How useful, how apropos, how…right. An online article at the New Yorker on the wrongness of the idea that harassment is part of our glorious heritage of free speech.
It starts with Amanda Todd.
Todd’s suicide is easily analogized to Tyler Clementi’s, mostly because the public has diagnosed both cases as the result of “cyber-bullying.” Yet, as a descriptive term, “cyber-bullying” feels deliberately vague. Somewhere in the midst of the “mob” there is usually at least one person whose cruelty exceeds the tossing off of a stray insult. In Clementi’s case, the magazine’s Ian Parker chalked the harasser’s motives up to “shiftiness and bad faith,” the kinds of things that criminal statutes can’t easily be invoked to cover. But with Todd’s harasser, the malice is unquestionable.
As is the malice of our harassers. That’s why we dislike them so much. It’s because their malice is so wildly out of proportion to any real evil – or malice – of ours. It’s because there’s a difference between an online argument or quarrel that lasts a few hours or days and then ends, with either reconciliation or going separate ways, and a sustained daily campaign of vicious defamatory harassment.
And now Michelle Dean really gets into it. It’s as if she’d been reading over our shoulders.
It is a cultural myth—one particular to the Internet—that the methods of a harasser are fundamentally “legal,” and that the state is helpless to intervene in all cases like this. The systematic way the harasser allegedly followed Todd to new schools, repeatedly posting the images and threatening to do it again, makes it textbook harassment regardless of the medium. Indeed, in Todd’s native Canada, cyber-harassment is prosecuted under the general harassment provision of the Canadian criminal code. And in the United States, most states have added specific laws against cyber-harassment and bullying to their general legislation of harassment. At the federal level, there is the Federal Interstate Stalking Punishment and Prevention Act, which covers harassment that crosses state and national lines. While all of these laws are subject to the limitations of the First Amendment, the First Amendment generally doesn’t protect threats and harassment. If people are not being prosecuted for these acts, the fault lies in the social alchemy of law enforcement, the way the human prejudices of judges, juries, and prosecutors inflect the black letter. Put otherwise, the power is there—the cultural mores are what is preventing the laws from being successfully invoked.
There are, after all, consequences to the widespread belief that these acts of harassment are regrettable but not ultimately punishable. Specifically, it obscures truths about the practice—first, that this kind of thing is not merely the province of children who know not what they do. While the police have yet to confirm the identity of Todd’s harasser, the “hacktivist” group Anonymous has identified an adult man who lived nearby as the culprit. (He denies the harassment, though he told a Canadian television news crew that he did indeed know Todd.) It remains to be seen whether they’ve pointed the finger at the right person. But the theory—that an adult would have targeted a teen-ager for such abuse, that he would have tricked her and been indifferent to the price she paid—is not merely plausible. It is a thing that happens every day on the Internet.
For many people it seems to be what the Internet is for – targeting people, especially women, for endless pauseless abuse.
She goes on to Michael Brutsch.
What you could call the Brutschean world view—which takes anonymity as the only meaningful form of privacy, and a key element of free speech—is nearly an article of faith in these lower levels of the Internet. But it has tentacles that extend to higher, more powerful places. Scholars often approvingly quote EFF.org founder John Perry Barlow’s “Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace,” which, among other utopian visions, holds that “our identities have no bodies, so, unlike you, we cannot obtain order by physical coercion.” The founding myth of the Internet was its offer of a way to escape physical reality; the freedom to shape yourself, to say anything, became a sort of sacred object.
But, as the scholar Mary Anne Franks has observed, women haven’t actually achieved this “bodiless” freedom online. They are embodied in distributed pictures and in sexual comments, whether they like it or not. The power to get away from yourself, like everything else, is unevenly distributed. Women have become, as Franks put it, “unwilling avatars,” unable to control their own images online, and then told to put up with it for the sake of “freedom,” for the good of the community. And then they are incorrectly told, even if the public is behind them, that they have no remedies in the law. They are shouted down by people with a view of freedom of speech more literal than that held by any judge.
Yes, and yes, and yes.
I did have ”bodiless” freedom for several years, or if I didn’t I was unaware of the fact. But then after a few years I didn’t any more. I got away with it for awhile and then I no longer did. I’m an unwilling avatar. That’s freedom of speech, bitch!