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.

  1. Phire says:

    I have no words other than just: Preach.

  2. potsherds says:

    Amazing post.

  3. Everything is awesome and I agree 99.9999999999999…9% with one caveat:

    The guy outed by Anonymous as the bully who drove Amanda Todd to suicide… the article about it even notes that the tiny amount of evidence there is is flimsy at best.

    Don’t get me wrong… I would love for nothing more than the man who ruined Amanda Todd’s life to be brought into public to face justice; quite frankly, he should be tried for and found guilty of FIRST-DEGREE VOLUNTARY MANSLAUGHTER, and spend many hundreds of lifetimes in prison. Amanda may have committed suicide, but make no mistake; that 30-year-old bully directly and knowingly killed her… he may as well have hung her himself.

    But it should be the actual bully who did it; not someone who may or may not be that bully outed and harassed based on practically no compelling evidence. If this guy is, in fact, the bully, then yes, what I said above applies. But if he’s not, then Anonymous owes not one, but TWO families serious apologies, and probably more.

    Beyond that, however, you are absolutely correct, in both cases. I’m so sick and tired of the whole “free speech” thing. It’s complete and total bullshit; period. Freedom of speech is NOT freedom from consequences. Botsch is facing the consequences of his disgusting, pathetic actions. The bully who murdered Amanda Todd (and that’s how I’m referring to it from here on out) needs to face those same consequences. Period.

    • jennygadget says:

      This would be why there is, indeed, a difference between investigative journalism and actual doxxing, even if the definition of journalism is rightfully becoming fuzzier. One has standards, sources, and reputations* – and the other doesn’t.

      *which, to be fair, Gawker’s is not great, but it does have one.

  4. thenatfantastic says:

    I totally agree with your post, and while not wanting to derail, can I just point out that anarchism is not about “denying the necessity of placing any legal, social or cultural limits on freedom”. Just because some fourteen year olds have heard ‘NO GUBMINT’ and not thought past that doesn’t mean that we’re all short-sighted twits. As I understand it, anarchism is about creating a democratic and co-operative society in which everyone can participate to an equal extent. Preserving the participation of all quite necessarily involves stopping those who would prevent others from participating by use of social and cultural means – such as refusal to tolerate behaviour like Brutsch’s. As the popular phrase goes: ‘your rights end where mine begin’, and this is illustrated in this case exactly.

    I think the word you’re looking for is ‘Randroid’.


  5. thenatfantastic has it right, anarchists have never been enamored with context-free ‘free speech’ defense, that’s a radical classical liberal (nowadays, one would say ‘libertarian’) idea that even many liberals don’t hold to nowadays. Groups like ARA, the One People’s Project, etc… have been messing around with neo-nazis’ “freedom of speech” for years before the Internet became a mass phenomena and are at least partly composed of anarchists (some Marxists and social-democrats as well).

    Anarchists deny authoritarian forms of limits on speech and freedom, like we deny all forms of authority and hierarchies. We have no issue with consensual forms of organization between equals. The very problem of power-over in (racial/gender/class) hierchies that you mention as part of the context of ‘free speech’ is part of the same set of issues that we find it necessary to deal with in the political sphere.

  6. I’ve written my own blog post about this, but put simply, my position is: doxxing is an unconscionable tactic and vigilante justice, and just as often abused by wrongdoers as it is used against the morally unjustifiable. It should be used against *no one* because vigilantism is wrong.

    My post is here:

    I respect those who disagree. I will never respect anyone who doxxed anyone else.

  7. If I don’t want to get called out as a bank robber,I don’t rob banks.

    What’s really on here is that built into the culture is a powerful taboo against blaming men, openly and without apology. It’s funny how we always wind up saying—-but only when it’s men—-well, there are higher principles at stake here, to bad about those bitches. Until predators face the risk of getting exposed, then they’ll keep killing girls like Amanda Todd. There hasn’t been as much talk about her as there has been about how unfairly it was that Michael Brutsch was fired for abusing teenaged girls but not at work. Hey, if he wasn’t doing it at work, it’s so UNFAIR OMG.

    People run up against the same thing: you notice they always claim or appear to be thinking: But men won’t change. We can’t do anything to men. We can’t ask them to change. They won’t change. They won’t do anything for women. And girls? Well, girls are natural prey! It’s obvious, why don’t you bitchez shut up already?

    It’s a known fact that rapists and other abusers of girls and women always defend doing nothing about rape because everybody does it. “We’d have to put all men in jail!” They wail, thus revealing that they think everybody else is like them. And men just don’t give enough of a shit to risk one fucking thing to defend women. So women are left on their own, even by other women, comparing the doxxing of Brutsch to the murders of doctors like Dr. Tiller.

  8. Excellent points, Foz. As someone who lived in a military dictatorship, I know firsthand what “no free speech” means, and the internet paladins are mostly clueless. More here:

    Free Speech: Bravehearts and Scumbags

    As for the “No doxxing EVAH!” crowd, there seems to be a good deal of confusion about several basic concepts, including nuance. Scalzi covered other aspects of this on his post about the matter, so I won’t elaborate further.

  9. jennygadget says:

    “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,..”

    Without meaning to cast Chen’s actions as more heroic than they are, I do wonder what such people thought of Atticus Finch naming names when the mob descended upon the jail. Because I think that’s the other aspect that goes right over the heads of the people worried that this will create an avalanche of doxxing: any attempt at understanding how group dynamics play into this story.

    Brutsch wasn’t just an individual doing this, in a sense he was the leader of a mob himself. An anonymous one that was using their power to hurt others. For the victims, fighting back collectively was always going to be more difficult than it was for reddit users – who could instead rely on not just their anonymity, but also their size and collective identity to act as a shield and deterrent for reporting. Chen didn’t just out an isolated individual who was doing something immoral, he deliberately pulled the mask of off one of the most influential members of a mob whose group identity revolved around hurting others.

    Chen’s entire article humanizes rather than demonizes Brutsch. The goal is to shame Brutsch and his ilk, to remind them and us that everyone involved is real and human and part of the social contract – not to whip up outrage and direct “mob violence” at a single individual, as many people keep claiming.

    In the end, Chen’s point seems to be that the responsibility lies with not only abusers, but also the rest of us too – and to what extent we enable abusers versus assisting victims. Because I also rather read that closing bit as a variation of Huck Finn’s “all right then, I’ll go to hell!” But that may be just me.

    • “I do wonder what such people thought of Atticus Finch naming names when the mob descended upon the jail. ”

      Atticus Finch wasn’t just fiction – he was fantasy. No white lawyers stood up for black defendants in that era.

      And what you describe isn’t remotely close to doxxing.

      The rest of your post is well put.

      • fozmeadows says:

        Uh, actually, To Kill a Mockingbird is based significantly on autobiographical details – Atticus is based on Harper Lee’s father, who defended two black men accused of murder in 1919. Also, from my memory of the book, it’s Scout who first starts naming the members of the mob.

      • jennygadget says:

        What I’m describing (and what Chen did) may not be doxxing, but it is what people who don’t agree with what Chen did are generally calling it.

        As for it being fantasy…Foz is right that there were white lawyers who stood up for black defendants. That said, it does bother me that our mainstream narratives make such actions seem vastly more common than they were while also downplaying or silencing the bravery of the people were being targeted in the first place.

  10. […] and yet, at the same time, it undeniably fills a relevant need. Because, as demonstrated by the recent exposure of Redditor Michael Brutsch, aka Violentacrez and the concurrent discovery of actual criminal behaviour within his subreddits, there can be a […]

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