Nussbaum on Stalkers, the Internet, the Law, and Medication

“Like a surprisingly large proportion of Americans, I have a cyberstalker.” So begins Martha Nussbaum’s lengthy and wide-ranging review, in The Nation, of Hate Crimes in Cyberspace by Danielle Keats Citron. Nussbaum (Chicago) goes on to describe her stalker, his stalking and her reactions to it, delving into the culture of the internet (including the effects of anonymity), male socialization, law, and attention-deficit and hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) medication, as she reflects on Citron’s analyses and recommendations.

Nussbaum takes her stalker, S, to represent a real threat, and so has stopped giving public lectures in the city in which he lives. However, the effects of the cyberstalking on her life are mitigated by her status in the broader culture. She writes:

I could have let the S situation take over my life, spread anxiety into my days and nights; I could have let the search for remedies take time that would otherwise be used for more useful and pleasant pursuits. Many people, hearing my story, expect me to do so, and seem aghast that I did not. But actually, the situation does not bother me. It was indeed a horrible shock that first night, when, lying in bed checking my e-mail, I saw that barrage of obscene messages, one after another. But one does have to figure out whether there is anything to be anxious about, and if so, what. I looked at the case, judged exactly where real danger might lie and opted out of those situations. Beyond that, I went about my life.

I can say this because I am not suffering reputational damage from S, even when he cc’s other people on his e-mails, because I am in a position of power and because his pathology is so evident. Even were S to post his rants on blogs or other searchable media, they probably would not get to the first page on a Google search of my name, because I have other forms of Internet presence. Nor does S affect my employment or professional activities. I am lucky, then, in a way that others are not. Third parties do not judge me based on S’s portrait of me, and I choose not to obsess over behavior that is bad but does not pose a continued threat. The same would be true of a mugging or a burglary: both are serious crimes, and you can allow your life to be ruined by them, or you can move beyond them. We do have a degree of choice. Most perpetrators are pathetic and weak, and one cedes them a huge amount of power if one makes the abuse a defining life event.

She goes on to write that “we must distinguish situations where abuse does not constitute a real threat to one’s safety or career from cases where it does.”

Nussbaum considers why so much hostility on the internet is misogynist:

Why do so many different cases produce aggressive male outbursts directed at women?…  [O]ur highly competitive society produces a gendered “culture of cruelty” in which young males, unwilling to admit weakness or fear, are driven by their peers to act out dominance in many pernicious forms. One prominent casualty is their relationships with women…. When women are not only objects of sexual desire but also competitors for jobs, law-school admissions and so forth, the result can be a potent and toxic brew of sexualized aggression in young men. Anonymity, the possibility of real-world effects with no accountability, and the easy creation of online mobs allow males to act out, often with expectations of utter security.

Towards the end of the review, Nussbaum says that the increased use of prescription medications such as Adderall for ADHD may be part of the cause of “young men are acting out in paranoid and aggressive ways on the Internet.”

The whole review is here.

The Hedgehog Review
Notify of

Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
9 years ago

Typically excellent piece from Nussbaum; lucid and nuanced. Makes me want to get the book. I did disagree (to a certain extent) with this part:

“Psychologists working with troubled adolescent males (I think in particular of the impressive work of Dan Kindlon and Michael Thompson) find that our highly competitive society produces a gendered “culture of cruelty” in which young males, unwilling to admit weakness or fear, are driven by their peers to act out dominance in many pernicious forms. One prominent casualty is their relationships with women. Boy culture stigmatizes empathy and tenderness and valorizes, as Kindlon and Thompson put it, “power, dominance, and denial of sensitivity.” . . .”To effect real change, then, we need to reshape the background culture of maleness, which, unlike the structures of the Internet, does not have value that we should try to preserve—or, at least, the valuable characteristics traditionally identified with masculinity (physical strength and bravery, reliability) are not the same characteristics that cause the problem. But changing gender norms is an epic task, requiring the cooperation of parents, teachers, and concerned men and women of all ages. And though he is gay, my S is certainly still male. He has suffered from the culture of maleness in that he has been stigmatized and made to feel shame about his sexuality, which is a major feature of his obsession. But he was also raised as a (dominant) male, and I will hazard a guess that his apparently boundless sense of entitlement to abuse women (including not just me but, in his messages to me, other female professors and, prominently, his mother) as well as his evident if atypical misogyny come from his internalization of society’s devaluation of him as gay, but also from its exaltation of him as male.”

I think the “boy culture” and “entitlement” arguments have become the dominant explanations of the fact that online harassment is significantly male harassment of female victims, but I think both are problematic when you look at them in depth. I mean, obviously both can have an impact but I don’t think they’re the main causative factors. Granted I’ve been out of high school for a while, but even in my day I don’t remember being this vicious cycle of proving-your-manhood; I think a lot of the psychologists go in looking for that sort of thing and so they inevitably find it.

And the “entitlement” argument is also problematic in that, first, it is such a vague sort of construct that I think it lacks utility, and secondly because I think in most, if not all, of these cases, a lot of this anger arises out of a sort of re-focused self-hatred. I think a lot of these males feel they are NOT entitled to normal relationships with their female counterparts; this leads to a spiralling sense of isolation and frustration (I know it’s typically a punchline in our society, but I think sexual frustration can a profoundly destructive thing), which eventually kills a normal sense of empathy. My hypothesis is a lot of this behavior arises because the males in this situation feel like they are excluded from normal social society and thus have no obligation to follow its norms. Anyway, just a hypothesis. And not sure what can be done about it.

9 years ago

DC, I agree with you that the notion of “entitlement” is, or has become, too vague to be useful. But I have to disagree with you about the existence of a male culture that emphasizes constant vindication of manhood. I certainly experienced it in high school (I graduated in 2007) and in college. Recalling some anecdotal experiences would not be so helpful here, but I can recommend the insightful and (from my perspective) disturbingly relatable “Dude, You’re a Fag: Masculinity and Sexuality in High School.”

9 years ago

Hmm, YMMV I guess.