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Nov 01 2013

(How) Should We Call Out Online Bigotry? On “Somebody Said Something Stupid Syndrome”

Over at The Chronicle of Higher Education, Ben Yagoda has a post called, “Must Attention Be Paid?” In it, he describes what he called “Somebody Said Something Stupid Syndrome,” or “SSSSS”:

SSSSS (as I abbreviate it) begins when an individual writes or is recorded as saying something strikingly venal, inhumane, and/or dumb. The quote is then taken up and derided—in social media or blogs—by thousands and sometimes tens of thousands of other individuals. And then it spreads from there.

If you’ve ever seen the roundups of racist tweets that inevitably follow when a person of color does something awesome, or the exposes of shit some crappy pickup artist said, then you’ve witnessed SSSSS in action.

Although Yagoda eventually walks his opinion back somewhat after experiencing SSSSS in his own offline community, he initially takes a firm stance against it:

First, we only have so much space in our brains and time in our days, and there are more important things to spend them on. Second is the junior-high-school teacher’s wisdom: “Don’t pay attention to them. You’ll only encourage them.” Finally, SSSSS is rhetorically weak. It’s not so much an example of the straw-man fallacy—since someone actually said the stupid statement—as the ultimate in anecdotal evidence. The fact that you’ve found some number of people who said a horrible thing proves nothing beyond that those people said that thing. (Of course, when you find a big number of people–or people in power–who have said it, you’ve started to prove something important, and I will pay attention.)

As for why SSSSS is so pervasive, Yagoda gives two reasons: one, that the internet makes stupid statements so much easier to witness, and two, “all the bloggers and posters need something to blog and post about, and Something Stupid Somebody Said (SSSS) would seem to be perfect fodder. All the more so when it confirms one’s worst imaginings about one’s ideological opponents.”

I think Yagoda’s argument (in its pre-walked back state) has both merits and…demerits? I guess that’s the opposite of a merit. I’ll talk about the demerits first.

First of all, assuming that bloggers and journalists as a whole only cover this stuff because they want pageviews displays a lack of imagination (or theory of mind, for the psychologically inclined).

Could it be that they cover it because they find it interesting, relevant, and important? That Yagoda seemingly doesn’t does not mean that nobody else does.

Second, the junior-high-school teacher’s wisdom largely fails in this case. It’s a common belief that people say terrible things because they want the opprobrium that they inevitably receive. Maybe some people do, but most people’s reaction to censure and scorn is to feel, well, bad. That’s how the human brain works. Rejection hurts, even when it’s by a group you despise or a computer, and even when you’re profiting financially from it!

One piece of evidence for this is that the bigoted tweets/Facebook posts/whatever that get strongly called out online often get deleted very soon after that. If the people who post them are just looking for massive amounts of attention, why would they delete the posts just as they’re starting to attract that attention?

(Further, the fact that they get deleted is actually a direct positive result of SSSSS. Fewer shitty posts means that fewer people will be harmed by them, and fewer bigoted norms will be implicitly enforced.)

Even when SSSSS does not stop any bigotry, though, it might still be better than the alternative that Yagoda proposes, which is ignoring the stupid stuff–that is, doing nothing. Folks, nobody will hear you loudly doing nothing about bigotry. Nobody will care that you determinedly, passionately shrugged and closed the browser tab and moved on. The best case scenario of this is that trolls will keep trolling and bigots will keep bigoting.

The best case scenario of speaking up is that you change minds. The good-but-not-best case scenario is that you don’t necessarily change any minds, but the bigot will stop posting bigotry because they’ll realize they’ll be hated for it. And others won’t see that bigotry and either be hurt OR assume that it’s okay and they can do it too.

Third, this: “we only have so much space in our brains and time in our days, and there are more important things to spend them on” seems like a facile argument. People choose what to spend their time and brainspace on. Maybe this topic is not important to Yagoda, but it’s important to other people. I don’t understand how some people spend hours of their week watching sports or memorizing pi to however many digits, but the fact that I think those things are not important (to me) does not mean they are globally unimportant.

Also, it takes two minutes to read an article about something bigoted someone said. That is, all in all, an utterly negligible amount of time even for the busiest of us. But if it’s not important to you, by all means, don’t waste your time on it!

In short, I’m okay with Yagoda saying that this is not important to him and therefore he won’t spend time on it. I’m not okay with Yagoda saying that this is not important period, and therefore nobody should read or write about these things or pay any attention to them at all.

Fourth: “Of course, when you find a big number of people–or people in power–who have said it, you’ve started to prove something important, and I will pay attention.” The fact that Yagoda does not believe that the examples he listed are commonplace and not merely anecdotal really says something. Namely, that he probably hasn’t been listening very much to the people who are targeted by these types of bigotry. He probably also hasn’t been reading the academic research on it, which suggests that these types of bigotry are very common.

People who choose to be “skeptical” (read: hyperskeptical) that bigotry exists and is worth discussing tend to keep raising the standard of “evidence” they’d need to believe us. One racist comment or allegation of sexual assault isn’t enough to show that there’s a problem, sure. How about dozens? How about hundreds? How about every woman and person of color experiences little acts of bigotry based on their gender and/or race, all the time, for their whole lives? What happens online is just one piece of that puzzle.

Fifth, Yagoda does not acknowledge the fact that many people flat-out deny that such bigotry still exists until they see evidence (and even then they sometimes try to explain it away). When I post online about some sexist or homophobic thing I’ve been targeted by, even among my progressive friends there’s usually at least one person who comments with something like “wow I can’t believe someone would say this! it’s the 21st century wow!” Yes, it is, but yes, they did.

Anti-racist Doge to the rescue!And while Yagoda acts like every time people post one of these things, everyone unanimously comments “wow much stupid such dumb so racism,” that’s not the case at all. People disagree that it’s a big deal, that it’s “really” bigotry, that it’s worth talking about. A common refrain (which Yagoda echoes here) is to call it “stupid” rather than “bigoted,” as in, “Oh, they’re not racist, they’re just being stupid.” What? Okay. They’re being stupid in a racist way, then. That better?

Not talking about bigotry, whether it’s slight or severe, only serves two purposes: making bigots more comfortable and preventing anything from changing. Those are the only two. Bigots do not magically become not-bigots just because we don’t pay attention to them. There are better and worse ways of talking about bigotry, but not talking about it is not an option we should choose.

All of that said, Yagoda makes some good points. First of all, if indeed anyone is engaging in linkbaiting, they should stop. Linkbaiting is, as I’ve written here before, condescending and harmful. Write about bigotry because you think it’s important to write about, not (primarily) to draw pageviews.

Second, “confirm[ing] one’s worst imaginings about one’s ideological opponents” is a problem that I see, too. Folks on all sides of the political spectrum often have trouble seeing their ideological opponents as anything other than an unadulterated identical mass of poop (blame the outgroup homogeneity effect). Sometimes I’ll post something about someone’s abhorrent views and someone will respond with “Oh yeah well I bet they oppose abortion too!” or “I bet they don’t even think people should have food stamps!” Sometimes this is accurate, but often it is not. Political beliefs do fall into broad categories, but they can also be very nuanced. People can support comprehensive sex education and oppose abortion. They can oppose abortion and the death penalty. They can support abortion generally as a legal right, but forbid their child from getting one. They might oppose government spending on one social program but support it for another one. And so on.

Talking trash about terrible people can be a way to let off steam, and I’d never tell people they shouldn’t do it because it’s not my place to tell people how to respond to their oppression. However, talking about bigotry is more useful than talking about bigots, not least because it’s more generalizable. Discussing a picture of someone in a horrible blackface Trayvon Martin costume (TW) isn’t just an opportunity to make fun of a racist person; it can be a way to teach people about why blackface is racist, why the murder of Trayvon and the outcome of Zimmerman’s trial was racist, and so on. (Related: what vlogger Jay Smooth refers to as having the “what they did” conversation rather than the “what they are” conversation.)

It’s important, I think, to expand the conversation beyond the original incident or tweet or soundbite that sparked it. If it really were just about a few teenagers posting racist shit on Twitter, that would still be a problem, but it wouldn’t be as big of a problem as the fact that they did it because our culture taught them that racism.

However, I don’t think it’s the case, as Yagoda implies, that most people who participate in SSSSS are just doing it to be like “LOL look at the stupid people LOL.” At least, that’s not what I see. We want to have these complex discussions.

There are actually two other issues with SSSSS that Yagoda does not mention. One is that the people called out are often teenagers, and their full names get spread all over the internet. While I’m not especially sympathetic to people who post terribly bigoted things online, is it fair for someone to be unable to get into college or get a job because of something they said when they were 14? I’m not sure.

The other issue is much more complex, and is best discussed not by me, but by blogger david brothers, who refers to racism-related SSSSS as “passive white supremacy” and explains why:

The racism this story depicts is binary. It’s on or off, is you is or is you ain’t this racist, and that encourages the idea that racism isn’t something you personally do or are. It’s something other people do. You don’t do that, right? So you aren’t racist!

But any colored folk can tell you that’s not how racism works. Everybody is a little racist. There are hundreds of learned reactions to different groups of people to unlearn, not to mention the areas of society where racist sentiment is implicit instead of explicit, like zoning laws or the prison industrial complex or the war on drugs. It’s in all of us. We’re gonna have to live with that racism until we fix it and our selves, and viewing racism as a binary personality choice doesn’t allow for that.

Clearly there’s a lot more nuance here than either “calling out random people’s bigotry is always good” or “calling out random people’s bigotry is never good.” Yagoda himself writes in his piece how he ended up protesting a neighbor’s racist Halloween decoration. However, he does not elaborate on how his thinking about SSSSS evolved, or whether he only considers his own action reasonable because it happened offline as opposed to online.

Hopefully, as online activism evolves, discussions about how to respond to bigotry will become even more complex and fruitful. But what I don’t want is for criticism of the way some people handle these things to become an excuse for (or an endorsement of) doing nothing. Doing nothing is not an acceptable solution.

3 comments

2 pings

  1. 1
    Ali Nazifpour

    Hello, Miri.

    I don’t know if you remember or not – I told you on Twitter how your writings have caused me to rethink some of my thoughts and realizing something about privileges that I haven’t had before. I have always had a suspicious relationship with feminism, never completely knowing whether I should be considered one or not, and mainly my reason for that boils down to the fact that I can’t decide whether feminism is truly a revolutionary ideology or a reactionary one, harming the patriarchy or unwittingly recreating it. I think the logical answer to that would be that there is no single feminism and no one way to categorize all feminists, so there’s no one single answer. But that is not why I’m writing to you, it’s something actually related to this post.

    What I realized was that I stand on a privileged position and think that way. I don’t mean male privilege but another one – you may call it a philosopher’s privilege, or the abstract-thinker’s privilege, or give it any name you want. The problem is this – I stand completely away from the realities of people’s lives and the day to day problems, and I indulge in utopia thinking. I mean, my position is much more comfortable than yours or other activists, while you are tackling real problems of ordinary people I busy myself with the Grand Narrative of the History. I realized that while racism and misogyny are very real, I have been busying myself with much more controversial issues.

    I mean, I never thought that misogyny was a “solved” issue, but now thinking back at myself I see that I’ve been behaving as if it were. I have always considered those issues “obvious”, and I have instead tried to introduce a more radical version of liberty, one which is above gender, race, and class, one in which the “group” is purged and only the “individual” remains.

    However, I now see that such things are impossible now, today. I now understand that real women and real minorities cannot simply shed that away because it’s not in THEIR control. Women I know can, women who are my friends can – but it’s easy to do so when you are born into cultivated progressive families and you live among fellow radicals and choose to isolate yourself from the rest of society. My friends are ultimately privileged men and women because they have been lucky enough to live in their own secluded society. I’d dare call that an intellectual society because it is a society of poets, writers, and critics.

    Which can be said in relation to SSSS as well. I can simply laugh at it and go on with my life, having nothing but scorn for people who say this stuff, the same way I feel about creationists or people with socially accepted opinions that I find as evil as sexism and racism (like nationality, or the notion of “identity” in general). But I can do that because I don’t have people like that in my life, because I don’t face the horrors that their victims do. That’s privilege.

    I’m not saying that to suggest that I’m going to abandon my radical revolutionary ways to come and do activism. That’s not me, and can’t be me. And I don’t mean to say that I’ve retracted all my misgivings in one night, as I have not. (And I do not think being privileged is a bad thing per se, in the long run these are the privileged who will change world, so I would seek to be in an even more privileged status later in life). What I mean to say is this: you’ve made me look my own assumptions and privileges under a new light and how they can create prejudices that I would have to consider when thinking about stuff. And I thank you for that.

  2. 2
    Lindsay Gehring

    Good post!

    A lot of what I write (and say/do in real life) that would qualify as SSSSS (that’s a lot of S’s! Had to count ‘em on my fingers to make sure I got the number right) deals with politicians — you want to know if the guy representing you is racist, sexist, or massively ignorant about some issue that’s important to you. You want to know that, and you are justified in holding it against him in elections. You can’t dismiss someone raising hell about a bigoted congressperson with “oh, just ignore the troll” because The Troll is an elected official! The troll is in a position to affect people’s lives.

    (I will admit to having just written a “SSSSS”-type post about a nonpolitician, a person of no consequence. But I wrote it not to point out “OMG sexism!” — even though I think that’s important, because so many people don’t think there is any sexism anymore — but to try and explain why his comment makes no logical sense. I didn’t understand it at first; my first reaction was just, “What?” But I do think I gained something from puzzling out why he was wrong and what the unseen premises he was assuming are.)

  3. 3
    smrnda

    Bigotry remains because people can say bigoted shit without getting called out. Calling it out as often as possible is what it takes to change a culture.

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