Monday, October 3, 2016

who decides?

Last night, I watched this documentary, about political correctness (particularly on college campuses) vs. free speech, as pertains to stand-up comedy. I found it very thought-provoking. I come down pretty hard on the side of free speech. I've listened to some pretty extreme stand-up, and even if something rubbed me the wrong way, I never felt it didn't have the right to be spoken or broadcasted (and that I always had the right to turn the channel, walk out of the club, etc.). Lenny Bruce, after all, died for our sins,

Then I read this in the New York Times, about hate speech on Twitter, which was even more thought-provoking. I have to ask the question, who gets to decide what constitutes "hate speech"? This is a pretty tricky one, especially since Twitter presents itself as a free-speech medium. But Twitter also does not permit what it calls "abusive behavior" (see guidelines here). Should verbal/written abuse be set apart from "free speech"? And who gets to decide what constitutes "abusive"? If someone on Twitter attacks a person or race or viewpoint, and some number of people think it's correct or OK, and others are offended, is it permissible or not under these guidelines? And how extreme does the "attack" have to be? 

From the Times article: Just take a gander at @Bridget62945958, who published a series of anti-Semitic posts against my colleague Binyamin Appelbaum. One message showed a series of lampshades. Its caption read: “This is your family when Trump wins. Get your Israeli passport ready.”

Do I like this? Nope. Would I be upset if it were directed at me? Sure. Are there Twitter users who think it's OK? I'm sure there are, just as there are readers who think it's horrible. But should it be censored from a "free speech" medium?

And what we're talking about is censorship. One of the free speech advocates in the documentary I watched said that it is absolutely necessary to permit speech that offends any number of people in order to begin a meaningful dialogue and understanding about the issue. I can get behind this, I'm pretty sure. And I'm not certain that there's not all that much difference between a stand-up comic on a college campus or a racist demagogue on Twitter (if Twitter is indeed "free speech"). I can hate it, I can change the channel, I can walk out, I can block the poster or quit Twitter. I've unfriended quite a few people on Facebook who have repeatedly expressed views that I disagreed with or found offensive; now they can post what they want, and I don't have to read it. (I don't really use Twitter much these days, so I haven't come up against that kind of situation in that venue.)

Lenny Bruce got thrown in jail for saying "cocksucker" in a nightclub. Let me repeat that: Lenny Bruce got thrown in jail for saying "cocksucker" in a nightclub. Some people were offended by that word. Maybe some still are. Does anyone think it was OK for him to be jailed for saying it? It was considered an illegal act at that time. Do we consider it illegal now? He was convicted in 1964. He died before his conviction was overturned, in 1966. New York State pardoned him in 2003. No one since has ever been arrested for anything said in a nightclub. 

I am not OK with censorship. I am not OK with "hate speech" (as it is commonly understood, such as the above example), I am not OK with prejudice, I am not OK with soliciting terrorist activity...but those are things that offend me personally. I can change the channel. Maybe I'm being naive, but I think censorship is scarier than any words can be.

That being said...let me share my own experience of being attacked online and being accused of censorship.

Many years ago, I started a "listserv," which was an email discussion group, that eventually became an online chat group. The group was founded to bring together fans of an incredibly minor musical genre (basically defined as three specific musicians and their cohorts). It started with six people I found in a newsgroup (, back in the 90s, and grew, over about ten years, to (as best I can remember) around 500. I was the founder and the moderator. 

There started to be instances where members assumed that if the others shared their musical tastes, they were sure to share other interests; what I remember specifically was a bunch of posts about astrology. I gently reminded people what the group was about, and asked them to stay on topic. Wasn't a big deal.

Then a guy joined the group - let's call him "Gene." Gene seemed to have a very short fuse and would go off on people for seemingly no reason and in very extreme way. Most of the group members were more or less love-and-peace hippies, and Gene's behavior was jarring to a lot of people. And he was scaring off newcomers, which bothered me a lot. For instance, a newcomer might post something like, "Hi, I'm new to this group. Has so-and-so played in the Chicago area recently?" And Gene would reply along these lines: "IF YOU SHUT UP AND READ THE POSTS BEFORE ASKING STUPID QUESTIONS MAYBE I WOULDN'T HAVE TO TELL YOU TO SHUT YOUR IGNORANT IDIOT MOUTH!!!" So, the newcomer would quit the group. This didn't sit too well with me. I tried asking Gene to try to play nicely with others. No dice.

I should also disclose that Gene went after me, a lot. Example: I had read a book where one of the characters was a fictionalized version of one of our topic musicians, and I said something along the lines of "I thought the female characters were too simplistic and trivialized." The part of Gene's ensuing rant that I remember best was that he called me a "LESBIAN NAZI." (PS, Gene and I were, and are, both Jews.) 

Some of the people in the group liked Gene. (Amazingly, to me, one even married him.) Some found him offensive. Some brushed it off. Some left the group. Some thought he was funny. (Gene did have a credential relevant to the group: he owned a record label that had released one album by one of the artists.) Needless to say, I didn't care for the guy, didn't like his tone, and didn't like his presence in the group. And no one else behaved like him. 

Here's the difference: it wasn't a free speech forum. It was my wheelhouse, my playpen, my topic. The gentle nudges-back-to-topic that worked on astrology did not work on Gene. Here's what I did, which I hated having to do: I wrote guidelines. (Just like Twitter, which does represent itself as free speech.) They were pretty simple: keep on topic, don't attack other people. I was the moderator; I got to judge what "attack" meant. Among our twinkly little music fans, it wasn't hard to distinguish "Is anyone going to so-and-so's show next week?" from "UGLY LITTLE WORMS LIKE YOU SHOULDN'T BE ALLOWED TO BREATHE THE SAME AIR AS THE REST OF US!!!" 

The guidelines further said that the first and second times I judged someone's posting inappropriate based on the above, I would email them privately. After a third time, their posts would be subject to moderation, which meant I would change a setting to read and approve their posts before forwarding them to the group.

It killed me that I had to do this, or felt I had to. It killed me that anything like this became an issue. I had never imagined such a thing would happen, that someone like Gene would join and participate in the group. I was trying to grow and enhance the group, and people were leaving because of Gene. This was not OK in my group. 

This started a lot of yelling about censorship. This started a lot of chaotic behavior within the group. This started a lot of attacks on me. This led to more and more people being moderated. I do not exaggerate when I say that I lost sleep. I do not exaggerate when I say that my husband begged me to quit the group. Although he blessedly lived in another city, Gene did show up to a club show in New York, where he waved a finger in my face and yelled, "I KNOW WHO YOU ARE, AND I'LL DEAL WITH YOU LATER!!!" 

It ended very badly. I eventually banned Gene from the group, and he started his own "rival" group (with a very slight spelling difference from mine), in which people were allowed to post anything they wanted. Gene's pals who belonged both groups started reposting his nasty rants in his group to my group. His group had about 30 members and mine was in the hundreds (and mine eventually included two of the musicians who had become sufficiently internet-savvy), but after ten years, I gave up. I turned the moderation and ownership over to someone who maybe had a more even temperament or cooler head or thicker skin than mine. 

For unrelated reasons, I broke off my friendship with one of the musicians and lost my interest in the mini-genre, lost touch with most of the group members, took my life in another direction. The lost group and friendship felt like losing a family, felt like a divorce. I have no doubt that it was the right thing to do. But I'm still scratching my head over the business of directing/limiting/controlling the discussion in the group. Was I trying to keep the group as I had created it and intended it to be, or was I just a no-good censor?

I think the group still exists, though I have no interest in looking into it. I'm still Facebook friends with a couple of the early members. One of them recently referred to me on FB by the affectionate name a lot of the members used, "Our Jen," and I was touched and happy and sad. It was nice to be "Our Jen" for a while. Bringing the scattered fans together was a good thing. It actually raised the profile of our musicians and led to real-life connections and more gigs for them. We had a member in Ireland and one in Denmark and one in Aruba; the man in Aruba met Barry and me at the airport when we traveled there for our honeymoon, and drove us to our hotel. It was actually pretty amazing. 

Did Gene wreck it, or did I?

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