In Praise of Jane Austen

Jane AustenIt is a truth universally acknowledged that Jane Austen is one of Britain’s favourite writers. She has been one of my favourite writers for many years, even before Colin Firth took a swim. Jane Austen will soon adorn the 10 pound note, following a campaign to have at least one woman represented on their currency. Hurrah for women. Although I can’t help questioning the selection process. Since it’s replacing a scientist why not Ada Lovelace, Elizabeth Garrett Anderson, or Rosalind Franklin? There used to be a woman on the five pound note; she has been replaced by Winston Churchill. So how about a woman politician or campaigner; Emmeline Pankhurst, Nancy Astor or Margaret Thatcher?

But Jane it will be, a somewhat innocuous choice. Although Austen scholars and fans the world over are disheartened by the choice of image and quote.

It turns out that this decision is more controversial and in ways I couldn’t have imagined. Those who campaigned to have a woman on the notes have been challenged on twitter with the most foul language. Including threats of rape and death. The UK police have taken the threats seriously, and already made arrests. Other twitter users have taken the side of the campaigners – to see their supportive reactions check the hashtag #shoutback.

The debate has moved on; there’s now a campaign to get twitter to make reporting abuse easier. There’s a debate about whether it’s really possible to monitor twitter and act on abusive tweets (which are outside twitter’s terms and conditions). There’s a debate on free speech and a discussion . Looking at those in order;

The campaign sought to get twitter to make it easier to report abuse. Currently you have two options; block the sender, which means you won’t see their tweets but others will, or report spam via a form, which takes a while too long when you’re receiving 50-100 abusive tweets per hour. Twitter has committed to making reporting abuse easier, but it’s not as easy as adding button.

It’s difficult because it can’t be an automatic blocking on the basis of a report, that in itself would be open to abuse. There are more than 100,000 tweets per minute, in a multitude of languages and in every time zones. It’d be difficult to build algorithms to sort out the tweets with issues from those without, as Flashboy discusses. Plus there’s context, there are conversations on twitter with banter that could seem abusive, but are not taken as such by the participants.

For all that Twitter has committed to finding a better way of protecting users from abuse. I guess using a mixture of streamlined reporting and monitoring, there are no specifics announced yet.

You must allow me to express how ardently I believe in the freedom of speech. But your freedom stops at the point where it destroys someone else’s freedom. Most countries, including the US place limits on the right of freedom of speech. You may not incite violence, slander another or threaten someone. Obviously your freedom to tweet does not supersede freedom in law. In this case the law, the UK Police, have taken the threats seriously, conducting investigations and making two arrests.

So what is in the minds of the people making these tweets? Where does the anger come from? The threats went on for days, that’s some serious anger.

I think the perceived anonymity of twitter is a drawcard, some have pointed out to the thin veneer of civilisation the abuse shows, others to the underlying misogyny in our society. It’s not wholly a misogynist issue, there are plenty of abusive tweets for anyone, including GQ. Perhaps the abusers are indeed Austen fans, or at least fans of Northanger Abbey where the narrator states;

A woman, especially, if she have the misfortune of knowing anything, should conceal it as well as she can.

We’re still reading Jane Austen’s works almost a hundred years after she died. I suspect the abusers will leave no such legacy.

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