Thursday, April 21, 2011

On Alexandra Wallace and Jack Stuef (Words have consequences)

Over at Popehat, Patrick links to the story of this guy Jack Stuef, who wrote a despicable article at the blog 'Wonkette' mocking Trig Palin, Sarah Palin's disabled son. The post has since been deleted.

In the comments thee, I wrote about why even though the guy is clearly a fool and a dickhead, I still feel uncomfortable at all the internet piling on:
I guess I might be the only voice of dissent here. Not that the article wasn’t reprehensible, and the guy a real piece of work. But I’m reluctant to pile on too much.
It’s just that people say horribly nasty things all the time, but mostly it doesn’t ruin the entire rest of their life. And broadly I think that’s as it should be. Even if you think it’s just in an absolute sense if this article ruins Jack Stuef’s reputation, it’s hard to see it as just compared with the lack of any consequence for all the other nasty stuff that people say to each other in private, in jokes, behind each others backs, all the time. The only difference here is the internet.
And these stories always tend to go the same way. Person writes a blog post or uploads a video with something flippant and risque on an offensive subject. They’re feeling on a roll, laughing to themselves and not thinking too hard. They’re forgetting that all the tone and inflection they have in their head doesn’t get translated in writing. And they press ‘post’. And suddenly it goes viral, they get a torrent of hate, and they’re forced to belatedly reflect on how the article would appear to someone who didn’t find the joke funny. But by that point it’s too late. They can’t take it back, the internet never forgets, and that’s all people will see when they google their name, forever.
I've never written anything that bad in a public forum, but I’ve sure sent emails I regretted, often following exactly the first half of the script above.
Does writing a post like this make you an insensitive d*ckhead? Absolutely. Is the post substantially more nasty than civilised people would think, even in jest? Sure. But should it ruin your whole life? To me, no. This guy seems like a piece of crap, but I still feel a bit sorry for him, the same way I did for Alexandra Wallace.
Reading it over now, it sounds more sanctimonious that was intended. (Once again, inflection is hard to convey!) Patrick pointed out, quite rightly, that this guy is a professional writer on a large blog, who writes this kind of nasty stuff for a living. Which is a fair point. In other words, this isn't the case of someone who wrote something ill-considered that just spread far wider than they intended (like Alexandra Wallace, the girl who posted a dumb video complaining about Asian students at UCLA and got hounded out of the school).

So maybe it is appropriate in this case.

In which case, let these remarks be not about Jack Stuef, but about the impact of the internet on people's ill-considered statements.

A good number of the worst decisions I've made in my life have taken on similar forms to narrative above. Find something funny in your head, do it quickly in the heat of the moment thinking it will be a hilarious gag, and then 5 minutes later (when I've calmed down) realise it wasn't that funny and the other person will be quite offended or hurt, but that it's too late to take it back.

I've been lucky that the times I've done this, it so far hasn't led to any permanent life-altering consequences. Alexandra Wallace has not been so fortunate. She, unlike me in the past, made the mistake of making the joke on the internet.

If she'd said her rant to her friends, they might have laughed. They might have rolled their eyes. They might have stopped talking to her, called her a racist scumbag, and trash-talked her to everyone they knew.

But she wouldn't have been on the receiving end of the 5 minutes of internet hate, which made her decide to leave UCLA, and made this video the first thing that every potential employer and acquaintance will ever see when they type her name into google. Even if she'd printed this in a newspaper 30 years ago, it would have been disseminated much less.

The only difference is the internet. Things can be spread far further, and far faster, than the person intends. And they can't be taken back.

In other words, the consequences are now way way worse, even if the sin of saying shitty things is the same sin that it was 50 years ago.

One argument against having laws that aren't widely enforceable is that the people who get punished get sentences that are way harsher than the many others who did the same thing, but were lucky enough to not get caught. And this offends peoples sense of fairness, that ideally the same actions should get the same consequences.Think of music piracy. The RIAA lashes out at the tiny number of people it can sue, vainly trying to deter  the millions of others it knows it can't stop.

It's the same here. There are millions of people who write really nasty things on the internet - the world is full of clowns and fools. But I still find myself uncomfortable with the process that periodically singles out a couple of of them for massive punishment as a symbol of the sins of the many.

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