Humans haven’t quite gotten the hang of human rights, let alone social media. Combined ignorance of the two leads people to spew hate from the safety of an Internet connection, writing their bigotry into the public record.
Now these moments are being put display for public shaming by a Tumblr seeking justice against racists. It’s a form of cybervigilantism. But is there a more effective, and compassionate way of stopping racism?
Disclaimer: Some of these post contain highly offensive language
On RacistsGettingFired.tumblr.com, sequences of screenshots show racist comments posted by people in response to the Michael Brown case, then other citizens reporting the commenters to their employers, and finally evidence that the commenters had been fired.
The site encourages people to track down where outspoken racists work and then post details of their hate speech to the employers’ social media accounts demanding punishment. In some instances, racists are “doxxed”, meaning they have their personal identity and contact information shared without consent to assist in the shaming and reports to employers.
The question is whether cybervigilantism is ethical or productive for a society trying to overcome bigotry.
Now I certainly won’t defend the racists, nor forgive them for pushing hate and discrimination. Everyone in this country has the right to live without fear of the threats and slurs found in the screenshotted posts, or the racism illuminated by the Brown tragedy.
What’s concerning, though, is the accelerating use of the Internet and social media for public shaming of non-public figures.
I wholeheartedly agree that a strong message must be sent that intolerance will not be tolerated. Shame is a powerful teacher. And in this case, the hardcore racism and violent nature of the posts likely warrants serious consequences.
It’s certainly understandable that businesses wouldn’t want to be associated with employees making these kinds of statements. Beyond being genuinely deplorable, they are discrimination lawsuit time bombs just waiting to blow. There are legal concerns around firing someone over what could be considered free speech, even if it’s awful and could lead to boycotts of the business.
But I’m still alarmed that we seem happy to exert vengeance and then laugh at the people skewered. That doesn’t show a lot of compassion, even if it is extremely tough to be empathetic toward racists.
Ideally, we should be striving to educate these people. Yes, bringing wisdom to Internet jerks may be an impossible task and a waste of breath. But to go so far in the opposite direction poses problems.
Perhaps shame was the only way to educate these people. Maybe Justine from #HasJustineLandedYet, who posted the racist comments about how she wouldn’t get AIDS in Africa because she’s white, needed to be called out. And more who’ve become the laughing-stock of the social web for posting horrible things may have been immune to lesser intervention.
Eventually, though, someone will be wrongfully accused or framed, but publicly destroyed anyway. And what if one of the perpetrators of hate speech commits suicide? Will that be what it takes for us to start looking for more constructive ways to fight injustice?
[Update 12/3/14: Apparently my concerns about the potential for cybervigilante public shaming to be used to frame someone were well founded. This week, a woman’s ex-boyfriend faked screenshots to frame her as saying racist things, and posted them to Racists Getting Fired, Gawker’s Sam Biddle reports.
Before anyone could figure out the deception, the woman’s workplace AMC Theaters had received huge numbers of complaints. Luckily, AMC found out the truth and are defending her, but this is a perfect example of the risks of cybervigilantism.]
What if they made a mistake or were peer pressured into making terrible comments? There are no excuses for this kind of abhorrent behavior, but remember these people are still human. At the very least, we should be channeling our outrage productively. We should be donating to help AIDS victims, not just insulting and making fun of Justine for her insensitivity towards them.
Rather than letting Michael Brown’s death divide us as a nation, we should use it as an opportunity come together. It’s not easy being patient with who’ve been steeped in hand-me-down racism from dumber generations. But if angry mob vengeance continues to grow as the Internet’s favorite pastime, we risk clawing at the symptoms of hatred instead of healing those it’s infected.