Culture

Culture Posts

Micah Johnson, the Dallas Shootings, and the Push to Radicalization

There is some talk that Micah Johnson, the shooter who killed five police during a protest in Dallas, was radicalized online.  Johnson’s desire to “kill white people” was either generated, nurtured, or both by browsing websites and communicating through social media.

I think he was radicalized.

micah-johnson-dallas

As CNN reports, “Micah Johnson’s online history shows he followed dozens of sites that focused on injustices committed on the black community. He visited and liked several websites dedicated to Black Lives Matter and the New Black Panthers, along with the Nation of Islam and the Black Riders Liberation Party, two groups the Southern Poverty Law Center considers hate groups.”

Extremist websites act as pulls towards extremism, and this is enough for the media to go on.  It fits with the good guy-bad guy narrative we like.  There are groups out there that can simply brainwash a person to do bad things.  But there is more to radicalization than what the media can get across in quick soundbites.  There is also a push to extremis.  It is the push, I believe, that we should be most worried about.

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#MoreThanMean Means More Than Being More Than Mean

I have a younger sister who I am very protective of.  We talk sometimes about her challenges as a math teacher, and how kids can be difficult and hard to handle.  Especially teenage boys.  My wife works in customer service, and after she tells me about how her day went, I have on more than one occasion wanted to go to blows with the customer who disrespected her.  There is something that cannot be articulated, almost primal, that makes me feel that somehow they, as women, should be treated differently.  With more respect.  Moreover, I feel like had they been men, the interactions would have gone down a bit differently.

And so, when I saw the video from Just Not Sports, where guys read real online comments about women sports reporters to those reporters, I immediately got it.  The comments were tasteless and ridiculously out of line.  These are professionals who are doing a job they are more than qualified for.  If they had penises and adams apples, they would not be getting lobbed such vulgar words.

 

 

And so my right brain is hoping that the PSA changes hearts and minds.

Meanwhile, my left brain was a little wary of the whole thing.  When I listened to The Trifecta on ESPN this weekend, I understood why.  The Trifecta is a weekend radio show hosted by Sarah Spain, Jane McManus and Kate Fagan.  Bomani Jones, also a host of his own show on ESPN but this time a call-in guest, talked about the PSA with the hosts of The Trifecta.  He suggested that management at Twitter needs to be more mindful of what people post, suggesting that Twitter should censor such comments.

Uh-oh.  I know that Jones is speaking about common decency, but censoring people because we do not like what they are saying bleeds into violations of free speech.  To be sure, as a private company, Twitter is well within their right to tell people what they can and cannot post on their space.  But as a democratic, free society, we have to be brave enough to allow people to say things that are off color or unpopular.  The #MoreThanMean PSA has implications that move beyond simply urging people to not be vulgar and disrespectful towards women.  It is a slippery slope in the direction of chocking off public speech on social media.

We should not censor the public sphere – especially in an age where the public sphere is so accessible and so powerful.  In fact, we need to work extra hard to protect the speech of those who are being so disrespectful to women. That’s right.  I am defending the right of people to call women c—.  Just like I defend the right of whites to call black people n—-.  Just like I defend the right of homophobes to call gays and lesbians p—-.  That’s hard stuff, I know.  But until the comments move into identifiable forms of threat, I feel that it is my duty as an American citizen to defend their right to speak the way they want.

I support the idea that unpopular speech is what a democracy is all about.  In Stalin’s USSR unpopular speech was met with a trip to the Gulag, or death.  Speech – in the form of writing and public protests, is what gave the gay and lesbian movement the free space it needed to articulate its concerns.  Being sympathetic to the social and political concerns of women, racial minorities, and sexual minorities was at one time unpopular speech.  Someone, somewhere, thought it was “more than mean” to say that his or her son was born effeminate and had sexual desires for men.  He or she probably thought it was vulgar, and that person should not be allowed to speak in public forums, write in newspapers, or give lectures on college campuses. 

I agree with the underlying sentiment behind the #MoreThanMean PSA.  But unfortunately, if a listener feels so aggrieved that they wish to send an off color, vulgar tweet to Sarah Spain or any other host that is female (black, Christian fundamentalist, or Muslim as well) it is my responsibility as a lover of liberty to defend that scumbag’s right to tweet it.

 

 

 

Ashley Madison and Cultural Dopes

I can imagine a movie done in 2050 about the 2010’s.

It’ll be a period piece, with the usual cultural exaggerations done to let the viewer know it is about that era. Ever notice how movies set in the 1970’s show every house with a lava lamp and a water bed? Some music will be playing in the background to make sure you now it is 70s. Carol Kane? Elton John? If it is a movie set in an urban setting, then you will hear Stevie Wonder. In these period pieces, some cultural attitude or behavior is pointed out for the purpose of showing how naive or silly people were. If it is a movie about the 1950’s, there will always be the obligatory racist or sexist remark – often inserted into the dialogue casually in order to show how commonplace those ideas were.

The period piece set in the 2010’s will have women sporting that “thrift shop” look, men wearing slim fit clothes, and people drinking fair trade coffee. The soundtrack will be by Daft Punk or Adele. And what will be the cultural attitude or behavior that is made fun of? People’s unbelievable naiveté when putting personal information into the hands of online companies.

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African-American Digital Practices and Their Relation to Issues in Criminal Justice

Criminal justice professionals with an interest in African-Americans have given little attention to the role information and communication technologies (ICTs) may play in their work.  There are few scholars and professionals who explore how technologies like the Internet, social media applications, and mobile phones impact African-American experiences in modern society.  This state of affairs is understandable.  When one imagines a connection between technology and criminal justice, one thinks of cybercrime, and the battle between large corporations and the highly educated (often white and male) criminals who try to steal money.  African-Americans are not a part of this picture.  One may also think of ICTs as being merely for fun and games, tangential to the concerns of criminal justice professionals.  However, if we widen our gaze and conceive of ICT usage as having an effect on family communication, labor market participation, and political engagement the connections between African-Americans, ICTs, and criminal justice become clearer.

Criminal justice professionals have been slow to explore the links between race, technology, and criminal justice issues. Image credit: Mashable.com

Criminal justice professionals have been slow to explore the links between race, technology, and criminal justice issues.
Image credit: Mashable.com

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A Different Take on Sigma Alpha Epsilon: The Need for Privacy, Even for Racist Chants

A few years ago, in 2009, a photo of President Obama apparently checking out a girl’s booty at the G8 summit began circulating the web.  Headlines such as “The Second Stimulus Package” and “Baby Bot Barack” were everywhere.

We had to place context around this snapshot in order to understand it. Before that happened though, the media had jumped on the picture. Credit: http://mashable.com/2009/07/10/obama-checking-out-girl/

The photo was a misleading snippet of reality.  A video – what is nothing more than several millions of photos, or snippets, strung together – surfaced showing that Obama was gesturing to someone as they were preparing to take a group picture.  The extra snippets were needed to patch together a more complete version of what was going on.

In my opinion, we needed the extra minutes, hours, days, years surrounding the racist chant from the Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity at the University of Oklahoma.  More importantly, we need to change our privacy laws in order to prevent these instances from triggering society’s borg mentality.

The fallout was inevitable, even preordained: the news shows clamoring for ratings, the talking heads using the occasion to burnish their progressive credentials with caustic condemnations, the coached apologies, and the inevitable punishments.

The punishments were swift.  The house has been shut down – and so the people who worked in that house have lost this source of income.  The fraternity has been suspended – punishing all of the present members of that fraternity, and others who may wish to have joined in the future.  Two members of the fraternity – the ringleaders – have been expelled from the university.  These two students are being treated like convicted criminals, with CNN putting profiles of the students online (very irresponsible I think).  They are young, and will likely recover, but this experience will always be a part of their lives.  What if it was their and their parent’s dream that they attend this specific university?  What about the friendships they had developed?  What about their educations?

The young men in that fraternity were doing something odious, to be sure.  But to me, it was a bunch of young men having fun on a bus.  The chant was not directed at anyone.  No one was physically or emotionally hurt. Until the sentiments expressed in these chants translate into actual racial bias or discrimination, or until those chants are directed at an actual person, in my opinion the incident should be passed off as frat boys acting stupidly.

But my concern is bigger than this.  Taking videos of people in spaces surreptitiously, where those recorded do not know or expect their actions to be recorded should be against the law.  It follows that placing such material on social media should also be a punishable offense.  The punishments here should not be levied against the fraternity, or the two ring leaders, but the person who took the video and placed it online.

We need to recalibrate our views on privacy in the Digital Age.  Currently, there is no expectation of privacy in public spaces.  This understanding is anachronistic – developed during a time when every action could not be recorded and transmitted everywhere.  This anachronistic understanding led to a judge in Oregon arguing that “upskirting”, or taking pictures of up a woman’s skirt, in Target, was not illegal.   I think women expect privacy there – even if they are in a store with a bullseye as a logo.  But our understanding of privacy was built in an era before smartphones and digital cameras were ubiquitous.

As a society, we are poisoned by this decontextualized data pulled from private moments and plastered onto public platforms like YouTube or Instagram.  There are few winners here.  The public, already strained by so many media choices, have one more fatuous distraction grasping for their attention (income inequality grows…oh wait, here is [place person here] caught on video calling someone a fag!).  The victims of these digital drive-bys have their lives ruined.  And most insidiously, the very important task of combating racial discrimination and racial inequality is reduced to rooting out individuals who make racist remarks off the cuff or in places they thought were private.

I have a prediction.  A sad one.

Incidents like these will continue, and our society will suffer for it, until a martyr comes along.  Someone who is well-known enough, or photogenic enough must fall victim.  The progression is all laid out.  A decontextualized piece of their private life is put into the public domain.  She then tries to defend herself, explain, and apologize.  But the public outcry becomes too great, and harsh sanctions are levied.  She may end her life over the scandal.  Or, someone feeding off the media frenzy may decide to take her life.  At which time public sentiment will change, and people will begin to have sympathy.  In the public conversation that follows, we will come to see the little snippet of deviance splattered on Instagram as not representative of the person as a whole.  This new conversation will recontextualize the snippet, and she will be seen as a complex individual just like me and you – a little naughty sometimes, but generally good, productive, God-fearing, and law abiding.  I can even see some congressman sponsoring a public-privacy law named after her.

Only then, after some unfortunate person pays the ultimate sacrifice, will society work to change privacy laws.

Edward Snowden as the Avatar of the Free and Open Internet Movement

From Malcolm X…

I do some odd things as I approach middle age.  I watch C-Span for fun.  Browsing the online archives, I came across a video of Malcolm X being interviewed at UC – Berkeley.

There was Malcolm, lean and straight-backed, armed with conviction and a strident piercing voice, answering questions confidently.  He was being interviewed by a white professor and a black graduate student (see the interview here…it is a classic).  Both seemed taken aback by Malcolm.  The former because he was in the unfamiliar position of having this black ex-con matching him wit for wit, point for point.  The latter because he was witnessing his white professor being matched wit for wit, point for point, by this black ex-con.

I saw that interview about a month ago.  It was slowly migrating into the recesses of my mind.  But then, a few days ago I heard Malcolm X being described as the “avatar of the black power movement” on C-Span by Tufts University professor Peniel Joseph.

I like the term, especially for our digital age.  Thinking about the visuals I had seen from Malcolm X’s interview, it made total sense. An avatar is a symbol – a picture or image – that is meant to represent one’s self in the digital world.  The picture associated with one’s Twitter account is an avatar.

Being the avatar of a movement is a bit more than being the “face of” a movement.  An avatar is multidimensional, and can not only represent one’s physical self but one’s values and lifestyle.  Does one smile in their Twitter photo (hinting that one is jovial)?  Does one make the photo black and white (signifying artistic aspirations)?  Would a picture of Bart Simpson as my avatar be enough to show I am a prankster?  How can I show cosmopolitanism?  Allude to my hipster affiliations?  And so on.

The black power movement needed Malcolm.  That is, they needed him to be young, and to exhibit a lean hungriness.  They needed him to be powerful, but not naturally, genetically so.  He needed to have gained his strength through the overcoming of oppression.  It was absolutely essential that he be strident and direct – especially when talking to whites.  It was about black “power” after all.

Currently, a new movement is bubbling under the national radar (but not for long).  It is the Free and Open Internet Movement, and it needed Edward Snowden is its avatar.

…to Edward Snowden

I do even more odd things as I approach middle age.  I find myself more interested in documentary than blockbuster: detailed, factual accounts of everyday social and political events are more interesting than far flung fantasies in outerspace or middle earth.

Recently, I watched Citizen Four, the documentary by Laura Poitras about Edward Snowden.  The Citizen Four documentary was, for me, a companion piece to the book written by Glenn Greenwald, No Place to Hide.  Both chronicle their initial encounters with Snowden and the information he leaked about government spying.

Greenwald’s book is more detailed about what exactly the NSA had done and the extent to which it is collecting information about American citizens.  Whereas Poitras’ documentary – filled with claustrophobic close-ups of Snowden framed in white sheets – reveal more about the man behind the leak.  One watches a bespectacled young man speaking softly but with confident precision, smiling on occasion, often saying something and then laughing sheepishly.  Highly intelligent, but more in the “I know ten times more than you about this one topic and I can leverage this disparity to make you look stupid” style of Sheldon Cooper, than the “My intellect is so powerful and my knowledge so diverse that I can muster my brain power to understand this topic more thoroughly than you” style of Fraiser Crane.  Snowden is the man who can dominate with the piercing, cutting logic of computer code, but not with physical brute force or charisma and searing oratory: he is the nerd who gets the girl after all the other guys become pot-bellied and stuck in middle management.

His value system is binary.  While others may see government spying as compromising our values as Americans but fitting into that grey area where it is deemed “necessary”, Snowden sees no context that would make this incursion on civil liberties justifiable.  For Snowden, The NSA had to be ratted out because they had done wrong by violating our constitution, simple as that.

Malcolm X and Edward Snowden both embody the social movements they have championed.

Malcolm X and Edward Snowden both embody the social movements they have championed.

This is why he embodies the Free and Open Source Internet Movement.  It is a movement filled with people not willing to compromise their Internet freedom in the name of national security or combating terrorism.

They protest in ways that are acceptable by ginning up discontent on social media websites.  They protest in ways that are unacceptable by direct denial of service attacks (often undertaken by the hacktivist group Anonymous).  These protests are done in the digital environment, not the physical.  They may walk the streets holding signs on occasion, but they prefer to protest through computer networks.

As the Avatar Goes, the Movement Goes

The trajectory of some avatars parallels the trajectory of the movements they represent.

Malcolm X will forever be remembered in the tense glory of his youth.  Since his death the public’s understanding of him has morphed from one to be feared to one to be admired.  He became, especially in the 1990’s with Spike Lee’s biopic and the swarm of hats and t-shirts with sporting his likeness, a pop culture symbol of resistance.

Gloria Steinem, who may be considered the avatar of feminism – with her life, look, and values symbolizing that movement – is still a visible presence now in her eighth decade, changing and morphing with social and cultural trends.

And Snowden, unable to return physically to his home country, finds himself only able to advocate in the digital environment.  He is forced (or free, depending upon how you look at it) to communicate through online services like Skype and Google Chat.  Yet despite his exile, he is omnipresent, his visage duplicated, downloaded, and memed thoughout the digital environment.  Very fitting for the avatar of the free and open Internet movement.

Mining Black Misery: An Overemphasis on Black Disadvantage

Some years ago I was talking with my mother about the content of one of the classes she was taking.  At the time she was working on her bachelor’s degree.  At around 50, it had been a long time coming for her.  We were talking about a course on public health, I think.  She said something to the effect of – “why is it that all the bad things are happening to black people?  It’s not possible that black people are doing that bad in everything!”

I remember that conversation clearly, because I too had had that same reaction to courses I had been taking.  It might be that almost every black person who has studied the sociological literature on race will have this reaction at some point.

These disparities are explained by “social forces” – the factors external to the individual.  These would be your racist whites, discriminatory government policies, the legacy of slavery and segregation, and so on.

Despite my mother’s objections these are empirical realities.  However, these are not the only realities.  In fact the story narrated by sociological research is incomplete.

Let me explain…

Mining Black Misery

Here is a meta-conclusion that could be generated from taking the sociological research as a whole: blacks are “disadvantaged” and have little control over their own plight and unable to muster positive changes on their own.  Blacks invariably find themselves defeated by institutions and bureaucracies that they cannot navigate, shifts in historical trends they cannot adjust to, and whites armed with racist ideology.

My mother made those comments because she was introduced to a world she did not know.  My mom was not familiar with these blacks who were so thoroughly disadvantaged.  The black people she saw were a mixed bag of problems and successes – maybe a few more problems than whites who lived across the railroad tracks (I don’t mean that metaphorically…in my hometown whites literally lived on the other side of the tracks), but they had their share of successes and achievements.

My mom posited that the drumbeat of black failures she was exposed to through her coursework was conspiratorial – ideas ginned up by whites in order to entrench their dominant position in society.  She thinks like that sometimes.  It’s not true, though.

The reason is, I believe, much simpler.  Sociologists have made an industry out of mining black misery.  Understanding the effects of race is one of the raison d’etres of the discipline, and the lowest lying fruit is to record and analyze some type of black disadvantage.  For every one paragraph devoted to understanding how blacks have made their way in spite of what may be the most sustained social and cultural onslaught against a group in modern human history, there may be ten devoted to understanding how blacks are dropping out of high school at higher rates, how black women are less likely to marry than other groups, and so on.

Understanding the social forces that influence success are just as important as understanding the social forces that lead to failure.  But one aspect of black life dominates the attention of scholars at the expense of the other.

A common rejoinder would be that we are interested in, say, high school dropouts because this is a social problem that needs addressing.  We don’t need to worry about the class valedictorian, the logic goes, because that person is doing all right.

I don’t agree.  That valedictorian has done something that allowed him to succeed in the way he has.  Let’s focus on his life and people like him in order to provide prescriptions for others.  Because race matters, and blacks experience unique social contexts and interactions, we can study black high achievers in order to provide insight into raising educational attainment for all blacks.  There are young black men and women who have managed to navigate a minefield of low social and cultural capital, poorer schools, possibly a harrowing home environment, and rough neighborhoods and come out with college degrees.  How in the world did they do that?  We should learn as much about them as we can.

Consider the constant drumbeat about black unemployment being twice as high as the national average – currently black unemployment is around 11.4%, while it is at 5.3% for whites.  We’ve spent a lot of time exploring how spatial-mismatch (the idea that jobs are not located where many black residents live) and discriminatory hiring practices have led to this disparity.  This is important.  However, there was a time – in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, where young blacks were employed at higher rates than whites.  What were the conditions that led to this?

One final example: my mother.  She was one of the many black women who went back to school after raising their children to complete their bachelor’s degrees.  This is quite an accomplishment, as I’ve told her many times.  Understanding the ways in which black women have managed families and achieved many goals in life in spite of disadvantages would be enlightening. The trends are that working class, less educated women of all races are becoming single parents more and more.  More research on how black women have managed single parenthood with some degree of success can help society address this growing trend.

(Lack of) Sociology in the Digital Environment

One of the pleasant surprises about research on the world created through interconnected computer networks, the digital environment, is that minorities are doing quite well in it.  Studies from the Pew Center for Internet and American Life show repeatedly that there are few differences between whites and minorities in terms of adoption, usage, and beliefs about new technology.  Even when there are differences it is often the case that it is minorities who tend to be do better than whites. This is especially so when it comes to the use of mobile devices.

My own research shows that groups that are normally disadvantaged in the physical environment are extracting benefits at a higher rate than advantaged groups.  And so minorities, who may have a difficult time getting their opinions heard in the mass media, can use social media to voice their opinion.  Indeed, blacks are more active on social media than other groups – with “BlackTwitter” being something of a phenomenon.  Or, people of working class backgrounds who may have few contacts that can lead to jobs in the physical environment, can leverage sites like LinkedIn  in the digital environment to find new job opportunities.

Most research by the Pew Center for Internet and American Life find few disparities between whites and minorities.  When there are differences, they are often such that it is whites who are lagging behind minorities.  This phenomenon needs to be studied more.

Most research by the Pew Center for Internet and American Life find few disparities between whites and minorities. When there are differences, they are often such that it is whites who are lagging behind minorities. This phenomenon needs to be studied more.

 

The lack of black disadvantage in the digital environment has, I believe, had consequences for the sociological study of new technology.  Sociologists, acculturated into looking for and mining black misery, find there is nothing worth studying!  There is anecdotal evidence to back this up: if one browses the top social science journals you will see a dearth of studies related to minorities and technology.

In the early 2000’s there was quite a bit of talk about the digital divide.  But once that “divide” between those who could buy technology and those who could not vanished, there was, presumably, nothing left to talk about. Sometimes I will hear about lower levels of programming experience for minorities, or blacks running into walls of discrimination in Silicon Valley.  But this all points to the idea that there needs to be something wrong in order for blacks to be studied.

The die is probably cast for sociological studies in the physical environment – too many careers are based on mining black misery.  But there is still an opportunity to take a different path to the study of race in the digital environment.  We do not need to describe the reality of the black experience online as one of disadvantage and discrimination, racism and rejection.  We can describe it in more complex terms, pointing out both the struggles and the successes.