Who thinks about the consequences of online racism?
Bigoted commenters often resort to a ‘free speech’ defence. But they rarely consider the effects their words have on others
In a world where few would deny the existence of racism but even fewer would ever admit to propagating it, there will always be the problem of agency. We have racism but no racists – a noun without a subject, a consequence that nobody caused, a system that nobody operates creating victims without perpetrators.
On the web people have the added cover of anonymity, creating an environment where individual writers and entire groups of people are abused because of their race or religion but few have the courage to stand openly behind their statements. On these pages I have been slated as the Guardian’s “affirmative action hire”, told I was “raising my son to hate white people” and asked to entertain black people’s genetic propensity to crime, idiocy, violence and sloth. As I don’t know of a single black writer, here or elsewhere, who doesn’t deal with this, I know this is not about my work per se.
But what is truly frustrating is the rarity with which those who peddle this intolerance will take responsibility for their own actions and the climate it engenders. When called on their bigotry, usually by other commenters, people usually either escalate their attacks or bristle at the accusation and insist upon their free speech.
As a means of avoiding conversations about what they have done, they instead insist on what they are not. Instead of taking responsibility for what they do they insist instead on their right to do it. Faced with the concrete fact of their actions they retreat into the abstract notion of their entitlements.
The internet did not create this situation. When I started my column, before it was possible to comment online, one journalist wrote a letter in response to a piece I’d done about Britishness: “You clearly know nothing about your country,” he wrote. “This piece may set you on the road towards partial knowledge.” The piece, written by the reactionary historian Paul Johnson, was also sent to me by another reader who made personal threats. That one, I was told by the paper, I had to take to the police. It turned out the sender had links to organised racists with a track record of violence.
But the internet has certainly exacerbated it, because people feel empowered to be far more insulting when communicating anonymously through a modem than they do in person.
So let us take these instigators of racial animus at their word and assume, since we cannot prove otherwise, that they are trying to engage in good faith. Let’s imagine for a moment that no racists comment on the Guardian site or anywhere else and acknowledge that (within legal limits) everyone has the right to say anything they want. You have the right to disparage whole races, ethnicities, faiths and faith itself; you have the right to abuse people on the grounds of their race and religion; you have the right to offend people; you have the right to ignore what the writer is actually arguing and attack them instead for what you imagine they are arguing because of their race and religion; you have the right to be rude, obnoxious, dismissive, ignorant and aggressive. Let us also acknowledge that these rights are important and should be defended.
Even that utopia of absolutisms comes with at least one caveat and two consequences. The caveat is that the right to offend is not the same as an obligation to be offensive or a duty to disparage. We have the right to sleep with our in-laws and fart loudly in lifts. Why, generally, don’t we? Because to do so would be antisocial, diminish us in the eyes of others (including those we don’t know) and eventually leave us isolated. “I tend to think some things are off-limits,” the eminent academic Stuart Hall once argued. “Not in the sense that you should not say them, but you need some care about how and when you go into them. If you wanted to make a joke about concentration camps, you should think twice. At least twice.”