Monday, November 12, 2012

Naming and shaming, racism, minors, and social media

One of the less edifying spectacles on social media in the lead-up to, and the wake of, the US election has been the outright racism that some people have expressed in talking about President Obama and his family.

To be clear here, I am not talking about criticisms of him as too liberal, too soft, not the person for the job etc. There are plenty of conservative critiques of Obama's administration that don't rely on or invoke racist imagery or ideology. Those critiques may nor may not have validity, but they are, in a democracy, legitimate to make.

I'm not even talking about the many veiled barbs that rely on racist ideas but never come to the sticking point of using outright offensive language. I'd personally lump a lot, if not all, of the "birther" claptrap in here, along with attacks on Obama that suggest that he is a welfare king because of his skin colour. These comments might not use the words, but they are sure as eggs relying on the tropes, of racism to carry their message.

No, I'm talking about the not-tiny amount of comments and messages that go the whole hog and use words like "monkey" and "nigger" to refer to the Obamas. Messages that are so filled with hatred and bile as to be almost inconceivable in this day and age. Messages that, with the staccato style and modern idioms stripped out, could've been penned by slavery apologists in the 19th century without any problem.

That people think these things is execrable enough. That they voice them is worse. That they write them on the Internet, in fora associated with their real names and identities, is a whole level-up of completely stupidly wrong. To me, it shows that they either do not realise that the extent of their prejudices are out of step with social norms, or much worse, that they *do* know and don't care, either because they are absurdly reckless, or because they believe that no real consequences will flow to them from their speech.

(Mind you, I'm not claiming that racism isn't alive and well in all societies today. It is. I think there is a much greater social norming around avoiding overtly racist speech now, though, than there was 100 or even 50 years ago. The ideas linger, but the language to enable them is slowly being redendered verboten, and this is a good thing, because the words hurt real people living actual lives, and validate actions that hurt even more).

The thought of these people casually, or in irritation, or even in thwarted-voter rage, spewing this stuff on the Internet is a nasty one. The thought that there will be no real consequence for it is nastier. I think people should be accountable for their speech. If you want free speech, have it - but with rights come responsibilities. The right to say it does NOT mean the right to suffer no consequences for saying it.

So, then, I'm not sure how to start explaining why I am so ambivalent about Jezebel's campaign to name and shame some racist teenagers posting disgusting crap on Twitter.

Let's be very clear here - what those people posted was foul. It was unambiguously, unashamedly, nakedly racist speech. And most of it was under Twitter handles that either are their real names, or are linked to their real identities. These ... no, I'm not going to call them "kids" ... these almost-adults said some awful things, they said them publicly, and they said them repeatedly. Why shouldn't they be named and shamed? If they are old enough to say it on the ever-living Internet, aren't they old enough to be held to account for it?

Well, yes ... and no. I completely agree with Jezebel's tactic of contacting schools and other institutions to which these people belong, drawing attention to the messages and pointing out where it conflicts with codes of conduct or behaviour that the institution says its students are bound by. (Hint - it breaches all such codes, very, very seriously). I have no problem with schools imposing whatever penalty is appropriate under their regulations for this. Some of the Twitter accounts have been deleted - very cool with that, if you are not responsible enough to use a tool, don't use it. Some of them have had disciplinary action taken. Fine, cool, so far froody, to channel Zaphod Beeblebrox for a moment.

I stop short, though, when it comes to Jezebel's decision to publish the tweets, names and locations of the offenders in its post on the subject.

Why? Basically - these are minors. This doesn't free them from any consequences for their actions or speech, naturally; but does impose an extra level of seriousness to the decision to out them so publicly. There is a reason why the criminal records of minors are usually sealed, and expunged after a certain point. Minors who commit crimes and say horrifically offensive things must be held to account - they *must* be - but the law has always built in the possibility, the hope, of rehabilitation, of better futures, as a result of early sanctions on the behaviour. The clean slate idea might be flawed, but it at least has the virtue of compassion, and of expecting more from people who have stuffed up royally but are still young enough to go a different way.

It is not an excuse to say that these people are at a stage in their lives where impulse control is likely to be weaker than it will be for adults; they said what they said, and it came from a hateful, dark place, there is just no getting away from that. And it's also true that racist teenagers often grown into racist adults. But sometimes teenagers say and do more than they mean, or say and do things that their adult selves, after the benefit of more years of life, would not do or say.

And for these particular teenagers, that Jezebel post is going to brand them for the rest of their lives, because, as we all know, that which is written on the Internet, is written forever. It's very similar to the way nude pictures haunt teenagers for years and years (with the obvious difference that nude pictures are not inherently offensive or wrong, and racist speech is).

Yes, I realise that the tweets are themselves public already, but in gathering them up into one handy reference point, with commentary, Jezebel has provided a powerful and compelling mash-up that will be read by many, many more people than ever saw the individual messages. I am so torn in finding this problematic - but I do, and I think I would no matter what the circumstances, when minors are involved.

This is post 12 in NaBloPoMo. 12 down, 18 to go!

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