Bigoted Harassment, Alive and Well Online

Cross-posted from Concurring Opinions

With the help of law and changing norms, invidious discrimination has become less prevalent in arenas like schools, workplaces, hotels, and public transportation. Due to our social environments, anti-discrimination law is fairly easy to enforce. Because leaders usually can figure out those responsible for discriminatory conduct and ignore such behavior at their peril, bigotry raises a real risk of social sanction.

So too hate discourse in the public sphere is more muted. A hundred years ago, Southern newspapers and leaders explicitly endorsed mob violence against blacks. As late as 1940, a newspaper editor in Durham, North Carolina could state that: “A Negro is different from other people in that he’s an unfortunate branch of the human family who hasn’t been able to make out of himself all he is capable of” due to his “background of the jungle.” In the post-Civil Rights era, the public expression of bigoted epithets and slurs occurs infrequently. One rarely hears racist, sexist, or homophobic speech in mainstream media outlets. Some interpret this state of affairs optimistically, as a sign that we are moving beyond race, gender, and arguably even sexual orientation. The election of the first black President provoked proclamations of our entry into a “post-racial” era. Many contend that we no longer need feminism anymore. Prime time television is filled with images of female power, from Brenda Leigh Johnson’s chief on The Closer to Dr. Miranda Bailey’s “take no prisoners” surgeon on Grey’s Anatomy. Who needs feminism anymore as its goals have been achieved?

But a new era is not upon us. Instead, hate’s explicit form has, in part, repackaged itself in subtlety. In public discourse, crude biological views of group inferiority are often replaced with a kinder, gentler “color-blind racism,” as sociologist Eduardo Bonilla-Silva calls it. The face of modern racism is, in journalist Touré’s estimation, “invisible or hard to discern, lurking in the shadows or hidden.” The media has also better disguised sexism with its anxiety about female achievement, renewed and amplified objectification of young women’s bodies and faces, and the dual exploitation and punishment of female sexuality, as media scholar Susan Douglas explains. This isn’t to say blatant racism and sexism has disappeared. To be sure, it lives on in private conversations where there’s less risk of social sanction. But pernicious hate is not confined to physical locker rooms and kitchen tables. It increasingly appears in online spaces that seamlessly blend public and private discourse. Although televised sports commentary rarely features anti-gay rhetoric, online sports message boards are awash in homophobic speech. Racial epithets and slurs are common in online commentary, whether in Facebook profiles, Twitter posts, or blog comments. College students encounter more sexually inappropriate speech in online interactions than in face-to-face ones. Offline public discourse may now be on more neutral ground but its online counterpart is not.

Matters have not improved since I started talking and writing about it since 2007, when we woke up, for a brief second, and paid attention to sexualized, misogynistic attacks on Kathy Sierra on her blog and two others and the targeting of female law students on AutoAdmit. Then, technologist Tim O’Reilly and Wikipedia co-founder Jimmy Wales called for a Blogger’s Code of Conduct. That effort failed to gain traction, and ever since the bigoted online abuse continues, silencing victims, ruining their online reputations, costing them jobs, and interfering with their ability to engage with others online and offline. Newsweek’s always insightful Jessica Bennett has published important new piece on online misogyny and the Guardian’s Vanessa Thorpe and Richard Rogers similarly explore the rape threats and abuse of female bloggers. I will be blogging about bigoted online harassment, as I am amidst writing a book about it and serving on the Inter-Parliamentary Task Force on Online Hate, which recently held a hearing at the House of Commons. This all has to stop, and now.

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