Monday, March 25, 2013

The Social Justice Army

Let's talk about semi-current events for a change. Has anyone else been following the Steubenville rape case? For those who haven't been, it is making headlines for the trial's outcome: Two male high school football players have been found guilty for raping a drunken 16-year-old at a party. There were texts and videos taken during said party that have been circulating the internet. These texts and videos were eventually used as evidence in the case. Justice has been served.

Of course, that is not the story that you would have heard if you were simply watching television news. If you were hearing about the trial at CNN, you probably heard the story spun to focus on how tragic this verdict is for the football players, as though they were the victims.

Sadly, this outcome is traditionally expected. It is a product of our society's overly lenient attitude towards instances of sexual assault, and is referred to in more egalitarian circles as rape culture. Even in this highly publicized case, people are showing greater tendencies to sympathize with the boys than they are the victim. Some even disparage the victim. This is something that is commonplace with most cases of sexual assault - there is often undue blame put on the victim, and in most cases of rape the assaulter can come away with a 'not guilty' verdict.

Hilariously, this scarily relevant Onion video came out years ago.

Except, there's a slight difference this time around. The Internet has played its hand in this particular case.

When this case first began gaining attention, it attracted protests from online bloggers and activists. Any sympathy towards the rapists could be subverted by pointing at the substantial amounts of evidence circulating online about their case. And as for the victim-blaming that is currently going on, everything that more ignorant people are saying about the case is being recorded for posterity.  You can be certain that there are people fighting against the distorted perceptions of rape culture, and the Internet makes their voices louder than ever.

It demonstrates a reason to be optimistic: The digital age is the greatest time to be on the right side of equality and social progress.

The eyes of the online population are far-reaching. This is primarily because of the incredibly high volume of online traffic - about one in three people worldwide have internet access. Never has any prior medium been able to illuminate so many raw individual experiences to this degree. It allows us to gain a much broader perspective on the human condition, and it allows us to push for social equality like never before. It is happening to this rape case, it has happened in instances before this, and it will likely happen again.

We are experiencing a fusion between traditional progressive movements and internet vigilantism. Internet vigilantism was already an interesting phenomena that we've observed for a while, and worth a discussion of its own in a future blog post. People online have demonstrated the compulsion to spread the word about things that they find offensive, or immoral, or generally wrong. It could be an event, it could be a person's opinion, or it could be some other observable. This may, in fact, be the positive consequence of the internet becoming a place where one can express themselves in the presence of others.

One must also consider the equalizing nature of speaking out online. Your identity can be completely segregated from your text. Nobody can dismiss what you say based on your race, gender, or orientation, because your written words will take up just as much space as theirs. Such is the beauty of arguing online.

Stolen from XKCD

Let's take a look at another example of the internet's role in assisting progressive movements, but in the sphere of racism instead of misogyny.

When Barack Obama was re-elected for president in 2012, there was some serious disappointment among his opponents. So much so, that some of these individuals felt the need to go on twitter to express their outrage over his re-election.  Not too surprisingly, a large amount of these twitter messages were incredibly racist.

Those racist messages were saved for posterity, preserved and archived for the world to see. These archived posts were then shared around online, gaining further exposure. Eventually, some of these twitter posters were forced to take responsibility for their words, because, as it may come to shock some people, referring to a racial group as a bunch of "monkeys" is not a good thing to do.

You'll notice that a lot of those saved tweets come from the more backwards regions of the States. What's that, insulated white middle-class suburbanite? Are you shocked that racism is still a thing? I guess you learned something today.

The internet is a net win.  The dis-empowered are given a voice on equal footing as any other online voice. People who are unaware that there even is a problem can become informed. And, of course, the ignorant can be exposed and dealt with accordingly.

That isn't to say that problems like racism can be solved overnight with online intervention. Obviously, it cannot. In fact, once Obama came on television to address the then-recent Sandy Hook shootings, the racist tweets started up again. And when Michelle Obama set up her twitter account in January of this year, the racist onslaught flared up once more.

It takes more than a single event to reshape public attitudes. But the internet empowers us to be more diligent  in the push for exposing and confronting the ignorant. Yes, people were still being horribly racist after the post-election tweets, but it is a wonderful thing that I am able to expose these instances of racism to you. We can continuously hold each other accountable, and slowly but surely, we can expect attitudes to change. Or, at least, we can expect people to think twice about the nonsense they spout in public.

Because relapsing into 1950s social norms isn't the right way to handle an unfavorable presidential election.

Are you skeptical of the notion of gradual social change? Let's turn our social justice vision to homophobia, next.

LGBT rights (term chosen for a lack of desire to get into the alphabet soup that can be LGBT rights) have gotten very high press over the past ten years. It likely coincides with the 2003 supreme court ruling on Lawrence v. Texas, considering that public opinion polls on same sex marriage have shot off with great frequency since then.

Back in 2003, polls did not favor the plights of the LGBT community. A CBS News/New York Times poll had 40% report in favor of gay marriage, with 55% opposed. An NBC News/WSJ poll had 32% in favor, with 51% opposed. Zoom forward to a more contemporary time period, and the majority opinion now favors gay marriage. A February 2013 CBS News poll had 54% report in favor of gay marriage, with 39% opposed. A FOX News poll (of all things!) had 49% report in favor of gay marriage, with 46% opposed.

So, what has been happening over the past ten years? There's been a swathe of high-profile endorsements and grassroots conversation, but the far-reaching capabilities of the online have played their role. The It Gets Better project was a series of YouTube videos from individual contributors, in response to the suicide of Billy Lucas, a teenager bullied because he was gay. YouTube has also featured many videos of people coming out to their loved ones, inspiring many other LGBT community members to do the same. Outside of online video, the homophobia tracker mined data from twitter feeds to shed light on the frequency of casual homophobia. Online petition websites like have offered a platform for people to rally behind specific causes within the LGBT movement, among other movements.

And, of course, the blogs. So many blogs. The number of bloggers online that have tackled the issues of homophobia and LGBT rights are likely too numerous for me to give justice.

This isn't to downplay the foot-soldiers of activism in the LGBT movement, or the organizations pushing for greater legal representation, or the role that larger corporations and celebrities have had in supporting the cause. Certainly, this is a social movement that passionately operates on many fronts. But the internet was certainly a helping factor in their efforts, and the resulting change in social attitudes is actually observable and measurable.

This demonstrates an important consideration for pushing social equality through the Internet: there is potential for impact. There is potential to enable change. It's true that individual movements will have specific considerations, but the LGBT movement is proof that the Internet can have an important role to play in actuating pervasive and tangible shifts in social attitudes.

So goes the slow, inevitable march of progress.

If you've been clicking the links in this article (and if you haven't been, shame on you! You should be fact-checking the shit out of me), then you might have noticed that the blogs I link are all hosted on a particular website - tumblr. That isn't to imply that other blog websites don't have a role in promoting social messages - in fact, one could argue that more traditional blogs on wordpress and blogger have had more impact due to their seniority. Tumblr, however, is special.

Tumblr has gained a peculiar reputation as being a bastion of so-called social justice warriors. It's unclear as to why tumblr, in particular, has experienced this. It could just be a website at the right place, at the right time. It could be that tumblr's particular perks help predispose it to be better for spreading the word about something. Tumblr's reblogging capability makes it incredibly easy for other tumblr bloggers to share your posts, enabling ideas to be spread like wildfire. Whatever the case may be, it has become a mouthpiece that is growing in notoriety.

They may or may not also have a vendetta against proper capitalization.

This whole idea of social justice and the internet, of course, begs some questions. First, what about the online voices that don't deserve an audience?

Tumblr and other blog communities have been a boon for pushing grassroots causes, but some so-called "social justice" tumblrs can get a little out of touch with reality. Some bloggers have conflated greater societal issues and prejudices with their own desire for a unique identity. When you have tumblrs devoted to "social justice" while inventing ridiculous terms like trans-ethnic, you're ultimately devaluing actual social justice.

In addition to those making issues out of non-issues as seen above, we also have vocal members in relevant movements who end up doing more harm than good. Prominent feminist Julie Burchill caught some major negative press among her peers when, in January of this year, she posted an article attacking transsexual lobbyists. The story spread very quickly online, and was a showcase of how illiberal some progressives can be.

More recently, prominent tech sales marketer Adria Richards publicly shamed two men for making a private joke about the term 'dongle', which resulted in the firing of one of the men. Her approach to addressing the problem of uncomfortable sexual jokes caused an internet uproar. While it is noble to confront people over uncomfortable situations that may be taken for granted, Adria's reaction was widely considered overblown, unnecessary, and doing more to harm women's roles in the tech field than help them. It goes to demonstrate that, even among groups on the right side of the argument, the individuals who pursue the wrong courses of action will be called out.

And then there are the communities that have popped up as reactionary groups. You have Stormfront, the forum devoted to white supremacy. You have the Men's Rights Activists, a group of men who sincerely believe that they must combat the oppression that males have to endure under the heel of women and feminism. These are groups that have used the internet to amass their voice, but their message is both wrong and dangerous.

And yet, by discussing these undesirable online voices, we've already discredited them.

The ability to search for information online is so empowering, that there is no need to shush the losing side of the debate. We already know that logic and evidence do not favor these movements. There is no need to fear the influence of wrong or harmful voices online, so long as the reader is willing to do some Google-powered research.

Just don't get distracted by funny YouTube videos while you're searching.

There is a second concern to online social justice - what if the online audience isn't actually representative enough for some issues?

Take a look at those stats for online traffic again. There is a very large representation of the North American population, but far less representation in less affluent places like Africa. As stated before, there are about 1 in 3 people worldwide that use the internet. While that is a significant chunk of people, that leaves a majority of the world population unaware of the greater conversation. This harms all of us. How can we really have a conversation about the terrifying rape culture in South Africa when only 17% of South Africa's population is online for the conversation?

There is also an issue with communicating with regions that already are online. Despite China having more people online than the USA, we hardly ever interact with them. Not only is there a language barrier, they also simply go on different websites than we do. The ways to circumvent this issue are currently limited, as they would entail the American viewer to learn Chinese and vice versa. If an enterprising programmer were to set up a potent enough language translator that was directly applied toward making foreign websites more accessible, then it would open an extraordinary number of doors. Until then, there is a swathe of information that we aren't getting to access as a result.

Then there is the issue of non-Internet use in our own regions. Currently, about 4 out of 5 Americans use the Internet. This is a wonderful majority, but who are the 1 out of 5? Are they the obstinate senior citizens, or are they the people too poor to afford a computer? This article explains that it's a little bit of both.

We must consider the possibility that there are those who'd like to join the conversation, but are not able to. At this point in our development as a society, the ability to communicate with one another en masse is essential to our continued progress.

Freedom of speech is no longer the bottleneck in the pursuit of truth. It is now the privilege of communications.

If I may opine, the United States may have reached the point in the digital age where a right to communications is as essential as the right to free speech. It may be worth making into law, or even into a constitutional amendment - a guaranteed right to online communications services for all citizens, be it through proximity to public locations or through domestic access. On a global scale, access to online communications may be worthy of becoming a human right.

But, that is quite a hopeful proposition. I would be remiss to neglect mentioning our third consideration that works against the online social justice model. What if, one day, the Internet ceased to be so open-access? What if capitalism finally gets the better of us, and the Internet begins to be internally divided based on offered wealth, offered subscription fees, or some other counterproductive machination?

That a story for another day.

Until then, let us celebrate the new insights about ourselves that the Internet has afforded to us. It's never been a better time to take a stand for what you believe is right and just. Seize the opportunity to get informed. Seize the opportunity to speak out. 


  1. This is amazing. But I have to tell you, it took me literally days to read! So many links, so much to absorb. Couldn't do it in one sitting... Well written though!

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