What follows is a badly belated, fairly incomplete response to the Charlie Hebdo affair, leading to a slightly less belated but much more incomplete response to the Wikipedia Gamergate scandal.
I know that #jesuischarlie is now roughly 4 or 5 centuries out of date in Internet-years, but I got to thinking about it after an interesting panel on the topic here, which my colleague Mike Lyons (@jmikelyons) participated in. The discussion focused, in part, on the contradictions raised by the Charlie Hebdo case in the classic western legal and political formulation of “free speech.” What does it mean, for example, when the French government imprisons a comic for expressing opinions that could be read as sympathetic with those who killed the Charlie Hebdo staff?
I was struck by how this discussion of the contradictions inherent in our juridical notions of “free speech” pointed to the way the discussion of #jesuischarlie often revolved around an instability in a much less formal, but still important concept. Namely, the popular notion that rude or offensive humor is justified only if it is “punching up” against the powerful, rather than “punching down” against the powerless. As in many other cases, it was not immediately clear to all which way Charlie Hebdo was “punching.” Were they punching down against immigrants and outsiders, or up against powerful state and religious institutions?
This confusion about “punching up” versus “punching down” seems endemic to our discussions about offensive speech. The theory suggests this we should expect this to be the case, after all intersectionality means power is never really distributed along neat vertical lines. It can be much fuzzier, with different subjects simultaneously holding positions of vulnerability and privilege.
I wonder if, perhaps, this suggests we ought to ask less about the direction of punches, and instead try to think carefully and critically about why so many punches are being thrown.
More specifically, I can't help but wonder if, just maybe, the throwing of punches has less to do with an effort to achieve a particular political agenda, and more to do with a performance of a certain sort of masculinity. This is only reinforced by the fact that, of the 21 editors, journalists and cartoonists listed as Charlie Hebdo staff on Wikipedia only 3 are women.
What would it mean for us to acknowledge the possibility that we throw punches either because we identify as men and were taught that this is what that identity means, or because we exist in a culture that privileges male violence and we wish to draw on that power? How would that change our debate about offensive speech? Might it be time to consider punching less?
This predilection for verbal violence might also play a role in the recent conflict surrounding the Wikipedia article documenting the Gamergate phenomenon, which recently made news when the Wikipedia Arbitration Committee moved to ban several anti-Gamergate editors. This decision has been widely, and justly, criticized for removing activists from the project in the name of “neutrality.” I'm still digesting what happened in that case, and I want to write up something more complete about it soon. For now, however, let me just note one of the banned editors comments in defense of himself:
“As Chris Kyle (or the movie version thereof) said, “I'm willing to meet my Creator and answer for every shot that I took.” I entered a contentious topic area to protect living people from abuse at the hands of the identified “pro-Gamergate” editors named in this Arbitration, as well as the hordes of SPAs on the periphery.”
The quote seems to show this editor, at least, understanding his action as distinctly “macho.” He is engaging in righteous combat against bad people. I am very sympathetic to him, as the Gamergate crowd was indeed a nasty bunch with a vile agenda. The Arbitration Committee, for their part, relied on Wikipedia rules that attempt to discourage verbal combat in favor of constructive content building. Wikipedia, they say, is not a battleground.
It is not unfair, I think, to point out that this call for “peace” may tend to favor the status quo. What might it mean, however, for us to consider that calls to combat may, in part, be driven by a desire to project and maintain a certain sort of masculine identity? I'm honestly not sure, but it seems like a question we might need to consider.