Recent victories don’t erase online toxicity

My latest for The Daily Beast examines the recent sentencing of “revenge porn” king and the “most hated man on the Internet”, Hunter Moore, in light of ongoing toxicity so many face. I don’t think his sentencing carries the weight some think it does and I highlight some contours of why combatting bigotry online is so difficult – and maybe some small ways we can help.

(Basically: if you understand why I find overt racism less troubling than constant dismissal from people who should be allies, then you understand what combating bigotry is so hard.)

Public shaming and modern media

Jon Ronson has an adaptation excerpt from his latest book age out public shaming in the digital age. It primarily revolves around Justine Sacco, who you might remember as sending out that racist/unfunny Tweet.

Ronson writes:

The furor over Sacco’s tweet had become not just an ideological crusade against her perceived bigotry but also a form of idle entertainment. Her complete ignorance of her predicament for those 11 hours lent the episode both dramatic irony and a pleasing narrative arc.


By the time Sacco had touched down, tens of thousands of angry tweets had been sent in response to her joke.


For the past two years, I’ve been interviewing individuals like Justine Sacco: everyday people pilloried brutally, most often for posting some poorly considered joke on social media. Whenever possible, I have met them in person, to truly grasp the emotional toll at the other end of our screens. The people I met were mostly unemployed, fired for their transgressions, and they seemed broken somehow — deeply confused and traumatized.

At the time, I wrote about why Sacco’s Tweet wasn’t the worst part about the whole affair (and was subsequently quoted in the New York Times, when they wrote about this same issue): I was horrified by the reactions to it – and, mainly, how she was targeted by those with much larger platforms.

There’s an ethical dimension many haven’t considered with platforms and engagements: It’s difficult and tricky areas. I engage publicly on social media with people, quite often – but always with people who have anonymous accounts and aren’t traceable in any way. I don’t even try show up legitimate problematic individuals, unless they are threatening the livelihood and safety of others: if it’s just some loser Gamergater or MRA, I tend to just block, though inform others of the individual.

The point is it’s tricky and it should be tricky. Shaming shouldn’t be as easy as a Retweet, but it is and that’s dangerous. Platform holders like the Buzzfeed editors and Gawker’s Sam Biddle who thrive on public shaming deserve severe ethical scrutiny for their work and conduct.

Indeed, Sacco isn’t the one who should be ashamed; it’s those with major platforms who decided to draw the world’s attention to her, for her innocuous and clearly outrageous Tweet.

I made comments about comments sections

Comment sections are a fascinating topic for me, as I’m very interested in the new dynamics that comes with online interaction and the change in media.

Anyway, I made a Storify of some Tweets after a boring, persistent and verbose commenter I banned here followed me (?) to a game site I write for.

The ethics of fucking your father: It’s not about disgust

NYMag published Alexa Tsoulis-Reay’s interview with a woman who has been in a relationship with her father for many years – and, indeed, plans to get “married” and have kids with him. The important part is that she hadn’t seen her father for more than a decade, before she met him again as an adult. It is apparently a common enough occurrence that there’s an acronym.

In the late ’80s, the founder of a support group for adopted children who had recently reconnected with their biological relatives coined the term “Genetic Sexual Attraction” (GSA) to describe the intense romantic and sexual feelings that she observed occurring in many of these reunions. According to an article in The Guardian, experts estimate that these taboo feelings occur in about 50 percent of cases where estranged relatives are reunited as adults (GSA’s discoverer had herself become attracted to the son she’d adopted out when she met him 26 years later, but her feelings were not reciprocated).

Thus, this is not a case of an parent grooming his child into being his lover when she becomes an adult. There are other elements to be concerned about.

I’ve written about adult consensual incest before, pointing out that there are too many similarities in how homophobes react (“Ew! It’s wrong because it’s gross!”) that should make us concerned, if we push for calling such relationships always wrong. That doesn’t mean these relationships can’t be wrong – but they can be wrong for reasons other than the clickbaity “sharing more than Dad’s genes” part.

And this one has numerous problems. Please remember: I’m not convinced by blanket arguments against incest. But that doesn’t mean I support every case of adult incestuous relationships. And this is one of them.

First, the interview makes clear that this is a young lady inexperienced in relationships and indeed sexual encounters. She paints a rather troubled biography. Indeed, she had not had a male sexual partner before her father – only non-sexual boyfriend before.

Did you tell [your father] you were a virgin?
Yes. I told him I wanted him to be the first person I made love to. We talked about how it could be awkward if it didn’t end up working out. He also said that if I didn’t feel comfortable at any point I should tell him.

What was it like?
There’s a reason I lost my virginity to him — because I’d never felt comfortable with any other man. It was insanely sensual. It lasted for about an hour and there was a lot of foreplay. We both had orgasms. We are so similar so it’s so easy to sexually please each other. For example, we both hate neck-biting. I’ve never been in a more passionate, loving, fulfilling situation.

Notice the key part: “I’d never felt comfortable with any other man.” Well. Yes. You were young. Are young.

Indeed, even her views about sex and relationship are rather naive (and/or conservative, ironically).

I told him I was saving myself for someone who I’d be committed to for the rest of my life. It was important for me to make it clear that if I made love to him he was in a relationship with me.

I’ve always hated talk of “virginity” being lost or taken and “saving yourself”, where sex is put on a pedestal. It’s troubling because we come to wrap life-changing moments and views around it: No sex before marriage, the creation of kids, sex with only one person. The more we wrap sex up in sanctity, the more distant from reality it becomes. It’s no wonder that people go from “sex” to “the only person I’ll ever be attracted to or ever want forever” (a concept I find unbelievable, judging by, for example, divorce stats) .

And that this is her father? Yeah. That’s actually soooooooort of secondary to the fact that, as a much more experienced person, the power dynamic can’t help but exist – knowing what “sex” means to this young woman, I can’t see his acquiescing as being anything but manipulative regardless of his intention. She admitted her complete vulnerability to him and his response was to go along with it. This part isn’t actually a matter of consent, so much as it is responsibility on the part of the older, more experienced man thinking maybe she needs to grow up. That maybe her decision isn’t as informed as she thinks.

Again: this doesn’t mean consenting adults can’t engage in successful relationships despite being related; but we can pin down our concern over her age, her inexperience, her troubled history, her juvenile views of sex and relationships and how a more experienced, older man responded. That he’s her father only adds to the power dynamic – and therefore responsibility – and it seems like he made the wrong choice.

Indeed, she was around 16 when it first started  – that is, her second decade of life (“Here, an 18-year-old woman from the Great Lakes region describes her romantic relationship of almost two years with the biological father she met after 12 years of estrangement.”)

We can’t ignore how none of us knew anything at this age – let alone whether getting involved with an older person, who is a parent, is a good idea despite consent.

I can’t help see her relationship views as being entirely created from Disney films: she, in so many words, goes with “the one” narrative, and it happens to be the first person she has sex with. And also her father. Notice, again, that it’s her father can be put last in terms of reasons to be concerned.

The interview continues:

How quickly did he end things with his girlfriend?
We made sure to move out of the girlfriend’s immediately because we knew we couldn’t be together there. Before her, he was with a woman for eight years and she’s now our roommate. Talk about awkward for the first three months!

So this seems to imply her father cheated on his then girlfriend. Again: nothing to do with incest and there we can see that it’s wrong.

You’re engaged?
I’m planning on a full-on wedding but it won’t be legally registered. And personally, I don’t believe you need a piece of paper to prove that you want to be with the person you love.

Remember what I said about Disney films?

And now we come to my main concern: Kids.

So would you have kids together, or would you adopt?
We’ll have kids together

Will you tell your kids that their father is your dad, and their grandfather?
We’ve decided that most likely we won’t. I don’t want to give them any problems.

Would you feel comfortable keeping such a big secret?
That’s something I’ll have to figure out. His mom and dad will want to spend time with the grandkids, so we will have to decide how everyone will be known.

Do you worry about the potential genetic problems associated with having kids with your biological father?
Nope. I wouldn’t risk having a kid if I thought it would be harmful. I’ve done my research. Everybody thinks that kids born in incestuous relationships will definitely have genetic problems, but that’s not true. That happens when there’s years of inbreeding, like with the royal family. Incest has been around as long as humans have. Everybody just needs to deal with it as long as nobody is getting hurt or getting pressured or forced.

There are so many people having kids who will be passing on health problems, people with diabetes or mental health issues, or AIDS. My mom was allowed to have kids and both her and her mom were bipolar. My research tells me that the only real genetic risk is high blood pressure, which is controllable. I think people only worry about it because they look to the genetic problems that occurred when incest was happening generation upon generation. They say, Well, look at King Henry VIII — but he was only a genetic mutant because they had kept it in the family for so long.

My thoughts:

1. Why procreate and not adopt?

1. Why not adopt if you want to be parents?

1. Adoption is an option and there exist kids who need homes.

1. Why are you procreating and not adopting?

Ok those are the same, but that’s a key question (which anyone and everyone should be asking themselves, not just incestuous couples).

2. She says:

“We’ve decided that most likely we won’t [tell the kids their father is their grandfather]. I don’t want to give them any problems.”

Then don’t have them. The only way you won’t give your kids problems is if they remain non-existent. Considering how many people from your life already know, how exactly would your enforce this code of silence? The kids will more than likely discover this, given that they’ll be growing up in the internet age. How devastating will it be to them to be involved in a relationship they might not consent to?

You might say that’s society’s problem – and to some degree, yes. It is. But these kids still have to live in a society where it’s regarded as bad; there’s a reason she herself is hesitant about telling them! Maybe the fact that you don’t want to tell your kids about your relationship is exactly why you shouldn’t have kids – not why you should have secrets. It seems like an unnecessary harm that will shadow them for the rest of their lives, no matter how much you or I think incest isn’t as bad society makes it out to be.**

3. She raises a somewhat good response to the “what about kids from incest!” view. Again, if she wants to maximise the least harm, she should just not have them. And she can still be a parent, by adopting.

Anyway, this is a troubling case. But I hoped to try outline some reasons not premised on mere disgust that we can and should be concerned about it.


** This is a shit argument and I can’t believe I made it. As Michael Brew points out in Comment #4: “This part sounds a bit too much like a similar argument against gay adoption or gay people with children having gay relationships.”

Patton Oswalt fans and how to outrage properly

Famous comedian, Patton Oswalt, Tweeted this:

Rich straight white guy telling the world he’d appreciate “less outrage”. This notion doesn’t sit well with those who daily face various forms of outrageous and awful kinds of oppression or marginalisation. How exactly should people of colour show “less outrage” while responding to racism? How should rape survivors and targets of sexual assault convey “less outrage”, while daily exposed to men who think they own women’s bodies? How should gay rights activists threatened with death convey “less outrage” in countries where their existence is a crime?

I’m not sure and I’m not sure Oswalt is either. Oswalt is a smart, compassionate person, from a lot of what I’ve read; I’ve no doubt he’s genuine in his intent, even if, in this case, he’s unsuccessful in his delivery. Oswalt, respectfully, doesn’t get a free pass though – as I would not get a free pass if I said something awful but well-intentioned about transgender people (i.e. when I kept using “transgendered” for example), targets of sexual assault (“don’t wear slutty clothes!”), etc.

Writer Ijeoma Oluo was equally unimpressed.

It didn’t help that this was his response, though.

While it’s important to not dehumanise your opponent, sometimes you aren’t dealing with a group or response worth investing time in to convey pity. For example, when racists mock me, when sexists threaten women with rape, why should our first response be pity? Why should I take time to try understand when they’ve made things unsafer with violent threats? It might certainly be a response, and perhaps those not being targeted could demonstrate it (say, a rich white guy), but we don’t get to assert to targets of oppression how they should respond.

This doesn’t mean all responses to bigotry is justified of course – but when you’re merely asserting, and asserting from a place of privilege, it doesn’t help anyone. Indeed, it only helps the people who want to see marginalised people silenced: See, my hero Patton Oswalt says you persons of colour/women/etc. lack compassion and can’t even respond to your oppression right!

And, indeed, when Oswalt publicly responded to Ijeoma (putting a “.” before Replying so that all 2 million of his Followers could see), this made the situation worse.

I think this, above the initial Tweet, demonstrates a profound blindness constructed by good intention: Oswalt is good to acknowledge her and acknowledge her making good points. But, too, Oswalt must surely know that amidst his 2 million followers, as a comedian and white man, that he’ll have reactionary, “edgy” men willing to say horrible things to women online; he must know there is an imbalance of replying to a women of colour, who is a writer on these issues, in a public forum he can’t control, that it would work out worse for her. If he agreed she made good points, why not discuss it privately and perhaps blog it, thus putting it on a platform he can control? This a media ethics failing on Oswalt’s part, considering the size and scale of his Twitter platform.

Oswalt is one thing. The flood of men telling Ijeoma to “take a joke”, “get a sense of humor”, and so on – i.e. please shut up and stop insulting my hero – was nauseating.

I’ll summarise their Tweets in italics.

Humourists get free pass to say whatever they want. I realise you just said being told to lighten up is awful, but I’m going to repeat it.

I can’t really offer a response, so I’m going to make a baseless comment on your character.

How dare you be so self-centered as the kind of person who faces regular oppression to tell a rich white man how to be a better ally?

Anything said or done in jest gets a free moral pass, Part 534.

Let me explain how satire works…

And on it goes.

Everything you do is wrong because of your race and gender – not because you misused your privileged position to tell marginalised people to be less outraged, instead of men like yourself to be less dickish.

“Male’s”. No straight white male has ever had opportunity to voice their opinion, including you, a celebrity comedian with 2 million Followers.

The mythical creature, the SJW, feeds off the need to be offended – there’s no way racism, sexism, etc., exist to such degrees, everywhere that warrants marginalised people to be responsive to those who should be helping.

Oh yes, nothing like wanting an ally to do better to convey how much marginalised people hate him.

Pwned. I’m a great guy.

Patton Oswalt is god because he makes me laugh, Part 3,344.

I’m going to make a slave joke at a black person. That should go down well. 

Please notice my boredom. Please. I am the spiritual sequel to Oswalt’s inital Tweet.

Until white men are in positions of power – like presidents, Nobel prize winners, scientists, head of bushinesses – we must keep defending them.

Marginalised people love bigotry. Persons of colour have to search far and wide to find racism; women really struggle to encounter sexism. 

So what do we notice,

1. Lots of men love explaining to marginalised people how to handle oppression. They can’t imagine maybe they don’t know what they fuck they’re talking about because this is a world designed to be a blank page for men – especially white men – to make their mark. “I’m a white man! You must listen to me!”

2. Humour doesn’t have any moral baggage to such people. Here, Oswalt isn’t being comedic, but he is a comedian. For some reason, that gives him moral immunity to say what he wants. Humour is a way of speaking, not an automatic free pass to say what you want. Just because humour makes people laugh doesn’t make it right all the time. We can criticise it as we do cartoons caricaturing Jewish people, white people who blackface, etc.

3. This was also telling.

As I’ve said before: nothing insulates bigotry more than thinking my friends/fans/followers can’t possibly be bigots! Indeed, the idea that the only bigots online silencing persons of colour is white supremacists is obviously false: but it’s a helpful picture to draw so you have neat moral boundaries. If you can say “only white supremacists silence people of colour”, it means you can get away with saying anything and never think “Maybe I’m being a bit racist”. Because, hey, you’re not a white supremacist, so you can’t possibly be doing something bad to people of colour!

As I say, Oswalt is a good person I admire. My issue is his fans’ responses and his media ethics failure, in making this public on an unequal platform (his +/- 2m million Followers versus 1) over which he has no control.

I can only hope he does better. We all fuck up.


#Gamergate and the failure of ethics

So I’ve done a fair amount of work in ethics. I studied it as an M.Phil at a centre for Applied Ethics; I wrote on it for Big Think, write on it for Daily Beast, the Guardian and elsewhere. I teach it at a local university, to first-years, medical students and, once, even accountants. I’ve reviewed papers for major bioethics journals. I’m not an expert in it: but I can safely say I’ve “done” ethics more than most people.

And this is one reason (of many!) why I find Gamergate, this supposed movement concerned with “journalism ethics”, so insulting, so demeaning, and so contrary to ethics. I care a great deal about media ethics – particularly gaming media, as someone who also writes in that sphere – so I would love for more people to care.

Gamergate, however, makes my job a thousand times harder.

It’s clear from my hundreds of interactions with Gamergaters that, for a movement that is ostensibly about “ethics”, it sure has a lot of people that have no idea what that even means. I want to outline some various problems Gamergate has with ethics, aside from continuing to exist in the face of creating toxicity and harassment. [Read more…]

Women: wearing revealing clothes summon dark forces, please beware!

To give some background, Hannah Graham is an 18-year-old University of Virginia student who’s been missing for some time. The police have a suspect:

Charlottesville police named 32-year-old Jesse Matthew a suspect in the disappearance, and he was detained in Texas on Wednesday after he also disappeared for a short time. So far, he has refused to talk with investigators about what he might know about Graham, whom he was seen with the night she disappeared. Police have released little else about what led them to name him as their prime suspect. (NBC News)

It’s horrible story. I will never be a parent, but I have loved ones and have lost loved ones. I can’t imagine the pain the parents must be going through.

Hannah Graham’s parents addressed the public for the first time Sunday when they appeared at a news conference to ask for information about their missing daughter. John Graham spoke lovingly of his 18-year-old daughter. His wife Sue stood by his side.

John Graham asked anyone who had information into the whereabouts of Hannah Graham daughter, a second-year University of Virginia student, to come forward.

“This is every parent’s worst nightmare,” John Graham said. “We need to find out what happened to Hannah to make sure it doesn’t happen to anyone else.” (Wtvr)

My sympathies go out to these unfortunate people. I would say, “no doubt we all feel this way”, except someone called Debbie Schlussel is being a totally awesome human being about this entire situation. It’s hard to read this. But here we go. [Read more…]

So you see a racist Tweet…

How should we respond to awful posts on social media? Spoiler alert: I don’t know, but I think we can do better – overall – if we don’t always reply quickly, grounding our responses with what is best for others. Not what feels right at that moment. In my latest post for TBD, I use the example of a Tweet that directly targets people like me – “foreign-named”, darker skinned, etc. – and reflect on what I’d actually like to see more of.

Spoiler: It’s not abusive messages sent to the random kid who made the racist Tweet.

Read it at The Daily Beast

Against stigma of sex workers and adult performers

In my latest for The Daily Beast, I look at the case of camgirl and adult performer Eden Alexander – who had a fundraiser for important medical bills cut off because… sex work is icky?

The site that processes payments for the fundraiser, WePay, asserted that Alexander had violated their ToS, which strictly prohibits funds being donated in exchange for sexy activities. Except, as you’ll see, that’s not what happened: She retweeted notifications from porn sites that offered “perks”, in return for donating. That was not at Alexander’s doing and it’s bizarre that she should be held accountable for the actions of others – who were finding ways to get, you know, medicine for her. This aside from the dismissal of sex work as work.

It’s a hodgepodge mix of reactionary nonsense and sex worker stigma, which shows in a tangible way what arbitrary prejudice can do (and, no, I’m not claiming WePay “sent” her to the hospital – since, after all, the company is doing what they can to repair a mistake they never should’ve made in the first place). We shouldn’t stand for such mistreatment of innocent people, who are only viewed as “bad” because their work involves something R-Rated.

I hate that companies are ruled by policies that seem catered toward the most conservative moral viewpoint. Especially when they can lead to unnecessary harm.