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Only the Internet Could Compel Me to Feel Sorta Bad for Racist Teens

Recently, Jezebel founder/scribe Tracie Egan Morrissey made waves by publishing a pair of popular posts to that blog. First, she apparently searched for the word “nigger” on Twitter’s firehose on election night, surfacing a bunch of truly terrible, hateful things said about the President (and by extension, every single black person, ever). It’s really ugly stuff, to put it lightly. It’s also a stock story of web journalism, at this point, which seems to have grown out of “Weird Twitter”: think of something dumb or offensive or poorly-spelled, search it, and surface it. We live in a big world with a lot of computers, and you’d be shocked at the things people are willing to cast into what they think is the abyss.

There’s nothing wrong with that, so far.

But then, Morrissey did something interesting: she went back to the teenagers — in particular the teenagers — and found out which school they attend, and then notified their principal that they, the teens, were tweeting the n-word in reference to the President, and maybe they ought to do something about that? 

Still nothing wrong with that. Perhaps, as Morrissey wrote, this sort of behavior doesn’t “[jibe] with their student conduct code of ethics.” After all, they are representing the school publicly, some of them, and they’re being bigots in public. Morrissey therefore acted on behalf of the schools (not to mention common notions of decency) by making the principals aware of the transgression. I’ll buy it. 

But it would have been a waste of time for her to do that and not publish the results of both her research and reporting, so she published the teens’ full names and the names of their school, and what happened when she made these phone calls*. After all, that’s how I know that Morrissey did something so high-minded in the first place, and this is where this gets a bit icky, for me at least. Readers seemed to love it, for the most part.

A sampling of top comments: “I really applaud Jezebel for following up on this story.”; I find it extremely ironic that most of these racist little twats are enrolled in Christian schools”; ”If kids (or anyone for that matter) feel empowered enough to make such horribly racist and ignorant comments on PUBLIC Twitter profiles, then they should reap the consequences.”

(Another follow up post, by a different Jezebel blogger, ran with the headline saying “Unsurprisingly, Readers Incensed About Coverage of Racist Teens Are Also Racist. And Terrible Spellers,” did exactly what you might think it would do.)

This was such a hit that it spawned an imitator: a Tumblr called “Hello There, Racists" which does more or less the same thing. The author finds people saying racist things on social media, publishes screencaps and names and shames them. Anonymously. Unlike Morrissey’s work, we have no idea who is waging this war against Racist Teens, and this obfuscation is further compounded by the fact that the blog accepts anonymous submissions. Plausible deniability abounds! 

So while the Racist Teens outed by Tracie Egan Morrissey will be able to write her a thank-you letter a few years down the road, for saving them from themselves, the Racist Teens outed by HT,R may never know whom to thank for their tireless public service. In fact, the latest post on the blog points out that many of the Racist Teens featured have been — gasp! — threatened. “They deserve to lose their jobs and scholarships,” writes Anonymous, “but not threats of any kind.” 

What is troubling, to me at least, is not the threats (I don’t give a shit) but the quick-and-easy conflation of hate speech with racism — hate speech is but one aspect of racism. It’s not only simplistic to conflate the two, but it also presents an incredibly easy solution to the problem of racism: stop the hate speech and it all goes away! And so you make yourself a hero for identifying and shaming a minor in public. (Tracie Egan Morrissey is in her early 30’s).

[SIDEBAR]: ID-ing a minor in a news story is a “thorny issue” per the Journalism Center on Children and Families — especially when they have been charged with a crime. Here’s a couple quotes from the San Antonio Express News' policy, as quoted on JCCF's website: 

Do not name juveniles charged with crimes unless they are accused of capital murder or a crime so heinous as to warrant their identification. The last circumstance, of course, would require consultation with a senior editor. "We routinely identify children, teens, etc. in photos from parades, festivals, etc. In instances where the identification could endanger the child that communication should be made clear to both a supervising editor and the photo editing staff.

It’s not something you just, you know, do. [END SIDEBAR]

But hate speech isn’t racism in its entirety. Not that I’ve experienced it at all — like Morrissey, I am white — but I suspect that plenty of racism in this country happens in the negative: the cab that doesn’t stop, the promotion that doesn’t happen, the credit that isn’t extended, etc. That’s not so easy to screengrab. The racism we must all combat is different from the racism of segregated diners and openly bigoted politicians. Now it’s all dog whistles, and so to encounter such obvious, even anachronistic, racism must make one believe you have located its true fount, when in fact it’s just a Teen using his smartphone to be a despicable piece of shit.

So, to finally understand why I think this approach to eradicating racism is not only dumb but maybe wrong, we must consider why we hate hate speech so much — especially us white people. As discussed, it’s low-hanging feel-good fruit: I am disgusted by use of the n-word, therefore I am not racist. But beyond that, the more important goals, as far as I’m capable of articulating them, are to a.) protect people from encountering this de-humanizing bullshit it as a routine part of their lives, and to b.) make people who use the slurs wantonly think about the way in which their speech influences their thinking (and vice versa) and others around them, the power of language, etc.

That’s certainly worthwhile, and even noble, but blogs and Twitter being new media, it’s worth considering what it might mean to “encounter” this language. How did Tracie Egan Morrissey encounter it? Did she happen to follow dozens of Racist Teens on Twitter? Probably not. I’m no psychic, but as I suggested above, I’m almost certain she punched the word “nigger” into Twitter’s search field and sifted through the trash on offer. This certainly doesn’t excuse Racist Teens’ behavior, but it colors it in a certain way — they’re under the impression they’re sharing their racist hate speech with their followers and no one else. Stupid as they may be for that, they’re under the false impression that it’s just a dumb thought they’re casting into the void, or to 37 friends. (Or maybe they just want to ruffle feathers and test their limits because they’re Teens, and all Teens are idiots. Obviously we were all held accountable for our actions when we were Teens, but we also didn’t have Twitter accounts, nor did we interact with journalists or Anonymous Tumblrers very frequently).

Perhaps I am a complete dolt (certainly plenty reading this will think so) but I have cast my insipid thoughts to the Twittersphere to disastrous results in the past, because I forgot that it is totally searchable. One time I was uninvited from my friend’s restaurant’s Friends and Family dinner for mentioning that the invite email had given away famous New York chefs’ email addresses — I didn’t give away the addresses themselves, but merely pointed out that my friend had done so, jokingly. No free dinner for me, and lesson learned (sort of). Twitter constantly reminds us how many people follow us, and typically, unless we’re playing #HashtagParlorGames, that very same number of people — indeed, far fewer — actually see anything we write. To the user, writing a tweet might feel something like throwing spaghetti against the fridge — will it stick? — whereas to Brands and Somewhat Famous People, Twitter is like a colander that catches what they want it to, which is usually their name (and probably close misspellings). 

You can turn Twitter into a basket of racist shit if you really want to, by punching racist slurs into the search box, but this isn’t how anyone actually experiences it, and, I think, makes the Racist Tweet quite different from, say, yelling the n-word repeatedly at a comedy club heckler. You, the journalist or anonymous blogger, must first seek it out and then subject your readers to the hatred of strangers. All of us — me, you, the 7.8 million other people who read Morrissey’s initial story — would have no clue that Teens were saying awful shit about the President and black people on election night had it not been sought out in the laziest, most cynical fashion.

The next step is to make yourself into a vigilante by “unmasking” these totally not-masked Teens. I suspect that Morrissey viewed it as somehow similar to Adrian Chen’s much-blogged-about unmasking of ViolentAcrez, reddit’s infamous troll, but ironically, what she did had more in common with ViolentAcrez’s crimes against common decency than Chen’s arguably more journalistic effort**; she took online postings by Teens that were poorly considered*** (to say the least) and then made them totally public to a different audience in a different setting for completely different reasons against their will. Hey s/he’s the just the messenger. 

But this consideration of whether we are subjected to speech or if we must seek it out is important. In fact, this is what tipped the scales in the Citizens United decision. The Solicitor General arguing the case against Citizens United incorrectly told Roberts that, yes, McCain-Feingold would prevent a political non-profit from publishing a 500 page book with just one mention of a candidate, for or against. He was wrong, but this was so upsetting to the Justices that history was made. From Jeffrey Toobin’s feature on the matter in The New Yorker:

Stewart was wrong. Congress could not ban a book. McCain-Feingold was based on the pervasive influence of television advertising on electoral politics, the idea that commercials are somehow unavoidable in contemporary American life. The influence of books operates in a completely different way. Individuals have to make an affirmative choice to acquire and read a book. Congress would have no reason, and no justification, to ban a book under the First Amendment.

This is no small issue, is what I’m saying. Whether we encounter language we find objectionable (or whatever) passively or actively is central to how we ought to consider it. Making monsters out of Racist Teens just to vanquish them seems lazy at best and ugly at worst.

(I find it so repellant when Ambiguously Bad Things successfully masquerade as Unambiguously Good Things that I often end up accidentally siding with the Unambiguously Bad just to play devil’s advocate. But I hope my point is clear.)

*Check out the SEO slugs on these stories, by the way.

**Which: Chen dealt with the ickiness of what he was doing in the story, something Morrissey did not do in hers, despite the (I think) obvious ethical issues. There’s a brief footnote, that reads like an afterthought, expressing her sincere hope that these Teens learn their lesson about social media. One suspects they will.

***Devil’s advocate here. Obviously the Racist Teen Tweets are worse than poorly considered. They’re hateful.

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