Last month student union leaders at Goldsmiths, University of London, organized a meeting for minority students to chat about their stake in the student protests being staged at schools across London over the high cost of tuition. Bahar Mustafa had just been re-elected to her post as welfare and diversity officer for Goldsmiths’ student union, and she eagerly recruited her Facebook friends to help spread the word. Oh, and “if you’re a man and/or white PLEASE DON’T COME,” she wrote in a note. “Don’t worry lads we will give you and allies things to do.”
Instead, one Goldsmiths lad screengrabbed the post and published it on a student news site. Mustafa has “made it very difficult for cis white males on campus,” an anonymous member of the demo complained to the paper. Soon, local tabloids had scooped up the story, delighted by the irony of a “diversity officer” banning students by race. While some members of the Goldsmiths student union pledged their support of Mustafa, an anonymous faction of students filed a petition with the union early this month calling for a vote of “no confidence” in her. They alleged that Mustafa had repeatedly posted hashtags like #Misandry and #KillAllWhiteMen to her personal Twitter account. This constituted “hate speech based on race and gender,” they argued. Some students felt “intimidated” and “silenced” by her tone.
The press ate it up. The hashtags drew headlines in Britain’s Daily Mail, Sweden’s Nyheter Idag, fun fearless Cosmo, and the right-wing Daily Caller. Google now counts 70,000 news items citing Mustafa’s name. Her tweets, the Daily Caller said, “appear to call for white men to be exterminated.” People who had never heard of Mustafa, Goldsmiths, or whatever a “welfare and diversity officer” is suddenly had an opinion. A Change.org petition emerged demanding that Mustafa be arrested on charges of hate speech and terrorism. The imps of 4chan pitched in, deeming Mustafa a “feminazi kebab” and pledging to pack the petition with fake ethnic names and dummy emails. (The petition has amassed 19,000 signatures so far.) The saddest man on YouTube posted a video calling Mustafa a “butterface.” One story about the controversy drew upward of 2,500 comments on Reddit before moderators locked the thread; one moderator told my colleague that the conversation had devolved into calls to “rape her in the cunt with a chainsaw” and could not be revived. And this week Scotland Yard told reporters that after receiving a tip, its officers had launched an investigation into Mustafa’s social media activities, searching for evidence of a “racially motivated malicious communication.”
So, that escalated quickly. Mustafa is not the first to have her reputation raked across the Web on account of some lousy tweets. But she may be the first to crumble over a case of ironic misandry, a tongue-in-cheek form of discourse favored by the young feminist Internet natives. You may have spied them on Twitter or Tumblr, working on their “KILL ALL MEN” cross-stitch or sipping from a mug labeled “MALE TEARS.” Ironic misandrists say they’re poking fun at long-standing stereotypes about militant feminist man-haters. That seems to fit Mustafa’s tweets. In a statement to Goldsmiths students, she owned up to using the hashtags, calling them “in-jokes” between herself and other members of “the queer feminist community.” If some people failed to get the joke, well, that was kind of the point.
When I first heard about the Mustafa fracas, I paged through link after link in story after story, searching for evidence of the actual tweet that Mustafa tagged #KillAllWhiteMen. I couldn’t find a single news story with a screenshot or a transcript of the supposedly genocidal tweet. That’s because Mustafa disabled her personal and professional accounts back when the press first zoomed in, and the pages are now lost to Google cache and the Internet Archive. All the press knows is that an unidentified group of students of an indeterminate number is upset that Mustafa deployed a hashtag that sounds bad out of context. The Daily Mail even dismantled the hashtag entirely to claim that what Mustafa tweeted looked like this: “kill all white men.”
That’s kind of a big deal. As Slate’s Julia Turner wrote in a 2012 New York Times Magazine piece, the hashtag “gives the writer the opportunity to comment on his own emotional state, to sarcastically undercut his own tweet, to construct an extra layer of irony, to offer a flash of evocative imagery or to deliver metaphors with striking economy.” And the wordplay is only half the equation. Hashtags also act like portals into alternate corners of Internet discourse: Click on one, and you’ll find everyone who’s been coaxed into the same marketing gimmick (#ItsMillerTime) or discovered the same semisecret code (#EggplantFridays). These pathways are being constantly rewired, so it can be hard to pinpoint what a hashtag signified a couple of days or years before. Search for #KillAllWhiteMen now, and you’ll mostly find people commenting on the meaning of the hashtag itself. Should we call the cops on them, too?
This is the time we live in: Thousands of people have signed a petition to unseat a woman they’ve never heard of from a position they don’t understand at a school they’ve never visited over a tweet they’ve never seen. I’d bet that none of them knows that part of the mission of Goldsmiths’ student union is to facilitate campaigns on behalf of “liberation groups.” One of its meeting rooms is named after Angela Davis. Contrary to the breathless recent coverage, minority-specific events are standard practice across British universities. And as for Mustafa, she ran for student office under a “WOmanifesto,” which touted her experience securing women-only gym time and financing a “welfare bus” where “vulnerable students” can retreat during organized sporting events. And she won! Twice. Most of the people who don’t like Mustafa’s tweets don’t like anything else about her either.
Mustafa identifies as a “queer, anti-racist feminist killjoy.” She got her master’s degree in gender and media studies from Goldsmiths last year, where she performed Foucauldian readings of Japanese anime porn. She uses the term safe space. She is, in short, anti-feminists’ nightmare. And now, they’ve alighted on the rare opportunity to turn her own PC tools against her. Forget ironic misandry: For a certain class of white male (and his allies), crying racism, co-opting the Change.org petition, and appealing to the cops provides its own ironic thrill.