Posts Tagged ‘Freedom’

Trigger warning: some talk of rape, abuse and pedophilia.

Here’s the thing about context: it matters.

Earlier in the year, there was widespread outrage over the actions of one Daniel Tosh, a comedian who thought that the best way to deal with a female audience member decrying his use of rape jokes was to start riffing about how hilarious it would be if she were to be gang raped right there and then. In the backlash that followed, one article in particular by Lindy West stuck with me – specifically, this paragraph (my emphasis):

 This fetishization of not censoring yourself, of being an “equal-opportunity offender,” is bizarre and bad for comedy. When did “not censoring yourself” become a good thing? We censor ourselves all the time, because we are not entitled, sociopathic fucks. Your girlfriend is censoring herself when she says she’s okay with you playing Xbox all day. In a way, comedy is censoring yourself—comedy is picking the right words to say to make people laugh. A comic who doesn’t censor himself is just a dude yelling. And being an “equal opportunity offender”—as in, “It’s okay, because Daniel Tosh makes fun of ALL people: women, men, AIDS victims, dead babies, gay guys, blah blah blah”—falls apart when you remember (as so many of us are forced to all the time) that all people are not in equal positions of power. “Oh, don’t worry—I punch everyone in the face! People, baby ducks, a lion, this Easter Island statue, the ocean…” Okay, well that baby duck is dead now. And you’re a duck-murderer. It’s really easy to believe that “nothing is sacred” when the sanctity of your body and your freedom are never legitimately threatened.

Ignoring the off-key point about the Xbox, this argument perfectly encapsulates why, in so many cases, the context of an action matters more than the action itself. To run with West’s metaphor, the difference between angrily king-hitting a weak, vulnerable stranger and bestowing a gentle, congratulatory arm-punch on a sturdy friend is so monumental that trying to boil both incidents down to their single common denominator – punching – is categorically meaningless, because the contextual factors which distinguish them are more relevant than the single action which unites them. By sidelining context, you not only miss the extremity of the comparison, you forget to make a comparison at all. Such similarity as exists allows the contrast, but doesn’t automatically supersede it.

Thus: defending the actions of Michael Brutsch, aka Violentacrez, (or at least, denouncing his comeuppance) in the name of free speech without reference to any sort of context is equivalent to arguing that because king-hitting a stranger and shoulder-bumping a friend both involve punching, people who engage in the former should be protected and tolerated so that the rest of us are free to do the latter, because otherwise you’d have to outlaw both. By this way of thinking, it’s somehow innately hypocritical to condone an action in one context while condemning it in another, as though (to take just one of a bajillion potential examples) there’s no meaningful difference between having sex with a willing partner instead of an unwilling one. If the people currently defending Brutsch viewed sexual consent the same way they do freedom of speech, they’d end up arguing that condemning rape, pedophilia  sexual abuse, sexual harassment and other non-consensual activities is somehow fundamentally incompatible with accepting consensual sex and desire,  because unless you protect every single type of sexual encounter, you’re not really protecting any.

Oh, wait.

When it comes to summing up exactly how toxic, wrongheaded and fundamentally flawed this logic is – not just with regard to freedom of speech, but the impact of Reddit’s creepshot forums on women – I can’t do better than quote from this amazing piece by Aaron Bady (again, my emphasis):

…“Free Speech” is not and cannot be a blanket protection of all speech… If your speech is assault, it will be prosecuted as such; if your speech is conspiracy to commit murder (or god help you, terrorism), it will be prosecuted as such. If your speech is criminal, it is not protected…

…on those occasions,we understand that speech to be a vehicle for some other kind of act or violation. In those cases, it isn’t the speech that’s being criminalized, but the act of violence it’s being used to commit…

What I want to observe, then, is simply this: when people invoke “free speech” to defend a person’s right to take pictures of unwilling women and circulate those pictures on the internet, they are saying that it is okay to do so. They are saying that society has no legitimate interest in protecting a woman’s right not to have pictures of her body circulated without her consent…Freedom of speech only protects the kinds of speech that some version of the social “we” has determined not to be violent. And by saying that what he [Brutsch] did was protected, we are determining that those forms of violence against women are not, in fact, violent.

The idea that Brutsch’s actions were somehow “necessary” to the preservation of freedom of speech is therefore a fundamental – one might even say willful – misunderstanding of the restrictions already imposed on speech and other associate actions. Of necessity, these restrictions exist both legally and socially, because (to borrow West’s bluntly effective phrase) the human race does not consist entirely of entitled, sociopathic fucks. If you send someone death threats, your speech is not protected; if you racially abuse a coworker, your speech is not protected; if you stalk or harass a stranger, your actions are not protected. Freedom of speech is not synonymous with freedom from consequences, because freedom of speech does not constitute an inalienable right to do anything and everything we feel entitled to do, like violate the consent and bodies of others. This ridiculous “all or nothing” approach to free speech is predicated on a contextually useless binary – freedom vs censorship – which in turn stems from a false belief in the universality of freedom to begin with. Unless you’re a hardcore anarchist, denying the necessity of placing any legal, social or cultural limits on freedom is utterly unfeasible; and if you are a hardcore anarchist, then why you think Brutsch’s privacy should be respected due to the tenuous, technical non-illegality of some of his actions is beyond me.

And yet, conveniently enough, Brutsch and his supporters are willing to place at least one limit on freedom of speech: Thou Shalt Not Dox. How this is meant to fit with their established claim that all types of speech – no matter how offensive – should be protected for the Greater Good is beyond me, though in most cases, I suspect it’s less a matter of outright hypocrisy than a case of subcultural blindness:  doxing is so deeply ingrained as taboo in some circles that many adherents have simply failed to consider the argument that it could reasonably constitute an exercise in freedom of speech, at least in some circumstances. (To say nothing of the fact that, as discussed above, the whole idea of utterly uncensored speech is bunk anyway; even Brutsch drew the line at letting hardcore child pornography onto Reddit, though whether he did so because he thought it was immoral, as opposed to merely inappropriate content for his subreddit, is another matter entirely; as is the far more significant question of whether he actually reported such images and their posters to the police.)

But for those of us who do see the value in placing some legal/social limits on free speech, it’s important to note that doxing, or outing, or whatever you wish to call it, is justified or unwarranted depending on the context in which it occurs, rather than being inherently objectionable. To contrast two compelling extremes, for instance, whistleblowers frequently require anonymity and protection in order to speak out against wrongdoers without compromising their safety, the treatment of Bradley Manning after he passed information to Wikileaks being a case in point; online pedophiles, on the other hand, use anonymity in order to perpetrate abuse, making any defense of their privacy indefensible. As both Racialicious and blackamazon point out, doxing poses a significant threat to POC and members of other marginalised groups who rely on the comparative anonymity of the internet in order to speak freely about their oppression; likewise, countless others from abuse victims to minors to key witnesses to closeted QUILTBAG persons all benefit from anonymity in order to preserve their personal safety and wellbeing from those who take their continued, happy existence as a personal affront. But to say that everyone on the internet either deserves or requires this same level of protection is ludicrous: abusers do not, criminals do not, stalkers do not, and if for no other reason than the blatant hypocrisy of stripping consent and privacy from thousands of women through his subreddits while still trying to claim it for himself, Michael Brutsch certainly does not. The question to ask here isn’t, as Cicero once famously did, cui bono, but cui perfero magis - who suffers more? And whichever way you cut it, whatever consequences Brutsch is currently experiencing pale into insignificance beside the widespread damage caused by his trollish endorsement of domestic violence, misogyny, racism and yes, pedophilia. The bed he currently occupies is entirely of his own making, and though he’s beginning to feel the repercussions, one man categorically cannot suffer more than thousands, and especially not when they’re his own victims.

Note also, please, the staggeringly sexist discrepancy inherent in the fact that, while Brutsch has lost his job for posting creepshots of unconsenting women and minors (among other despicable things), the subjects of such photos often lose theirs, too – and more besides. One of the more disgusting modern chauvinisms is the pressure put on young girls to engage in sexting with men and boys who, having promised to keep the photos private, promptly share them online, where they enter circulation among exactly the sort of communities that Brutsch created. Countless teenage girls have committed or contemplated suicide as a result of the subsequent bullying and slutshaming they experience; others endure the harassment, only to live in fear of the day those old pictures resurface to ruin their adult lives, too. Neither is the problem restricted to teenagers: as the final screenshot on this chilling entry on the Predditors tumblr makes clear, some members were (and, presumably, still are) posting compromising photos of their unsuspecting, unconsenting partners online as masturabtory fodder for strangers, thus ensuring that women who’ve done nothing worse than engage in intimacy with boyfriends, fiances and spouses are at risk of suffering real life repercussions.

Fifteen-year-old Amanda Todd recently committed suicide due to sustained sexual cyberbullying by a man who sent topless photos of her to students at every school she attended – and in response, the vigilante group Anonymous has now posted his details online. Are we going to lament that sort of doxing, too? Or are we honestly going to assert that there’s some sort of fundamental moral difference between a man who drove one teen to suicide with his non-consensual sharing of sexualised photos and a man who created multiple massive subreddits devoted to the exact same principle?

Brutsch has lost his job for violating the privacy of thousands of strangers using the same skillset for which he was employed, and for unapologetically peddling racism, misogyny, pedophilia and images of dead children – all of which would be well outside of any workplace code of conduct – for laughs.  But thanks to the same sort of sexism his culture of trolling and creepshotting relies upon to perpetuate itself, the same women whose photos were distributed through his forums run a similar risk of real-world backlash, too: not because they’ve done anything offensive or immoral, but because evidence of their sexuality, whether distributed with their consent or without it, is construed as immorality. And meanwhile, the likelihood of any serious repercussions being felt by the majority of contributors to Brutsch’s subreddits is slim: happily, at least one teacher caught taking upskirt photos of his underage students has been fired, but as for the rest of the Predditors? Who knows?

As Aaron Bady made clear, Brutsch’s actions are fundamentally violent – against women, against minors, against POC – because they’re contextualised by their place in a culture of violence against women, of the aggressive, non-consensual objectification of women, and of the consequences of widespread and institutional anti-black racism. Defending him denies the reality of that violence, and in so doing helps it to go unchecked. Quite literally, freedom of speech is not a get-out-of-jail-free card. Everything is contextual, and if you make a habit of exploiting, demeaning and sexually objectifying others, violating their privacy and consent through the misguided belief that you’re entitled to do so without let or hindrance? Then be prepared to deal with the consequences.

Or, better yet: just don’t. The world will thank you for it.

This week, it seems, I am pretty much incapable of not ranting. I’ve ranted to the Sydney Morning Herald about education in NSW (scroll down for my letter); I’ve ranted about paranoral romance – and now, it seems, I’m ranting about tweens.

Not being a parent, let alone an American, I’m probably ill-placed to judge how crazy this article on tweenage freedoms may or may not be. For starters, its about tweens in New York City, which would seem to be a fairly unrepresentative slice of Americana, but that doesn’t stop it from raising alarm bells. I’ve long since accustomed myself to the notions of helicopter parenting and cocooning as repugnant (if apparently widespread) symptoms of the modern age, and yet somehow, I’ve never really sat down and thought about the age bracket in question. Most often, I rant about teenagers being downtrodden by foolish adults, and while I’m certainly familiar with tweens as a concept, it hadn’t actually occurred to me that they might be copping an even worse end of the stick.

Of all the lines in the article – the sentiment of which, for the record, I wholeheartedly agree with – there’s one which made me pull up short and sit down, once again, to rant. It’s this:

‘”Kids like to feel that they are doing something of value,” explains Michael Thompson. “Boys who like organized sports like them because it feels like they’re doing something valuable, and by that I don’t mean getting good at soccer. I mean entertaining adults.”’

On the one hand, Michael Thompson clearly means well. He’s identified a problem facing tweens – not being allowed out of parental sight for fear of cataclysmic life failure – and is trying to suggest ways of fixing it. On the other hand, it would seem to be a fairly self-evident statement, when removed from an ageist context, that people generally – and not just ‘kids’ – like to ‘feel that they are doing something of value’. Actually, scrap that. People like to actually do  things of value, and not just be given the illusion of same. Which is where I start to get angry – not at the article, or even (necessarily) Michael Thompson, but of this damnable habit we seem to have fallen into of treating everyone as a separate demographic. Has it become completely alien to our sense of being that some things, regardless of whether one is nine, nineteen, forty-nine or ninety – or, for that matter, male, female, religious, agnostic, atheistic, a ufologist, black, white, Hispanic or Chinese – might be universal? I’m not talking about complex moral truths, for heavens’ sake: just a simple recognition of the fact that we are all human beings, and therefore hold a certain type of base need in common. 

Must everything be looked at in terms of marketing? Sure, it might be a comparably slender percentage of likes which bind us together, but I’d wager they hold a pretty deep significance for the same reason. People want a purpose. Why is that such a difficult notion for society to understand? Kids might be less emotionally mature than adults, but that doesn’t make them stupid, and it sure as hell doesn’t make them any less human. Children like to entertain their parents, but past a certain age, they also want to feel like they’re getting older, a quality which, up until about age 19, is most readily identifiable by the grade we’re in at school and how we’re treated by adults. And if the latter isn’t there, the former doesn’t matter a jot, because one of the most pivotal reasons students recognise their school years as a valid progressive hierarchy is that it leads to the adult world.  Nobody goes to school for the sake of school itself, ‘school’ here being distinct from a concept of learning. What grade you’re in is based almost solely on age, not any kind of meritocratic policy. If each successive birthday from six to sixteen brings no increase in social respect, parentally granted autonomy or actual real-world power, why shoudn’t tweens be sullen – indeed, why shouldn’t they become disrespectful, disobedient teens in turn?

During a recent conversational rant about the failings of education, another adult asked me why I still gave a damn. After all, I’ve been out of school for five years, and despite my complaints, I did well enough while there; it’s been over a decade since I was a tween, and almost five years since I ceased to be a teenager. Why was I still ranting about problems which no longer concerned me?

But the thing is, they do still concern me. Part of what bothered me then – what still bothers me now – is the extent to which, despite every study telling us that children are learning increasingly more each year from younger ages; despite the leaps in technology which are picked up most readily by the young; despite the fact that tweens and teenagers are the future, adults are still persistently talking over their heads, treating tweens and teens as if they don’t matter, when everything about our new society is screaming that yes, they do. Even worse, this realisation of increased child-knowledge compared with their relative lack of emotional experience has spawned a rash of parenting techniques designed expressly to prolong the gaining of wisdom by wrapping one’s offspring in cotton wool, as though emotional experience can be achieved without any kind of learning-through-error. I keep ranting about things that no longer concern me directly because they do concern me, and everyone, indirectly. The current social system with regard to youth is predicated largely on the assumption that nobody under the age of 18 is worth listening to, while everyone over the age of 18 can no longer be bothered arguing, having managed to escape the conditions they were previously so animated about. It’s stupid, and irritating, and more than anything else about growing up, I am terrified that one day the Adult Brainwashing Machines will get me, too, ensuring that not only will I forget what it was like to be young, but, in losing all interest in youth beyond self-perpetuation, I’ll forget that there is more than one kind of youth; that the Youth of Today are just as human, just as bright and gawky and volatile as I was, but that they nonetheless are not me, and that this is not automatically a cause for concern.

So, parents: let your tweens go down to the shops or pick up the laundry or - horror of horrors – take the train alone, but don’t act as though you’re doing them a favour. Don’t be condescending in your permissal of freedoms, because if you are, then they’re not really freedoms at all. The difference between extending a privilege and acknowleging a right is the most profound difference in the world, once you’re aware of it – and with the current rate of information absorption among tweens, it’s a safe bet that most of them are.