I was part of a movement of "dinosaur moms" when I lived in Maryland (Astrodon Johnstoni is the Maryland state dinosaur.) Which is nothing more than this -- dinosaur moms delight in the half-feral nature of the beasties they parent, even as they whisper Shakespeare and Kierkegaard in their ears at night.

Sunday, May 17, 2015

The Politics of Plexiglas

The other day, Kevin Bruce, a student at Kennesaw State University, was having some difficulty getting a response from his advisor, so he decided to go to see him in person.  There, they told him the advisor was busy and he told them that was ok, he’d wait.   Without further provocation, a staffer charged around the counter at Bruce, insisting that he was harassing them, explained that she therefore invoked the right to call campus security, and asked did he want that.

He filmed the interaction on his phone.  People are doing that nowadays, when they want confirmation that they are experiencing something outrageous.  They film it.   The jpeg has become our Greek chorus.

In the video, one can make out Bruce very calmly and quizzically stating that he is merely sitting and waiting.  “Sitting here until somebody is available,” the staffer officiously clarifies, “is harassing us.” 

“Sitting here until somebody is available is harassing us.” 

The video quickly went viral, no doubt because of the racial dynamics -- another White functionary finding a Black man menacing for no reason.   We could talk all day about that. 

But I submit that the video was so compelling, in part, for another reason.  We can’t look away because we’ve all been there, sitting on one side of a pane of plexiglas from a shopkeeper, a bureaucrat -- someone who has the power to grant us what we’re after.  Perhaps we’ve had to take a number or supply a more secure password or take off our watch and shoes.   Perhaps we’ve had to listen to the whole recording as the menu options have recently changed.  We’ve all been there.  It’s modern life. 

In these times, we’ve grown accustomed to having to conduct our dealings with other people in these mediated ways.  Either literally or metaphorically through Plexiglas.  The world is harsh and jangly and we understand the need to insulate ourselves.  The world is chaotic and busy and we understand the need to compartmentalize and delegate. 

And, frankly, there is something appealing about the modernity of it all.  I mean, I receive my prescription meds from a pneumatic tube.  That’s neat.  I don’t have to do that.  It would change my life not at all to make the walk into the pharmacy and receive them from the hand of the actual pharmacist.  The pneumatic tube traverses the distance from my car to the wall of the drug store, a length I could probably reach my hand out my car window and touch.  Yet I receive my meds from a pneumatic tube, because, I don’t know.  It’s safer or more discreet or faster or something. 

So, that’s ok.  It’s like the neighbor was telling Dustin Hoffman’s new college grad when he was at a loss what to do in life.  “Plastics, my boy, plastics.”  They’re the future. 

But it is so easy for these little efficiencies, these little mechanisms we put in place to ease our transactions with each other, to go haywire, to take on a life of their own.  It is so easy for the supplicant at the other end of the counter or the keypad or the help window to feel frustrated by an indifferent machine.

Miraculous and amazing perks of modern life, like airplane travel, cable, satellite, and wifi start to feel a whole lot less miraculous and amazing when they are the tantalizing prize at the end of an infinite loop of customer service representatives with sunny dispositions and no power or will to help us. 

In the video game, Portal, an intelligence called GLaDOS, promises the hero a Black Forest cake at the end of the quest, but as the quest goes on, he starts seeing signs that GLaDOS is malfunctioning and cannot be trusted.  “The cake is a lie” was a reveal so devastating that it quickly became one of the most famous spoilers in all of gaming. 

We could all be forgiven for feeling a little like the hero in Portal, navigating challenge after challenge with an increasing sense that the authority does not notice or care.   That the cake is a lie.

Spending too much time as Kafka’s cockroach can make a person peevish, disengaged, even destructive.  So, that’s life on the one side of the plexiglas, but what of the person on the other side?

On the other side of the plexiglas, protected by it, constantly sizing up the other, judging the other, can make a person callous and imperious.  It is possible to be too consumed by the circumstances under which you will deal with another person, what you shouldn’t have to contend with, what you should be protected from.   It is possible to become a little too in love with your right, your power to release the hounds on someone, to hang up, to walk away. 

Think how often that thin layer of polycarbonate corrupts and confuses our human interactions.   It is the riot shield that separates the police officer from the protester; the windshield that insulates the driver from the panhandler; the window the banker closes precisely at 4:30. 

In cyberspace, it is our power to block, to mute, to “unfriend” our way to safety.  To create for ourselves environments of people who abide by the social contract, as we know and understand it.

This is the story of a total violation of that contract and what one person did about it. 

It all started when the comedian Daniel Tosh was heckled in the middle of his comedy routine. 

Now, the generally agreed-upon convention in comedy, as I am given to understand, is that if you decide to chime in when a comedian is on a roll, well, you get what you get.  The comedian might turn on you, talk about your momma…  You asked for it.

So, Tosh began to call the heckler out on her unwelcome contribution.  And then, abruptly, took it to a very dark place where he began to mirthlessly and relentlessly exhort the crowd to violence against the woman.   Sexual violence.

It was all the buzz in pop culture circles the next day, with the usual parties falling into the usual camps.  The outrage industrial complex was calling for boycott.  Tosh was a bully taking a cheap shot at a traumatized population.  So unspeakable was the violation that it was deemed a violation merely to discuss what a violation it was. 

“Trigger warning” all around.

Meanwhile, the free speech absolutists were exhuming Lenny Bruce and preparing to water the meadows with the blood of the first amendment’s martyrs.  Oh the patriotism that was invoked to defend this B-list comic and his potty-mouthed tantrum!

It was funny! they cried.  And,…  even if it wasn’t funny, the comedian is the vanguard.  To gag him is to gag us all!
It was misogyny, came the retort!  Comedy should punch up; not down!  If it needs rape culture to be funny;  then it isn’t.

Thought police!


And on and on it went, until, in accordance with Godwin’s law, each had likened his enemy to Hitler and the Nazis and the internet was aflame.

But there was a heroine in this battle.  And to my mind she was a particularly Unitarian Universalist heroine because she beheld this scene and thought, “What is called for here is a debate.”

She thought,  “Let us have a forum.  And it will be clever and funny and it will make people think.” 

Thus did Lindy West pair with Jim Norton in a series of engagements billed as a debate about “rape jokes”, with West gamely taking the side of using your powers for good (surely a thankless job) and Norton arguing for radical freedom.

And for her pains, Lindy West was subjected to a campaign of incessant cyber-abuse.  Oh the fat jokes!  Oh the elaborate graphic threats!  You can imagine.  And if you can’t imagine, you can google. 

There’s a term for this brand of gratuitous online cruelty: we call it internet “trolling.” Trolling is recreational abuse – usually anonymous – intended to waste the subject’s time or get a rise out of them. 

There is always the underlying threat that it will spiral into stalking and harassment, but even without that threat, even relatively “innocuous” schoolyard fight-baiting and name-calling, “when it’s coming at you en masse,” she reports, “ from hundreds or even thousands of users a day, stops feeling innocuous very quickly.”

Now, Ms. West will tell you that she is no thin-skinned rube.  She has pretty much made her peace with the fact that this steady barrage of hate is the price of doing business.  And when it flared up after her latest experiment in “parley” about jokes and gender, well, it just strengthened her resolve.   

“Weather-beaten, but fortified,” is how she put it.  It was all dissolving into so much “white noise.”

But then. 

But then she was contacted by her late father on Twitter.
One particular troll, “Bored, apparently, with the usual angles of harassment”– had made a parody Twitter account purporting to be her father, “featuring a stolen, beloved photo of him,” and tweeting his disapproval and disappointment in her from the grave.

In disbelief, she explored this new twitter moniker and found that her tormentor had gone all out.  “The name on the account was ‘PawWestDonezo’, because my father’s name was Paul West, and a difficult battle with prostate cancer had rendered him ‘donezo’ (goofy slang for “done”) just 18 months earlier.”

“‘Embarrassed father of an idiot,’ the bio read. His location was ‘Dirt hole in Seattle’.”

“Now, the conventional wisdom about internet trolling is that internet trolling just happens. You hear this all the time,” she says, “from even the most progressive allies.” 

It is one of those times when you use the internet neologism, “Welp.” W-E-L-P.  “Welp,” I learn from the urban dictionary, is an exclamation which comes to us from Jim Carrey in “Dumb and Dumber” and is what you say to convey resignation to an “existential helplessness.”

As in, Welp, that’s the internet for you.  Haters gonna hate.  Trolls gonna troll.  And so it follows that if you accept trolling as “some mysterious, ambient inevitability” that you should follow the conventional wisdom and, whatever you do,  “Do not feed the trolls.”  Meaning, do not respond.  Do not take the bait. 

“Sitting at my computer,” she relates, “Staring at PawWestDonezo, I had precious few options.  All I could do, really, was ignore it: hit “block” and move on,”

Do not feed the trolls.

“Knowing that that account was still out there, hidden behind a few gossamer lines of code,”

Do not feed the trolls.

“Still putting words in my dad’s mouth, still using his image to mock, abuse and silence people.”

Do not feed the trolls.

“After all,” she notes, “It’s not illegal to reach elbow-deep into someone’s memories and touch them and twist them and weaponize them.”

Do not feed the trolls.

And then, Lindy West did exactly what everybody said not to do.  She responded.  And she responded in hurt and pain and vulnerability and indignant anger.

Why’d she do it?  She’d tell you it was a mix of complicated reasons, including, hey look, I’m not gonna lie.  It’s cathartic and, frankly, good fun, when you are being used as a “chew toy,” to be a chew toy that’s, as she puts it, “full of poison.” 

But she will also say, “I talk back because it emboldens other women to talk back online and in real life, and I talk back because women have told me that my responses give them a script for dealing with monsters in their own lives.” 

And, finally, and most importantly, she will say, “I talk back because internet trolls are not, in fact, monsters. They are human beings—and I don't believe that their attempts to dehumanize me can be counteracted by dehumanizing them.”

And that would be a fine end to that story.  And I don’t need to tell you what those of you who listen to “This American Life” already know – that he reached out to her.  That he renounced his trolling behavior, took down the offending twitter account and several she didn’t even know about.  That he apologized.  That he copped to some misplaced rage and unexamined misogyny and resolved to be a better person.  That it looks to all the world that he has in fact become a better person – more conscientious, more whole.  That our heroine got to call him to account for his misdeeds and also found herself forgiving him.  And that is a very satisfying conclusion to the story, but all of that is addenda. 

For her, for me, the important part of this tale is that, for better or for worse and for reasons both noble and maybe not-so-noble, she decided to step out from behind the plexiglas.  She decided not to use the tools, meager as they are, that the internet has available for mediating your dealings with people, for shielding yourself from hurt.

As she put it, “Sure, we’ve all built up significant armour at this point, but, you know, armour is heavy.” 

She made the decision to be hurt, to be vulnerable, to be human, with another human, when she had every reason in the world to do the opposite.  And if Lindy West can step out from behind the plexiglas with her worst troll, well then I reckon I can try to be more human too.

On social media, at work, on the street, I have one tool or another to insulate myself from another person.  I can mute, I can block, I can “unfriend,” I can roll up the window and essentially render another person invisible to me.  As it were, to “disappear” them.  I have that power.  

The challenge for me is to recognize how easily I could become like that counselor at Kennesaw State who was a little too excited about that power.  A little too excited about her systems, her protocols, her right to call down the authorities.  A little too caught up in a vision of a well-run world that can’t accommodate the needs of an actual human trying to navigate it.  May I every once in a while step out from behind the Plexiglas, put down the little efficiencies that help mediate the world for me, and just deal with the noisy jangly world.  May we all.

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