safe havens for hate speech are irresponsible
I love Kathy Sierra. I think that her work is fantastic and well-needed throughout the tech community. So when i heard that she’s getting death threats, i wanted to vomit.
The brief story is that three prominent bloggers got annoyed at another female blogger for not permitting mean-spirited comments in her blog. They created a site called meankids.org as well as a spin-off. These blogs encouraged people to say terrible things about others and it spun out of control. The content by the sites’ creators (again, prominent bloggers) was completely unacceptable – misogynistic, racist, and horrid speech. Their words were bordering on hate speech so it’s not that surprising that anonymous commenters took it one step forward.
There’s nothing illegal about what the prominent bloggers did, but i think it is unethical at every level. This is not an issue of censorship, but an issue of social responsibility. What does it mean when the most prominent bloggers are encouraging speech that divides, particularly that which divides along the lines of race and gender? What kind of standard does that set? How can anyone support their practices, even as a “joke”? I believe in moral responsibility and key to that is a level of social respect, even for those with whom you disagree. Without social solidarity, the moral fabric of society erodes. When you allow room for intolerance, you breed hate.
This is not just an abstraction for me. When i was in college, i was the recipient of unbearable hate-motivated speech, forcing me to leave Brown for a period of time. In the computer science department, there was an anonymous forum called “rumor.” It was the space for everything from critiques of professors to offending links to descriptions of how some women should be raped. It was disgusting. The speech from rumor spread beyond the anonymous forum; i received blackmail phone calls. My students received notices that they were not wanted (these were minority students and it was clearly racially targeted). Then, one day, i came in to find that my private emails about a lawsuit were posted to the forum. I was accused of having left them around but after a series of investigations, we learned that /dev/kmem was world writable on a machine in one of the labs and that root su-ed to my account on that machine. We learned who was logged into the machine before root, but there was no way to guarantee that this was the person who took my files.
The police (and various members of my department) asked me to pursue legal action. I declined because i realized that the cost for each email stolen was 30 years and i did not feel confident that i would ever know for sure who really was behind that machine. The person logged in was a friend of my boyfriend’s and i just didn’t want to go down that path. It didn’t matter. Everyone in the department blamed me, telling me that i deserved it. People speaking with me in mind (during the time in which i had left) asked for the destruction of rumor; i was accused of censorship. Truth was i never thought that rumor should be destroyed technically. I believed that it showed a failure in the department, proof of the destruction of social solidarity, proof of the intolerance that was bred. I believed that it was a failure on the part of all who participated and allowed that forum to breed. In other words, i didn’t want a technical solution – i wanted social responsibility. I never got it.
That incident had long-lasting effects. There were classes that i could not take because of it. I was not allowed to hold positions in the department because of it. Many people did not respect me. I remember sitting outside a TA room listening to two of the friends of who i suspected discuss my exam. They were shocked that i had aced it; they assumed that i had some guy do my homework for me. I remember going home and crying for hours.
I will never forget the descriptions of how me and my friends were to be raped. And Kathy will never forget the descriptions of how she was to be harmed. That’s what it means to be terrorized. How can we live in a community that permits that? How can we allow spaces like that to foster under the guise of “free speech”? We have a responsibility, a moral responsibility, to help generate spaces that breed tolerance, to speak out in support of those around us, and to bite our tongues rather than spit hatred when we’re frustrated. The web is persistent. We bitch about what young people write on the web but how dare we promote it.
My hope is that this incident, as it spreads its way across the web, will make people think twice about the racist, sexist, homophobic, hate-filled, mocking, and otherwise cruel speech that they make space for. I’m all for deleting mean-spirited commentary; i’ve done it time and time again on my blog. I think that we have a responsibility to do our best to make the web a safe space so that we can make society a better place.