Oct 15, 2012

The troll's privilege

So last week, Gawker's Adrian Chen enraged Reddit by outing one of their most prolific and most unpleasant volunteer moderators, Violentacrez; the man responsible for such subreddits as "Niggerjailbait", "Misogyny", "Jewmerica", "Incest" and, of course, "Hitler". In real life, he's Michael Brutsch, a 49-year old father from Texas. As Gawker puts it:

Judging from his internet footprint, Brutsch, 49, has a lot to sweat over. If you are capable of being offended, Brutsch has almost certainly done something that would offend you, then did his best to rub your face in it. His speciality is distributing images of scantily-clad underage girls, but as Violentacrez he also issued an unending fountain of racism, porn, gore, misogyny, incest, and exotic abominations yet unnamed, all on the sprawling online community Reddit. At the time I called Brutsch, his latest project was moderating a new section of Reddit where users posted covert photos they had taken of women in public, usually close-ups of their asses or breasts, for a voyeuristic sexual thrill. It was called "Creepshots." Now Brutsch was the one feeling exposed and it didn't suit him very well.

Reddit exploded with outrage, with links to Gawker being banned in one of the most influential subreddits. Chen:

So it was no surprise that when news got out earlier this week that I was working on a story that would expose Violentacrez's real identity, other moderators on Reddit rallied to defend him. The popular politics subreddit led the charge, by banning all Gawker links."As moderators, we feel that this type of behavior is completely intolerable," they wrote. "We volunteer our time on Reddit to make it a better place for the users, and should not be harassed and threatened for that. We should all be afraid of the threat of having our personal information investigated and spread around the internet if someone disagrees with you."

As always in these things, Brutsch's defense was spearheaded by cries of free speech. Chen:

The idea of free speech is sacred to many Reddit users, a product of the free-wheeling online message board culture from which Reddit springs. If you criticize someone else for posting something you don't like, you are a whiny fascist.

As Alex Hern put it in his blog on the New Statesman:

The whole affair has an extra level of irony, because in hoping to post online publicly available information against violentacrez wishes, Chen was doing exactly the same thing which violentacrez and other moderators of r/creepshots claimed was legal and ethical.

So in a nutshell, the Reddit ethic is that Brutsch and other Redditors must be allowed to post any publicly available content they like, no matter how immoral it is, no matter whose rights it violates, consequences be damned. However, no publicly available content about them can be posted, because it's immoral, it violates their rights and there might be serious consequences. Brutsch pleaded with Chen to maintain his anonymity, asking that his dignity and privacy be protected; two rights that he refused to even consider the underage girls whose pictures he disseminated online might have. In Brutsch's world, and the world of the redditors defending him, they are the only people who have rights: they have a right to free speech, while others don't have the right to disagree with them ("whiny fascists"); they have a right to privacy, while others don't.

What we're dealing with here is the very essence of privilege. I read a good blog post just recently on how geeks, in their role of gatekeepers of geek culture and much of the Internet, have become the new bullies. The geek, Reddit and atheist communities are largely populated by straight white men, mostly from middle-class backgrounds; in socio-economic terms, the most privileged class in society. Of course, there is a vocal political movement hell-bent on proving that the opposite is true, that somehow poorer, far more marginalized people are in fact favored by the system, and their toxic ideology is very popular.

In some settings, of course, being a geek or an atheist is a disadvantage. In the American high school, as classically imagined, it's the jocks who are privileged and the geeks get themselves stuffed into hall closets. How true that is today, I don't know. Certainly in America and elsewhere in the Western world, where the vast majority of the people who populate sites like Reddit are from, atheists are a minority that is in some ways discriminated against. So certainly, many of the angry straight white men on the Internet can point to others who are more privileged than them. Some of them then use this observation to brand themselves as underprivileged, as victims of the system who need their rights protected against oppression. And, of course, since they themselves are oppressed, they can't possibly be guilty of opression themselves; in fact, any talk of patriarchy, kyriarchy or their privilege is itself oppression, a cruel feminist plot to grind them further down.

This kind of thinking represents a willful, deliberate misunderstanding of what privilege is and how it works. As I've written before (in Finnish), the entire "men's rights" movement is a political project to appropriate the language of feminism and invert it to create a system of thought where the privileged become the oppressed, and the oppressed are suddenly privileged. It uses the language of social justice to argue for a deeply conservative reification of inequality and sexism. Where it goes further than feminism and social justice, from an inversion of feminism to an inversion of a caricature of radical feminism, is in claiming absolute primacy for the rights of the "oppressed".

It's in these terms that the defense of Brutsch is framed. His rights, and the rights of other Reddit moderators, are sacrosanct and must be protected. When his anonymity, his right to privacy and his dignity is attacked, when personal information about him is posted online, this is not only an unpardonable assault on his rights, but an attack on the very idea of free speech. All very high-minded and principled! However, as pointed out before, other people don't get these rights. The rights of the underage girls whose pictures Brutsch posts to privacy and dignity aren't even considered. Brutsch's critics are not entitled to free speech. Even bringing up the notion that people other than the privileged have rights that might restrict the actions of the privileged is dismissed as "fascism". In this world, the rights of others are completely secondary to the rights of the privileged. That, I would submit, is a fair definition of privilege.

Just last week, Amanda Todd, a teenager from Vancouver, Canada, committed suicide after vicious online and offline bullying. In the system of privilege that masquerades as "free speech" on the Internet, where are her rights? She doesn't get any, because the only human right on today's Internet is the free speech of the privileged. That's the free speech of the bully. Remember the way Anita Sarkeesian was treated? Or the poor teenage girl who posted a picture of herself to r/atheism? That last article was written by Rebecca Watson, and the way she's treated on the Internet is a legend unto itself. I'm constantly in awe of people like her and Natalie Reed for standing up to the torrent of mindless hatred and abuse they get online for daring to claim that they, too, have rights. Not on Michael Brutsch's Internet, they don't.

It's this attitude of blind privilege that only sees the rights of the privileged to free speech as rights worth defending that has completely alienated me from the pirate movement. For the majority of vocal pirate activists, each question of rights is examined solely on the grounds of whether it is likely to lead to some kind of legislation that threatens their personal right to free speech. All other considerations - bullying, racism, anything - are secondary, if even that. Usually they're simply not acknowledged at all.

I passionately believe that free speech is a crucial human right. However, it isn't the only human right. Shouting "free speech" does not - must not - end the discussion. If we enshrine the right of the privileged to say anything they want about anything or anyone they like as the supreme, inviolable principle of the Internet, we transform the Internet into a worldwide mechanism of discrimination, bullying and oppression. Everyone is entitled to human rights, privacy and dignity, not just the ones who shout the loudest and are the most obnoxious.

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