The Uselessness of Civility – Guest Post by Difficult Lemon

A lot of people I like and respect have been sharing Jon Ronson’s article from the New York Times about internet ‘shaming’, “How One Stupid Tweet Blew Up Justine Sacco’s Life”. This has bothered me a lot because I fucking hated that article. HATED it. Seeing him going around peddling the same line of reasoning on various TV shows has made me feel the need to try and articulate what I hated so much about it, about how little it spoke to my experience of the internet and the way power and marginalization operate online.

But this isn’t just about Ronson. It is about a whole bunch of people who seem deeply hurt by ‘mean activists on Twitter’: Jonathan Chait, Patrick Gower in New Zealand, and many other journalists who complain about a ‘Twitterati’ that ‘abuses’ them. Their complaints to me sound much more like, how dare these NOBODIES criticize me? I have never had to deal with this before; how dare they speak to me in anything other than the deferential tone I believe I deserve? Excluded from this are of course genuine threats of violence and harassment – these threats are the real threat to freedom of speech on Twitter, and a lot of female voices are lost because they simply can’t take it anymore. But this is not what has gotten Ronson and Chait outraged. Instead they have added a pseudo-intellectual line of attack to a range of people who want to shut down the voices of Twitter activists.

I don’t find Ronson, Chait or anyone else I mentioned particularly interesting. I rarely read what they write. I have discovered the views of people I find fascinating and intellectually challenging mainly through the internet. My list includes Lauren Chief Elk, Mikki Kendall, @so_treu, @_surlymermaid, @moscaddie,, – but it is not limited to these. What most members of my list have in common is that they are regularly scolded for ‘taking it too far’, for ‘not being civil’, by people who operate inside mainstream institutions, be they journalism or academia.

Most activists who make the most change are not polite. They don’t defer to the norm of the room; they actively disrupt it in ways which are uncomfortable. The internet and especially Twitter has democratised who can do this – in no previous time could someone like Lauren Chief Elk level her justified anger at Eve Ensler (writer of The Vagina Monologues), for example, and actually spread it enough for Eve Ensler to feel obliged to respond. Social media allows for the harmful actions of the privileged, which usually are left unchallenged because of the power these people hold socially, to be aggressively interrogated. This I believe is profoundly shocking to privileged people.

This kind of Twitter activism has also led to huge victories, all of which Ronson and co do not mention when they try and frame it as a social evil. The Ferguson protests were not covered by national or international media until intense twitter commentary forced them to. If it were not for Antonio French you may never have heard of Ferguson. The subsequent attention and institutional reaction was forced by social media. A juror would have profited on her role in letting off Trayvon Martin’s killer, if Twitter hadn’t found out about it and got the company to shut down the deal. In New Zealand, Twitter has been used to shift our conversation on rape culture – grown men attacking young girls on their radio show to boost ratings has led to real consequences. In short, Twitter has democratized which issues get covered in mainstream media. It holds people accountable who are not accustomed to it. At times, individuals can be targeted seemingly at random – Justine Sacco said the kind of racist joke many white people say every day. She said it under her own name as a PR person for a company she named in her Twitter bio. She faced far more consequences for that than most white people ever will, and the randomness and seeming disproportion of that I understand seems unfair to those who automatically identify with Justine.

But I identify more with those who have heard thousands of Justines in their life and just can’t take it another minute. The reaction isn’t really about her – it is for all those other Justines who will now think twice before they make racist comments. John Tamihere being forced off air in New Zealand sends a warning to all the other shock jocks. It says to them: just maybe, there will be a consequence of peddling misogyny for a living. Performative activism does have a place in educating people. Being detached and unemotional about marginalisation is a privilege. Online activism – I don’t diminish it by calling it ‘shaming’ – can be impolite and spoken in discordant tones at times, but ultimately it represents a major kind of resistance which cannot exist offline.

Difficult Lemon is a guest contributor to The Aotearoa Project, an ex-tweeter, and expert eye-roller with an interest in politics.

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