This is tangentially about both RaceFail and AmazonFail, but only in that they're both examples of the phenomenon I want to talk about. And I'm not drawing any direct comparisons between the two incidents.
Let's take a sequence of events: Somebody is Wrong on the internet. And not just Wrong about, you know, gun control or abortion or whether to vote Democrat or Republican (or whether the rest of the world outside the USA actually exists as anything more than a fable or source of rhetorical ammunition) but displaying bigotry against some minority group. Because the internet is inherently a public medium, people who belong to the minority group are going to notice, and are quite likely to express their hurt feelings. What happens now?
People don't like being criticized in public, especially when it's something that touches an important part of their self-image. A bigot is a bad person in most people's understanding these days, so it's hard to hear "this action or comment has bigotry-promoting consequences" without hearing "you're an evil bigot!" So the accused person is very likely to get defensive. In scrabbling to find reasons why the accusation can't possibly be true (because I'm a good person!), they're likely to cause more harm. For example, they may accuse the minority group of being over-sensitive or stupid, or claim that bigotry is a thing of the past. If the targeted minority was hurt before, being called stupid or told that their experiences of discrimination don't really matter to real people is likely to make them incensed. Because the internet is the internet, they'll deal with this by complaining to all their friends. The friends will rush to support the target and try to make the originally accused person see reason. Inevitably, the accused person will also get support from their friends, and the more tempers run high the more random second-degree connections and eventually total strangers will start following links and everything will get amplified and messy. (I very much like cartesiandaemon's comment on outrage: if I'm a little bit outraged, it might either look like (a) I think amazon were only a little bit culpable or (b) I only care about discrimination a little bit.)
Once things get horrible in public, people who don't really know the original facts will conclude that the whole thing's just a pointless flamewar, and that both sides are equally at fault. The people who are complaining about bigotry get accused of dogpiling, of ganging up, of being too angry and aggressive. And because emotions are already running high, you hear the rhetoric of violence, talking about mobs or lynching or angry hordes.
I think what really drove this home to me is that some people are taking this line regarding the AmazonFail story; the people who twittered about it and got large groups of people shouting about how Amazon is homophobic and they're going to stop buying from Amazon until there's a proper apology are being classified as an angry mob, getting carried away by the crowd dynamics, rushing too quickly to violence before they know all the facts... Waitaminute! Deciding to buy books from Barnes and Noble instead of Amazon because you don't like Amazon's homophobic policies is not violence. It's not even a little tiny bit like violence. Googlebombing is not bombing. A commercial boycott is neither social shunning nor, most certainly not, declaring war! And this is Amazon, this isn't even an individual person who meant well but said the wrong thing in an internet discussion and ended up getting their feelings hurt and understandably their friends want to take their side.
Part of it is an instinct to go against whatever the crowd is doing; if everybody is angry with Amazon, it's natural to want to defend Amazon, to feel like a balanced person who sees both sides of the argument. But realistically, Amazon is not the underdog here. Straight, gender normative, able bodied individuals are not the underdog here. (Some of the worst of this is in the Making Light post on the subject, and again understandably, the mods are not very happy about the comparison to RaceFail. Which is why I'm taking this here rather than trying to comment in that thread.)
The other thing I want to talk about is the asymmetry. On a very crude level, it means something different when a white person calls a black person stupid, from when a black person calls a white person stupid. A white-only club is a very different thing from a club for an ethnic minority group to get together and provide mutual support. But there's another aspect to this. There are some techniques which the powerful use against outsiders, such as shunning and social exclusion, such as getting a big group together to gang up on one individual, such as shouting and aggressive mannerisms, and so on. That's definitely bullying, and since many people who make their social life on the internet were bullied as kids they're very sensitive to it. But when a group of hurt people get together and decide that they don't want to socialize with someone who keeps hurting them, that's not the same as social exclusion. When people get support from their friends in order to defend themselves against bigotry, that's not the same as ganging up or piling on. When a member of a minority gets angry about being constantly mistreated based on a superficial characteristic, that's not the same as a powerful person yelling at someone in a subservient position in order to intimidate them. Refusing to do business with someone because you don't like their skin colour is not the same kind of action as refusing to give your money to a business that discriminates.
Equally, some of the dynamic I'm seeing is that people with power are adopting some of the tactics used by discriminated groups to try to lessen discrimination. For example, suing institutions for discrimination against white people or men if they have policies to try to support POC or women. Accusing people of intolerance when they complain about bigotry. Again, complaining about homophobes is not at all equivalent to discriminating against gay people!
There's another aspect which is a bit harder to define. Often, part of unconscious prejudice against minority groups is that the same reaction is perceived as being more aggressive than coming from a higher status person. This is partly because of direct stereotypes about the group (eg "black people are violent and animalistic"), and partly because groups that experience discrimination often learn to be extremely polite, deferential and conciliating and any deviation from that is perceived as threatening (eg a woman who complains about sexism instead of trying to adapt to it is "a man-hating feminazi"). It's also partly because people are quite naturally more inclined to give the benefit of the doubt to people like them, and if people like you happen to run society, then they get a whole bunch of automatic credibility on top of that. Also, it's a big problem when a group that is generally not subjected to violence uses the rhetoric of violence to dismiss the complaints of a group who do fear actual, literal violence.
In the probably vain hope of forestalling annoying responses to this, I want to point out that I am NOT saying that anything that a person from a discriminated background ever does is right, or that anyone who shares characteristics with the people who generally wield social power is automatically in the wrong. I'm saying that I've seen a lot of dynamics where an argument between powerful people who are behaving in a bigoted way, and vulnerable people who are complaining about that bigotry is perceived as "both sides are just as bad as eachother". Or when both sides do in fact behave badly, the less than perfect behaviour of one or two representatives of the minority is treated much more seriously than all the bigotry which led to the situation in the first place.
In conclusion: calling someone a homophobe is really not equivalent to calling someone a f*ggot. Calling someone a racist is really not equivalent to using a racial slur.
Yes, I would broadly agree with all that, especially your conclusion, which I think is right on the button.
Might I be permitted to raise a point related to the Amazon fiasco, but only tangentially to what you've said here? I have seen quite a number of comments to the effect that Amazon had no business to filter what, for want of a better phrase, are termed "adult books" out of their search listings in the first place. With everyone getting so indignant about gay fiction, which I suspect is no more likely to be pornographic than mainstream fiction, there seems to be a move in favour of the idea that Amazon should throw the baby out with the bathwater and abandon filtering altogether. I think this would be a very grave mistake.
I've seen people argue that porn filters are all about protecting children, implying that there could be no other use for them. Not so. Obviously I wouldn't want children to see porn, but this kind of attitude completely ignores the fact that many adults are offended by it because it turns people into objects. That is certainly what I have against it. I once saw a shop window where the dummies seemed to be remarkably lifelike; a closer look revealed that this was because they were, in fact, real people, all adopting the awkward poses that one expects of display models. I found this creepy, embarrassing and somehow offensive, and it was only much later that I realised that I was experiencing exactly the same feelings as I would about porn, even though all the models were perfectly decently dressed. The feelings are similar because the process is similar: the personality behind the face I'm seeing is being totally negated by the situation in which the face finds itself.
Now, obviously, none of that alters the fact that Amazon fouled up over the weekend. (For the record, I am not interested in gay fiction, but neither would I be even remotely offended if it turned up in a search listing, as long as it was not also pornographic - and, as I said above, in most cases it probably won't be.) But I do hope that in putting right their mistake, they will not overreach themselves in their enthusiasm and remove all the filters. I think that would be just as retrograde a move as the one they originally made.
Yeah, I'm not in theory against the existence of adult filters, and they're not only for protecting the hypothetical children. I do think the filters should be transparent, and people should have the opportunity to turn them on or off (see Google's "safe search" mechanism for an example of a good way to manage it).
I do find a lot of porn offensive for the reasons you outline. But then I find anti-semitic books and books about how Jesus can cure your child of being gay pretty offensive too. I'd still rather Amazon sold them than not; after all, everybody has different ideas of what constitutes offensive. One of the great strengths of Amazon is the long tail effect, they can sell millions of books that I wouldn't touch if they were the only reading matter in my jail cell, while providing me with books that some of their other customers might hate just as much.
Although a great screaming and wailing (no matter how justified) also fails to answer the questions "exactly what happened, exactly why did it happen and how do we fix it?". Sometimes I am irritated by people shouting not because I think they should not be shouting but because I want to hear some specific thing. Hopefully Amazon (whether or not they are going to actually tell everyone) has answers to those questions, they seem to have set about fixing it. But an apology would be good to, they have a PR disaster here as well as a technical fuckup (or a moral fuckup but I don't think that there was ever any intention to do this).
The was somewhere a nice video (of course I can't find it, I suck) making clear the difference between "what you did" and "who you are". You can clearly *do bigoted things* without *being a bigot* (you can do bigoted things entirely by accident) - but I think that too few people clearly recognise that, and people are often too quick to say "but I'm not a bigot" (and jump to "and thus my action could not possibly have been bigoted" rather than examining whether their actual action was a bigoted action (I am starting to think that word does not look like an English word now).
Also there is the common problem that a lot of bigoted actions are actually not *individually* all that bad, the problem is that they are repeated *so many times*. Being called "stupid" by one person is not a big bother, being called "stupid" by everyone *is* a big bother. And I think that a lot of people who don't suffer from bigotry fail to understand just how awful it is to repeatedly suffer from such "small" problems (because as privileged people they only encounter such problems once-in-a-while and can brush them off as "only small"). This also has the failure mode of people talking in generalities "all these bigoted actions" facing people who demand *specifics* and then being yelled at because each individual specific-thing is "small" (because the problem is not the individual thing, it is the *pattern* of things).
This is a great collection of several good points, thank you! I agree that mass crowd outrage can be irritating and not necessarily the most effective way to deal with a problem. But the issue I see is that it's yet another easy excuse: oh, this discrimination isn't really a problem, it's "just" a bunch of shouty outrage.
For the Amazon thing specifically, I agree it was much more likely to have been a technical problem exacerbated by bad PR, than actual deliberate homophobia. And I agree that they really ought to apologize; the problem here is (thankfully a minority of) comments saying, oh, why are you being so mean to Amazon, it was a simple technical mistake. People shouldn't be shouting at Amazon, they're being too judgemental and hasty. That kind of thing.
I'm not sure that trying to force the distinction between person and action works very well. Partly because it turns into a tone argument: if you'd only phrase it more nicely when you accuse me of doing racist things, while carefully assuring me that you know I'm a decent person and I didn't really mean it, then I might just possibly condescend to make a tiny bit of effort to be less racist. And partly because it just doesn't work psychologically. It's like when Christians talk about "hating the sin but loving the sinner"; people just don't feel loved when being lectured about how evil and sinful their lifestyle is.
I think your last paragraph is spot on, though. I've noted before that it can be difficult to speak out about discrimination, because either it's such a "minor" incident that you're making too much fuss, or it's so extreme that only a complete sociopath would ever behave like that. Very, very good point about a particular incidence of discrimination being more hurtful and dangerous because it's part of a pattern.
(Sorry about bigoted; I want a general term so I didn't have to keep saying "sexist, racist, homophobic, ableist etc etc". I know it makes my argument sound weaker if I talk in vague generalities, though.)
Apologies if this sounds naive, I have not done much reading or thinking around this.
You divide the groups into "more powerful" and "more discriminated against". You suggest that statements by members of these groups cannot be viewed equally because of the surrounding power disbalance. You say more allowances should be made when judging behaviour of the discriminated against groups. (Presumably the aim is to eventually achieve fairness and even power balance.) This makes sense.
Effectively your argument means we need to quantify - how powerful? How discriminated against?
You're definitely right here: there aren't distinct groups of "powerful people" and "discriminated against people". Power differentials are situational and a particular person can quite easily hold power in one aspect of their life while experiencing discrimination in another.
I'm not really saying that you should "make allowances" for the behaviour of someone complaining against discrimination. I am saying that behaviour is actually different, depending whether you're reacting against someone who is putting you down, or doing the putting down yourself. Getting together with all your friends and saying "We're not going to buy Amazon's books any more until they apologize for being homophobic" is not the same thing as getting together with all your friends and agreeing not to buy any books by gay people because you think they're icky. Yelling at someone "how dare you use that racist language?!" is not the same thing as yelling at someone you have power over "shut up, you incompetent fool!" It's not that you should judge people less harshly because their life is hard, it's that you should realize that the superficially similar behaviours are actually different depending on the power balance between the people engaging in them.
I don't know if the aim is to achieve fairness and even power balance, exactly. There are always going to be power differences. And while fairness may be the long term aim, the immediate aim is to make sure that you don't contribute to discrimination by supporting the powerful in their argument against the vulnerable.
I have to say I'm going to disagree here: there is more than an element of angry mobism with the Amazon situation.
There is a time and a place for both reasoned discussion and, when that fails, highly visible activism and protest. No doubt it's valuable to have a degree of flag waving to publicise the story, but this is too much, too fast.
Going straight from discovery to the small nuclear option (boycotting Amazon), especially on what is a UK bank holiday, is mob mentality. The sensible option is to request a timeframe for a response, and when (if) there is no satisfactory response then escalate it. Such a sensible timeframe would normally, I suggest, be at *least* half, to a whole week. No-one is dying from this discrimination - it does not demand a response in an hour.
Online discussion frequently suffers from a lack of context and reasoned response. Therefore, it's difficult to know when someone is not being serious. Add in a large degree of disagreement over when it's appropriate to use certain terms, whether it's appropriate to see certain groups in certain ways and the frequent lack of education from the discriminated community and it's no wonder things explode.
(Incidentally, before anyone points me at the 'shitty things people of privilege do when arguing' checklist, let me spare you the bother. Specifically the 'it is the ignorant person's responsibility to educate themselves' argument is *wrong*. Whilst it is not the responsibility of any individual disadvantaged person to educate the ignorant, it *is* a responsibility for the community as a whole. This means that someone, somewhere, has to provide the response. 'Go look at this concise set of accessible webpages' is acceptable, so are marches containing easily understood banners, whilst 'go to the library, ask for subjects on this matter and read three books' is not.)
The above is also a reason for the 'both sides at fault' viewpoint. Even if one side is objectively utterly in the wrong, if the opposing community fail to articulate why they are wrong to a third uninvolved party, the people that matter (the ones without fixed ideas) will not change.
As to the rest I generally agree. Minor quibbles would be of the 'I know what you mean, but what you said isn't accurate' of white club vs POC club - the difference being when membership of the club confers privilege or enforces discrimination. Theoretically there could be non discriminatory white only clubs, but I'm struggling to find a reason for one.
The other quibble would be the workplace discrimination issue - unfortunately it's sometimes difficult to draw the line between supporting someone to help them compete on the same level as a privileged person (good) and 'positive discrimination' (something I personally consider a bad idea). If the line goes too far in one direction, it will lead to complaints.
I think we actually do agree more than not, judging by this comment. It does make sense that groups that want to deal with discrimination do need to provide resources for people to learn about their situation and history. It is necessary to convince outsiders that your cause is worth supporting, and not hate them if they aren't already in full possession of all the facts. There does come a point where ignorance is culpable, but most of the time the best response to ignorance is to provide more information.
I agree that theoretically there could be such a thing as a white-only club that wasn't racist. I was trying to give a simple example of the asymmetry that I could build on to develop my argument, so I take your point that I made a statement that was more sweeping than accurate there.
I'm with you on being against positive discrimination, as it happens. In order to overturn an unfair discrimination, you have to have good tactics as well as noble goals. Not every action that claims to be against discrimination is necessarily a good thing. But the problem is when powerful people use the language of discrimination to avoid actually doing anything to stop exploiting people. For example, being made to attend a diversity awareness course is not "discrimination" against your right to be a bigot. Having a legal requirement to enforce fair employment procedures is not "discrimination" against your right to employ only your mates (who all happen to be white men from a middle class background). You could legitimately argue that these are poor tactics for making the workplace fairer, but that's a different thing from saying that they are discriminating against the majority group.
The one place I do disagree with you is in referring to the blogging and Twittering against Amazon as angry mobism or a nuclear option. Putting an "Amazonfail" hashtag in your tweets is not violence. Refusing to buy from Amazon is not nuclear war. I think it would be reasonable to give Amazon a few days to fix their fuckup, but on the other hand, if people are rushing to judgement too fast, nobody is dying from the boycott either. If Amazon causes the authors of books including gay material to lose money for a few days, then it's fair for them to lose sales to outraged customers for a few days. I think the degree of publicity in this case was proportionate to the scale of the situation. Exactly what was needed here was a mass movement to make it very clear to Amazon that homophobia, even if it's accidental, is going to lose them more customers than it gains.
Maybe I've gone overboard on this quasi-martial arts Rationalists Should Win stuff, but I see this as more about tactics than morality.
If someone says "oh, if only you had a more reasonable tone", it falls on you to decide whether they really would listen and you care what they think, or whether they're making a (perhaps unconscious) excuse to avoid dealing with things they find uncomfortable, or whether you just don't care about what that person thinks anyway (for example, if they're an outsider who's come into a space for rallying the troops). If it's the former, you should ignore the fact that the person made an OMG TONE ARGUMENT and do what you think it takes to win. If it's one or both of the latter two, carry on as you were.
In the Amazon case, I think making a big noise was the winning thing to do. In other cases, it sometimes seems the participants think the universe automatically rewards the righteousness of your cause.
Yeah, you have a good point about tactics. And yes, part of the problem is that it is hard to distinguish honest ignorance from bad-faith defensiveness. I'm sure people do make wrong judgement calls about that some of the time.
See naath's comment about how people may be reacting to being subjected to the same "small" lack of empathy over and over again, though. If you've had 99 experiences where you complain about racism, and the only response you get is "why are you being so aggressive, can't you just explain nicely and politely why something isn't acceptable instead of flinging accusations", when the hundredth person comes along and says exactly the same thing, you might not have much patience left to give them the benefit of the doubt. And yeah, you might lose a potential recruit that way, but it's humanly understandable.
Personally, I don't like calling "Bingo!" and do prefer making an effort to present arguments in a way that my audience will be likely to receive them well, and that's a lot to do with the tactical reasons that you mention. But I think if I had made every effort within my power to present my case in a fashion as conciliatory as possible, and just got called abusive for my pains, I'd probably give up after a while. And I might well devolve to "well, if you're going to keep claiming I'm a mean nasty bitch anyway, fuck you too".
Reading this again the conclusion really stands out to me.
calling someone a homophobe is really not equivalent to calling someone a f*ggot. Calling someone a racist is really not equivalent to using a racial slur. is one of those things that really does need repeating to people.
I don't disagree with cartesiandemon but I do think there's an option c) my outrage levels are at saturation point. So much outrage, so little time. I don't think that's unreasonable, most people hit the caring event horizon at some point and it can be a useful way of getting priorities straight. Internet kerfuffles are meaningless blather, but nor are they bloody massacres. I'm annoyed by Amazon, but I'm not outraged *yet* - maybe because i've been too busy reading about Iraqi child prostitutes murdered for being "gay" or "trans", and corrective rape in Africa, as part of my IDAHO preparation. Or, hell, the more immediate G20 PoliceFail. Don't get me wrong, it's on the spectrum, and I fully support the actions against Amazon, I'm just trying to present a view of why sometimes not being outraged is, I believe, reasonable and also a way to preserve sanity - if you've ever read Marilyn French's 'The Bleeding Heart', this might make more sense?
I do get very irritated when people accuse protestors using economic sanctions of being aggressive/violent/extreme/whatever. It seems to be part of an idea that we have a duty as citizens to support the economy by patronising profit-driven organisations! I find this extremely cheeky (in the same ways that I found comparisons of Newbury Bypass protestors pouring sugar into vehicle engines to violent aggressors to be angering, all those years ago).
Mark Steel, in his autobiography 'Things Can Only Get Better', compares this kind of false equivalence to school incidents where a 4th former picks on a 1st former and a teacher punishes them BOTH for fighting. I think he's spot-on.
Oh, it's absolutely true that there are way more important issues in the world! But posting angry comments on twitter seems proportional to how much of a problem it is that Amazon was messing around with the findability of some books. It's slacktivism, but it's a situation where slacktivism is appropriate and actually got things done. Addressing the state-sanctioned homophobic violence in Iran needs real political action, not just outrage. Perhaps there should be outrage as well, but as you say there are just so many awful things in the world.
Sometimes it's a troll tactic on activist blogs, too; why are you blogging about this minor incident of bigotry when there are deadly genocides going on in Africa and pollution is rapidly making the planet unlivable? There's always something worse, but people address what they feel a personal connection to and have some ability to do something about. I do agree with you that you can't keep going through your life being utterly outraged and furious about everything, though.
And yes, absolutely, criticism and economic sanctions are not violence. That was a lot of the point of my post in fact. And good analogy for false equivalences, too.
The person I know who was worried about a mob mentality said he felt that there was a real danger of someone deciding to DDoS Amazon. That goes beyond acceptable means of dealing with the problem. Boycotts - great. Angry letters - great. Denial of service, no, not so great. Illegal, violent, and unjustified.
It means something different when a white person calls a black person stupid, from when a black person calls a white person stupid Er, no it doesn't, or there isn't equality. If I'm bad at Maths I don't expect not to be told so because someone is worried they'll be propagating the stereotype that girls are bad at maths.
In conclusion: calling someone a homophobe is really not equivalent to calling someone a f*ggot. Calling someone a racist is really not equivalent to using a racial slur. Calling someone racist can be extremely offensive. If you think being a racist is a really terrible thing to be it could worse to be labelled one unjustly, an allegation you then need to defend yourself from, than being called a insulting name for something which is perfectly acceptable that you happen to be.
no it doesn't, or there isn't equality But there isn't equality! That was exactly my point. My remark was entirely descriptive, not prescriptive. I'm not saying that the white person "should" be punished more severely or the black person let off the hook for the same bad manners. I'm saying that in actual, historical fact, black people spent a couple of hundred years living with the generally accepted common sense that they were less intelligent than white people. Black people are still dealing with the consequences of that today; few people literally believe it, but lots of people are likely to have subconscious prejudices leading to assuming that someone is less intelligent because of their skin colour. This means that the insult "you're so stupid" is likely to hurt more when addressed by a white person to a black person. (And just because a white person may have forgotten that historical context at the moment of being insulting, that doesn't change the situation.) There isn't equality, that's the problem, and pretending there is just because you think there should be doesn't help, IMO.
first read: no comment, generally agree. second thoughts: "in conclusion" - can be read a different way; the former is personal, the latter impersonal. i can brush off offensive name-calling pretty easy (because it isn't really about me). but it would really bother me to be called homophobic or racist, though to be sure it would make me rethink my actions/words. there's a strange counter-argument that then comes back - if you call a group of people racist or homophobic often enough, it becomes generic (probably because it is), not personal, and the individuals in that group find it easier to brush off and ignore. no, i am not suggesting keeping quiet about injustice and discrimination, i just seem to have argued myself into a hole. i think i ought to leave the thinking to others...
In conclusion: calling someone a homophobe is really not equivalent to calling someone a f*ggot. Calling someone a racist is really not equivalent to using a racial slur.
Of course, then there's the truly infuriating tactic where you justify your own bigotry as a response against the people you hate's bigotry: I'm not racist, I just hate how the people of colour in California voter for Prop 8. I'm not antisemitic, I just hate how they treat Palestinians. I'm not Islamophobic, I just hate how they treat women. I'm not bigoted, I just think homosexuality is part of a decadent imperialist plot.