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Posted by on Aug 31, 2012 in Critical Thinking, skepticism, social justice | 11 comments

Social justice community turns into angry, violent mob. Wait, what?

If you’ve been to a secularist conference or two, or read from one of many popular blogs, you’ve heard accounts of events that start like this:

A feminist, who is an on-line personality, says something mildly controversial on her website. The result should be a short bit of civil discussion, maybe even debate. Instead, she is mocked and ridiculed mercilessly. She is called a “stupid cunt”. Threats of violence appear on the internet against her, and in her e-mail. Stalkers take pictures near her home. She is finally forced into hiding, in fear of her life.

At this point I must surely be describing backlash from emotionally-stunted misogynists who have been raised in a rape culture. What if I told you the threats and hateful epitaphs were slung by self-described social justice proponents? Impossible? It happened- two months ago to a vlogger named Laci Green.

Who is Laci Green? She’s a young feminist who has produced videos and writings on the topic appearing on Tumblr and YouTube.  She has been highly recommended by feminists such as Natalie Reed. Her fun, well-produced, and easy-to-follow videos on such topics as healthy self-image, gender roles, and relationships have had a staggering 26.8 million views.

Jezebel wrote about the story last month. What does it take to whip a community into bloodlust? A single misguided word from an 18-year-old Laci. In a 2009 video, Laci used the word “tranny” not understanding that it was offensive. Ignorant? Sure. Hateful? Hardly. When questioned about it 3 years after the fact, Laci offered this sincere apology and correction:

Probably because I was 18 and ignorant. You are totally right and I sincerely apologize for my mistake. Before I educated myself about trans issues I had not the slightest inkling of how the word is used to dehumanize nor its place in the cycle of violence against transfolk. Now I have seen people hurt by it and seen it used as a nasty slur. Words have power, and “tranny” is not a word for anybody but transfolk themselves to use because only they can reclaim it. If I knew that was in a video, it would have been long long ago removed. Consider it banished forever.

It could have been a good moment for social justice: a young cis woman overcomes a little bit of the ignorance she grew up with and grew a little. Sadly, it was not. In spite of her apology and that she took down the video, she was eventually inundated in hate-mail and threats. Jezebel reports

Some of it contained death threats. One message contained a picture of her apartment building and came with text that called her a “stupid transphobic cunt” and told her that they knew where she’d live and that they’d smash her face. (empahsis mine -Ed)

The Daily Dot reported that Laci’s fans believe this reaction came from the Social Justice section of Tumblr, calling it “militant”.  Given the tenor of some of the remarks, that seems rather likely. A sample of hate from a self-labeled “feminist liberal” can be seen here.

What has happened to Laci is repugnant, and nothing she could have said could possibly justify such monstrous treatment. There are some important observations here.

The first is that the type of response we are seeing here is not restricted to misogynists. Instead, this is what ordinary human aggression and mob mentality look like when coupled with the powerful tools and anonymity of the internet. It is a highly scary thing. Misogyny cannot be inferred merely from the rage and hurtful comments (though the context can make it clear, at times). All that we know for sure about such people is that they are angry, they’ve locked onto a target they feel is a morally bad person to be stopped, and that they are emboldened by numbers or anonymity or both. Angry people on the internet stalk, bully, and threaten for many different reasons.

Secondly, one is reminded of recent discussion in the blogosphere about the new and so-called Atheism+ movement. In the reading, one might get the feeling from some proponents that social justice, as a label, is close to being sympathetic magic: if you adopt a title that engenders a social justice attitude you’re exempt from making mistakes and self-serving thinking errors of the kind Michael Shermer and others write about. It is as if having the correct progressive world-view inoculates against emotional frailties. Atheism+ adherents would object that reasonable dissent would be calmly discussed and considered, but does anyone imagine Tumblr’s liberals wouldn’t have said precisely the same thing a week before the madness with Laci began?

Laci Green’s story reminds us that, counter-intuitively, being part of a social justice community actually makes you more likely to fall prey to such frailties because participating in any well-defined, morally-charged, homogeneous group increases any person’s vulnerability to tribalistic, us-them thinking. This is not a statement about social justice groups, but any such groups. The same is true of political parties, churches, reddits, and even such things as sports fan clubs at times. Again, I am not picking on Atheism+ or social justice. This is not about them so much as about the properties of certain type of groups.

While the Tumblr community seems to have recoiled in disgust at the stalking and bullying endured by Laci Green and now seems to support her, it’s a damn shame the lesson was required to begin with. It will all happen again there, or elsewhere if we forget that one stray word can snowball into death threats when people in groups get a little too sure of their own moral rectitude.

  • Ryan Grant Long

    This should have been nothing but a teaching moment. Realize that transgender issues are still very poorly understood by the general public, that isn’t anybody’s fault it’s just the way things are for the time being (we’re working on it!), and not every misstep by cisgender folks is rooted in animosity. Don’t assume the worst, just gently explain that it’s considered a slur by some transgender people and to be more careful in the future. Done.

    As an advocate of LGBT equality I sometimes feel I have to spend as much time doing damage control in the wake of misguided liberals overreacting, insulting, and generally making our cause look bad; as I do countering real ignorance and bigotry from social conservatives. It’s very disheartening and frustrating at times.

  • Egbert

    If only we learned from history, or social psychology. The Stanford Prison Experiment, for example, or the Milgram Experiment, should warn us just how powerful and dangerous collectivist or group think can be.

    I’m not against groups or community, we all want to belong, but we must also be wise and understand how irrational human nature is.

  • Gandolf

    So much about earth seems to be geared toward many types of group think. We need “our team” to win medals at the olympic games , the baseball. Even within education and work the focus of our goal is to try and be among the winners ,is where will all be taught to aspire to try and exist , almost from our birth. There is little kudos involved in being someone who’s cleaning toilets, even though the winners will also all need to be using them every day more than once.

    IMHO, it seems like tendency toward dictatorship is maybe the flip side of religion. The religion might easily disappear, but not the black and white style of thinking. That lingers on and on, like a horrid bad stinky smell. Maybe ? because it wasn’t what were being held within our mindful focus.

    What a very interesting subject this is Edward.

  • Copyleft

    At this point, I wouldn’t even expect ANY of the hateful comments to have come from “misogynists.” Radical extremists of the feminist camp could easily account for all the hatred this poor girl has been exposed to… leading to the question of whether “misogynist feminist” is the oxymoron it’s supposed to be.

    • http://www.facebook.com/bluharmony bluharmony

      It isn’t. It’s hard to resist naming examples, but I won’t.

  • Plop

    Tumblr Social Justice Warriors are completely insane.

  • dmabs

    youtube.com/watch?v=gHbYJfwFgOU

    which WORLD-VIEW will not exist, sh*thead?

    ______________

    5000 whining atheists vs the Great Prophet

    how the divine pen of Michel N. crushed the international atheist movement

    sguforums.com/index.php?topic=43121.0

    youtube.com/watch?v=s3lwG4MytSI

    one applicant right here…

    get the POINT, Randi….

    ….

    • im-skeptical

      Going around posting this little rant on multiple blogs? Have you read (or listened to) any of them?

    • PJLandis

      Can someone explain what this post/rant is all about? I’m afraid to follow the links, but if someone else already has please enlighten us.

    • http://www.facebook.com/bluharmony bluharmony

      That’s just Mabus. He’s a frequent visitor to atheist blogs. It’s an honor to have him visit, really.

  • http://www.freethoughtoasis.org Jamie Farren

    Tribalistic thinking helped us survive for a great span of time (depending on how you define “human”). With modern technology in our hands it has now become a thing to fear.

    I see a growing trend (and hope this isn’t merely selection bias on my part) of people disgusted with the personal attacks and intolerant, abusive speech one sees too often on the internet.

    Disagree with me…debate me…critisize my points and plan your counter-points with maniaical glee that you are leaving my arguments a wasted and broken heap upon the floor…….

    …..but do so in a civil manner. All of this may be accomplished without resorting to that crutch of the undisciplined: the ad hominem.