For the last week or so, one of my favorite Twitter feeds has been Yes, You’re Racist, which retweets racist posts about Ferguson. It’s awesome for several reasons, one of which is the irony of people who want to use a global platform to disseminate their views freaking out when people across the globe read their views. That’s good fun. I’m mostly a believer in shame as an enforcement tool, but it’s important to remember that not everyone on the internet is speaking with her own voice. Consider Brianna Rivera, who became the object of a campaign to get her fired from her job after her ex-boyfriend spoofed her Facebook account to post racist status updates. Props to Willy for the link. Today is December 2, 2014, and you can frame people for racism now.
As often happens when enough people turn their attention to one social media account, Rivera had her place of employment disseminated with a quickness. You can see the Tumblr post that is just the theater’s phone number and a call to “get this racist bitch fired.” It’s obviously uncool that the internet rose up against an innocent person on no more evidence than a screenshot of a status update. But I put it to you, Greg: is it not also uncool to use telecommunication to ruin strangers’ lives simply because they are assholes?
For the purposes of this discussion, I’m going to put aside the evident problems with using the internet as an instrument of justice, most of which are problems of evidence. As Rivera’s situation reminds us, Facebook and Twitter accounts are easily hacked, and seeing a picture of someone’s name next to a racist statement is not sufficient proof that they said it. Don’t call someone’s boss and demand that they be fired because you saw a screenshot.
But even if we could know with certainty that the racists we see on Twitter were real-life racists, would we really want to get them fired? If our goal is to reduce the power and popularity of racist ideas, destroying the lives of individual racists—particularly ones with 40 Twitter followers—may not be the best way to go about it.
Taking down an (ostensibly) racist movie theater employee is not exactly bombing the tracks to Auschwitz. It’s the kind of cheap expression of personal disagreement that is a poor substitute for meaningful action.
When you’re against an idea, you attack it directly rather than attacking the people who subscribe to it. That’s civil discourse. I may think repealing the Affordable Care Act is a dumb mistake, but I don’t press my position by trying to destroy the lives of everyone who disagrees with me. I strike at the idea, not because I hate the people who believe it but because, left unchallenged, it is likely to mislead otherwise decent people.
Racism is a particularly bad idea, and it’s one that American society is only recently and gradually getting over. Maybe racists deserve to suffer personally for their beliefs more than creationists or Kesha fans. Still, organizing internet crusades against individual racists you don’t know seems more like cruelty than activism. When good people would rather be cruel than act, it’s usually because cruelty is easier. It’s definitely easier to look up a Twitter user’s phone number than it is to do something about institutional racism in Ferguson. It probably makes you feel almost as good. All you have to do is harass somebody who isn’t real to you anyway.