Tuesday, June 01, 2021

Oh, Farts

I've studiously refrained from commenting on that Tablet article by Eve Barlow (in lieu of a link, please send flowers to the gravesite that marks Tablet's death as a reputable journalistic enterprise). I've been blocked by Barlow since before it was cool (as best I can tell, it's because she was unhappy that I revealed the fabrications in a different "that Tablet article"), and suffice to say I do not find her especially impressive as a public thinker. She has plenty of bad takes, and she has nobody to blame but herself that people recognize her bad takes as bad.

Moreover (this is someone else's point, but alas I can't find it), I'm old enough to remember when people were aghast at the disrespect shown when immigrant detention centers were referred to as concentration camps; those persons seem oddly less perturbed at describing social media harassment as a "pogrom". It is hardly an accident -- but still embarrassing -- that here, of all places, some amount of hyperbole or metaphor drawing on the well of violent antisemitic oppression is accepted.

But having said all that, I have been a bit uncomfortable with how this discourse is being played out. For starters, we're seeing a clean violation of my ninth rule of good internet citizenship:

Resist pile-ons. Yes, accountability is important. And yes, each individual contribution to the pile-on would typically (not always -- see death threats) be proportionate and reasonable if isolated and placed in the context of an individual, face-to-face encounter. But aggregated together, they quickly can spiral out of control, and frequently magnify all the internet's worst qualities.

That's definitely in play here. Yes, Barlow is a deeply unsympathetic actor. But eventually, wave after wave of people bombarding here with farting puns and icons and whatever else really does cease to become "accountability" or "critique" and just turns into a harassment campaign. Likewise, I'm sure that anyone whose name starts with an "-ar" sound has gotten a few stupid "fart" puns from some of the internet's more juvenile actors.* But the difference between a couple stray morons who can be easily shrugged off and harassment is quantity, and there are people who should know better who are eliding that distinction.

Most importantly, there is a great risk -- I think it's already happening -- of people functionally sending a green light to a particular form of style of antisemitic harassment. There are, it should not be controversial to say, plenty of trolls online who like nothing better than to harangue and harass Jewish public figures. And such persons are very much on the look out for styles of harassment which will garner them praise, or at least defense. If there's a way that they can make Jews miserable and be lauded for it, they'll seize upon it faster than you can say "status-production". There is little doubt that this is driving a non-trivial portion of the pile-on -- the raw glee that one can indulge in the decadence of making a public Jewish figure miserable as a Jew, and feel righteous in doing so, and be lauded as righteous for doing so. Does it help that Barlow is an unsympathetic figure? Sure. Does that suffice to explain the totality of what's happening here? No.

And -- putting aside the point that Barlow, as unsympathetic as she is, doesn't deserve harassment -- the utility of a mode of harassment that gets lauded rather than condemned will not stay confined to the likes of Barlow. While I expect this particular moment to peter out sooner rather than later, it certainly was not hard to spot "fart" responses targeting other prominent Jews as a means of demeaning them or denigrating their experiences with antisemitism. Some of the targeted Jews were also raising hyperbolic or foolish points. Others were being entirely reasonable. But the commonality, the trigger that made this response responsive was solely that the targets were Jewish or Jewish-identified, and the belief by their "interlocutors" that if they jumped on them in this way, they'd be immunized from any condemnation or critique. That should worry us.

The fact is, the mechanics of internet harassment and brigading campaigns are not new or novel at this point, nor is the easy dismissal of them by calling them "juvenile" or "just words", or insisting on the  recipient's need to "grow a thicker skin". In all cases, there will be a mix-in of explicit calls for violence or open ethnic, racial, or gendered slurs; but these are the accent points upon a base of "replies" which do not do any of that, replies which, taken as individual, can and should be easily dismissed, but as part of a larger whole and as a constant drumbeat, become intolerable. It happens to people we like, and it happens to people we don't like. But no matter who the proximate target is, we should be very, very leery of cheering it on.

* The juvenile nature of the retort is part of its insulation -- it feels ridiculous to treat it with any sort of seriousness, and that includes writing this post. This is, in a way, a very literal application of Sartre's warning about the antisemites:

They know that their remarks are frivolous ... But they are amusing themselves, for it is their adversary who is obliged to use words responsibly, since he believes in words. The anti-Semites have the right to play. They even like to play with discourse for, by giving ridiculous reasons they discredit the seriousness of their interlocutors. 

1 comment:

LWE said...

I am fairly dismissive of claims that someone was harassed on Twitter, because Twitter is a platform that encourages superficiality and trolling by definition. This applies both to left-wing and right-wing claims about harassment.

Furthermore, how prominent or attention-seeking does an account have to be before piling-on stops being "harassment"? Surely, piling on a Trump or Obama tweet doesn't really count as harassment in any way. Would piling on Orly Taitz be harassment? On Gazi Kodzo?