Harassment of poet Jenny Lindsay raises questions about the impact of online spaces on freedom for all writers. Jenny Lindsay is an award-winning spoken-word poet, writer and performer. Since June 2019, she has been subjected to sustained online smearing and harassment, which has resulted in a loss of work and other offline consequences, including advice […]February 5, 2021
Harassment of poet Jenny Lindsay raises questions about the impact of online spaces on freedom for all writers.
Jenny Lindsay is an award-winning spoken-word poet, writer and performer.
Since June 2019, she has been subjected to sustained online smearing and harassment, which has resulted in a loss of work and other offline consequences, including advice from Police Scotland to consider not attending events unaccompanied.
The harassment began when people using online forums questioned Jenny’s support for trans rights due to her support for other women writers facing violent harassment when speaking publicly, and called on her to demonstrate proof that her work, which often focuses on her lived experience, was not exclusionary. While Jenny entirely refutes the claims made against her and believes she has many shared values with those who criticised her, she was shocked at the disproportionate response and the continuation of this treatment across social media platforms.
These issues have led to the loss of paid work, including from a significant client who was fearful of repercussions, and she is also aware that fellow poets, literary organisations, and former friends have come under pressure not to share a stage with her, interact with her online or in person, or support her writing.
Jenny’s experience speaks to a wider issue in online communities, where a culture of fear leads writers to worry about being abandoned by their peers or implicated by association with others, many second-guessing how their work or even historic online posts could be misconstrued. These issues were highlighted as areas of concern in a recent survey of Scottish PEN members, with many responses stressing the need to support writers’ rights to express themselves freely, fairly, and in an intersectional way that fosters constructive dialogue between disparate groups[i].
It is important to recognise when writing stretches beyond offence and can cause real harm to others, and work needs to be done to stem the perpetuation of hatred online. Scottish PEN supports the right to protest, to hold writers to account and to centre respect for human rights in decision making around event bookings and promotion. We also believe it is important to hold space for genuine engagement and to support writers to learn, grow and share their art in a way that, with all its human complexities and contradictions, feels authentic to them. And while discussion of ‘call out culture’ has often been dominated by right wing voices on national platforms, we still feel this issue presents a legitimate risk to writers of all backgrounds, not least because of the tendency for quick reactions and rapid escalation in online spaces.
Writers should feel confident in their ability to express themselves without fear of harassment or violence. We believe that harassment in online spaces has a chilling effect on our literary culture. In an online world where the opportunities to get to know one another and to understand diverse experiences are already difficult, we risk the loss of supportive and welcoming communities and the alienation of writers from readers and each other. In a context of hyper-visibility, it is easy to interpret someone’s lack of a public position on certain issues as an assertion in itself, and to fall back on follow-lists and historic posts as a means of assessing an individual’s world-view. We believe it is important to push against this understanding, and to allow writers to focus on whatever issues most interest them.
Scottish PEN is committed to playing a role in the creation of a healthy literary culture, which includes a range of opinions and perspectives that can be challenged, criticised and explored in constructive ways that do not include online bullying and campaigns of harassment.
Towards this end, we will be working to produce a toolkit which explores these complex issues and hope to consult with our members and other writers on what resources they believe to be most helpful. Scottish PEN itself has not been immune to the pressure to respond swiftly and decisively on issues that would appear to benefit from a more reflective approach. As a small charity led mostly by volunteers, we have found this way of working can sometimes be not entirely effective, and we hope that by working together with writers like Jenny Lindsay in the longer term, we can continue to take a constructive approach to issues of freedom of expression.
From our work on the publication of the Scottish Chilling report to our Many Voices project, the Hate Speech, Free Expression and Censorship symposia we led in 2018, and current work to reform defamation and hate crime laws, these are clearly issues of great importance to us. We are committed to the principles of the PEN Charter and PEN Women’s Manifesto, and hope we can play a useful role in supporting writers to be vulnerable and open about their experiences, including areas which many may not fully understand.
We hope to find space to disentangle issues from the way they are superficially presented and to champion literature and freedom of expression in ways that uplift the writing community. As we grapple with issues of social justice and human rights, let us understand the complexities at play and work to respect the people at the centre of these issues, which one way or another surely involve us all.
[i] Comments included:
‘I would be wary of saying anything vaguely controversial on either of these platforms for fear of reprisals’.
‘(Social media platforms) seem to encourage brevity rather than in depth investigation or nuance’.
‘I don’t see any social media platform as being a healthy place for debate as many attempts descend into a free-for-all catfight’.
‘We need to find alternatives to glibness and grandstanding beloved of social media’.
‘There has been a shift from a focus on solidarity movements towards movements based on personal identity. In some ways this is good, but I wonder if these movements are more exclusionary. Writers may feel nowadays that they don’t have the right life experience to write about current movements, when in fact their vocal support and commentary could be helpful’.
‘There is sometimes a lot of pressure amongst those who self-proclaim as progressive to adhere to a kind of “right-think”’.
‘Problem comes with the notion of “interrogation” – not best way to proceed to be effective’.