Sunday, 5 January 2014

In Defense of the Right to Be Outrageous

"Going to Africa. Hope I don't get AIDS. Just kidding. I'm white!"
Justine Sacco via Twitter.

The viral reaction to the above tweet resulted in Justine Sacco losing her job. Many condemned and judged her as racist and agreed with this as just punishment.

My reaction to that sentiment, "What the fuck is wrong with you people?"

I don't find that statement racist. I find it to be beautifully satirical. It brilliantly illustrates white western privilege and how we view other cultures through our sheltered personal lenses in less than 140 characters. When reading that tweet, I didn't use it to judge her behaviour, I used it to judge my own. And I found myself wanting. And I laughed, because it has a kernel of truth in it, as all great satire does.

And that is the point of outrageous commentary. Professional comics use it to devastating effect to yes, get laughs, but also to poke fun at themselves, their audience and our society in general. Outrageous satire has been part of human culture for as long as we have an oral history. And with the dawn of the internet, the great voice of the people, we all now can participate and share our comments with each other. Satire, sarcasm, parody, exaggeration are all tools that should be available to us to use. But a new troubling social order is arising.

For now that we have given a voice to the mob, we have also given the mob a tool by which it can render a perverted sense of justice. Say something that offends someone on the Internet, and the mob will judge, condemn, and sentence you all within a matter of hours. You have no presumption of innocence, you are not even allowed to defend yourself. You have been judged, found wanting and you must be punished, and the preferred current punishments are that you lose your job, be hounded into suicide or
at minimum just hounded off of the Internet. We have lost the right to be offensive.

And people condemn those that choose be anonymous on the Internet.... I say we have damned good reason. The biggest threat to my person is not the NSA, nor corporations, government or other agents of the state. The biggest threat to my safety is you, the common citizen. For by viewing any statement through the lens of racism, sexism, homophobia etc. we automatically discard the notions of satire, sarcasm, parody and exaggeration. Those tools are not ours to use, because they be misinterpreted. And we just can't have that.

(I cannot understate how ironic I find that Justine lost her job, while those that condemned her by calling for her rape or murder get to keep theirs. The mob's sense of justice is very selective and very arbitrary about what is fair to say and what is not.)

There's been quite the amount of mob outrage lately, and some of it has been over truly honest and hateful comments. But our efforts to wipe out hate are so widespread, so instantaneous and so arbitrary that we have lost any notion of justice. In every other aspect of western society we are distrustful of vigilante justice because we know it can go so horribly wrong. So why do we put so much faith in it when dealing with online communications? Why can anyone lose their job over something they said that anyone else can deem hateful and offensive? Because of the various self-righteous "tribes" on the internet, anything anyone says can be hateful to someone else. And if everyone is hateful....

"The path to hell is paved with good intentions." A statement that should serve as a warning to those that mean well, but haven't thought through all the consequences of their actions. And this trend of involving a person's employer is a thoroughly hellish journey.

Consider for a moment the repercussions of threatening a company's brand over something an employee says. This notion therefore means that a company must police all employee online communications; whether at work or in private and shutdown any behaviour that threatens the company's reputation. The best defense is a good offense, so every organization should monitor and control what employees are allowed to say or access online while in the office. Not only that, but they probably should put in their employment contracts that employees must allow the company to monitor all personal devices for any activity that could harm the company. This is the logical conclusion. If the mob threatens a company over an employee's actions, then that company has a right to prevent those actions from happening. And before hiring an employee, it is only right and just that all online communications be handed over to be judged by HR for troubling commentary. Why hire potential trouble?

By threatening corporate brands, the mob citizenry is giving the very power to corporations that they most loathe corporations for using. Not only giving them that power, demanding and pleading that corporations take it and use it.

Mob justice, just as frightening as it ever was. Maybe when you see something that offends you, pause and reflect a moment. Will your actions truly act as a public service? Or will you just be adding another brick in that path to hell?

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