Dear PAR: Focus on the victims, not the attackers

Sarah Darkmagic - Posted on 17 September 2013

Penny Arcade Report wrote an article about the recent reporting on racist tweets post the crowning of the recent Miss America winner, Nina Davuluri. The author is very much against these so-called shaming articles for a number of reasons. I'd like to break down where I disagree with his framing and arguments.

Racist tweets are a search away, they’re always going to happen after most big events, and you get big clicks from people who like to see how terrible their fellow citizens are and then they get to feel superior for not being racist.

I'd like to suggest that for at least some people, this is not what this is about. I mean, first, it assumes that the "you" referenced is part of the dominant group, right? In fact, this description is part of the issue, it leaves out that the people targeted by these tweets are our fellow citizens. Furthermore, they don't get to "feel superior for not being racist," they get to see in print something that may happen to them or those they care about on a rather frequent basis. While the public discussion can often seem messy, the private conversations can be enhanced by these pieces as people realize that this stuff still does happen in 2013.

First off, because we’re raising up the voices of a crazy group of people and giving them way more power than they deserve, and thus give the illusion that America is filled with vile racism.

It may be that's the reality. It may not. Tracking how Americans, as if it was even possible to lump a country into one homogenous group, feel about those of different ethnicities, backgrounds, and skin tones is damned near impossible, and doing a quick search for racist terms isn’t going to teach you anything about what the average American thinks, or how they act.

This emphasizes the abstract reputation and image of America over the effects those words have on actual people. I watched the reaction to the news that morning on my feeds. Among those I followed, many expressed positive words regarding those stories since finally their stories were being told, what it's like to be a person of color in America and get the spotlight shone on you for a few moments. What it's like to have some Americans lump everyone with a darker skin tone together regardless of background. The vile racism that they have experienced and the anger that many people attempt to sweep it under the rug.

Are there people of color who also disliked those articles? Of course! People are going to have mixed opinions about these things. But to the assertion that there is no value appears to be dubious at best.

Furthermore, if this is an illusion and you want to fight it, you don't do that by fighting these articles. It feels like you are expressing a fear that no matter what we do, it will never be good enough. But that is about our thoughts and feelings and not the thoughts and feelings of those who are the subjected to these attacks. Stop worrying about America's reputation and start worrying about those people.

This also isn't about the average American. To make this about the perceived reputation of the average American is to tell the people harmed by this behavior that the feelings of an imaginary person is more important than the feelings of the group harmed by this behavior.

Finding people who say vile things online is easy, it doesn’t tell us much of anything, and if we continually focus on those groups of people they'll begin to dominate the conversation and give a skewed outlook on how the United States actually deals with race.

Again, the emphasis is on how the United States deals with race and how the US is viewed, not with how the people who are attacked due to their race feel or are affected by these tweets. The racists are going to dominate the conversation so long as we focus on changing them rather than supporting the victims of their attacks.

And it makes sense that people victimized by this sort of speech are going to focus on it. Think of it this way. Every minute of my day is awesome but one. During that minute, I have to walk through jets of highly pressurized, extremely hot water. What part of my day am I likely to remember? What part of my day is likely to have the most affect on my planning? Don't you think I'm going to spend a portion of my day trying to devise ways to not get hit with the water for the day?

There is also the case that in many situations the names on the accounts don’t match up with the person doing the posting, and the video embedded below gives you some good information about why this is so problematic on so many levels.

So now we're supposed to feel bad because some accounts are not only anonymous but they may use real people's names in a false manner, thereby ruining the lives of innocent people? First, calling out these tweets does not have to involve people then writing letters to business, schools, homes, etc. It can in part because those are the tactics the racists use against their targets and humans are humans. It should stop but to say that it's inevitable is a bit of hyperbole. Second, again, the concern here is placed on the potential innocent or not innocent people who may or may not be harmed and not on the actual innocent people who are actually being harmed. I understand the argument that calling these people out raises their platform above what they would normally have. But in attacking those who point out racist speech online, the author shores up the power of the attackers. Also, perhaps we could start comparing the harm done by all the acts rather than automatically saying one is a matter of "journalistic ethics" and the other is "just life."

You can quote these tweets without posting links to the accounts writing the content, which will go a long way to stop the spread of fighting racism with harassment, and should keep minors and those whose numbers were used to sign up for the account safer from the Internet mob.

We can then use the racist tweets as a jumping-off point to discuss how to actually stop the thinking behind these messages, instead of going straight to calling the perpetrators terrible names and trying to get them fired, or worse.

Except this doesn't actually work. The reason why the actual tweets and other messages are included isn't centered on people being able to hunt down these accounts, at least in most of the cases I've seen. It's because people will demand proof. They will want to know when it happened. They will want to see it with their own eyes. They will want to see what messages the person wrote before and after it. In other words, they want citations.

When people don't use names or enough identifying information, people say it didn't really happen and they won't believe it until they see it for themselves. This is especially true when it comes from members of the group being targeted because our society tends to reinforce this belief that "those people" must be biased and those not harmed (mostly white men) are the only ones capable of being objective. Yet, provide that information and now you're potentially ruining a person's life. There's no winning in this cite/don't cite game and lack of citations run into so many issues. No one is stopping to think of the primary victim here or the secondary victims (those in the same targetted group), we're still concentrated on the attacker or a potential third victim.

Additionally, this issue with these types of posts isn't logically consistent with the writer's own points. To say that all those who read will go on these "witch hunts" is to commit the same fallacy as believing that all Americans are vile racists based on tweets gathered because they are the most vile. He objects to the collateral damage of the response but fails to put it into context of the original damage. We can only talk about the original damage if we are careful enough and moderate enough. This is how journalistic ethics can reinforce existing issues in society.

This is a very different situation than someone who had 50 followers a year ago suddenly having their message blasted in front of a few million people, and suddenly finding themselves the target of abuse and harassment. I don't really care if they have ignorant feelings on race, the answer is not putting people in a situation where they face very real physical harm.

People say these things because we allow them to say them. We allow them to say them by not providing them unfettered access to their targets. Also, what is the chance of them facing real physical harm versus say their victims? Why do we care more about them and their safety and feelings of comfort than those they are victimizing?

These stories don’t help anyone, they don’t spread awareness of any important issue, and the chances for collateral damage are high. There are ways to react to racist use of social media without feeding into the negative, hateful worst instincts of the Internet, but it takes more time and effort to do so, and that doesn’t really lead to advertisement buys, so it’s unlikely that a more measured approach will become popular.

Here are some ways posts like these have helped me.

1. Block lists. Look, it's clear that these people should not be allowed to reach the mentions list of some people. For people like me, these lists help me proactively block so that the next time I get a little attention, I'm not going to get messages from them. This is an awesome use of these sorts of posts that does not engage in aggressive behavior.

2. Support and Bystander Intervention. The other weekend I was at a post-con party when someone rather aggressively decided that they needed my take on the Feminist Frequency videos on video games. Had no one in the room spoken up, I would have walked away with the belief that I was the odd person out. What is important in person can be important online as well. Is it always perfect? Heck, no. But maybe instead of tearing down these sorts of posts assuming that they cause more harm than help, perhaps write an article talking about good ways to respond to them?

3. Identifying trends. By citing the original tweets in these articles, people who keep up on these trends might see some patterns in names, avatar use, etc, that they can use in a responsible manner to help the victims of these attacks. This sort of information gathering and reporting was important in the troll that was going after women in comics, for instance.

I get that this sort of thing can make people uncomfortable. But I feel that the arguments made in the Penny Arcade Report gives more weight to the comfort of the attackers and those groups that tend to have privilege in our society over those who are being attacked.

Send feedback using the contact form or through twitter, @sarahdarkmagic.

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