How We Justify Shaming, Harassment, and Abuse

[Content note: online harassment]

Usually when we tell people not to do bad things, such as threatening feminist writers with rape or telling them to kill themselves, we emphasize that these things are bad to do because they’re bad to do, not because of who we’re doing them to. You shouldn’t threaten me with rape for writing this blog post because threatening people with rape is a monstrous thing to do, not because I am right and my blog post is correct. Even if my blog post were completely wrong and even if I was kind of a crappy person, threatening me with rape would still be wrong.

But of course, because human beings are human beings, these principles often fly right out the window when we’re angry, frustrated, disempowered, or simply annoyed. Yeah, sure, verbally abusing people online and violating their privacy is generally wrong, but this person is really bad. This person’s ideas are wrong and they need to stop saying them. This person hurt someone I care about, so they deserve this. This isn’t even a real privacy violation, because that information was out there anyway. It’s not abusive to say something that’s just true. It’s not like there’s anything else I can do in this situation. I was really angry so you can’t really blame me for doing this.

Spend enough time among humans in groups–so, maybe a few hours or days–and pay attention, and you’ll notice enough of these rhetorical devices to make your head spin. One recent one that has my brain hurting concerns Amy Pascal, a former Sony chairperson whose emails and other private info were leaked last fall when hackers stole thousands of documents from Sony, which subsequently ended up on Wikileaks.

Considering that this happened so soon after that ridiculous celebrity nude photo leak last summer, you would think that most people would treat something like this pretty seriously. They didn’t. It turns out that Amy Pascal made racist comments about President Obama in her emails, which I think we can all agree she shouldn’t have done regardless of whether or not she had any idea it could ever be public.

However, that someone has done a bad thing doesn’t then make it okay to do bad things to them in retribution. Certain consequences are, I think, appropriate, depending on what the bad thing was. Sometimes people lose their jobs for saying racist things, which (unlike many people) I think is okay. In a multicultural society and workforce, saying racist things makes you a worse employee than someone who is otherwise just like you but does not say racist things. A company that allows employees who say racist things to continue working there is going to eventually alienate a substantial portion of its customers or clients, and so it is in that company’s best interest to fire employees who say racist things.

Likewise, sometimes people lose friends when they say racist things. I think that’s also appropriate. Everyone deserves to decide for themselves who they do and do not want to be friends with. If I don’t want to be friends with people who say racist things, and you say racist things, then I will stop being your friend. Not only am I personally angered and irritated by racism, but I can’t be friends with someone that I can’t trust not to mistreat my friends of color. (And yes, making “racially charged comments,” as they’re known, is mistreatment.)

But is it okay to publish someone’s personal information because they’ve said a racist thing? Is it okay to shame them in a sexist way? Is it okay to specifically go out of your way to publicly embarrass them about something that has literally nothing to do with the racist things they said?

I don’t think so.

But that’s exactly what Jezebel did to Amy Pascal when they published her leaked Amazon purchases along with “snarky” commentary, shaming her for the personal care/hygiene products she chose to use.

AmyPascal

Screenshot from Jezebel

I think we can all agree that this doesn’t add to the conversation. It doesn’t undo any harm done by Pascal’s racist comments or teach anyone why they were wrong. It doesn’t hold her accountable for them in any way. It doesn’t accomplish anything. It reminds me of a bunch of middle school girls publicly shaming and bullying another girl because they found tampons in her locker or because they found out that she bleaches the hair on her upper lip. It’s completely pointlessly cruel and Pascal did nothing to deserve it.

Jessica Roy writes at NYMag:

The problem with this genre of commentary is that it celebrates a gut-level delight in the same sort of invasion of privacy that drove Redditors to distribute those nude celebrity photos: Exposing people’s secrets — especially powerful people’s secrets — doesn’t just make us feel good, it makes us feel powerful. And though the Sony leaks show Pascal made hundreds of Amazon orders, the highlighted products seemed picked exclusively to humiliate a woman for attempting to stay young in an industry that demands it. Surely writing about Scott Rudin ordering a bottle of Rogaine wouldn’t have packed the same punch. This doesn’t mean women can’t and shouldn’t critique other women. But humiliating a woman based on her body — whether it’s the private photos she took or the products she ordered — seems like overkill.

In a piece about doxxing “for good,” Ijeoma Oluo has a similar take on this analogous issue:

Freedom of speech also comes with accountability for that speech — but doxxing isn’t about accountability, it’s about silencing. Techniques designed to intimidate people out of the public sphere are wrong, no matter who is doing it. Deciding that we will not stoop to their level and that we will not risk innocent people does not fix racism, sexism, homophobia and the like, but it helps us protect the ideals that we are fighting for.

[…] Harassment and threats must be recognized as the crimes they are, whether they come from MRAs or from overzealous anti-racists. You’ve got to be vigilant in condemning harassment, just as you should if you witness it in the street. We need to stop making excuses for people who get joy from instilling fear in others.

The connection between these two things might not be readily apparent. Should we really compare leaking someone’s beauty regimen with threatening them with violence or doxxing their address? I would argue that we should. Both of these things get justified with claims that the target is such a bad person that they deserve this treatment. But of course, as Oluo points out, innocent people get hit with the splash damage all the time.

I think the problem goes beyond that. If we make a rule that says, “Doxxing/abuse/harassment/threats/shaming is okay when the target did something really bad,” then everyone gets to interpret “really bad” for themselves, and you may not like that interpretation. For instance, there are people online who earnestly believe that I am a threat to their livelihood and to the continued functioning of our society. Many MRAs also believe that feminists pose a serious and imminent threat to their physical safety. Surely by their standards I have done plenty of “really bad” things, such as writing widely read articles about feminism.

I cannot overstate the importance of pointing out that they really believe this. They’re not just saying it to get some sort of Points online. They’re not lying. (At least, not all of them.) They believe this as truly and completely as I believe that inequality exists and must be fixed, that there is no god, that I love my friends and family.

Think about your strongest convictions and how real, how powerful your belief in them is. Now, imagine that someone believes with an equal conviction that I am (or you are) a terrible person who poses a threat to them and to everything they love and care about. Imagine that we have all spent years cheerfully promoting the idea that “Doxxing/abuse/harassment/threats/shaming is okay when the target did something really bad.”

Now try to reason this person out of threatening me or you with death or worse. Try to convince them that if they obtain access to our silly Amazon purchases or private emails, they shouldn’t post them online. Try to convince them that if they have information that could destroy our lives if made public, they should keep it to themselves.

This is why I don’t feel safe in online spaces that promote doxxing, abuse, harassment, threats, or shaming against anyone, no matter how much I fucking despise the person they’re doing it to.

If doxxing/etc is ever okay, then it is always okay. Because if it is ever okay, then we will find ways to justify it in any situation we want. We will always be able to point to someone’s racist emails or tweets. We will always be able to show that they really really hurt someone we care about. We will always be able to claim that the internet would be better off if this person just disappeared from it.

I don’t know what to do about doxxing, quite honestly. I don’t. Sometimes doxxing is the last resort of people who are themselves extremely unsafe and have no idea what else to do. Sometimes doxxing happens because the authorities and the websites where abuse takes place continually refuse to take these issues seriously and address them and help keep people from having their lives wrecked. Why the fuck did it have to take doxxing to stop someone from posting “creepshots” of underage women on Reddit? This sort of thing makes me want to curl up in bed and just scream “what the fuck” and “I don’t know” over and over. I have no answers about this.

But nobody was in danger because Amy Pascal’s Amazon purchases had not been made public. Whatever brief rush of glee that article’s author and readers experienced as a result does not justify the violation of someone’s privacy. The fact that doxxing and shaming and all of that may, in some fringe cases (I said may) be a necessary evil doesn’t mean we now have license to use it recklessly and constantly.

It is so easy and tempting–and seductive, really–to lash out at someone who’s made you angry or upset. It’s easy, too, to justify it to people who already agree with you by telling them how angry or upset you were. But ethical behavior isn’t just for situations when you’re feeling calm and happy. It’s also for the situations when you’re angry and upset. It’s especially for those situations, because when we are calm and happy, we usually need little encouragement to do the right thing.

It is true that taking the high road doesn’t necessarily mean that we “win,” whatever winning even means. It won’t necessarily keep us safe. People will still threaten to rape and kill me because I’m a feminist.

But the more we encourage people to think of this behavior as inherently wrong rather than wrong only in cases where we don’t personally dislike the target or think they did something bad that makes them deserve it, then the more other people will call out this behavior when it happens. The more people call it out, the less socially acceptable it will be. The less socially acceptable it is, the greater the social costs of doing it, which means that the more likely it will be that people who do it will face real consequences, such as getting banned from Twitter or losing their job or losing friends.

And the more people face real consequences for doing these things, the less these things will happen. Not only to the people you hate, but also to the people you love.

The Perils of Facebook as a Hiring Tool

My new post at the Daily Dot is about Five Labs, an app that analyzes your personality based on your Facebook profile.

Some employers already try to use Big Five personality tests to assess prospective hires under the assumption that certain traits make good employees. At Jezebel, Hillary Crosley suggests that Five Labs could eventually become a hiring tool:

The tool is still in the beginning stages and isn’t a hardcore hiring weapon yet, but it’s clear how it could be. It could also poses problems because who you are online might not be who you are in an office setting. Maybe you’re awesome at work, but you like to go home and be crazy on the Internet? Technically, non-friends can’t see what you post on Facebook—but let’s be honest, the Internet is open to whomever is interested enough to crack your code.

That last sentence raises some concerning and frankly creepy implications. While it’s generally a good idea not to put things on the Internet (under any privacy setting) that would be particularly deleterious if they were to become widely known, we also shouldn’t consider it ethically acceptable for employers to hack into interviewee’s private online accounts in order to test their personalities.

I’d also question the hiring skills of any employer who’s that desperate to access a potential employee’s Facebook; their education, references, certifications, past work experience, and interview should really be sufficient.

As Crosley points out in her piece, most people do not behave the same way at work as they behave elsewhere. This is normal. In fact, this is preferable. I don’t think I would be effective at work if I acted the way I do at home or out with friends, and I also don’t think I would have any friends if I acted with them the way I act at work.

The expectation that many employers seem to be operating from when they stalk potential hires’ social media accounts is that people should not only leave their personal lives out of the office, but also take their work lives out of the office to everywhere else.

This is dismaying, but not surprising, given that the U.S. seems to have a uniquely work-obsessed culture. For instance, Americanswork more than residents of any other industrialized country, and they take the least vacation time. The U.S. also lags behind other comparable countries in terms of laws regulating sick leave and parental leave.

Being expected to take your office self home and into your online life isn’t nearly as bad as not being able to take paid leave to take care of your baby, obviously. But the two could be symptoms of a general cultural inability to recognize that it’s healthier to work to live rather than live to work.

Read the rest here.

Why Tech Companies Don’t Understand Online Abuse

[Content note: online harassment and threats]

I’ve been hearing from several people, such as @thetrudz and Oolon, that Twitter is now making tweets with links to other tweets show up in the mentions of the person whose tweet is linked to. I tested it myself and it didn’t happen, so I’m guessing the feature is being rolled out gradually.

I haven’t seen any announcement about this yet, but assuming it’s accurate and happening, I think this is a good opportunity to talk about what I see as a fundamental disconnect between how tech companies and their employees see things, and how people like me and my friends and fellow writers see things.

A lot of the Twitter/Facebook/etc ethos is all about sharing and openness. Sure, there are some privacy settings; you can make your Facebook posts friends-only or certain-lists-only, and you can make your tweets protected. But otherwise, Facebook and Twitter and their respective engineers and designers really don’t grok how crucial privacy is for a lot of people.

You saw this, too, when Twitter briefly changed its block functionality to allow blocked users to continue to follow and RT their blockers; the blockers just wouldn’t know that they did so. After a large backlash, Twitter reversed the change.

Likewise with the recent Storify controversy, where neither Twitter nor Storify’s upper management could understand why people were so upset about being sent notifications that their tweets were being Storified, and why they were so upset that someone who had been reported many times for harassment and abuse could continue to use Storify and to archive others’ tweets using it. Eventually the service finally blocked online stalker Elevatorgate’s ability to send notifications to the users whose tweets he would creepily Storify dozens of times per day, but they still did not deactivate his account, even though it should have been painfully obvious to anyone who engaged with the critiques even marginally that the Elevatorgate account was intended to intimidate women.

And now with this apparent change. Whoever at Twitter decided to rewrite the code so that links to tweets appear in the OP’s mentions probably thought, “Oh hey, here’s another way to help people participate in conversations!” Whereas many people who link to tweets rather than replying or retweeting are probably thinking, “I really need to talk about this thing that’s going on while flying under the radar of the scary/horrible person who said it.”

Here’s the thing: not everyone wants to see everything that’s being said about them. Not everyone wants anyone whose tweets or work they’re trying to discuss to necessarily have easy access to the posts, even if they understand that the posts are public and could theoretically be found by the person they’re about. That’s why many people consider it a Twitter faux pas to respond to someone’s criticism of someone by tagging that person into the conversation when they hadn’t previously been. I don’t always want every asshole comedian or conservative writer to have easy access to the things I say about them, even though I accept that there’s a certain risk that they’ll stumble upon the posts. It’s just like, don’t make it easier for them, kay?

This is a significant disconnect. I understand why these tech dudes don’t get it, since they’ve probably never had to wonder, “How do I warn my friends and followers about this abusive person while minimizing the risk of said person turning on me and threatening me with rape and death?” They have had to wonder, “How do I connect with more people on this platform and know when people are discussing my work?” Those are the sorts of concerns that feel most immediate to them. As I’ve written before, many men are not at all cognizant of the abuse that gets heaped on women and others unless they see it for themselves, and you’re not going to see some troll tweeting garbage at a woman on Twitter unless you go out looking for it.

When confronted with this disconnect, many tech executives and PR people get really defensive and start dragging out tired cliches about heat and kitchens. Setting aside for now the fact that an Internet without any of the people who are currently getting harassed and abused on it would be a really boring place, these guys don’t understand that it’s not actually that difficult to give people the tools they need to control what they see online and who sees their stuff online, and there are a lot of reasons people might want these tools even if they’re not subject to the sort of harassment and abuse that some of us are. Plenty of people have creepy, borderline-stalky exes. Plenty of people would like to prevent their parents or employers from seeing some or all of their posts. Plenty of people get annoying trolls–not necessarily the horrifyingly violent ones, but just the ones that make being online kind of a drag.

In general, openness and transparency can be very positive forces, for personal lives and for political movements both. We see evidence of this all the time. But at their best, openness and transparency empower people, and people who have lost the ability to control information about themselves and their lives can’t possibly be empowered.

Until these developers listen to the people using their platforms, these platforms will continue to make changes that drastically increase risk for marginalized people, and they will continue to refuse to make the changes that would decrease the risk instead.

On Shaming People Online “For Their Own Good”

[Content note: online harassment and bullying]

Online vigilantism in general is nothing new, but lately I’ve been noticing a disturbing trend of people trying to teach others that they “should’ve known better” by posting “embarrassing” photos of them online, and/or doxing them based on photos of them that were already online.

Two examples I’ve come across:

1. A dude went to a Magic: The Gathering tournament, found as many players as he could whose butt cracks were exposed, and posed for photos next to them. And then put them online. Apparently this is “part funny, part social commentary, and part PSA.” From the Daily Dot:

Showing your ass in a convention of 4,000 people is “unacceptable,” he says. “There is no way (barring some sort of handicap) that they didn’t notice this. Not doing anything about it is lazy, gross and bad for the community. Some people won’t get into magic because of this type of stuff.

“I hope that people will see this and think ‘maybe I SHOULD pull my pants up.’”

2. A bunch of Reddit and 4chan dudes have apparently made it their personal mission to dox women whose photos end up online, whether intentionally or not, to, once again, “teach them a lesson.” Sometimes this means doxing women who purposefully upload sexy photos of themselves to subreddits like r/gonewild, and sometimes this means doxing women whose email accounts get hacked or who get photographed without their knowledge or consent.

The reason all this stuff has caught my attention isn’t just the sexism and body-shaming it often entails, but the circular reasoning of it–something I’ve noted about these types before. We’ll punish you for putting photos of yourself online because it’s a stupid thing to do. Putting photos of yourself online is a stupid thing to do because we’ll punish you for it. You shouldn’t wear ill-fitting clothing that exposes parts of your body that shouldn’t be exposed because then people have to look at it. People have to look at you wearing ill-fitting clothing that exposes parts of your body that shouldn’t be exposed because we just took a photo of you and put it on the internet. Women who put sexy photos online have no self-respect because putting sexy photos of yourself online is a bad thing to do because it shows you have no self-respect because putting sexy photos online is a bad thing to do because–at this point my ability to write words breaks down and I have nothing to say but WHAAAaaaaAAAAT A;LSDKFASLKDF;ASDFAJ;D?!

Whenever you find a silly self-justifying spiral like this, you know there’s something going on that people either can’t or won’t acknowledge.

I have some questions for these brave heroes. First, to Redditor OB1FBM, who posted the butt crack photos:

  • If this is really about making a “public service announcement,” why’d you post it to r/funny?
  • If you’re really worried that “some people won’t get into magic because of this type of stuff [butt cracks],” why aren’t you worried that people won’t get into Magic because the community apparently has creeps who go around taking photos of people’s asses?
  • If you really wanted to “spare the person the shame of being confronted in front of other people” (say, by tapping them on the shoulder and warning them that they need to pull their pants up), why the fuck did you post this on the internet?
  • If you really want to make MtG tournaments more comfortable for those who likewise find butt cracks “unacceptable,” why didn’t you talk to the organizers about implementing a dress code?
  • If you really want to make people change their behavior, why haven’t you considered the evidence that shaming isn’t an effective way to do that?

Next, for the men who think it’s their sacred mission to shame and terrify women for existing in photographic form:

  • WTF?
  • If you like looking at attractive women (and I know you do, or else why the fuck are you on r/gonewild), why are you making that astronomically less likely to happen by making them afraid for their lives?
  • WTF?
  • If your entire worthless thesis is that women shouldn’t let photos of themselves get online because look what can happen, why do you have to actually make that happen in order to make your argument? That’s like robbing someone’s apartment to “helpfully” point out that they need to keep their apartment locked so that shitheads like you don’t rob it.
  • WTF?
  • If these women are, as you claim, “looking for the attention” of having their full names, phone numbers, addresses, and social media accounts posted online and spread widely, why wouldn’t they do that themselves? It’s not difficult to post your own full name, phone number, address, and photos online. Shockingly, I don’t think they need your assistance with this task.
  • WTF?
  • Supposing posting a sexy photo of yourself online (or storing one in a private account that gets hacked, as it were) is really such a bad thing, is being threatened with rape and death, having one’s family threatened with rape and death, and never being able to get a legit job ever again really a reasonable punishment? Hell, even rapists don’t usually face such a strict penalty.
  • WTF?
  • Why are people who dox people on Reddit literally Hitler unless they’re doxing semi-naked women?
  • WTF?

And on and on it goes. I have more questions than answers here, really.

These two seemingly unrelated phenomena might not seem to have much in common at first: one involves “hot” women and the other involves “ugly” (or, at least, “gross” or “disgusting”) men, one involves doxing and the other does not, one involves shaming people for committing what most consider at least a faux pas and the other involves people simply existing and having bodies.

But there are a lot of similar themes, too: the self-righteous vigilantism, the use of shaming as a disciplinary tactic, the insistence that the targets “deserved” or “asked for” what they got, the creepy obsession with people’s bodies and what they do with those bodies, the indignation at something that’s frankly none of anyone’s business.

I’m sure someone’s going to comment here about how yeah well you shouldn’t have your butt crack showing. Yeah, I guess you shouldn’t, at least by our local norms of what should and should not be shown in public (remember that this is neither a universal nor a natural truth, but a social construction). There are a lot of things you generally should not do, such as speak rudely to strangers without provocation, take up more seats on the subway than you need, or leave too small a tip at a restaurant. Are we prepared, then, to publicly shame people who do these things as well? Where do we stop? Are we prepared to take photos of parts of strangers’ bodies that we know that would not want photographed and put those photos on public forums frequented by thousands of people? Is the sight of a human body that offensive?

OB1FBM claims rather unpersuasively that “it’s not about being fat,” but it is, in fact, exactly about that. In order to talk about why lots of people are so gosh-darn rude as to have their butt cracks visible when they’re sitting, you have to talk about the fact that mass-produced clothing fits very few body types well, and denim especially is not a fabric that’s great at molding to bodies as they move. Unfortunately, for whatever reason, denim is the normative fabric for pants in Western society.

Brian Kibler writes:

Here’s the thing. I was a fat kid growing up. I know the kind of treatment that many overweight people deal with. I was mercilessly mocked by other kids in school. My own brother told me that I would never get a girlfriend. Even to this day, I habitually tug on my shirts to keep them from hanging unflatteringly over my body. That feeling is something that never goes away – the sense that everything just fits wrong on you, and feeling like you’re never truly comfortable in your own skin. Public shaming was hardly a new and novel experience. It was often just what I felt from *being* in public. It certainly wasn’t going to be the catalyst for some sort of change in my behavior. And I’m sure my ass hung out of my pants from time to time.

Want to change the way people dress at Magic tournaments? Be a good example. I’ve made a point since I started playing again to always dress up for tournaments, and you know what? I’ve seen people emulating that. “Be the change you want to see in the world”, as they saying goes – not “Be the asshole who makes fun of other people because they aren’t how you want them to be.”

OB1FBM might not be trying to make it about being fat, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t. It’s about that, and it’s about people being engaged in a gaming competition and forgetting for a moment that they need to pull their pants up or their shirts down and thus committing what can at worst be considered a small and common faux pas.

I’m a little bewildered that I had so much trouble finding critical responses to this stunt when I googled it that I realized how necessary this blog post was. I am, and yet I’m not. The devaluation of consent, autonomy, and dignity in our society extends far beyond the usual culprits of sexual assault and harassment.

And speaking of that, while I’m stating the obvious. There is nothing a person can do that justifies having their personal information found out and posted to thousands of people online*. Taking naked photos of themselves and giving them to a partner doesn’t justify it. Taking naked photos of themselves and putting them in a password-protected online account doesn’t justify it. Taking naked photos of themselves and putting them on a forum meant for that purpose, without the personal information attached, doesn’t justify it. Existing in public where they can be photographed looking “sexy” doesn’t justify it. Being a sex worker doesn’t justify it. Making you uncomfortable because someone’s owning their body and sexuality who shouldn’t be doesn’t justify it. Being a woman doesn’t justify it.

If you knowingly, purposefully violate people’s privacy and consent in order to “teach them a lesson,” you are not offering up a “public service announcement” or doing your community some sort of act of kindness. You are a bully. You are every schoolyard bully who has ever beat up a kid to “teach them a lesson,” you are every workplace bully who has ever ostracized a coworker and sabotaged their work to “teach them a lesson,” you are every online bully who has sent anonymous violent threats to people you don’t like to “teach them a lesson.” You are every person who has committed violence and abuse against their partner to “teach them a lesson.”

What a proud tradition you carry on.

~~~

*As usual, a caveat! This blog post is discussing shaming people for behaviors that do not directly harm anyone. In a follow-up (hopefully), I’m going to talk about the murkier ethics of shaming people for behaviors that do directly harm others.

Thanks to this blog post for alerting me to the MtG thing.