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America's Self-Appointed Intelligence Community

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The tumblr Hello there, Racists documents the way Obama’s victory brought out the worse in many white people online. The barrage of racists tweets confirms that America’s union is still struggling to perfect itself: people across various social divides resorted to racial epithets to express their disappointment in the election result. As this map of America indicates, a disproportionate amount of racist tweets were sent by relatively young people from states won by Romney. To some extent, however, the mapping of racist tweets during a heightened state of agitation misrepresents a more troubling social reality. Racial prejudice has been on the rise across America, and this growing polarisation coincides with Obama’s first term as President. According to a recent study, hate speech directed at the black President has been thriving on Facebook since he took office. In other words, racism is neither skin deep, region specific, age indicative or media related. Indeed, it is much more insidious and pervasive than many people would care to admit.


The Implicit Association Test (IAT) also indicates that the divide is not just between the races, generations or regions. The disturbing truth is that there is a separation between many people’s unconscious attitudes and stated values. Any attempt to identify or locate a racist therefore borders on the holier than thou (excessively or hypocritically pious).


Now, the racist tweets were primarily directed towards conservative echo chambers and/or people ‘following’ their friend’s twitter streams. These predominantly young people certainly didn’t anticipate what would happen once adult liberals caught wind of their offending tweets. They found themselves being rounded up in a liberal witch hunt and subject to reverse racial profiling. ‘Hello, there Racist’  insists that it is performing a community service by collecting the names and faces of the offending parties. Apparently liberals can make young conservatives more responsible by publicly branding them racists indefinitely. The fact that ‘Hello, there Racist’  is encouraging other liberals to do this from behind the cover (and safety) of anonymity obviously heightens its own sense of personal responsibility. The Tumblr hypocritically notes “The (un)official motto of the GOP is ‘personal responsibility’—so with publicly available information, let the words, names, and faces of these racists be documented so that they may be responsible for them.” It goes on to bravely add in another post that racists “deserve to lose their jobs and scholarships”. Jezebel did more than just encourage the collection of incriminating tweets of young people —it crossed the line and contacted their schools to inform on them.


It’s difficult to know which is more objectionable—students idiotically resorting to racial slurs on social media, or adults appointing themselves honorary members of the intelligence community. One thing is clear: everyone should have known better. We now live in an age of electronic surveillance, cyber stalking, online bullying and internet vigilantism. The right to privacy is under threat by the right (and ability) to know. Racism is obviously not just an internet phenomenon or confined to single tweets at election time—it is socially learnt behaviour, and mainstream media outlets play a pedagogical role in reinforcing the fear and ignorance learnt within society at large. ‘Hello, there Racist’ and ‘Jezebel’ have merely made these young people convenient scapegoats for a more complicit adult world. These site’s conduct is akin to shooting fish in a barrel so as assuage liberal guilt about the myth of a post racial society.


If these young people are what they appear to be, however, why even bother to out them as racists? They will invariably show their true colours of their own accord or eventually learn to question their own prejudices and/or better disguise them. Public ‘naming and shaming’ does little to explore the roots of racism or acknowledge a much deeper social problem—racism without racists (or colour blind prejudices that express themselves in less overt ways).


While racial prejudice might have questionable precedents, the internet as self appointed watchdog and/or punitive measure sets another bad precedent. It encourages people to spy on one another with one goal in mind: to use publicly available information against them. Given the ubiquity of the internet—relatively private information shared through social media and accessed through search engines et al—there may be no escaping its gravitational pull. The motivation behind the ‘outing’ of seemingly unashamed racists is itself transparent: to publicly shame individuals into accepting responsibility for their behaviour through the act of watching. The problems, however, are equally transparent: where do we draw the line and to what extent are the ‘spies’ responsible for their own actions? Specifically, who watches the watchers?. Witness sites dedicated to (say) the ‘immoral’ sexual behaviour of women, the ‘radical’ activities of left wing sympathisers, ‘degenerates’ with criminal records, ‘bastards’ who lie and cheat , and ‘naughty’ dogs that pee on the carpet.


The one thing all these sites have in common is the idea of surveillance as community service, and branding perceived ‘deviants’ as a threat to ‘acceptable’ society. Given this impulse to monitor people—and the possibility of impersonating and/or slandering someone online—it isn’t difficult to imagine a frightening future scenario: people creating ‘dossiers’ according to social type or personal views on sensitive topics (like gun control, abortion, immigration, etc). While this might be unlikely, such monitoring and/or labelling simultaneously exposes the internet’s potential to abuse its own power.


The concern is particularly acute when we remember that the young ‘racists’ still have their whole lives in front of them, and may come to learn the error of their ways through life experience (assuming that their perceived racism isn’t the result of the disinhibition effect or that they weren’t publicly venting through language they already knew to be socially unacceptable). Indeed, the monitoring of young racists seems to come from conflicting impulses about their moral identities—namely, publicly branding developing people has educational value and there is moral continuity between their younger and older selves.


On the one hand, the branding purports to educate young racists on the ‘morality’ of their actions, and assumes that identifying them as such forces them to accept greater responsibility for themselves. On the other hand, the branding denies them the possibility of moral development because it publicly holds them responsible as racists indefinitely. Naming and shaming fails to distinguish between the person and their actions, and insists on maintaining a questionable connection between them online throughout their lives. Let’s suppose, however, that these young students are unashamed racists and that individual tweets reflect a more comprehensive and persistent world view.


Publicly shaming people is not going to combat racial prejudice: it’s just going to reinforce existing prejudices about liberals as thought police. Trying to put a lid on human behaviour is likely to make unashamed racists feel more self righteous and/or powerless. Denying them the right to free speech not only discourages an open discourse about discriminatory and abusive behaviour, it contributes to further polarisation. Particularly unfortunate is that it threatens to send overt racism back underground (into private conversations or behind privacy settings) and helps to conceal racism’s covert operations.


Prying Eyes


We can see racism covertly operate in the media’s demonization of Chris Brown and sexualisation of Rihanna. Hiding behind the cover of sexual politics, liberal outlets seem intent on exploiting societies’ fear of violent black men as it capitalizes on the unbridled sexuality of black women. Is there anything more potent than watching this volatile mix of sex and violence run amok in society? Indeed, the Rihanna/Brown relationship appears to have left an indelible mark on the body politic.


Witness Brown’s recent vile rampage on Twitter when a female comic dared to stand up to the worthless piece of shit. Brown verbally raped the white comedian for calling a spade a spade. Brown might have quickly resorted to racial type, but Jenny Johnson was clearly trying to goad him into overreacting—and she has been deliberatelypushing hisbuttons for years now.


No one is going to claim that Brown is an innocent, here. The guy obviously has anger management issues and still has a lot of growing up to do. At the very least, he should already know that people are watching his every move and shouldn’t be so obliging to confirm their biases about him (assuming that he was really getting angry with Johnson—a more sympathetic interpretation suggests cultural and/or gender difference in attempts at humour).


As if to prove the point that Brown has become the white media’s favourite whipping boy, where’s the similar demonization—and deliberate acts of provocation—of (say) Charlie Sheen?  The actor also famously has anger management issues: Sheen’s history of domestic violence and/or acting out is a matter of public record. And yet Charlie Sheen (aka Carlos Irwin Estévez)  has been better integrated into society. The actor has been allowed to domesticate his bad boy image through television sitcoms and pre-recorded laugh tracks. Brown and Sheen—even their names invite racially motivated profiles and punchlines. They might as well be called Ebony and Ivory.


Brown hasn’t been getting a bum rap just for his skin colour of course. Unlike Sheen, an image of Brown’s violence has being made publicly available, and both he and Rihanna have been inadvertently defined by it. Here’s an important newsflash, however. Chris Brown never assaulted Rihanna. He committed the horrific act of violence on Robin Fenty (Rihanna is her middle and stage name, while Robin Fenty is the name that appears on the police report and in court transcripts). This might seem like a questionable distinction to make, but distinguishing between these two moral identities takes us to the heart of the issue: Fenty’s right to privacy as a victim of a violent crime is distinct to the public’s right to know about the lives of the rich and famous.


Spying on celebrities has, of course, become a form of recreation. It appears to be open season as soon as someone enters the spotlight. Nonetheless, the availability of that infamous image remains unauthorised, and it is hardly surprising to learn that the leak is the result of a covert operation. A policewoman secretly took a photo of the police image, and conspired with another policewoman to make it public property via media outlets. The only reason the two policewomen weren’t charged with a crime is because they were able to cover their tracks:  despite multiple phone calls to Fox Television and TMZ, there is no evidence of money changing hands.


It’s no coincidence, however, that the image of Rihanna’s face is also marked with the TMZ logo: her assault has since become a consumer item and is now branded as a prepacked outrage to be exploited indefinitely. From the moment it illegally entered the public domain, their personal relationship has literally become everyone’s business: it’s something we can all meddle into and profit from. The question, of course, is why did everyone want to see—and subsequently re-enact— a traumatic moment in their life when Brown and Fenty clearly want to move on? To what extent should their personal relationship be public property and remain subject to media scrutiny?


Rihanna’s latest album Unapologetic makes no apologies for her continued relationship with Brown, and her new single Nobodies Business (featuring Brown) literally tells everyone to stay out of their affairs as the two singers publicly reaffirm their love for each other. Instead of following their lead, media observers have found themselves taunted by the alleged trolling.


If Rihanna and Brown have gotten back together again —or are merely paving the way for an inevitable reconciliation— they can therefore expect to be subject to constant media scrutiny and pressure. It’s certainly disturbing that Rhianna appears to have accepted public responsibility for Brown’s violence. Apart from looking sheepish on TV with his Mom and lawyer during 2009’s apology tour, this is more than Brown appears to have done (or wants to do). Perhaps that’s because Brown had already pleaded guilty to felony assault in the criminal courts, and feels that there is nothing left to prove.


Nonetheless, there is a genuine risk (statistically speaking) that he might assault her again: the history of batterers is that they typically reoffend and/or a pattern of escalating violence emerges. Such a possibility will only vindicate many people’s prejudices, and justify an elated ‘told you so!’ mentality. A related concern, however, is that the media is now part of the (potential) cycle of abuse. By constantly telling them so, it is actively playing a part in the feedback loop: it is openly courting a self fulfilling prophesy through discriminatory and abusive behavior. Instead of giving them enough space to work through their issues, it is projecting its own feelings onto them. It is difficult to know how anyone can possibly survive such relentless scrutiny and criticism. Consequently, their ‘undying love’ threatens to be a cautionary tale about their relationship to the media, too.


Steven Aoun was the film and television critic for Australia's leading film journal Metro magazine. He has also written music criticism for Melbourne's daily newspaper Herald Sun and been an editorial assistant for CLCWeb: Comparative Literature and Culture, the peer-reviewed quarterly of scholarship in the humanities and social sciences. He is currently writing a PHD on the nature of critical theory and may even finish it within this lifetime. Steven regularly contributes to PopMatters as a feature writer and previously wrote the column Through the Looking Glass and the Flashpoints series. Steven can be contacted at bonnee01@gmail.com when he is not also writing the novel "On Caroline Jane's Happiness".


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