The Internet and Mob Justice

On January 16th, a pet supply worker was fired for a racist tirade on a blog. On the 13th of the same month, Iron Mountain Daily News blacklisted a freelance writer after she was revealed using racial slurs. On the 11th of this month, a juvenile justice employ in Kentucky was fired for racist and violent postings on his Facebook wall.

Nothing surprising at first glance.

With ever-increasing social consciousness and public focus on modern-day racism in the past year, it’s nothing shocking that a person would be fired for getting caught making bigoted claims. Only these folks weren’t caught– they were exposed.

Recent months have seen increased attention of the blackballing of racists, sexists, and homophobes- much of this activism/vigilantism arising from blogs on Tumblr. Now this is interesting not only because it’s becoming increasingly common, but because we ourselves have done something similar at CWR, running Tuesday “Shame Day” posts specifically for calling out people, institutions, and trends which we believe to be negative influences on society and culture.

So yeah, we should probably be getting our own house in order on this one.

Now some critics of this have asserted that this is an attack on free speech, which it totally isn’t. As Stewart argues in his recent “Je Suis Miyazaki?” post, freedom of speech is not the same thing as freedom from consequence. You have the right to say the dumbest thing the world- you do not have the right to be free from ridicule for saying it.

Now if that were the only critique, I probably wouldn’t have even bothered to broach the subject, but there’s still much to be leveled against this trend. Take for example, the capriciousness of the internet:

Every week, humor/information magazine Cracked lists out “X Number of BS Stories That Went Viral“, disproving many of the sensationalist “news” articles that pop up in our news feeds. Folks are still frequently fooled by this crap, and we tend to scream “BURN THE WITCH!!!” at the first ghost of evidence.

Or make a bridge out of her. Whatever works.

We’re talking about millions of people swallowing these false (or absurdly exaggerated) fluff pieces- I’ll even hear folks on the radio get up in arms about ’em. And never, ever do you hear a retraction or a realization that we’ve all been duped. These stories just fade from our vision without us ever really questioning their veracity (making us all the more gullible for the next load of bull). That’s not the analytic, critical thinking attitude that I want in my vigilantes.

Speaking of which, there’s our simple lack of context.

Truth of the matter is that there are things that I’d say in private which I’d never say in public. Not because I’m ashamed of ’em, but because they’re usually attached to some inside joke or reference. It gets hard to read sarcasm and irony through a screen cap of someone’s wall, and we again run the risk here of a perfectly innocent person getting socially lynched.

There’s also the question of the impartiality of the public. A top commenter on the BBC article’s coverage of this pointed out that there could exist a double standard, more severely targeting straight, white males than other demographics. And as we’ve (possibly) seen above, there’s some truth to that.

I mean, I put myself in this position. I try to play it as close to the vest when it comes to anything online, but I’m pretty open about my political beliefs, my vocal opposition to Zionism being one of ’em. It’d be easy for one person to interpret that as being the same as anti-Semitism (it isn’t). Someone else hears that accusation (and just that accusation) and naturally assumes the worst. From there, it all starts to snowball on and on and on.

Which means it’ll probably surprise you to hear that I’m nevertheless in favor of this sort of thing.

Not this exact thing, mind you. The Tumblr blog “Racists Getting Fired” just recently posted “Reminder that it is impossible to be racist against white people. Educate yourselves.” I wanna give ’em the benefit of the doubt and hope that they’re being sarcastic, but I genuinely don’t know.

We’re at an odd juncture in history where we have almost unlimited access but still lack the discipline on how to really use it. This has absolutely been abused and probably will remain vulnerable to abuse. So why defend it?

Because I think that social pressure is, ultimately, the best way to enforce morality and decency without legislating it. Trying to turn moral good into a law is to create loopholes, legalism, countless issues of enforcement, and on and on and on. At the end of the day the shaping of society should be in the hands of society. We’re already doing this tacitly, so why not be open about it?

Beyond that, this stuff does work. I’m perfectly comfortable with the idea that folks holding reprehensible views find themselves unable to work in plenty of major companies. A person should be able to walk into any establishment and be secure in the belief that their race, sexuality, or creed won’t determine the level of service they receive.

Now granted, the Washington Post‘s Soraya McDonald likewise suggests that racists might simply be better at concealing their racism. While that’s certainly true, is that even a problem? I mean, as things stand right now, we’re not sitting down with every bigot and offering lessons on multiculturalism, why not just continue to make open prejudice witheringly shunned? Heck, racism is largely propagated by normalization. If some kid doesn’t see it out in the world, isn’t he less likely to imitate it or tolerate it himself?

Still, there’s one massive problem that needs to be addressed.

Forgiveness.

People, we need some kind of grace. How long does one get blackballed here? What’s a dude gotta do to demonstrate that he or she’s seen the error of his/her ways? Is an ignorant outburst a scarlet letter eternally emblazoned on the breast of the offender? It it enough to just release a retraction? How do we weigh an apology?

I have trouble believing the sincerity of that, Alex…

I’ve brought up this problem before and I still don’t have an answer. And make no mistake, we do need to answer how a person can be absolved. Hell, I’d go so far as to say that we can’t cast another solitary stone until we figure out a fair and healthy way for people to be redeemed on this point. I’m going to need to think about it more, but for the time being, let’s set this as our guideline: there’s no effective or commendable way to do retributive justice- let’s think restorative here. We’re not about revenge, we’re about correction- so long as it doesn’t happen again, why worry?

Go and sin no more.

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2 responses to “The Internet and Mob Justice

  1. Thank you for your insightful words. One of the major issues I see online today is that people are brutal with their attacks on people. Mostly due to anonymity. How many of these people running the website your mentioned about fired racists, actually call them out in real life, face to face? Are we having these conversations with people when we witness racism, bigotry, violence in real time/space? Are we realizing that everyone…yes absolutely everyone, is offensive to someone. It doesn’t make them a horrible person, it makes them human and that means they are capable of change. I pity these racists people locked in their own disillusioned world of racial superiority. They have no clue the power of diversity. Rant over.

  2. Pingback: Lisa Nakamura Part 1: Tumblr Activism and This Bridge Called My Back : A Culture War Report | Culture War Reporters

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