The Huffington Post picked up on this and reported that the pizza place “publicly vow(ed)” to “reject gay weddings.” This entirely inaccurate description of what actually transpired was seized upon by countless folks all around the Interwebs. The pizza shop’s Yelp page was spammed with eight pages negative reviews, most of them quite obviously from people who had never been there. Their phone rang off the hook with fake orders. Someone on Twitter threatened to burn the shop down. The folks at Memories Pizza temporarily closed their restaurant.
Rolling Stone published a mega trending article last month documenting the story of a horrific fraternity gang rape of a freshman student at the University of Virginia. The rape victim herself shared her story of the cold, calculated, and brutal events that took place upstairs at a UVA frat house and the almost more sickening callous fallout as friends, classmates, and the university seemed to gang up against the victim in the favor of not making waves. This story so perfectly fit into the current rape culture on rich kid college campus meme that it quickly went viral around the net, around the world, and smeared tons of people both named and given modest cover in the long form article. Except, yeah, the girl at the center of the story lied.
Rolling Stone just issued an apology. It’s not the kind of apology one traditionally makes after accusing the members of a specific fraternity and students and faculty at a specific university with gross charges of sexual assault and coverup. Like, my bad for calling you a rapist in an 8-page blowout article where we forgot to fact check the single most important underlying fact. It’s more like the, we tried our best but this chick just lied so good it’s not really our fault.
It’s just like the man said — as you go around the web, looking at what all the usual suspects have to say, you can’t help but notice that very few, if any, care about the specifics of what happened in this particular case. What they care about is how this specific case can be used to buttress whichever meta-issue they’re more concerned with, whether “Patriarchy and rape culture are real and they kill!”, or “Feminists are a bunch of obnoxious, whiny, man-hating bitches.” Whether she lied, or whether she just fudged some of the peripheral details (innocently or maliciously), having to admit that would feel like having to give ground on every major contentious feminist issue. It’s psychologically easier to try and rationalize this away instead. Thus people will continue arguing past each other, accomplishing nothing. Like the circus, they’ll just pack up the tents, travel to the next location, and put on the same show again. If, for you, the tragedy here isn’t that innocent people might have been publicly smeared as violent felons, but that your online enemies will be insufferable in their gloating, you are, as the saying goes, part of the problem.
As for this case, well, eternal optimist that I am, I’d like to think this might severely dampen the enthusiasm for all this faith-based “believe the victim” dogma (a perfect example of what “begging the question” means in its strict logical context, by the way) and the repulsive naming-and-shaming, trial-by-social-media phenomenon. (Even I, the eternal optimist, won’t go so far as to hope that “journalists” might learn a lesson about doing their job thoroughly.)
“Man Forced to Apologize for Sexist Shirt After Successfully Landing Spacecraft on Comet” has to be the ultimate headline for our age.
— David Burge (@iowahawkblog) November 14, 2014
No one knows why Taylor chose to wear that shirt on television during a massive scientific mission. From what we can tell, a woman who goes by the name of Elly Prizeman on Twitter made the shirt for him, and is just as bewildered as he must be that anyone might be upset about her creation. Taylor apologized on Friday during a live ESA broadcast for wearing the shirt, stating that “the shirt I wore this week… I made a big mistake and I offended many people, and I’m very sorry about this.” Still, Taylor’s personal apology doesn’t make up for the fact that no one at ESA saw fit to stop him from representing the Space community with clothing that demeans 50 percent of the world’s population. No one asked him to take it off, because presumably they didn’t think about it. It wasn’t worth worrying about.
This is the sort of casual misogyny that stops women from entering certain scientific fields. They see a guy like that on TV and they don’t feel welcome. They see a poster of greased up women in a colleague’s office and they know they aren’t respected. They hear comments about “bitches” while out at a bar with fellow science students, and they decide to change majors. And those are the women who actually make it that far. Those are the few who persevered even when they were discouraged from pursuing degrees in physics, chemistry, and math throughout high school. These are the women who forged on despite the fact that they were told by elementary school classmates and the media at large that girls who like science are nerdy and unattractive. This is the climate women who dream of working at NASA or the ESA come up against, every single day. This shirt is representative of all of that, and the ESA has yet to issue a statement or apologize for that.
Emphasis mine. I swear, I’m beginning to suspect that these people are the result of an intensive, long-term breeding program designed to produce some kind of human super-terrier that can tunnel through layers of solid rock in fanatical pursuit of the faintest trace odor of offense to be taken.
As a good pluralist, I’m naturally inclined to believe that most issues admit of more than one valid interpretation. Ferzample, there’s nothing inherently wrong with being the type of person who sees a shirt covered in images of sexy pinup girls and gets offended. You can offer up a number of reasons why such a person might be mistaken to see it that way, or perhaps some suggestions that life will be more pleasant and productive for them if they try to lighten up and take a less-judgmental stance, but ultimately, they’re entitled to feel however they want. And even for those of us who don’t go through life with a thorny stick wedged painfully in our posteriors and perpetually pursed, disapproving, lemon-sucking lips, it can of course be fairly argued that, whatever the backstory, it’s at least inappropriate to wear a shirt like that on that particular occasion. It’s obviously not worth being put through a show trial, but being pulled aside and told, “Hey, dude, come on, you’re going to be on international television; maybe something a little less gaudy” wouldn’t be an onerous imposition.
Notice, though, how a certain type of Puritanical feminist refuses to even consider the possibility that other people could have different, yet equally valid reactions to seeing Taylor’s shirt. As you may have heard by now, Elly Prizeman is a close friend of Taylor’s. He was the best man at her wedding. She made him the shirt as a gift, and he wore it to give her artwork a little publicity boost. Nonetheless, her opinion doesn’t count, femininity notwithstanding. Any other woman shrugging her shoulders and saying, “What’s the big deal?” would likewise be dismissed as irrelevant and unwelcome in the discussion. 50% of the world’s population is being demeaned by that shirt! Of course, if even 50% of that 50% stood up and said, “Actually, we don’t see it as a problem; you just need to chill the fuck out,” their objections would be overruled even as their existence would continue to be cited as support for the Puritanical view. No woman could possibly see him wearing that shirt in conjunction with his tattoos and general demeanor and think Hey, he looks like a fun guy; no, they would see him as intimidating and threatening. They wouldn’t “feel welcome”. This is all stated as matter of fact, not as one perspective among many.
Notice the immediate assumption of the absolute worst-case interpretation. Generic sexual images, even campy ones, when sported or appreciated by a man, are sexist. Inherently offensive and harmful. The images of sultry, busty babes couldn’t possibly be equally representative of comic book art or cheesy SFF; they can only represent filthy, degrading, aggressive animal lust, which all right-thinking people should be properly ashamed of. Any woman who sees them will take them personally and feel disrespected. Any man who enjoys them can clearly only think of women as second-class citizens, mere blow-up dolls to be used, abused, and cast aside. Nothing positive could ever be associated with them. Their very existence, especially when made public in any way, demeans all women, even the poor brainwashed ones who stubbornly cling to their ignorant opinions to the contrary.
Notice how the slippery-slope argument becomes a sheer logical plummet down the face of a cliff, as Taylor’s shirt becomes an inkblot suggesting everything a woman could ever find to complain about. Well, again, they’re free to find tendentious causal connections wherever they want, but the rest of us are also free to point out that they are simply projecting their own twisted, morbid obsessions onto everyone else, in the long-established tradition of fundamentalist crusaders of all kinds.
One member of the Slymepit had what I thought was a good take on it:
So a man is the best man of a woman. The woman makes him a shirt as a thank you. He wears it. Sounds like a pretty normal thing to do among normal, socially aware, empathetic people.
But since there was a woman in a sexy position on that shirt, suddenly the man is the devil, he sets back history, he’s sexist, he’s the reason why women are raped, etc.
And they say they’re sex positive, progressive people. I’ve met nuns who were less of a prude. This objectification rhetoric hides pearl-clutching former fundies who get mad when they see female flesh exposed, be it real or fictional.
Also, for people who are all about “empathy”, SJWs have very little social and emotional empathy of their own. They don’t seem to understand the concept of being proud of your work, or of having friends, or even of humor and a relaxed attitude towards sexuality. They’ve lost the sense of wonder before the accomplishments of the human race.
It seems like a trivial, almost painfully obvious point to me, but apparently it needs to be said anyway: these people represent an extreme viewpoint, only one of many possible viewpoints, but for some odd reason, a lot of otherwise moderate people, as well as a lot of media outlets, seem inclined to give them the benefit of the doubt when they aggressively proceed as if theirs is the one true perspective on gender issues. Oh, for the day when this unthinking, groveling deference finally wears off…
The trouble is, whether certain ideas are odious or unacceptable is itself usually a matter for debate. Take the two cases here. Many people do not see Brendan Eich’s opposition to same-sex marriage as homophobic or Hirsi Ali’s opposition to Islam as Islamophobic. Even if you think they are homophobic or Islamophobic, there is no value in simply shouting ‘Oh but they are’ and proscribing such views. That makes no more sense than Hindus demanding that Wendy Doniger’s book be banned because it supposedly disparages Hinduism, or Islamists demanding that Maajid Nawaz be disciplined for supposedly offending Muslims.
There is a difference between creating a society in which we have genuinely reduced or removed certain forms of hatreds and demanding that people shut up because they have to conform to other people’s expectations of what is acceptable. To demand that something is unsayable is not to make it unsaid, still less unthought. It is merely to create a world in which social conversation becomes greyer and more timid, in which people are less willing to say anything distinctive or outrageous, in which in Jon Lovett’s words, ‘fewer and fewer people talk more and more about less and less’. The Culture of Shut Up fashions not a less hateful world but a more conformist one. And there is chasm between the act of conforming and that of transforming.
Ideally, it would be great if we could “genuinely reduce” prejudice and hatred without simply demanding that people shut up. Realistically, no matter how committed a society is to maintaining a healthy culture of open discussion and debate, there will always be a significant minority who can’t be reasoned into agreement with the majority and will thus be intimidated into silence or ostracized. Eventually, they will accept that the social costs of being racist or homophobic simply aren’t worth the open expression of the sentiment, and over time, people will adjust to the new consensus as they always do. However, it still doesn’t feel right to endorse the intimidation/ostracizing, as inevitable as it may be. This is the part I wrestle with myself. I agree with the general point of Malik’s post (and his stance on free speech in general), but I think he sidesteps this point and is left vaguely gesturing in the direction of a world in which no one is ever compelled into behavior without their fully conscious, rational assent. How do we realistically come to terms with the fact that a tolerance omelet may require a few broken Eichs? How much resistance do we offer to the latest trial-by-Twitter even as we know that, ultimately, societal norms always have and always will require a certain amount of non-rational social pressure to become fixed into place?
If we are forced to accept the inevitability of these social costs, perhaps the best we can do is to moderate their scope and intensity. In the cases of people like Eich or Justine Sacco, what exactly are we trying to achieve? Ferzample, I heard it said that elevating Eich to CEO of Mozilla was the step too far, that it was too close to the company endorsing his political views. Fair enough, but how much effort, in general, should be devoted to scrutinizing someone’s political views or personal life? How far should we go in attempting to dig up dirt on them if it’s not readily apparent? And how long do the punitive sanctions last? If Eich or Sacco land in new high-profile, lucrative jobs, will they attract more negative attention? That is, will they be perceived to have gotten off too easily and thus require more hounding? I just don’t get a sense that most people have bothered to consider things like that. What concerns me is the ad-hoc nature of what constitutes justice in these situations. I suspect that a lot of people just want to enjoy judging and punishing (especially as social media creates the conditions where doing so brings status and other social rewards), and I worry about the possibility of the terms of punishment remaining open-ended and subject to extension.
The chilling effect of insisting on real names stifles political and other controversial discussions, inhibiting people from stating their views on gun laws, feminism, terrorism, abortion, climate change and so on. When such debates are held face to face, in cafes and over dinner tables, there is little concern that, say, a future employer will learn what you said and decline to hire you (unless you have the misfortune to live in a regime with a Stasi-like network of citizen-spies), but as the internet increasingly becomes the venue of choice for such discussions, any opinion stated under your real name is trivially accessible. For anyone in a vulnerable position – people seeking a job, people whose beliefs are at odds with their neighbors or co-workers – the ability to participate in such discussions depends, effectively, on being able to do so pseudonymously.
…Online, using pseudonyms is actually more like our ordinary face-to-face experience – and it is essential for managing the impression we make. Face to face, we develop relationships in separate contexts — and the things we talk about, the jokes we make, the secrets we reveal – vary tremendously. You may share, say, your feelings about the difficulties of caring for an aging, fading parent or a special needs child with others in the same situation; you may find things funny in the company of old friends that you would never admit to thinking humorous in front of your family. You present yourself differently to your neighbor, lawyer, teacher, children, grandmother — you use different words and talk about different things. This is not a lack of integrity, but a feature of being an adaptable person in multiple social contexts, understanding the varied mores of the different situations. Pseudonyms allow us to maintain such separate contexts online.
The sad thing is that Munroe has brought up, in this comic, a topic that is very important to me: the sad tendency of people to be so threatened by the possibility of judgment, they seek to deny even the implied judgment of alternate behaviors. The internet is a set of communicative technologies that have the capacity to reveal the full flower of human diversity to us, but which are very often used in the service of conformity. That’s why “You’re Doing It Wrong” is an internet trope, because the very thought of different people behaving in different ways came to be seen as threatening. In a cultural age dominated by insecurity, to see other people living lives that are different than our own is to invite the possibility that ours could be perceived as less worthy. So preemption becomes essential; the behavior of others becomes not different but wrong, even ridiculous. That’s how you end up with an online world filled with essays about how, say, your choice of coffee grinder reveals your character.
Anticipated reproach, you mean? The social web has certainly brought about a “revillaging” effect, familiar to those of us who lament, like Michael Corleone, that just when we thought we’d escaped the stultifying conformity of small-town life, they pulled us back in. But this is hardly a new phenomenon; it’s as old as homo sapiens itself. We’ve always been insecure social animals with a strong drive to monitor and regulate the behavior of our fellows. That’s our default state.
Ask any introvert — we’ve had to wearily navigate the intricacies of other people’s insecurities all our lives. “Thanks, but I really just want to go home and read some more of my book” is never going to be accepted as a valid, non-rude excuse to opt out of an invitation. People with conventional, mainstream preferences and habits will always take it as a snub when someone declines to join them, no matter how politely or apologetically. You don’t want to come over/go out together? What’s wrong with me? Don’t you like me? You think you’re better than me or something?
It’s been my experience that the sort of cosmopolitan self-assuredness, if you want to call it that, necessary to not feel implicitly judged when confronted with people who think and act differently is something people have to grow into, and many never do. Perhaps we can get all Hegelian about it and suggest that there’s a sort of dialectical process to it: first, you’re a typical herd animal; then, you join some sort of subculture out of rebellion, only to find that such groups tend to ultimately be even more conformist than the culture they’re rebelling against; and then, finally, you just learn to enjoy what you like and quit worrying about what everyone else says and does.
“It’s too late to correct it,” said the Red Queen: “when you’ve once said a thing, that fixes it, and you must take the consequences.”
As I watched the online response to Justine Sacco’s tweet, I thought of Shirley Jackson’s short story, “The Lottery,” first published in 1948 but quite prescient. In a village there is a ritual that has gone largely unquestioned for generations. There is a box and in the box are slips of paper. Each year, the heads of each family draw slips of paper. One will be marked and then the members of that person’s family draw slips again. Whoever selects the slip with a black mark is the sacrifice. Everyone takes up stones and sets upon the unlucky victim. Every citizen is complicit in the murder of someone who, just moments before he or she was chosen, was a friend, a neighbor, a loved one.
Justine Sacco was not sacrificed. Her life will go on. We will likely never know if she learned anything from this unfortunate affair. In truth, I don’t worry so much about her. Instead, I worry for those of us who were complicit in her spectacularly rapid fall from grace. I worry about how comfortable we were holding the stones of outrage in the palms of our hands and the price we paid for that comfort.
Jeff Bercovici, a staff writer for Forbes covering media and technology, wrote in a blog post that he knew Ms. Sacco and considered her a friend. Over drinks a few weeks ago, he wrote, Ms. Sacco explained that she had recently noticed that “people seemed to like the tweets that were just a little bit risqué or outrageous.”
Maybe that need to impress, to find validation through the people that follow us online, was what led to Ms. Sacco’s inappropriate tweet, and also gave the people who attacked her the justification for their own vitriolic behavior.
Over the last few days, poster JacquesCuze at the Slymepit has made several good points on an important theme. One:
I think that if constant internet mob actions results in constant deplorable disproportionate witch hunts that destroy people’s lives in real space, that it’s time to think again if free speech is truly only something between man and government and not something between man and man.
“The marketplace of ideas” does not conduct business solely in a Government Warehouse. A rich marketplace of ideas should then be able to counter ugly speech with more speech, not counter ugly speech with real world firings, career and personal destruction.
My education was horribly lacking and I don’t have a great response to Popehat’s and others when they cry #FREEZEPEACH to say that the First Amendment does not apply to non governmental acts of censorship.
On the one hand they are right, and on the other hand it seems to go against the grain of everything I was brought up to believe, namely that citizens supporting the speech and freedom of expression of others, including unpopular views, were the marks of a 20th century, “progressive” society.
Are there any great philosophers, lawyers, essays, videos that directly refute Popehat and the FREEZEPEACHER’s claims that it’s fine to counter ugly speech with calls for censorship and real world destruction?
My point with White is that when these Internet blow ups over speech flare up and result in firings and the destruction of personal lives and careers, Ken can be counted on to say:
1. It’s not a first amendment issue
2. Those of you saying, duh, we know, but the real issue is … are still wrong because there are other people who say it’s a first amendment issue
3. Their ugly speech was met on the net with more speech! That’s all good!
4. Yes, people were fired, careers lost, lives ruined, and yeah, the people that did that were deplorable and responses should be proportionate
But he is never able to connect 3 & 4 and realize that his 1 is used by the people in 4 to justify their bullshit and then realize the answer is that ugly speech should be met with more speech and his theory of proportionality is bullshit not because its false but because none of the incidents he writes about have ever shown any amount of proportionality and yet his hobby horse is still his 1 and 3, screaming it’s not a first amendment issue and the social hate is just more speech.
Back in my days of reading progressive blogs, I was frequently dismayed by how often such narrow legalistic definitions of free speech were used to justify actions which clearly violated the spirit of the concept. I’m sure you’ve heard some version of it before: “Yeah, well, Thoughtcrime Jones doesn’t have a Constitutional right to a career/TV show/radio show, so, too fucking bad.” Technically true, but it would nonetheless be a pretty piss-poor society in which anything not specifically protected by the Constitution was subject to revocation at the hands of a vigilante mob. As Chomsky has succinctly said, even Hitler and Stalin were in favor of free speech for ideas they liked. One of the most disgusting things about the social justards — and Lord, how many things there are to choose from — is the way they’ve made “freezepeach” a trendy, snarky meme to justify the way they behave towards members of the out-group and the way they police their own communities for dissent. Those loopholes you gleefully exploit for temporary partisan advantage now will be used against you eventually as well; you can count on that. This Prisoner’s Carnival atmosphere that has been created through social media is far more threatening to a healthy society than any stupid joke or ignorant remark made by some viral insta-celebrity.
The principle, at least in its ideal form, is intended to make sure that ideas stand or fall on their own reasonable merit, not due to the cunning and guile of political machinations. Yet it’s exceedingly rare to find anyone with enough integrity to place that principle ahead of tribal loyalties. Same as it ever was, I suppose. It’s too abstract of a notion for most people. Humans are social creatures with a deeply embedded instinct to monitor and regulate the behavior of others in the group. Still, it’s heartening to see the occasional instance of someone rising above those censorious urges.
The Internet is simultaneously perfect for both vile comments and for people who insist on having their outrage over those comments acknowledged. When IAC PR Chief Justin Sacco’s racist tweet about The AIDS hit the Internet last Friday, it only took minutes before she was shredded around the world, a few more minutes for the obligatory defenders of amorphous free speech concepts to counter, then maybe a half-hour before the English majors started penning essays about what this all meant to us as a people.
And thus it was that racism and the scourge of AIDS in sub-Saharan Africa were abolished once and for all. Hurrah!