Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Hate, Threats and the Culture of Love

(Note: This post has been growing and evolving since Monday.)

Late Monday night, after a day offline, I was alerted via an email list for/about women in technology, about Kathy Sierra's post Death threats against bloggers are NOT "protected speech". My first reaction was to send an email of support to Kathy.

Upon reading Kathy's post and the river of blog posts about it, a lot of feelings welled up of times online in the past 10 years where people were incredibly hurtful, both to people they know and with their full identity, and to people they don't REALLY know, and masking themselves with anonymity. I felt hurt. I felt anger. I felt hostility towards others. I was reminded of the conversations some of us had the last 18 months about the "us/them" dynamics in blogs and online spaces. The conversations about civility and challenging ideas/status quo. Of creative abrasion on ideas, not trashing people. Of art, satire and "the line" over which we do or do not cross. Of the important stuff that happens at the boundaries, and our discomfort. Of that delicate balance between openness, freedom and human dignity, trust and that ambiguous thing we call "safety."

Humans can be both profoundly generative and dysfunctional. We have an extraordinary ability to love and hate, to create and destroy, and we play this out offline and online. What Kathy experienced, both in the threats and the huge outpouring of support, is a distillation of human behavior. It is not uncommon. That does not reduce the pain of the experience in any way, particularly for a person who comes to the net with an open, giving aspect, regardless of what you think of her work. (I think highly of her work.)

I have thought about what to write, how I could attempt to add something generative to the collective expression flowing out of the blogosphere. I don't think it is a conversation yet. Few of us are talking to each other. We are expressing our views. That is a good step. But what can add to our learning and understanding, rather than pile on? Here are some contributions I have been thinking about from others.

Mary Hodder
"Leading a pack of rabid animals is not something to be proud of... I hope people will think hard before they decide to create an online community like meankids again. I don't think mean speech should be illegal, but I do think the rest of us have responsibility to condemn it if we see it getting destructive and to protect the targets. And of course, threats are illegal.. so I'm happy those sites removed once they went from mean, to threatening abusive acts."
danah boyd
"There's nothing illegal about what the prominent bloggers did, but i think it is unethical at every level. This is not an issue of censorship, but an issue of social responsibility. What does it mean when the most prominent bloggers are encouraging speech that divides, particularly that which divides along the lines of race and gender? What kind of standard does that set? How can anyone support their practices, even as a "joke"? I believe in moral responsibility and key to that is a level of social respect, even for those with whom you disagree. Without social solidarity, the moral fabric of society erodes. When you allow room for intolerance, you breed hate."
Robert Scoble

"It’s this culture of attacking women that has especially got to stop. I really don’t care if you attack me. I take those attacks in stride. But, whenever I post a video of a female technologist there invariably are snide remarks about body parts and other things that simply wouldn’t happen if the interviewee were a man.

It makes me realize just how ascerbic this industry and culture are toward women. This just makes me ill."

Andy Carvin
"For starters, we need this to be a bigger conversation. That’s why I decided to unilaterally declare this Friday as Stop Cyberbullying Day. What does it mean? I leave that up to you. Generally, though, I think we should all set aside some time that day to address cyberbullying. Write a blog post pointing to online resources about cyberbullying. Post a podcast about personal experiences. Create your own public service announcement about the dangers of cyberbullying and post it on YouTube. Then tag it with the phrase stopcyberbullying. If you’re uploading it somewhere that lets you type in your own tags, be sure to include it. If you’re blogging and don’t have tagging built into your blog, you can embed it with the HTML code shown here so it will be picked up by search tools like Technorati."
From Blogher: Lisa Stone
"Hate speech is forbidden on BlogHer -- we designed our community guidelines to ban hate speech, and every member of the community has the right (and the responsibility, but I'll get to that below) to report this behavior. In the rare instances that such comments have made it past our registration process and spam filter, we have deleted them immediately."
From Blogher: Beth Kanter
Advice on Cyberstalking and Online Sexual Harassment
(resources - go read the whole thing if that is what you need)
I read a lot on how we should/could/want to respond, which is for me the opportunity for learning, action and reflective thinking which is often the missing part of our action:
For me there are three levels:

  1. What I choose to take personal responsibility for - on my blog, on websites I host, garden or facilitate and WHY. How transparently I do this so people can choose to engage or not. I delete spam. I delete hate comments. Have I made that clear? Not clear enough. So I need to get my personal online house in order.

  2. What I choose to negotiate with the communities and groups I participate in. This goes to the possibility of being complicit in something that goes against my beliefs, values and promises I make to and with others. For me, the issues with MeanKids etc. fall into this one and it is worth some more conversation. I accept that we will have differing views on this. But we have choice about what we support, what we ignore and what we speak out on.

    Free speech is essential. Hate attacks and rape fantasies should not have to be policy level decisions - or only as last resort. We as a community should not tolerate them. If you want to have hateful discussions, take it to a walled garden. If you do it in public, expect impact on your reputation. (Note: this is NOT directed at anyone. I don't know who did what and leave that to those involved to sort out. I'm talking at the general level.)

  3. What I choose to support from a policy level. Death threats should be prosecuted. Privacy should be protected. Free speech should be protected.

Finally, I had an echo in my head of a conversation last summer at the cocktail party at Blogher 06 about the Culture of Love. In the US, it is easy to live in the culture of consumerism. In the culture of snarky cynicism. In the culture of ignoring things around us. In balance with other cultures, none of these is going to end the world (or I hope they aren't.) But when they operate outside of the Culture of Love, we have a problem. As I started out with, we are capable of very polarized ways of being. It is only when we can embrace the whole, the dark and the light, including the love, that we find a way forward.

There is a huge community that sent out their words of love and encouragement to Kathy. That's a powerful, healing force. We can stand up for each other. We should stand up for figuring out what happened and being individually and collectively smarter going forward.

That's a lot to wish for. But I'm an optimist.

(Edited to add a few more links)


Blogger CW said...

Thanks for posting all this, Nancy. I am still horrified by what Kathy's been going through, and pondering my own response.

2:52 AM  
Blogger Marshall Kirkpatrick said...

Thoughtful, thorough post - much appreciated.

11:35 AM  
Blogger Thorne said...

Indeed a thoughtful and articulat assesment. Thank you for this.

4:48 PM  
Blogger Tom Mandel said...

Thanks, Nancy - this is very thoughtful, very helpful.

The perspectives you quote remind of what is good and valuable about this free exchange of ideas called the blogosphere.

6:56 PM  
Blogger Mary Elizabeth Williams said...

Thanks for the articulate, thoughtful assessment, Nancy. At Salon, we've always tried to maintain the policy that ideas -- even offesive ones -- are permitted, but personal attacks are not. It's a sometimes blurry distinction. I think the challenge for us in community is to be sensitive to the dynamics in each situation, and to remember we're not just dealing with words on a screen but living breathing human beings.

6:40 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Excellent assessment Nancy. I kept checking to see what you had to say about the incident. Somehow this got in under my radar until today.

AS far as the culture of love thing is concerned. I think the west has been considered a rational culture for so long (often to it's detriment), that signifying one's love has become slightly embarrassing, or shameful, a sign of weakness that's for certain.

The reason; love is often a little irrational. Often quite irrational and requires that people make their decisions in a less pragmatic manner.

Love is also scary because it's pretty hard to control on a mass scale.

Anyways, just some thoughts on love from a girl who finds her self choking on the word often enough to wonder about it's significance as a cultural practice.


8:06 AM  

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