As has been well-documented by now, subconscious bias is a tricky thing. With the best will in the world, it’s still entirely possible to be blindsided by privilege; to make linguistic, social or narrative choices that reinforce negative stereotypes or which disenfranchise others. This is why it’s so important to think critically about the media we consume and the stories we tell, and to listen when others point out patterns in our behaviour – whether culturally or individually – that are indicative of a deeper, more subtle prejudice. Despite the irrevocable fact that humans are creatures of culture, it can be difficult to determine the origins of our default settings, if only because it disquiets us to think that hidden elements might be influencing our decisions. What does free will mean, if our actions are ultimately informed by beliefs we never knew we held? As tempting as it is to think of subconscious bias as a sort of Jedi mind-trick (something that only works on the stupid or weak-willed; which is to say, other people), that’s only a comforting lie. Our brains get up to all sorts of mischief without our conscious supervision – everything from catching a ball to regulating our hormones – so why should our thoughts be sacrosanct?
The intersection of the collective and the personal, therefore, is a fascinating place: the junction at which we as individuals both shape the culture around us and are shaped by it in turn – a symbiotic ecosystem whose halves have merged, oroborous-like, into a whole. Our actions, no matter how unique to us in terms of motivation, don’t happen in a vacuum; but despite its ubiquity, culture as a concept is amorphous. Trying to convince someone that their behaviour has been influenced by external social pressures – particularly if the end result undermines their good intentions – is like nailing smoke to the wall. I know what I meant, people say, and it had nothing to do with that. And if you don’t know what I was thinking, then how can you possibly judge me?
Let me tell you a story. As a child, I was deeply, innately contrary, but in a very specific way: I couldn’t bear to be told, “You’ll like this!” Even at the age of five, it seemed like such a wholly offensive assumption – the very cheek of it, adults daring to lecture me on my preferences! – that I would instantly resolve, with the stubborn, bodily determination of children, to hate on principle anything that was thusly recommended. By contrast, anything I was told I wouldn’t like because it was too old for me, or that I wouldn’t understand, I made a perverse effort to enjoy: I simply couldn’t bear the idea that anyone else might know me as well as – or better than – I did. Had my parents ever thought to deploy it, reverse psychology doubtless would’ve worked a treat; instead, I ended up fleeing the room with my hands clapped over my ears when my father first tried to read me The Hobbit, so adamant was my refusal to meet his expectations. I’ve grown much less contrary with age, of course, but even so, it’s still an active process: I have to constantly watch myself, and a big part of that is acknowledging that other people’s opinions don’t magically become invalid just because they’re assessing my thought process.
The point being, external criticism is just as important as internal certainty. The two perspectives are a necessary balance, and while being firmly mired in my own brain is a viewpoint unique to me, that doesn’t mean other people can’t make relevant observations about my behaviour – or, more importantly, about my place in a pattern to which my privilege has rendered me oblivious.
Which brings me to the current explosion of websites, memes, Twitter feeds and tumblrs dedicating to crowdsourcing proof of the ubiquity of prejudice. Once upon a time, for instance, if a colleague or acquaintance made a disturbing remark at the pub – such real-world locales being the default point of comparison whenever we start worrying about being held accountable for the things we say online – then there’d be no record of the comment beyond the level of individual memory. At best, we might have written it down as close to verbatim as possible, but then what would happen? Nothing, as there was nowhere to put such information and no reasonable means of distributing it. More likely, we’d vent our outrage by retelling the story to others, but with each iteration, the tale would weaken, eventually becoming little more than an anecdote whose relevance our audience could deny, or whose truthfulness they could question, on the basis of a lack of solid evidence. ‘It was just a one-off,’ they might say – but without the testimony of others to support our claim that the remark was representative of a bigger problem, how could we possibly prove otherwise?
Now, though, people’s prejudicial comments are anything but ephemeral. Everything from status updates to dating profiles is a matter of public record, and even if we go back and try to edit or delete our words, the simple magic of screencapping means that an original copy may still exist. When that sort of data is passed along, there can be no uncertainty as to what was really said, because nothing is being degraded in the transmission. Even in instances where sites are collecting, not screencaps, but personal stories of bias and discrimination, the cumulative effect of seeing so many similar incidents ranged together serves to undermine the suggestion that any one victim was simply overreacting. Thanks to the interconnectedness of the internet, disparate individuals are now uniting to prove that the prejudice they experience is neither all in their heads nor the result of isolated bigotry, but rather part of a wider, more pervasive cultural problem. And where such data is collected en masse, it becomes progressively harder to deny the truth of their experiences: because if our whole reason for doubting specific accounts of prejudice is based on the assumption of an unreliable narrator, then how are we to justify our dismissal of hundreds – perhaps even thousands – of similar cases?
Frustrated by constantly encountering the same sort of sexist abuse online and then being told that the problem was a minor one perpetrated solely by idiot teenage boys, female gamers responded by setting up Fat, Ugly or Slutty and Not In The Kitchen Anymore, two hefty databases of audiofiles, screenshots and in-game videos that stand as collective testament to the scope of their routine harassment. Sick of being told that their experiences of condescension and exclusion from sexist, racist colleagues was only so much thin-skinned paranoia, academics have begun documenting their experiences at sites like Mansplained and What Is It Like To Be A Woman In Philosophy?, the better to highlight the prevalence of such bias. Tired of seeing female characters drawn in objectifying postures that are, quite literally, anatomically impossible, discerning fans have set up sites like Boobs Don’t Work That Way and Escher Girls to document the problem. In recent days, when Twitter has been inundated with racism in response to topics as varied as the US election results and the recent Red Dawn movie, angry netizens have collectively banded together to take screenshots, collate the data and then name and shame those responsible, as per the modus operandi of sites like Hello There, Racists and Hunger Games Tweets. For street harassment, there’s any number of tumblrs to choose from – which is itself a depressing reflection on just how common a problem it is – along with sites like Hollaback and Catcalled that are trying to combat the issue directly.
There are collective resources for day to day instances of sexism, like About Male Privilege, Everyday Media Sexism and Everyday Sexism; resources for sexual harassment and abuse, like Got Stared At; and Twitter feeds dedicated to weeding out some of the more disturbing quotes from sites like Reddit and various PUA (Pick-Up Artist) message boards. There’s also the utterly heartbreaking Project Unbreakable, which consists of pictures of rape survivors holding up signs bearing chilling quotes from their rapists. From the LGBTQ side of things, there are tumblrs like I’m Not Homophobic, But (two of them, actually); Dear Cis People, which is a collective of messages from trans individuals trying to counter prejudice; and Things My Transphobic Mother Says, which does what it says on the tin. And then, of course, there’s seemingly endless bingo cards: arguments that various communities have heard so many times as to render them both offensively unoriginal and predictive of the ignorance of their interlocutors. Examples include Anti-Comics Feminist Bingo, Sexism In Games Bingo, Racism In SF Bingo, Political Racism Bingo, MRA Bingo, Homo/Biphobic Bingo and GLBT Fiction Bingo – and that’s just for starters.
As demonstrated by the mixed public reaction to the recently established Nice Guys of OK Cupid tumblr (to say nothing of the outrage its existence has provoked among detractors), this new breed of public shaming, whereby ordinary people are publicly mocked for saying bigoted, offensive, or downright creepy things on the internet, tends to be viewed with a combination of schadenfreude, resentful worry and outright rubbernecking – 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 disturbing correlation – though not necessarily causation – between saying horrendous things online about women, POC and LGBTQ persons, and actually threatening, endangering or actively harming such persons through hate speech, stalking or other criminal behaviour. Legally, however, there’s almost no way to take such behaviour as a warning sign and initiative useful preventative strategies: until or unless someone actually ends up hurt – thought of course, psychological suffering is seldom counted – the justice system is useless. Employers and schools, on the other hand, have proven themselves more than willing to sack or discipline staff and students whose online hijinks attract the wrong kind of attention – or, more worryingly, who simply dare to be critical of the institutions to which they belong; while some have even been fired for defending themselves from overt discrimination.
This is hardly an ideal situation, not least because it places the burden of extrajudicial justice into the hands of individuals whose only available form of reprimand – the withdrawal of money or education – is arguably the worst possible reaction to such offenses. Aside from doing nothing to address the root cause of the problem and everything to exacerbate a sense of entitled resentment that the mighty forces of Politically Correct Censorship are reaching out to ruin the lives of ordinary, hard-working people, this sort of trial by media – or rather, trial by institutional response to trial by media – sets a dangerous precedent in allowing organisations unparalleled scope to punish employees, not for their on-job actions, but for who they are as people. And yet, by the same token, we as humans don’t just switch off our bigotry the minute we clock on at work or enter school grounds. If an employee’s online behaviour is saturated with undeniable racism and misogyny – and if that person is employed alongside women and POC – then how can their beliefs in the one sphere not be demonstrably relevant to their actions in the other? If subconscious bias is enough to measurably affect the decisions of even the most well-intentioned people, then how much more damaging might the influence of conscious bias be?
More and more, it seems, we’re crowdsourcing our stories of prejudice – and, as a consequence, policing ourselves and others – out of a sense of desperation. Despite technically being on our side, in the sense that most forms of discrimination on the basis of race, gender and sexual orientation are illegal, the legal and judiciary systems are years away from being able to effectively intervene in instances of online harassment, while even the concept of a dedicated mechanism, agency or other such authoritative body designed to step in and address the problem in lieu of random mob justice feels improbable. Eventually, it’s inevitable that both our cultural assumptions and our standard response to online bigotry will evolve, but progress towards that point will be slow and haphazard, and in the mean time, there’s still an obvious problem to be addressed.
Writing several years ago on the decline of traditional print media, technological commentator Clay Shirky drew a comparison between our current state of change and the turmoil that was first produced by the introduction of the printing press. To quote:
During the wrenching transition to print, experiments were only revealed in retrospect to be turning points. Aldus Manutius, the Venetian printer and publisher, invented the smaller octavo volume along with italic type. What seemed like a minor change — take a book and shrink it — was in retrospect a key innovation in the democratization of the printed word. As books became cheaper, more portable, and therefore more desirable, they expanded the market for all publishers, heightening the value of literacy still further.
That is what real revolutions are like. The old stuff gets broken faster than the new stuff is put in its place. The importance of any given experiment isn’t apparent at the moment it appears; big changes stall, small changes spread. Even the revolutionaries can’t predict what will happen. Agreements on all sides that core institutions must be protected are rendered meaningless by the very people doing the agreeing. (Luther and the Church both insisted, for years, that whatever else happened, no one was talking about a schism.) Ancient social bargains, once disrupted, can neither be mended nor quickly replaced, since any such bargain takes decades to solidify.
And so it is today. When someone demands to know how we are going to replace newspapers, they are really demanding to be told that we are not living through a revolution. They are demanding to be told that old systems won’t break before new systems are in place. They are demanding to be told that ancient social bargains aren’t in peril, that core institutions will be spared, that new methods of spreading information will improve previous practice rather than upending it. They are demanding to be lied to.
There are fewer and fewer people who can convincingly tell such a lie.
And so it is, I suspect, with the rules that previously governed the separation of our personal, public and working lives. All three spheres overlap in ways they previously didn’t simply because our physical presence in a given space is no longer the most pertinent factor in determining when and how we inhabit it, and under whose aegis. Intuitively, it makes sense to assume that someone who believes women to be inherently submissive will shrink from promoting female employees to positions of dominance, because even were such a person inclined to try and act against their instincts for the sake of corporate equality, we as people aren’t so compartmentalised that the attempt would always meet with success. And yet, what else can we do but try? Nobody is perfect, and the solution to deep-seated bigotry isn’t simply to fire or expel everyone who dares to express the least bit of prejudice; all that does is encourage the use of subtle discrimination, while the underlying problems still remain. In the mean time, though, we have shaming tumblrs and bingo cards and angry, public discussions about the cognitive dissonance necessary to claim that one is a gentleman while simultaneously asserting that sometimes, other people are obliged to have sex with you, because society is yet to construct a viable alternative.
It’s by no means a perfect solution – or even, in fact, a solution at all. Rather, it’s a response to the widespread assumption that there isn’t even a problem to be solved, or which can be solved, or which is demonstrably worth solving. And until we’ve debunked that assumption, there’s nothing else to be done but to keep on amassing data, calling out bigotry and using such tools as are available to us to see what happens next. As Shirky says, it’s a revolution, and until we’ve come out on the other side, there’s simply no way of knowing what will happen. All we can do is watch and wait and learn – and keep on tumblring.