The best and worst thing to happen on social media this week must be the saga of the young Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg and the professional misogynist Andrew Tate. Tate, a former kickboxer, aspiring extremist right-wing influencer and all-round grotesque human, tried to goad Thunberg via his emissions-spewing private car collection. But Thunberg, no stranger to male harassment, responded with impressive bravado.
Barely had the dust settled from this Twitter tussle — which Thunberg indisputably won — that news broke of Tate’s arrest in Romania amid allegations of human trafficking. Not a good week for the self-described “success coach.”
Tate was previously banned from pretty much all major social media platforms (including Facebook, Instagram, YouTub, TikTok and Twitter) for making heinous misogynistic statements, like suggesting female survivors are in part responsible for their own sexual assault. Elon Musk reinstated Tate’s Twitter account in November after he took over the company, giving way to this latest debacle.
And yet here he was again, criticizing Thunberg’s appearance and making jokes about her gender. Worse, Thunberg, who is only 19 and has been a climate activist for years, has been subjected to this exact kind of harassment for almost her entire life. Such is the price women pay for sticking up for themselves on the internet, especially when they challenge the status quo.
Thunberg has been made a hero for her climate activism, prompting the sorts of conversations the energy industry spends millions trying to quell. The kind of harassment and abuse she has been subjected to because of her gender — and the cool, steady and unflinching way in which she’s handled it — has made her a feminist icon, too. But what kind of a world demands this of a young girl, and now a young woman, as grown men and power brokers defile her image and name?
When Thunberg was 17, employees at the Canadian oil company X-Site Energy Services produced a sticker that included a cartoon depiction of her being assaulted. The company initially tried to deny any connection to the stickers, but following global outrage was compelled to accept full responsibility and apologize.
Thunberg's response was characteristically unflappable.
While many applaud the young activist’s ability to withstand such an endless stream of hate, taunts and threats of death and rape, we should not be asking this of any woman — or any human — no less a teenage girl.
Gender-based violence and harassment are age-old tools deployed to subjugate women — this much we know. But the extent to which women and minorities are subjected to this kind of persecution online is impermissible, which the public and private sectors have vexingly failed to handle.
“An estimated 85% of women and girls globally have experienced some form of online harassment and abuse,” the White House said in a statement in March regarding the launch of the Global Partnership for Action on Gender-Based Online Harassment and Abuse. “This challenges their full and equal participation everywhere — particularly those from underrepresented and marginalized communities.”
It is absolutely imperative that we tackle this phenomenon head on as it corrodes civic participation, democratic functioning, social progress, and, on its most basic level, is a violation of human rights. These points have been argued for years by multilateral institutions, such as the United Nations and the human rights’ group Council of Europe, all to no avail. The council issued the following statement in March:
“The digital dimension of gender-based violence has a serious impact on the lives of women and girls, including their safety, their physical and psychological health, livelihoods, family ties, dignity and reputation. It is emblematic of long-standing problems of gender inequality, structural violence and discrimination against women anchored in society and is also a demonstration of current broader trends undermining the progress made in the overall protection of women’s rights and the advancement of gender equality. Not only does violence perpetrated in the digital sphere amount to gender-based violence against women and girls, breaching a wide range of human rights as protected by international and European human rights standards, but it also has a chilling effect on democratic discourse.”
The scourge of misogyny is insidious, touching every fact of our social and political lives. It is baked into the bedrock of philosophical and political thought. Aristotle “assigned women an inferior essence and subordinate role in his biology, as in his politics,” explains “Engendering Origins: Critical Feminist Readings in Plato and Aristotle,” edited by Bat-Ami Bar On, a professor of philosophy and women’s studies at Binghamton University in New York who died in 2020.
How can it be that a social ill plaguing us for millennia still exists with such potency? Perhaps because the very people who challenge it are still met with such violence and harassment.