Tech + Health

12.09.15 6:00 AM ET

He Called Her a Slut. He Got Fired

When Michael Nolan called Clementine Ford a slut publicly, on Facebook, she notified his employer. They fired him.

A man was fired for calling a woman a “slut.” This would be unremarkable in almost all circumstances, except for one small detail: The comment occurred on Facebook from the man’s personal account.

“[Australian] feminist writer Clementine Ford, who often bears the brunt of vitriol on social media, was called a “slut” by Michael Nolan on Facebook.

The original comment was posted by Nolan on Nov. 25, in response to a post where Ford called out another man for making degrading comments.”

Ford was discussing the frequent abuse women face from men and why this should stop. This was the post Mr. Nolan decided to leave his awful remark on.

Nolan’s employer, the hotel chain Meriton Apartments, was listed on his Facebook profile, so Ford decided to point out their (then) employee’s behavior.

She wrote: “I wonder if the folks over at Meriton Apartments are aware that a man listing himself as a supervisor for their business likes to leave comments on women’s Facebook pages calling them sluts. I wonder if they are also aware that he is a racist.”

“Meriton Group have now investigated the matter relating to the complaint made about Michael Nolan using inappropriate language on Facebook… Meriton Group does not condone this type of behavior. Michael Nolan was removed from the Meriton site on Saturday 28th November pending an investigation, and as of 2:30pm today 30th November 2015, he no longer works for the Meriton Group.”

Many people have seen this as a woman overreacting to a man saying “mean words” on the Internet. But that perspective carves out large aspects of this situation, presenting a false narrative—a narrative that continues to allow people, especially men, to get away with harmful behavior under the guise of unrelated but important-sounding concepts, like freedom.

Here are the facts.

First, Ford had no power to fire this man. Yet Ford is receiving angry, vile messages, written as though she was the main person in power responsible for Nolan’s firing. She was not. Clearly that is his employer, who very well could’ve ignored Ford and kept the man on the payroll.

(Of course, Ford deals daily with over-reactive men, as she is a woman voicing her opinion on gender issues with a Twitter account. Harassers seem to lack the willpower to ignore people like Ford.)

Second, Ford didn’t lie or falsify Nolan’s statements; she pointed out they exist and were being said publicly. She didn’t hack his account. He left a derogatory message almost anyone could see on her page.

Businesses have long done online searches on (potential) employees. Naturally, they care about maintaining a reputation and, if they can find something damning on an employee, their shareholders and clients can, too—and take their business elsewhere. The world has gone digital, and life isn’t separated by offline or online anymore. People can and do lose their jobs for what they do online—even in their personal capacity—because that’s where businesses operate, too. 

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Again, Meriton’s decision to fire an employee over conduct that was not illegal, but which they deemed against the company’s values, was not the first and it will not be the last such decision a modern business makes. That this conduct happened on the Internet is irrelevant: this wasn’t a man writing boundary pushing poems in his journal; it wasn’t him telling sexist jokes privately with friends. Nolan did this publicly, and this was the consequence.

Those who disagree continue the narrative of free speech, where “free speech” means no consequences. Ford and others are deciding that needs to change. As she wrote:

“I did it because I’m sick and tired of men abusing women online and continually getting away with it. I can bear the brunt of this behavior, but I’m angry about the number of women who tell me they can’t. Too many women are harassed into silence by men who flounce about the place doing and saying whatever they like.”

Men getting away with sexism is an issue that needs addressing. A culture of sexist tolerance undermines entire industries, let alone individual people’s daily lives. This tolerance continues because we’ve created cultures were targets of awful behavior are expected to just take it.

But consider: Nolan is responsible for his own actions and words. Meriton decided those actions and words were not in keeping with their business. Meriton’s decision was based on Nolan’s decision to be a jerk.

The false narrative of responsibility is, however, quite potent. By giving Ford power—and therefore responsibility—she does not have, justification for targeting her can easily be created and continue, regardless of reality. This is why targets are so frequently viewed as irrelevant but also powerful, by their harassers.

This is the root of victim blaming. Harassers’ responsibility for awful actions are eroded, such that a false image of power lies with the recipient of abuse. Instead of confronting harassers and abusers, people blame targets for taking action in response to abuse—to protect themselves and others, as in Ford’s case. “You got a man fired!” instead of “That’s what happens when you’re a jerk to someone.”

As always, free expression has been dragged out as being threatened. The scary image of Big Brother watching every move we do and then losing our jobs because we were “mean” is being touted, with feminists behind the levers of corporate hiring practices.

For harassers, free expression doesn’t exist for targets, using it to respond, ignore, or report their harassment; “free expression” only exists for the enormous number of random, often anonymous, haters who harass.

You can call a woman a slut online, but you’re not allowed to call a business on the man that did so. It’s clear how this fits in with the narrative to keep targets silenced and, as Ford and others highlight, preserve the reputation of the most privileged group—who, for too long, have been able to conduct themselves without fear of consequences.

For too long have targets—often women and marginalized people—been the ones bearing the consequences of harassers. With the great equalizer that the Internet has become, we are more able to let those who are actually responsible for terrible actions bear appropriate consequences.

“Consequences” in no way means violence or threats—that’s what we’re combating!—it means responses like suspension of social media accounts, employers being notified, and so on.

This is not to say everyone should be fired for what they say online nor am I encouraging everyone report abusers to their place of work. But, focusing on this particular case, we see how responses to Ford taking action itself fits into a narrative that aims to keep her and others silenced; who want to punish her for being brave enough to take action.

Speech without consequence isn’t free, it’s privilege. And more and more, we are using free expression and digital tools to fight back against harassment that has always been there—but for which it’s never been the harassers’ problem to deal with.

And if these hypersensitive men can’t deal with responses to their abusive behavior online, maybe the Internet isn’t for them.

Correction: An earlier version of this article showed a photo of Clementine Ford the actress not Clementine Ford the journalist. The mistake as since been corrected.