Americans — not uniquely, but powerfully — wallow in political hypocrisy about online rhetoric.
We're not consistent in our arguments about when vivid political speech speech inspires, encourages, or promotes violence. We're quicker to accept that it does when used against our team and quicker to deny it when used on the other team.
We're not consistent in our moral judgments of ugly speech either. We tend to treat it as harmless venting or trolling or truth-telling if it's on our team and as a reflection of moral evil if it's on the other team.
We're not consistent in our arguments about whether online abuse and threats directed at people in the news are to be taken seriously or not. We tend to downplay them when employed against the other team and treat them as true threats when used against our team.
We're not consistent in our arguments about whether calling some individual out by name exposes them to danger. We tend to claim it does when the person supports our team and sneer at the issue when the person supports the other team.
We're not consistent in our treatment of the significance of behavior by obscure individuals. When some obscure person's online speech gets thrust into the limelight, we tend to treat it as fairly representative if they're on the other team and an obvious non-representative outlier if they are on our team.
We're hopelessly bad at applying consistent legal principles to evaluate whether speech is legally actionable depending on which team it comes from.
We're pretty inconsistent in our assessment of what social consequences should flow from ugly speech, with our views of proportionality, decency, and charity diverging widely depending on whether the person at issue is on our team or not.
So it can't be a shock that the reaction to CNN's story about a Redditor is a total shitstorm.
I think it's a legitimate story that the White House plumbs the depths of Reddit for content to post on Twitter. I think it's a legitimate story that the sort of people who post Trump-fluffing memes also post bigoted garbage — that this is the community that the White House looks to for inspiration. I think the existence and nature of sad people like this Redditor — someone who, at the most charitable interpretation, derives pleasure and meaning from pretending to be bigoted — is a legitimate and important story, especially in light of the White House's fondness for them. I think that it's a legitimate and sick-fascinating story to know what sort of person derives pleasure from posting a chart showing the pictures of CNN employees with stars next to the Jews. Does he have a job? A family? How does this hobby impact his life?
I also think that CNN has an absolutely protected First Amendment right to seek his name and publish it if they wish. The First Amendment should place strict limits on CNN's ability to use the power of the state (like discovery in a lawsuit) to unmask an anonymous person, and does. But CNN, and any private individual, has a right to figure it out on their own and talk about it, just like this creepy damaged human has a right to post the Jews-at-CNN chart in the first place.
But there's a difference between legal and moral approval. I defend the Redditor's right to post bigoted garbage but deplore him for doing so. And, under these circumstances, I personally think that it would not be proportional for CNN to use its power to name the person. A number of factors might change my view — it the guy was directing bigoted invective or threats at anyone instead of just posting it in a forum made up of similar losers, if the guy had a position of trust that required treating people equally (like, say, a public official or police officer or teacher), or if the dude was doing something like posting child porn or the sort of creepshots that took down Reddit super-troll Violentacrez.
CNN didn't publish his name. But CNN published this:
CNN is not publishing "HanA**holeSolo's" name because he is a private citizen who has issued an extensive statement of apology, showed his remorse by saying he has taken down all his offending posts, and because he said he is not going to repeat this ugly behavior on social media again. In addition, he said his statement could serve as an example to others not to do the same.
CNN reserves the right to publish his identity should any of that change.
I found this alarming and ugly. CNN should publish the name or not publish the name. For CNN to tell him what he should or shouldn't say in the future, and threaten him that they will reveal his name in the future if they don't like his speech, does not make them sound like journalists. It makes them sound like avenging advocates, and lends substantial credibility to the argument that they pursued him because he posted a GIF about them. I don't know what they actually intended — they've denied intent to threaten and claim this was only to clarify that there was no agreement. If so, that could have been conveyed much less like a threat. However they meant it, this is reasonably interpreted as a warning that the Redditor must speak only as approved by CNN or suffer for it. That's grotesque. Legal, but grotesque.
The internet is, in human terms, very new. We still don't have coherent shared values about how we use it. Our views on ugly internet speech and the proper response to it are particularly confused. As I've argued for a while, the argument "you have to shut up so I can feel safe to speak" is not coherent. "There's absolutely nothing wrong with my speech but there's something wrong with you identifying me as the speaker" is not particularly coherent. "You are silencing free speech by criticizing it" is not coherent. "This speech is insignificant but it's wrong for you to highlight it" is not coherent. "People should be able to post graphics identifying all the Jews at CNN without anyone figuring out who they are and criticizing them by name" is not coherent. Troll visions of free speech — in which society works together harmoniously to ensure that they can post bigotry without any social consequence — is incoherent. (I also think trolls would hate that world if they got it, since their pleasure depends upon people being upset.)
As I said when I wrote semi-anonymously, I think people should be prepared to accept the social consequences of what they've written if someone is able to figure out who they are. But I also think we should consider whether to inflict social consequences when appropriate on people who breach the anonymity of others. Sometimes social consequences — even severe ones — may be appropriate. If some anon is sending death threats, I honestly have no problem with their name being published, whether or not their friends cry "it's just trolling." I'm also not terribly sympathetic to the proposition that I should be able to send abuse to people anonymously — you by the ticket, you take the ride. If someone officially charged with treating people equally posts things suggesting they do not, that seems like a correct time for naming them. Otherwise, though, I think we should talk about whether naming people who act like assholes is proportional or decent. And certainly we should talk about whether it's decent for a major network to threaten to name someone unless they speak acceptably.
None of this means I have to take seriously the hollow fury of everyone who rails at CNN, though.
Edited to add: The notion that it was execs and lawyers who inserted the threat is both comforting (because it means the journalists aren't as foolish or awful as I thought) and horrifying (because it means the execs and lawyers are morons indifferent to the harm they do to their journalists).
Last 5 posts by Ken White
- Hate Speech Debate on More Perfect Live - September 5th, 2017
- Popehat Goes To The Opera: Un ballo in maschera - August 19th, 2017
- Department of Justice Uses Search Warrant To Get Data On Visitors to Anti-Trump Site - August 14th, 2017
- America At The End of All Hypotheticals - August 14th, 2017
- Lawsplainer: Why John Oliver Is Anti-Diversity Now - August 11th, 2017