Sunday, November 30, 2014

racists getting fired (& getting racists fired)

Over the last few days I've noticed a lot of folks on the Twitter and the Face-book linking to the new Tumblr sensation. It's called racists getting fired (& getting racists fired), and its purpose is to find people saying nasty racist shit on social media, finding out where they work, directing their superiors to aforesaid racist shit, and getting them fired.

I kind of really hate it.

I'm not apologizing for racists. It's unnecessary to explain why not: their beliefs are ignorant and atavistic and should have no place in the twenty-first century (or any century, for that matter). But it makes me uncomfortable that many of the same people who were so livid at at the Gamergaters' doxxing tactics are the ones linking to and applauding Racists Getting Fired.

When you disconnect the politics from either scenario, what you essentially have are a group of motivated zealots targeting a total stranger who has offended them and proactively working to ruin their life. We would certainly be upset if, say, some mean-spirited trog outed somebody—someone they've never actually met face to face or spoken to—as gay or transgendered, or got them fired from their job at a Catholic relief services nonprofit by pointing to a blog post where they refer to undergoing in-vitro fertilization. But then we Like and Favorite and Retweet when someone performs the same sort of attack on a person whose views we don't like.

"Bullshit," you say. "People need to be held accountable for believing and saying things beyond the pale." Sure. Remember that when you arrive at a moment in your life when your personal compass doesn't align with the crowd's.

I think it speaks to how personhood has been revised by the internet. The people (assholes) on Racists Getting Fired aren't really people to us. They're just the part of them that says racist shit. It's really easy to advocate for a stranger's public humiliation, to go behind their back and divest them of their income, to hand out their phone numbers to thousands of acrimonious anonymouses when what you're dealing with isn't someone you see as an actual and complete person, but as a remote abstraction of a person. (Funny: don't we often think of racism as the reduction of a human being to a single characteristic?)

What bothers me most (as someone who would like to consider himself a progressive) is that tactics like these aren't going to be very effective in the long run. They're great for rallying the believers, but not necessarily for winning converts, which is what we want to do. The successes of the queer community towards achieving social acceptance over the last thirty years weren't achieved by an intimidation campaign, but by what was essentially good PR: by demonstrating to an ignorant and hitherto biased public that, gosh, these are people with feelings, aspirations, and contributions to make, just like anyone else. Winning hearts and minds. You don't persuade holdouts to change their beliefs by subjecting offenders to a digital auto-da-fé. More likely than not, it will leave their noxious beliefs unchanged or reaffirmed (how often is a forced repentance honest?), and help "SJW" further along its way to becoming a slur. We don't want social progressivism to become associated with vengeful thought-policing, with people who only care for free expression when what's being said is what they agree with. Not only will its proponents risk being discredited, but so will the cause itself.

People like Daryl Davis have the right idea. (I wish I had occasion to link to that piece more frequently.) We can't all do what he can, but the key is to make our ideological opponents into our allies. We can't very well round up and gas all the racists in the world; we have to give them cause to sincerely become non-racists.

But yeah, it's much easier and more immediately and viscerally satisfying to terrorize them via the internet, and it'll win you more followers on Tumblr. So carry on.


  1. Even though I have an explicitly political blog on Tumblr, I've gotten quite tired of the inflated sense of accomplishment so many people on the site have when it comes to political activism (or slacktivism, as most of it is). Nothing sums up my near-loathing of this than the phrase 'It's not my job to educate you' and the implication that for all the noise some people make about wanting to call out racism, sexism, homophobia, et al, they're not really interested in putting in any effort to help change things or, as you say above, win any converts to their viewpoint.

    They just want to place themselves above all those *other* people, the ones who aren't as progressive as they are, establishing the line in the sand and doing nothing more than deride those who aren't standing on their side. Never mind trying to invite them over the line, never mind trying to convince them the inherent rightness or goodness of their own position. They just want to establish their own division of people and trumpet themselves as superior. It's just a new form of tribalism.

    1. I wonder if Marshall McLuhan had this kind of tribalism in mind when he predicted the social effects of emerging media? I'm not sure I would call a sprawl of fortified ideological neighborhoods a "global village."

  2. Iiiiii'm on the fence about this. I don't like the possibility of families losing their source of income because of the breadwinner's dumb ideas*. But I do like the creative attack strategy, which in theory gives power to the oppressed. (Insert "Getting people fired is the voice of the unheard" schpiel here) It's far from perfect, but what major advances are ever made by civil discussion alone? This not to disregard civil discussion completely, but talking is what happens when the pile of bodies (literal or not) grows tall enough. Maybe we're all hoping humanity is finally at that point where we don't need to coerce one another with violence to get attention, and instead just talk it through, but we're just not there yet. I think we still need our social media Batmen/equivalent chaotic-good figure.

    What Daryl Davis does and did is wonderful, but should not be expected. It is not the job of the oppressed to educated/pander to the (at times understandably) ignorant**, that would be exhausting. That said, I find a constantly renewed disdain for the unoppressed pulling that shit, accusing social media racists of "tone policing" them and saying it's not their job to educate. Except it totally is! If you're white/cis/abled/etc and informed, it is TOTALLY your job to do everything in your capacity to facilitate understanding. Otherwise you're just hoarding knowledge and being smug at the expense of the movements you claim solidarity with. In some ways it is worse than racism, akin to being able to watch polar ice caps melting on Facetime while driving around to tell people how wasteful they are.

    I've seen a lot of people forecasting dystopian futures over these online social justice witch hunts. I think journalism can be a little "speculative fiction"-happy at times. In the current(ish) batch of such articles, we have one guy who had to tearfully apologize for his shirt ( )*** and one guy who couldn't express his views on abortion on a college campus ( ). Sure, the reactions weren't perfect, but this is the best voice many people have, and it is a work in progress.

    *I forget, what other group has historically had a hard time finding jobs and advancing their careers... oh yeah!

    **though they often do so anyway

    ***the fall of western civilization is imminent! You know who else has been speculated as the fall of western civilization in similar articles? Hipsters!

    1. How many of the people targeted, after losing their jobs and probably receiving a metric ton of vicious emails, are lying in bed tonight and thinking "gosh, I sure have learned a valuable lesson about compassion and diversity and and trying to appreciate where other people might be coming from. God bless those kind citizens for giving me their attention and showing me the error of my ways!"

      This is the twenty-first century version of a stoning in the town square. I'm appalled by racism, but mob justice makes me sick too, particularly when the crowd doesn't even have to come within fifty miles of the person they're lynching.

      And the self-satisfied glee of the people cheering it on! Are we serving social justice with sadism now? Will we build a more harmonious and heterogeneous society by bullying and publicly shaming people who get caught saying shit we don't like?

      I'd also posit that the kind of racism that really needs to be dealt with, more than the lingering existence of KKK sympathizers and stars n' bars wavers, are the foundations of the quiet and often unconscious expressions of racial bias just about everyone has been guilty of at some time or another, but that's another conversation entirely.

      Re: this kind of social media policing being imperfect: from Gawker, "Psycho Frames Ex with Fake Racist Facebook Photos."

    2. Yeah, the outcome does have the raw materials of hate crimes and mass shootings, and I'm a little skeptical that the small prospect of any change resulting from this outweighs the risks and the precedent it sets. I guess isolated incidences are fine (i.e. when people at least loosely know the person/are part of the community), but it is not OK on a large scale (when the effort is entirely remote and crowdsourced). I liked the idea that for once the vanity and gullibility of the masses might be harnessed for good like the renewable energy source that it is and do society's dirty work, making the racists into a powerless underclass. I guess I'll have to go back to my original plan of building a computer that runs on self-righteousness.

      But my, look at how quickly I became a "Getting the racists fired" apologist!

  3. Reading your post I completely agreed with you about most things. But man, after clicking on the link to that blog and reading some of the stuff the people being exposed have to say... It's really, really hard to fight down the burning desire of seeing these ignorant, entitled, and revoltingly cruel people tasting a bit of the comeuppance that they have been privilegedly avoiding for once.

    I have to say that in the very least, I find these outbursts of "democratic censorship" interesting. A system without the benefits of (alleged) impartiality or the painstaking process of evidence analysis of the judicial system but also near impervious to corruption and with self-correction capabilities. (Such as in the case of this website, a contributor discovered that a suspect FB racist was actually being framed with a fake profile by an ex-boyfriend, who was then exposed.)

    I can't help believing that eventually these effort will coalesce into an evolution of the penal system and I find it fascinating to watch.

    1. I don't know. I feel like it's one thing to call somebody out on the stupid shit they say when you're in a room (or an IRC channel, a forum, a Facebook thread, etc.) with them, but it's another to descend upon a total stranger, a nonpublic figured who lives hundreds of miles away, and whom you have never interacted with, as an outraged swarm to publicly shame them and basically ruin their life. They say something that offends you; you leave their life in shambles. Sound fair?

      I have to disagree with you on the incorruptibility of the crowd. Seems to me that most witch hunts of any age are spurious and not always based on clear evidence, and go about the task of self-correcting after the damage has already been done. Look at the woman who was framed as a racist by her ex and descended upon by the Racists Getting Fired mob. I wonder if she'll be showing up at work or leaving the house any time soon?

      Oh well. If you want to achieve social equity, you gotta traumatize a few innocents.

    2. How embarrassing. I seem to have forgotten the actual meaning of the word spurious. The word I should have used was "impetuous." (In the moment I was associating it with the verb "spur" rather than the Latin "spurius," which seems to be the word's origin. One learns something new every day!)

    3. It's all good. Lady Vocabulary is known to spurn our affections from time to time and lead us to die in a gutter. Happens to the best of us.

      On topic: I really, really, really get what you are saying on the matter of disproportionation between sin and punishment and I feel that in the interest of preventing escalation and arbitrariness your position is correct. I am mostly talking about my guttural response to it all.

      After reading enough of those atrocious, vicious, inhumane comments and posts if you ask me to choose between disproportionate punishment and no punishment whatsoever (continuing a life of privilege in which many more opinions like that will be spouted with complete impunity) I hope you understand when I hesitate.

      Moreover, I don't think that these actions are retaliations because they said "something that offends" us, but rather because they are poisonous, harming opinions that permeate social media and need to be cleansed. Their very existence encourages others to think similarly and express themselves similarly, perpetuating this horrible and ultimately baseless hatred that is racism. If some douchebags (and regrettably, a few innocents caught in between) are made examples of enough that others like them will think twice before posting hate, I feel as though the potential harm towards huge subgroups of humanity that would be avoided would more than make up for it in the big scheme.

      Finally, on the matter of self-correction, not only was the framing racist uncovered quite quickly, it also exposed the flaw in the system encouraging these self-appointed investigators to be wary of people trying to "game" the system in their favour. In all likelihood, it's impossible to guarantee that no innocent ever will be accidentally affected, but that's the inherent human error margin in any system, which for example, also sends innocent people to prison from time to time.

  4. I love this article. You summed up my feelings on the subject very reasonably yet eloquently.

  5. Hey, just discovered this blog, though I do know you from when I used to post on hg101.

    Ever read Freddie deBoer? I bring him up because he's a notable left-wing blogger that writes critically of the contemporary left. This is especially in regards to many social justice issues, which he argues is often handled in a way that is both destructive and ineffective, rewarding those that are privileged at the expense of those they say they are helping while also hurting others without care for the consequences. I recommend him if you haven't, I think you'd like his writing. Relevant recent example:

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