Friday, October 26, 2012

DBTWP 10.2.2 Wherein VanUlfur and Violentacrez teach us about Privilege

Taking umbrage at my earlier posts wherein I speculated on reasons why he might take Mr. Brutsch's situation so personally, Gawker personality VanUlfur commented:
VanUlfur @Kenaz_Filan
Lol, you're so incredibily butthurt. Congratulations on your blog, I bet its a huge hit online. Glad I contributed to your self-righteous path to the truth. You're the perfect example of how bigotry and the misinterpretation and displacement of sentencens can lead to a faulty and mischeavous conclusion. But you know what, VanUlfur is someone you don't even now, and to use my sentences and judge me like a perv is somthing ou have the right to. Go and be happy with it you assless nun.

VanUlfur @VanUlfur
I should've said assless monk. Completely forgot you were a guy and not a fat lesbian.
Apologies as required for my "bigotry... misinterpretation and displacement of sentencens." (The last presumably meaning "taking comments in their entirety and providing links to the conversation from whence they originated.")  I do hope my direct quoting of his words does not lead people to "judge [him] like a perv," or even like a slope-browed monkey-spanking misogynist.  But since he serves as such an excellent bad example let's unravel his latest comments.
VanUlfur @defiler2k
But dude, then you have to shut down sites that show gore and decapitations and shit. Because reddit does allow those things to be posted. And this is truly about free speech, and most of these commenters are treating this as if the guy commited any crime. Because he had his lofe destroyed by what gawker did, and if his villeness was indeed to such an extent, he would have been imprisioned for it. Nothing he did was illegal, and to judge him based on moral values, is indeed concerning in a democratic society. 
I've avoided talking about privilege so far.  It's definitely an important topic when discussing race relations, but it's also a nebulous one.  An individual holds or lacks privilege across any number of different axes.  A Latino man might have heterosexual privilege to marry and kiss his partner in public without fearing violence  and the male privilege of walking alone in public without fear of sexual assault without having white privilege.  As a result discussions about privilege often get sidetracked into tiresome theoretical arguments.  Thankfully, Violentacrez and his defenders provide an opportunity to show the ways this theory plays out in practice.

VanUlfur's argument is that "[n]othing [Brutsch] did was illegal" and that he is being treated "as if [he had] committed any crime." Brutsch has made similar arguments, and with some justification.  Violentacrez was tolerated largely because he was removing upskirt photos, child pornography and other clearly illegal content.  (It also helped that /r/jailbait/ was one of the site's most popular subreddits).  As Adrian Chen noted in his original article:
Administrators realized it was easier to outsource the policing of questionable content to Violentacrez than to dirty their hands themselves, or ostracize him and risk even worse things happening without their knowledge. The devil you know. So even as Jailbait flourished and became an ever-more-integral part of Reddit's traffic and culture—in 2008 it won the most votes in a "subreddit of the year" poll—administrators looked the other way. "We just stayed out of there and let him do his thing and we knew at least he was getting rid of a lot of stuff that wasn't particularly legal," Slowe said. "I know I didn't want it to be my job."
Most of the photos I have seen listed as "creepshots" are disembodied close-ups of breasts or backsides. They are definitely creepy and inappropriate and make many people, particularly women, feel uncomfortable. But while they are certainly in a legal grey area, it would be difficult to get an arrest warrant for the person moderating the community -- or even, in many cases, for the people taking the surreptitious photograph. This isn't necessarily so much about "free speech" as about limited police resources and a certain degree of cluelessness and misogyny among many law enforcement professionals.  But Brutsch and his defenders took this inaction as a sign that so long as they followed a few rules they had a right to post whatever they wished -- and to do so anonymously.

Meanwhile, some of the women who objected to the creepshot community -- and to the dark underbelly of Reddit in general -- started taking matters into their own hands. Tracking down the people who post creepshots, they not only posted their personal information but began contacting employers, family members and others about the "predditors" in their midst.  This was greeted with outrage by the creepshotters, who insisted they were doing nothing illegal and that this was a violation of Reddit's long tradition of supporting free speech and anonymity.

And here is where they made their first mistake.  Anonymity has been an important part of online culture for decades.  Today every online outlet from major media to your grandfather's blog features commenters opining passionately behind pseudonyms.  The Internet has provided many with a safe space to explore sexuality, gender, spirituality and other topics: the artifice of online identities has allowed them to express their true selves.  Given all that, it's easy enough to think that there is some right to online anonymity. But that anonymity is not a right but a privilege, what Merriam-Webster defines as "a right or immunity granted as a peculiar benefit, advantage, or favor."

Brutsch took that privilege for granted, and made little effort to separate his online and offline identities.  So did other "creepshotters" who suddenly found their Facebook and OKCupid profiles appearing on Predditors. And when they complained they found few defenders ready to stand up for their rights.  Tumblr took the Predditors blog down briefly, but soon reinstated it and is presently taking the same hands-off approach Reddit takes toward its subreddits: this includes ignoring complainers. As "Samantha," the 25 year-old woman behind Predditors, explains:
Reddit's defense of [CreepShots] is that it's 'technically legal.' So I'm doing something that's technically legal, but will result in consequences for their actions. These fuckers think they can get away with it scot free, which is one of the reasons why sexual violence is so prevalent around the world.
And once Gawker Media got involved Brutsch's privilege of anonymity ran headlong into real First Amendment rights.  As law professor Richard T. Karcher explains in "Tort Law and Journalism Ethics:"
The duty owed by the press to private figures under defamation law tends to be more in line with the duty of the press under journalism ethics principles because both duties generally seek to ensure the truthful and accurate dissemination of information to the citizenry.  However, there frequently exists an inherent conflict between tort law and journalism ethics codes when the press reports on matters involving public figures and public officials.  The conflict arises from the actual malice burden created by the seminal 1964 decision in New York Times Co. v. Sullivan, where the United States Supreme Court articulated the oft-cited standard: 
The constitutional guarantees require,  we think, a federal rule that prohibits a public official from recovering damages for a defamatory falsehood relating to his official conduct unless he proves that the statement was made with ‘actual malice’—that is, with knowledge that it was false or with reckless disregard of whether it was false or not.
The Supreme Court thereafter extended the New York Times actual malice standard to public figures—those who “by reason of their fame, shape events in areas of concern to society at large”—including entertainers and sports participants, such as athletes, coaches, league officials, athletic directors, and front office personnel.
One can (admittedly with some effort) feel a certain sympathy for Brutsch.  When he said on CNN that "I treated Reddit as a game," he was likely telling the truth.  The "shock and gore" school of trolling has many avid adherents who compete to post the most outrageous material.  /picsofdeadbabies/ and /niggerjailbait/ were a ploy to gain attention, not a statement of belief.  Violentacrez was just fooling around and if anyone didn't get the joke, that was their problem.  He played by the rules and his opponents didn't: they ignored a cherished social contract and ruined his life.  (More precisely they cost him a job, but in this economy and with this publicity one can forgive Brutsch for a bit of hyperbole).

It's easy enough to ignore privilege and to assume your prejudices and preconceptions are the default standard.  In fact, one of the best ways I can explain privilege is to point out that you can safely ignore just about everything I've written on the subject.  You can spend the rest of your life being That White Person and surrounding yourself with Those White People.  Chances are good you'll never get called on your acts or your attitudes by anyone with the power to do anything about it. Then again you just might.  And when and if that happens you'll find privilege can be granted or taken away at will.