“They don’t gotta burn the books; they just remove ’em”
-Rage Against the Machine, Bulls on Parade
Today I lost someone dear to me. After months of online back and forth he finally unfriended me on Facebook after countless appeals to me to censor myself proved ineffective. I am kind of ambivalent; on the one hand I no longer have to scroll through my newsfeed and see his posturing as an intellectual and the subsequent overpowering urge to question the logical flaws in his arguments, buuut, at the same time his world just became a little more insular and he has less people to challenge him.
To be clear, in my view there was nothing I said that was particularly insulting; rather there is a history of both IRL and OL animosity which made it difficult for our online interactions to be amicable. Case in point, by this morning I literally could not even present a separate point of view (on the topic of placenta-eating of all things) without him deleting it (deletion being his common recourse to my comments as of late). However, I don’t want to talk about who was right and who was wrong and who said what because it would be impossible to sift through and really it doesn’t matter.
What I find to be infinitely more interesting are the broader implications for online conduct. At what point do we delete comments? At what point does a comment become so offensive that we must alter history to read the way we want it to? I think the only empirical answer is that either all comments are okay or none are okay; any limit on conduct based on personal taste will only (can only) be arbitrary. That said, there are politics involved in which comments and points of view we allow to be visible in our online profiles, because like it or not, people will judge us based on what we allow.
Or will they?
To be sure, certain people might make assumptions about you based on the company you keep, but its folly to believe that any of us are so important that worlds will come crashing down if someone gets wind of the fact that some of our friends have fringe ideas. For example, I have some Islamophobic friends who occasionally (not recently) posts xenophobic anti-immigration stuff or pro-military jingoistic crap on my wall. What does one do in a situation like this? Well, I’m gonna go out on a limb and say that if its hate-speech of any kind there is usually a logical way to quickly point out that it is little more than bigotry and prejudice with no empirical value. So I point out that lack of logic. Mind you I try not to do this in an antagonistic way, but I instead I ask them to substantiate their positions with well-reasoned arguments. This does two things: One, it lets anyone who might be paying attention know that I don’t co-sign hate; and Two, more importantly it shows that I am secure enough in my own position and online persona that I don’t need to block ideas that I feel might reflect negatively on me.
Ultimately, if you conduct yourself well, someone posting bull-jive on your profile is making an ass of themselves, not you. The court of public opinion will quickly correct the situation.
I think this idea should serve as an example of how we deal with the inevitable posts that we don’t like. I have never been a fan of censorship and I acknowledge that it starts in the most inoccuous ways. For example, we would all feel justified in deleting comments that were racist in some way but when it comes down to it, that is censorship. This is why I much prefer the upvote/downvote model adopted by Reddit; nobody can pretend to be an authority on what constitutes offensive comments as they are weeded out by the groupmind which might be moving in a different direction that the commenter or the would-be censor.
It’s not a perfect system, but until people stop being so easily offended by words on the internet, its about the best I’ve seen.