When Alexandra Wallace posted a YouTube video of herself complaining about the “hordes” of Asian students at UCLA and how their existence on campus interfered with her student performance (in the video Wallace mocks the way Asian students speak on their cell phones in the library. “Ching Chong, Ting Tong, Ling Long” she sneers, holding an imaginary phone up to her ear) the response was venomous. Tons of insulted students of all races, creeds and genders logged online to insult her back, oftentimes relying on racist and sexist stereotypes designed to insult and intimidate. Most of these insults drew attention to her cleavage and the fact that she was a “stupid, slutty little white girl”, rather than a bigot. Though the rage that Wallace provoked was certainly merited, as noted on blogs like Racialicious and Colorlines, the use of equally appalling slurs to shame her begs the question of what kind of dialogue we aim to promote in our current culture. Though there has been considerable backlash about what is politically correct and incorrect to say in our culture, the constant influx of these type of insult matches demonstrates how often discussions about racism, sexism, orany other “ism” end with piled on insults and relying on hurtful stereotypes in order to shame the other. This is the current landscape of 2011, a far cry from the days where politically correct labels were slapped on to anything in order to minimize conflict. These days, people want their conflicts right out there in the open. The question is, are these types of conversations actually working to minimize hate?

I am not surprised that people harbor racist or sexist opinions, or that people often use insults as a way to get attention. What is more interesting to me is that this type of technique is now commonly used as a way to “fight” racism or sexism. Several months ago a young woman fed up with increasingly sexist discussions and insults that were being leveraged against her online created the “Privilege Denying Dude” meme, with featured a smug looking young white man wearing a blazer, set against a background of pink and black stripes. You could fill in your own privilege denying slogans or phrases on this meme such as, “Your ideas sound so much better when I rephrase them.” Though the meme was promoted as being an amusing way to deal with trolls attempting to derail actual discussions on feminist message boards, the backlash was palpable, and, in my mind, understandable, for a few reasons. First, the fact is, with a meme like this, you are going to end up insulting a number of members of the opposite sex who may well have had your sympathies before. Second, the meme began flaring up anywhere someone posted a question or situation which was not dominant party-line, creating a new kind of privileged response system. Lastly, the trolls themselves actually seemed to welcome this kind of response. Many delighted in creating parodies of the privilege denying dude, such as their version of a “Feminist” meme with a picture of actress Ashley Judd wearing a “This Is What A Feminist Looks Like” shirt, and making blanket statements that mock Feminist discourse, such as “A woman disagrees with you? She must have been brainwashed by the patriarchy.”

Clearly, this is not facilitating discussion, helping to maintain a safe space or minimizing sexist, patronizing comments. People often argue that in today’s world there is no place for debate, discussion and analysis, everyone huddled around their individual devices, rather than sitting at the table and having a conversation about ideas. But the problem in my eyes is less about whether or not people are having ideas and sharing them with other people, than the fact that the type of technological venues we often use for sharing our ideas effectively shut down discussions, rather than open them up. Read through the comments to an article on any reputable news site, Conservative or Liberal, and you will see a slew of comments that aim to derail the actual conversation. This is true for independent blogs as well, where trolls are consistently attempting to provoke and intimidate serious readers. This kind of bullying is especially dangerous for minority voices on the web. Hostile comments posted on any major news website are often racist and sexist in nature. The phenomenon is so commonplace that most Internet readers have simply become inured to it.As a twenty something who grew up reading this type of commentary I know I certainly am. When my mother calls up to express dismay that so many comments on her news sites are racist or Anti Semitic in nature, I shrug my shoulders and tell her she just needs to ignore the trolls. “They just want to get your goat,” I tell her. “The best policy is to ignore the ignorant in the hopes that they will go away.”

There seem to be two basic responses to hostility- fighting fire with fire and turning the other way. As a person who profoundly hates confrontation, I have generally put myself in the latter category. This is true for most highly politicized situations I see. When The Westboro Baptist Church came to both schools I teach at, my immediate response was, “Better not to pay attention to these guys. They are a fringe, extremist group asking for attention.” Ever since coming to live in DC, I’ve found myself wary of highly publicized, political movements. I fear groupthink even if it is a cause I feel committed to and I worry that the movements themselves often make the causes trendy, superficial blips within our culture, rather than meaty calls for change. I prefer balanced discussions to vitriolic slogans and was thus, very surprised at my own reaction at seeing students at American University come out in every color of the rainbow, in solidarity against the hateful Westboro Church. I was downright moved by the solidarity I saw and was proud that I taught at a University where students would stand up to unjust ideas with love, rather than hate. My response was heightened I think because I’ve come to accept the fact that political movements have a tendency to evolve into cliques and, in our world today, bratty behavior generally wins you more friends and converts than listening to other voices and increasing discussion.

My frustration at the Privilege Denying Dude meme, and the fact that so many of my fellow liberal, feminist bloggers jumped on the bandwagon stems from the fact that it seemed like a petty, immature response that would serve to further isolate the community and make it the target of more attacks. You can’t fight stereotypes by endorsing others, even if you are angry, and by adopting a white man as a negative symbol, you end up playing in to the very stereotype you were resisting in the first place- that feminists are man-hating, that white men are responsible for anti-women sentiments and that the patriarchy is symbolized by an affluent white man . These trends meet the psychological need of insulating us from attacks (which come too often) but also serve to alienate potential allies and thus end up hurting the movements themselves. They also mark our actions as hypocritical- if I’m unable to accept that there may be white men who have more in line with my beliefs than white women (and that people of other race and ethnic backgrounds don’t even come up on the radar often, except when we speak specifically about what it means to be a diverse community) than I am being just as self involved and disinterested in listening to other voices, as my belligerent adversaries.

Some may argue that these types of tactics are necessary in a brutal world. But that seems to me to be a band-aid solution to explosive, violent, thoughtless discourse. People can blame the anonymity of technology all they want, but the truth is we constantly reward bad behavior in our culture- the more inflammatory a statement, the more likely it is to get published, the more reasoned and metered the voice, the more likely it is to disappear from view. Is it possible for writers and readers to question ideas, without endorsing the same tactics of our opponents? To be honest, I’m not sure. Cultural change takes time and I am consistently surprised that people who are educated don’t seem to think there is a problem with resorting to tactics that serve to further polarize ideas and shut down discussion. This is because the internet is not actually a wild west of ideas (as many have claimed), where nothing is monitored or regulated. Instead, popular websites feed into polarization by forming a bunch of highly regulated cliques. This paradoxically increases a kind of marginalization, by portraying a seemingly right and undisputed way of looking at any topic.

I think this is the real reason why people are so afraid of “political correctness”. On the tense battleground of ideas, party lines mean protection- from scorn, from shame, from being outed as someone whose ideas diverge from the mainstream. No wonder anonymous posters use their anonymity to say the most distressingly bigoted and offensive comments and no wonder people take a strange sense of pleasure from saying things that are not PC. Our culture is becoming more and more invested in shaming individuals whose ideas differ from their own and these reputational scarlet letters really can force people into hiding. It also makes people less likely to “stray from the herd” for fear of not having the herd’s protection.

At a time when we need new ideas, this type of culture is particularly hurtful, since it shuts down discourse and encourages a kind of cynicism and distrust of any and all ideas. I’m not saying we should go back to a time when news was seemingly unbiased, as opposed to presenting a host of different perspectives. I’m saying the perspectives we are getting aren’t all that different from one another because we are still, as a culture, highly suspicious of ideas and highly invested in regulating public opinion and discourse. This type of regulation (through shaming those with different views) isn’t controlled by any one force in particular, but is born of a kind of fear of the other, a fear that is complicated primarily because it is not displaced. We live in a world where we are right to be afraid of being shamed in a public view. It isn’t all that uncommon and it sure as hell is a lot easier to hide behind a particular brand of ideas than come out and say, “I endorse this particular idea, but am not really in line with this other one.”

As a writer and teacher, I feel a great deal of responsibility in shifting this culture. Writers and intellectuals often lament the fact that people today are just not all that intelligent; that that is why reality TV shows are so popular, and people just aren’t interested in thinking outside of the box. But I don’t think it’s true. Every day I am impressed by my students and peers, by my teachers and colleagues and friends for having really interesting insights on a host of issues in the world today. That’s not what is getting noticed and that is not what is taking center stage, because only the most inflammatory comments and perspectives end up taking hold and becoming well known ideas and memes. I know I’m as responsible for this culture, as many other people who click on a well-known inflammatory piece, just to balk at how ridiculous, outmoded and offensive the ideas the author presents are. I’m not saying we should shut out these ideas, but we should question the extent to which extremism is allowed to dominate discourse and the sense that in an increasingly unregulated journalistic world, its not always the cream which is rising to the top.

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ARIELLE BERNSTEIN is a writer living in Washington, DC. She teaches writing at American University and also freelances. Her work has been published in The Millions, The Rumpus, St. Petersburg Review, South Loop Review, The Ilanot Review and Press Play (Indie Wire). She has been listed three times as a finalist in Glimmer Train short story contests . She is currently writing her first book. She is Associate Book Reviews Editor at The Nervous Breakdown.

12 responses to “Post Politically Correct: What New Media Means for Safe Spaces and Constructive Discourse”

  1. dwoz says:

    One of the worst mistakes to make, also, is to consider the tone of public-accessible commenters to news sites to be representative of the overall population.

    One of the “wonderful” things about the internet, is the ability to create a very large presence for your ideology with a very small comparative effort.

    Astroturfing.

    A single person can sound like an army.

    This may sound like tin-foil-hat conspiracy theory, but it’s cheap, easy, and happens constantly.

    The first I saw of it, was back in the early ’90s, when an audio equipment manufacturer would flood USENET with posts from “curious purchasers” making innocuous and carefully crafted to sound neutral queries about a product, said queries to be answered by a stream of “extremely satisfied users” of said product. Unfortunately for the company, they were not quite aware of how the underlying nuts and bolts of the internet worked,and didn’t realize that having one person answer his own question using another email address would be traceable. They were exposed.

    They had two purposes…first to drum up current business, and second, to “seed” the internet knowledge base with positive dialog about their product. So when you did a webpage search, you’d happen upon all these highly positive reviews from “just folks.”

    It was only a matter of time before the same thing happened in political and religious ideology.

  2. Arielle Bernstein says:

    That’s a great point! Do you think this progression is natural or do you think it will change in time as people become more knowledgeable about New Media?

    • dwoz says:

      I think the analogy of yeast, drowning in their own effluent, multiplying like unsolicited screenplays left on the table at a Leonardo DiCaprio meet-and-greet, is apt.

      So it will get much worse before it gets better. But as everyone starts to realize that nobody is changing their minds, that it’s just pandering to your own crowd, I think people will lose interest.

      Today, it seems like its a battleground in a war that can be won…that the loudest and shrillest voices will drown out the rest, thus carrying the ideological day…but pretty soon people will realize they were just preaching to their own choir, that the battle is not won, that the proselytizing and championing of your pet cause was useless, and they’ll go back to surfing porn.

      In all the thousands of posts I’ve made on political/economic sites, I hardly think a single one has moved a conservative/racist/gay basher/WRONG-THINKING-PERSON to change their views. We just talk past each other, to no effect but to add to the net entropy of the universe, and clutter the memory hole with irrelevant chatter.

      So I think that noise increases to the square of the amount of actual dialog will continue, but eventually it will become narrower, as people cease to find it interesting. The whole internet thing and particularly the new media concepts (i.e. social media) will simply function to reinforce group identity, instead of inspiring people to go way outside their own boundaries.

      hopefully, anyway.

  3. JP says:

    Unfortunately, the Internet is a watering hole for idiocy. It’s not the Internet’s fault of course, but even today the world wide web is fairly unregulated and regardless of how many CAPTCHAs you fill out, you’re not going to filter out all of the morons. The truth is, some people are just morons and whatever they store up behind their teeth in real life often comes out behind the keys. You get a real sense of someone’s true beliefs on the w-w-w.

    Ten-fifteen years ago, you could find more constructive dialogue on the Internet. MSN used to have some really great forums. I used to participate in a number of political discussion groups. Regardless of differing beliefs, it was still very civil. Nowadays, not so much. I don’t even attempt to engage in those types of discussion forums anymore.

    The girl from UCLA is a good example of the worst aspects of personalities you find on YouTube. Unless you search for videos of cute, furry critters, in the Comments section on just about every other video you’ll find this type of crap.

    • dwoz says:

      man, Youtube comments are just breathtaking. You couldn’t make it up if you were paid double overtime plus a hot oil massage. Just couldn’t match the moronity.

      • JP says:

        Someone should do a YouTube book solely dedicated to the Comments section. (Hmm, this gives me an idea on how to retire at age 30) I’m with you. The moronity. It is stupendous on YouTube. I look for a video of some guy dunking a basketball and by the first comment someone’s dropping some racist shit. Same thing happens when I YouTube “booty dance,” “ass jiggling,” or “titties bouncing.” Somebody’s dropping some sexist shit straight off the bat. I just don’t get it. Can a girl not shake her money-maker without being called a hoe? What has happened to this country? This is not the America I grew up loving.

  4. Arielle Bernstein says:

    I guess I just don’t see the internet world and “real world” as being as wholly isolated from each other as we’d like to believe…

    We all spend time YouTubing stupid stuff and most news reading and interpreting is done online these days. This in many ways IS the dominant discourse, not some subculture. It’s amazing to me that this type or rhetoric is just ignored and tolerated, as opposed to being analyzed in more depth.

    That being said, an entire book on YouTube commentary might effectively kill me. You seem up for it though, JP. Booty dance is a good start. What comes next?

  5. Richard Cox says:

    The thing about YouTube comments, and what differs that audience from, say, a blog site, is the content. That’s not to say there aren’t countless brilliant videos posted there, but nevertheless the medium is Internet television. Almost no reading comprehension required.

    On a text-based site, do we not end up with a filtered audience, one that possesses the intelligence and patience required to make sense of the written word? Would they not be more likely to communicate effectively with the written word?

    I read Salon.com on a daily basis, and there’s plenty of hate and bigotry mixed in with the erudite comments, but for the most part it’s well-written hate. Which doesn’t lessen its intensity or wrongness, but it also doesn’t read as if it were written by pre-verbal primates.

    If you teach at George Washington University, write for or read this site, or even spend time on a mean-spirited political blog, you’re already segregating yourself from folks who can’t be bothered to read. YouTube comments are the other America, man. A direct look into her dark and anti-intellectual heart. It’s profoundly depressing.

  6. Arielle Bernstein says:

    That’s a great point, Richard. We do select the spaces we occupy and one of the reasons I love TNB is I know I’ll be engaging with individuals who are interested and invested in intellectual thought. I think Salon’s comment section needs a tad more regulation…

    Two points to consider:

    1. We don’t really know the people who post stupid crap- It’s nice to imagine them from our lofty intellectual heights as riff raff who can’t read- but who knows? You get a larger cross section of people on a site like YouTube, and it’s possible many people who leave stupid comments aren’t themselves stupid, but feeding into a kind of hive mentality i.e.-It’s anonymous and I can be as vulgar and inappropriate as I want!

    2. The specific YouTube videos posted in response to Wallace were from other students in the university. This means these sentiments are reflective of a selective intellectual group! Certainly, their responses were more articulate than many YouTube rants, but they were still pretty sexist.

    Thoughts?

    • Richard Cox says:

      True enough, we don’t know the people who engage in discourse on YouTube. It’s presumptuous to think otherwise. And I do think you’re right that aggressively dumb and hateful comments tend to inspire others, and that real conversation can quickly devolve into pure venom. But anonymity can be used most anywhere on the Internet, and still it seems YouTube draws a particular brand of stupidity.

      I wonder if anonymous political incorrectness on the Internet is a reaction to television, where the tiniest verbal infraction can get on-air personalities marginalized or fired. My opinion, based on nothing other than my own observation, is that racism and sexism are less pervasive in the real world than in the past. But perhaps as anger and hatred get pushed further from the mainstream, they become louder? To maintain relevance?

      I shouldn’t even use terms like “stupid,” as I did above, because that’s not really precise enough. Plenty of ignorant people have enough brainpower to be less ignorant. What I find frightening–and quite interesting, actually–is how reasoned, metered voices are not simply lost in the noise but even attacked. It amazes me how critical thinking is often branded as elitist, that intelligence can be interpreted not just as an attribute of a particular person or group, but also as a way to marginalize the less thoughtful. Vonnegut’s “Harrison Bergeron” comes to mind. Handicap everyone until we’re all equal.

  7. Simon Smithson says:

    I think a big part of the new discourse is that there are inherent differences between communication online and communicating in the personal space. Especially when you look at the extremes – for instance, dropping tl;dr lolfag 1!!1!!!111!!!! on a stranger in a bar just isn’t going to fly, because they have access to immediate, and physical recourse, as does the rest of the population of the bar, but you can get away with it scot-free in the Youtube comment section. Likewise, in person, you can’t do the opposite, and blurt out paragraph after paragraph of argument, spaced out over days on end – sooner or later, people get bored and are just going to leave the room.

    I think, probably, there’s going to be a growth in stratification, between moderated and unmoderated, discussion-welcome and discussion-unwelcome forms of discussion, much of which may be informed by how much access there is between peers in the offline context. It’s much more difficult, for instance, for me to abuse someone on Facebook if I know them, if I’m connected to them – they have recourse in the offline space.

    As for guiding the tone of the discussion in the future… you know, while it’s great that there are moments like the anti-Westboro gathering you describe (man, those guys are dicks), that’s a very concrete thing. Personally, I’ve gotten to the stage where there’s nothing I want to avoid faster than an internet debate. From my experience, getting embroiled accomplishes, 99.9% of the time, absolutely nothing. Nobody’s mind is changed, no further action is taken, and the end result is that you’ve invested time in an experience where the entire end goal is investing time.

    This is just one study, but still: http://www.bmj.com/content/340/bmj.c2276.full

    After being told the facts they’d originally been given were wrong, people were still claiming the argument those facts supported were right.

    Add that to the shrillness and the trolling that makes up so much of the discussion online… nah, man. No dice.

  8. Judy Prince says:

    Well reasoned throughout, Arielle, and a fascinating topic.

    I’d add that e-talk has changed significantly the discourse we’d become accustomed to because on most e-chat places we can hide behind pseudonyms, and we can pop in and out of a chat or permanently out of a chat place. Hence, not only do we have trollers, we can with impunity give in to the temptation to trash someone who opposes our view.

    Further, it takes more time, more thought and more patience to counter someone’s argument with one’s own well considered opinion than to attack them personally—-or, rather, as you note, stereotypically.

    The bad news, of course, as you’ve rightly emphasised, is that the name-calling, reasonless messages are like shouts—-they get attention, backgrounding the carefully constructed, emotionally low-key responses.

    Debate is a skill that is seldom taught as wed to each of our school subjects; it is usually saved for debate competitions with a raft of purpose-built topics brought in for the debates. Debate that is wed to each subject in school is often avoided, in fact, in favour of “crowd control” at most levels of education. Additionally, because of home and group pressure, we tend to avoid debate because it feels like a mirror of the uncomfortably emotional and inevitable disagreements we’ve had with our parents and friends. Learning how to assert one’s view in the face of another person’s opposing view, then, is not a mechanism we’ve used much and learned. It would be so helpful, personally and professionally, for children to practise presenting their views at home and at school, to become used to asserting their ideas and opinions and responding thoughtfully to others’ ideas and opinions.

    Thank you for initiating this important discussion.

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