The selection of the first Indian-American Miss America, Nina Davuluri, over the weekend has, predictably, spurred a spike of racist tweeting about the supposed loss of a great American institution to a non-white person. Those remarks, as has become common after such outbursts, have been aggregated by a great number of outlets. And it’s a tendency that Penny Arcade Report’s Ben Kuchera thinks is a problem. He writes in a long post today that:
It’s not hard to find people who think the election of a mixed-race President or an Indian Miss America are great, or don’t care, or already live in mixed-race families and celebrate this sort of news, but you don’t get people to click on stories that point out the literally changing face of America. But people who post intolerance, or call Obama a racial slur? That’s viral gold, my friend.
And their names are right there, you can take action and become a vigilante! Call their work, send a nasty message, FIGHT BACK!…Indiscriminately publishing hateful tweets, the accounts of the people who supposedly wrote them, and then collecting a group as some sort of evidence for how terrible people are is bullshit tabloid writing, even though it’s effective at getting people to click, get upset, and then write nasty messages back.
I have no dispute with Kuchera’s contention that public shaming, particularly in the form of publishing ugly remarks that are linked to real social media accounts, can and do lead to large-scale harassment of offenders that both feeds negative patterns of behavior on social media without actually advancing the conversation about inequality. There’s no question that if people want to actually change other individuals’ behavior and attitudes, direct conversations with someone whose opinion you actually respect and whose feelings you value will do more to open you up to new ideas than a group of people you have no connection to whatsoever. That’s organizing 101. And it’s especially true that, if social media accounts are set up using names other than the user’s real, legal names, vigilantes can end up harassing the wrong people, especially if they decide to contact a tweeter or blogger’s employer.
But I think Ben’s post goes somewhat too far in dismissing shaming as a tactic — and the roles that racism and sexism play in American society.
First, I’m not opposed, on principle, to organizations being able to make money from reminding their readers that racism, sexism, and homophobia may not affect them daily, but that bigotry plays a real role in shaping policy and culture elsewhere in the country. As Mallory Ortberg told the author Rainbow Rowell, whose book Eleanor & Park is the subject of a censorship fight in Minnesota, “Censorship seems to some of us so silly that we forget how important it is for kids in isolated or rural areas to have access to different thoughts and ideas, that ‘the Internet’ isn’t the magical cure to all their problems until they turn eighteen and get to leave. Because sometimes they can’t leave, or don’t want to, but their choices still matter.” There are worse ways for organizations to make money than spotlighting bad behavior. And while reading ugly tweets may be an exercise in schadenfreude and belittling the ignorance of the people who sent them, they can also be an exercise in empathy, a chance to imagine what it would be like not to have an easy escape from this kind of language and this kind of thinking.
Second, Ben suggests that tweets like these aren’t representative. “This is the journalistic equivalent of me going to your house, heading into the basement, grabbing a handful of shit from your cat’s litter box, and claiming that since it was so easy for me to find excrement, your kids are assholes,” he writes. “Finding people who say vile things online is easy, it doesn’t tell us much of anything, and if we continually focus on those groups of people they’ll begin to dominate the conversation and give a skewed outlook on how the United States actually deals with race.” But I’m not actually sure that’s true at all. The fact that large numbers of people think that it’s terrible that an Indian-American woman is held up as an ideal of American beauty, or that the President of the United States is a secret Muslim who faked his birth certificate in order to usurp rightful white ownership of the presidency is, in and of itself, interesting, and it would be revealing even if they kept those attitudes covert. But the fact that large numbers of people feel comfortable saying these things out loud, and not simply to people they know personally, but in forums that are deliberately intended to broadcast those sentiments beyond their immediate circle, is even more telling. Even if only a small number of these sentiments translate into hate crimes, or only watered-down versions of these ideas become policy in the form of laws like Stand Your Ground or policies like Stop and Frisk, they have broad impacts. What people feel comfortable saying in public is an interesting test of what our society is willing to tolerate, even if our levels of tolerance vary widely by geography, by income, or by level of connectivity. It may feel bad to marinate in ugly comments, but I don’t think taking an occasional dive into these sorts of attitudes actually ends up overprivileging the actual role they play in over-privileging life.
Where Ben and I do agree, I think, is on the need for a more effective shaming culture, if we’re going to have one. I’m fully on board for Ben’s idea that “You can quote these tweets without posting links to the accounts writing the content, which will go a long way to stop the spread of fighting racism with harassment, and should keep minors and those whose numbers were used to sign up for the account safer from the Internet mob.” And I’d like to see more sites looking for actual trends in spates of ugly tweeting, rather than focusing on individual tweets, and pulling out the ideas that are revealed in these moments.
What’s interesting about the reaction to Davuluri’s crowning isn’t that teenagers say stupid things, but that people are uncomfortable with a woman of color being held up as an ideal of All-American beauty and femininity. What’s interesting about internet trolls who go after Quvenzhané Wallis the night of the Oscars isn’t that individuals are jerks, but that in certain parts of our culture a willingness to attack vulnerable people has become a mark of pride, and that racial anxiety extends even to children. A look at spikes of racism, sexism, or other forms of bigotry that provides intellectual ammunition for the people reading along, rather than simply aiming them at a target, would be a smarter way to have this conversation. Shame’s a powerful tool, if it’s used in a targeted and effective way. We shouldn’t abandon it, but instead get more intelligent, and less self-gratifying, about how we use it.