending despite its more respectable nineteenth-century proponents’ concerns. No wonder, in retrospect, he broadcast these two sentences of mine on his show. Boy, were his anti-feminist viewers going to love hating on this.
I learned that the term “haters” does not refer to a membership organization in 2011, when I moved to New York from the UK. The discovery was interesting because it indicated that I myself was probably one of these universally repudiated individuals—a “hater.” I realized soon enough that no one actually calls themselves a hater (it’s just like “hipster,” in that sense). But privately I still feel, for my part, like it’s a pretty fair cop. I hate all manner of things in this world, and people, too—though mainly things people do. To be honest, it hadn’t even occurred to me to feel embarrassed about this hatred. I’d cultivated it, and felt actively encouraged in it, for instance, whenever I encountered passages by militant Italian Marxists such as Mario Tronti, who suggests that hatred of capitalism is a necessary engine of love for humanity and life and that, without it, we would go mad.
Hate is almost never talked about as appropriate, healthy, or necessary in liberal-democratic society. For conservatives, liberals, and socialists alike, hate itself is the thing to reject, uproot, defeat, and cast out of the soul. Yet anti-hate ideology doesn’t seem to involve targeting its root causes and points of production, nor does it address the inevitability of or the demand—the need—for hate in a class society. Even the commonplace prescription “don’t hate the player, hate the game” tacitly admits that there is call for respectfully hating the players (oneself included) who perpetuate this game. In other words: why choose?
Tronti’s humanist hatred requires us to be willing, when appropriate, to direct the hatred inward, at whatever cowardly collusions, actions, and decisions we may have been personally implicated in, which actively reproduce class society. It means seeking to undo the harms: to practice, instead, love and solidarity. Capitalist social relations are not purely and altogether outside of ourselves. Shame (or self-hatred) gets a terrible rap, but insofar as it sometimes emanates from this greater love-engine, the desire for freedom for all, it can be a useful and, I think, even revolutionary affect.
In 2019, Carlson enabled me to produce substantial numbers of haters of my own. I published a brilliant, earnest, and hilarious book about revolutionizing care and kinship, entitled Full Surrogacy Now: Feminism Against Family, which many people inexplicably chose not to read. For a couple months before its release, the book received both exciting endorsements from various radicals, and a handful of amusingly alarmist reactions on Catholic and anti-abortion websites. Following an interview with me by The Nation, the far-right conspiracy website InfoWars ran a post entitled “Feminist Says Family Must Be ‘Abolished’ to ‘Dismantle Capitalism.’” I was already, at this point, beginning to notice an uptick in hostile correspondence. But, while one sympathetic reader of my manuscript had warned me to expect anger and outrage from every quarter (left, right, liberal, feminist) upon the birth of Full Surrogacy Now, I was unprepared for the deluge that greeted me after what happened next.
On May 20, one of the producers of Tucker Carlson Tonight invited me to appear live on the show as a guest. I declined and heard nothing further. But on June 11, my Twitter mentions made it extremely apparent that I had, in a sense, appeared on the show anyway when he aired public footage in which I say that abortion is a form of killing that we (the left) have to be able to defend.
The flooding of my mentions, and to a lesser extent my email inbox, was absolutely transfixing. After a couple of days, unable to look away, I had idly taxonomized the missives into four broad categories:
You Are Satan/Worse Than Satan/A Handmaid of Moloch/Just Like Hitler/Fat/Evil/Sick/Depraved/Chinless/Unfuckable/Would It Kill You to Brush Your Hair;
I Pray for You and Love You, Just as God Loves You, Though You Are Going Straight to Hell, You Poor, Wicked, Heartless Wretch;
By Your Own Logic, You Must Be Fine with Me Aborting You/Splattering Your Brains Like Lasagna/Satan Cutting You up into Pieces and Raping Each Piece;
Behold, Feminism’s True Agenda, Unmasked! The End of the World! End of the White Race! Death of Civilization, Etc.
I had quibbles with the video, too, but to my surprise, it did not seem to be the lighting and editing to which people were objecting, but the content of what they had seen and heard me say. Or perhaps it was simply the fact that I (who cannot vote in the United States) was implied to be a Democrat. I’ll leave it for you to decide.
Carlson introduces his segment topic—ostensibly the senator and then–Democratic presidential candidate Kirsten Gillibrand’s pro-abortion stance—by saying: “Democrats previously said they wanted abortions to be ‘safe, legal and rare.’ . . . They don’t say that anymore. Modern Democrats want abortion to be late, common, and subsidized by taxpayers. It’s not even that the left denies that abortion is killing. Honest liberals admit that it is, in fact, killing—they just don’t care. Sophie Lewis put it in precisely those terms. Watch this.” Then, without any indication (beyond a “feminist author”) as to who or what “Sophie Lewis” is, lo and behold, I appear to intone those forty words (“Abortion is, in my opinion. . .”) and prove the point. Next, Carlson plays another clip—this time of Gillibrand saying something completely unrelated to abortion. I felt sorry for the senator. Among the many things of which one could accuse Kirsten Gillibrand, holding opinions remotely resembling my own just isn’t one of them.
Honestly, I came off easy. I did not have a job to lose, unlike Kim Kelly, the freelance reporter who was told she could no longer contribute to NPR on “ethical” grounds because of her “activist stance,” after Carlson excoriated her tweet praising Willem Van Spronsen, a sixty-nine-year-old anarchist killed by police after he attempted to damage vehicles in a parking lot belonging to Immigration and Customs Enforcement. This might seem shocking to you. It is, in fact, as Bailey Poland demonstrates in her book Haters: Harassment, Abuse and Violence Online, “not uncommon for women to be driven out of a specific profession or position due to cybersexist harassment, abuse, and threats.”
In my case, there was no one to address a Change.org petition to, calling for my dismissal, as right-wing trolls had done for Kelly. If you detect a filament of perverse envy, you might be right, and I should be ashamed of it. Twitter and Facebook’s addictive mechanisms of interactive unpleasure and artificial scarcity are always seeking to transform Tronti’s proposed communist practice of (loving, engaged) hatred into something fascisant and more akin to spiritual degradation. Not that masochism per se is anything to be ashamed of. But I have heard few people speak openly or seriously about how, in the hyperreal regime some call “communicative capitalism,” the attentions lavished on us by our haters are bound up with notions of our own individual success and self-worth. This despite the fact that we know—in a totally empirical, neurological sense—that likes, retweets, spam replies, kind replies from friends, and replies full of frothing bile are all alike deliverers of what the designer of the “Like” button once called “bright dings of pseudo-pleasure.”
Would it be surprising if a small part of me loves my haters? When my hate-tsunami arrived, well-wishers warmly congratulated me that, professionally speaking, “I’d arrived.” Then, when the hating abruptly stopped, as wise friends also told me it would, I felt simultaneously relieved (very, very relieved) and—yes—a little bereft. Did my trolls’ disappearance mean I wasn’t micro-nano-famous anymore? Guys? Guys? Remember me, Moloch’s number one whore? That, right there—that deadening schadenfreude and self-objectification; that element of me that starts not caring what it is I believe, or whether it is right, so long as it triggers rage—is what I want to nip in the bud.
If I have learned anything from the experience I’ve just described, it’s that the desire to shape, bait, surf, defy, find meaning in, or otherwise control and draw sharp lines between myself and the haters puts me on risky psychic territory. It’s dangerous. My provisional conclusion? That the best path for me, should hating on my person ever recur at scale, is to deploy, to the best of my ability, relentless sincerity, credulity, wit, and yes, shamelessness, but, crucially, shameability, too—openness to being justly shamed. If I become unshameable, after all, what good is my shamelessness? If I start assuming in advance, deep down, that no one whom I’ve upset with my words has valid points to make, what will I have become? I found it least harmful, actually, to keep my eyes and ears open throughout the dogpiles, experiencing them as reminders that the revolution will not be content-moderated; that I am fighting for things that make people hate me and that that’s sort of okay, I can respect it (plus, hey, it’s mutual).
I did, additionally, block, mute, and report a large number of accounts. But once I’d done that, I was briefly possessed by a dread that someone whose screams of rage I might otherwise have seen (though what preventative power that would have had, I don’t know) might show up at an event and try to shoot me. No—it’s better, for me personally, to see the violence. There’s no reliable alternative, anyway: poorly paid content moderators scrub billions of hours’ worth of vicious speech from the public realm every day, yet content moderation fails, drastically and reliably, every day, to shield me and my anti-racist, Muslim, trans, disabled, black, and/or feminist comrades from cyberviolence. And it always will—certainly on corporate labor-extraction planets like Twitter; certainly while humanity is raced, classed, and unfree. Only we ourselves can effectively judge, collectively, in an ongoing way, what constitutes best public discursive practice where we are, what constitutes abuse, how to treat abusers, and what reparative and creative principles should structure a public domain to make it feel safer (never “safe”).
To reject civility discourse does not, however, leave us without means of defending ourselves against trolls. There are other strategies available, including screenshotting, quote-tweeting, and proactively enlisting allies, on a rotating basis, in sharing the labor of blocking and reporting (or, even, reproachfully replying). There are block lists and “ugly mugs” databases. There is creative redirection, such as that deployed by sports journalists Sarah Spain and Julie DiCaro, who last year released “#MoreThanMean,” a profoundly awful, uncannily funny series of films of themselves receiving online abuse, re-staged as theater. In the clips, they sit and listen, intently and unguardedly, one-on-one in front of a litany of excruciatingly ashamed male actors who have been tasked with reading out loud to them the bloodthirsty tweets that unknown online men have sent. The effect is astonishingly vivid in its simplicity: we see that the women are hurt, not shamed.
And there is reclaiming: in her essay “Monica Lewinsky and the refusal of shame,” Katherine Angel appreciates the famous victim of slut-shaming’s new approach to tweeting, and analyses how, “in recent years, Lewinsky has moved towards, not away from, the scandal. . . . [in a] bold strategy, to joke about blow-jobs—the very medium that derailed her life.” Nowadays, Lewinsky is feted; invited, for instance, to introduce self-help books like Shame Nation: The Global Epidemic of Online Hate. In the preface to that volume, she suggests we could all do with being “prepared for a virtual attack on one’s character” and talks about reclaiming her story. By the same token, two academics, Jenny Sundén and Susanna Paasonen, have lately published research on Finnish Twitter users’ reclaiming of what were once powerfully silencing misogynist terms like hagga (hag), kukkahattutäti (literally “aunt with a flower hat,” referring to supporters of cultural diversity, gender equality, and social justice), and suvakkihuora (“overtly tolerant whore”). They end on a hopeful note: “A networked politics of reclaiming is taking shape, one using collective imagination and wit to refuel feminist communities.”
Of course, people do and should take different routes. When my onslaught came, several people advised me to depart from social media, not to read any of the threats I received, and certainly not to take them to heart. But, paradoxically, I feel like that’s taking the Fox News route: gas-lightily implying you would apologize if you had something to apologize for, while stopping up your ears and declaring that you will “never bow to the mob.” I don’t dislike mobs per se. And I think it hurts my heart less if I not only read my hate-mob’s screeds, but read them as real pieces of communication, really meant for me, from real people who mean what they say—not broadcasts to the void. It has occurred to me that, if this orientation hasn’t driven me mad, it might actually be the case that I was mad already. Two years ago, after all, I had no inkling that I might one day be invited onto an ultra-lucrative crypto-fascist talk show to discuss family abolition and abortion. But I remember seeing the caution issued by Media Matters: “if you appear as a guest on Tucker Carlson Tonight, there’s a good chance you’ll be a target of online harassment.” And I remember thinking, hyper-cynically, “Well, yes, of course—what else is a talk show in a class society for?”
Sophie Lewis is a writer based in Philadelphia, a faculty member at the Brooklyn Institute for Social Research, and a member of the Out of the Woods and Blind Field collectives. Her first book, Full Surrogacy Now: Feminism Against Family, was published in May 2019. She tweets as @reproutopia.
Correction: An earlier version of this piece wrongly stated that Kim Kelly had been fired from NPR, when instead she was a freelancer who was told she could no longer contribute. The text has been corrected above. We regret the error.