Why the Digital Assault on Leslie Jones Must Genuinely Concern Us All

ON FRIDAY, my Facebook News Feed alerted me that it was Women’s Equality Day. This alert was a reminder that, for better or worse, pretty much all of the things I learn now come, in some fashion, from Facebook. It also allowed me a minute to reflect on where we are as a nation. It’s increasingly realistic that Hillary Clinton will become the 45th President of the United States. Regardless of your political and personal feelings toward the first female nominee of a major American political party for the presidency, I think we can all agree that it is a wildly positive thing that there are no longer barriers that exist to stop roughly half of the American electorate from running for the land’s highest office. Yet, for all of the progress we have made, reminders of our failings still exist. To see them, you have to look no farther than the disgusting digital assault perpetrated this week (and beyond) on actress Leslie Jones.

Leslie Jones
Leslie Jones

Leslie Jones is a successful comedian who is a Saturday Night Live cast member and the star of the recent remake of Ghostbusters. She has also become, for whatever reason, a target for certain “trolls” who have aimed their rather inhuman words toward her on Twitter. These attacks initially forced Jones to remove her Twitter account. She recently reclaimed the account. She wasn’t the only African American female celebrity who left Twitter this month due to issues of being bullied online. Fifth Harmony’s Normani Kordei was the victim of Twitter attacks that included her face being photoshopped onto a lynched African American, and a tweet referring to her as “Narmonkey.”

However, this week these attacks have been raised to a level that we’ve rarely seen before. Jones’ personal website was hacked and someone posted what was apparently nude photos of her along with images of her driver’s license and passport. This was in addition to an image of Harambe, a gorilla who was shot and killed at a Cincinnati zoo earlier this summer. Gorillas are, especially in the intended context of the perpetrator of this attack, a horrifyingly racist symbol.

It goes without saying that this wasn’t just cruel words from a Twitter troll. This was a calculated and devastating incursion against the celebrity perpetrated by someone with the knowledge to infiltrate a personal website and included elements of both doxing (releasing someone’s personal information maliciously online) and revenge porn.

Why Leslie Jones? Some would argue she’s a female comedian of color and that upsets a specific group of people. Her role in the remake of Ghostbusters has been pointed to as a reason for all of this barbarism. The movie was not, to say the least, well-received by a certain group of people. Regardless, Leslie Jones doesn’t deserve any of this. No one does.

Jones has received an enormous amount of public support from both her peers and rather ordinary Twitter folk. WIRED chronicled some of the best in an article on Friday.

But it’s not enough. It never will be. Leslie Jones will never get back the dignity that was stolen from her. That can never be undone. Like the scars on her heart, those pieces of data will never be fully removed from cyberspace.

It is true, we should care about the attacks on Leslie Jones because of issues in our society that involve the way we dehumanize our celebrities, as well as those much larger concerns of racial biases and gender inequalities that remain today and are as present in our virtual world as they are in our physical one.

If there is one thing I want visitors to this website to walk away with is my unequivocal belief that all people, regardless of their gender, race, religion, political beliefs, socioeconomic status and sexual orientation, must be afforded a certain amount of dignity, a far greater amount than what has been afforded Leslie Jones.

The reprehensible attacks on Leslie Jones and others should undoubtedly concern all of us greatly not only because of the very large societal issues of gender and race mentioned above, but also because every day each of our lives grow a little more virtual.

Every time we add something to the online village: a blog, a vacation photo, a selfie, our food porn, an idle thought, or when we develop a personal website or social account, we open ourselves up a little more. It’s a very freeing feeling. But it can also be dangerous, because it can leave us vulnerable to attack. Yet, there are certain professions where developing an online presence is not only helpful to advancement but can also be a fundamental part of the gig: writer, news anchor, musician, social media expert, athlete, fashion blogger, reality superstar, Hollywood starlet. There’s just no getting around it. When you’re trying to develop your name into a brand, no better tools have ever been created in the history of mankind.

Every single one of us is given a voice that can be heard by every other person on the planet. We can use these voices to promote our passions, broadcast our causes, have larger conversations and debates with people we would likely never personally meet, or conversely use this very real power to commit merciless attacks against people and ideas we disagree with.

A friend told me on Friday a fact he learned not on Facebook but instead on NPR (shocking, I know!), that the average age a child receives a phone is now six years old. That’s amazing. Granted, most of these phones probably do not have access to the internet. Yet, when your infant nieces and nephews can navigate an iPad better than you can, it’s easy to understand there is a remarkable change occurring. Without a doubt, our children will likely spend their entire lives immersed in a digital world. Every moment will be chronicled, every step of the journey broadcast online. Their lives will be as virtual as they are physical.

Do we want our children to live in a world full of fear? Do we want them to be afraid to voice their rational opinions online, to use their intelligence to create debate that might improve the condition of humanity, to sing their songs, to publish their poetry because they could be mocked, or bullied, or (in the case of Leslie Jones) be digitally assaulted by a faceless and ravage mob with an irrational hatred of a woman they’ve never met and who has really done nothing but try and live her life and pursue her craft? This is the world we’re heading toward. This is why all of us need to stand up for Leslie Jones, and others like her. We need to say enough. This concerns us all.

Quite literally, (e.g. the case of Pokemon Go) our virtual worlds are bleeding into our physical ones. For many of us, our digital presences have become as important as our physical presences. For some, more so. When we’re bullied online, it’s not our virtual hearts that are destroyed, it’s not our virtual souls that are crushed, and it’s not virtual tears that we cry. When we are harassed digitally, we feel it in every single cell of our natural being. We can unplug, unfriend, unfollow, delete tweet, or attempt to disappear from the digital world, but the very real physical scars remain and they do take a long time to heal. We ultimately can never fully escape our digital presence. It is now a fundamental part of who we are.

In the end, I want the children whom I cherish to live in a world where they can share their passions, their art, their heart, their desires, their hopes and their dreams online without fear of being cruelly attacked, shamed, bullied or assaulted. I want them to live in a world where people can rationally discuss their feelings (even if they’re negative) about the latest Ghostbusters reboot while positively celebrating Leslie Jones for her unique talent and beauty. I want them to never have to feel what it’s like to see nude photos of themselves plastered across the internet accompanied by the critiques of those who have viewed these photos. I want them to live in a world where we always have an incredible amount of respect for the fact that behind the Twitter handle, Facebook profile, gaming avatar, or personal website is a flesh-filled creature of God who dreams, who loves, and who also possesses a heart that can be broken.

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