Every, fucking, minute. This is how often somebody — let’s face it, usually a white dude, but certainly not only white dudes — waves away a racist, sexist comment on the internet as just a joke. Some apology may or may not follow, but either way, the guilt is transferred onto anybody and everybody who calls it out by accusing them of having “missed the humor.” Then a sigh of exasperation followed by a faux existentialist query of why, Dear God, in this day and age, people can’t just find things funny anymore? If only we could find casual racism funny, we wouldn’t find ourselves in the social and political catastrophe called 2017.
Exhibit 1: a white man goes on Reddit, brags about how he bagged a woman well beyond his attractiveness level, and advises people that it helps if she’s Asian, because Asian women find his 10cm (3.9in) penis overwhelmingly big.
When this is pointed out on a public Facebook page — Scary Mommy — he responds:
Im (sic) sorry you are offended by the humor in a post where I literally make fun of myself. You should ask [ ] how racist I am!
And there it is, the classic “I’m sorry you have no sense of humor” excuse. As this particular thread continued down the rabbit hole, as it deservedly did, more racist and sexist jokes are brought to light:
I don’t know exactly why people don’t simply offer an apology and continue on with their lives. I suspect they honestly, truly believe that they were merely joking, that they had no racist intentions, no racist bone in their body. And while many of the outraged netizens will shout down this defense as disingenuous, or that the offender has deeper issues that they refuse to deal with, it occurs to me that this is the wrong line of attack.
Even if someone truly harbors no racist intention, or even a racist mindset, that still does not excuse the comment. These are not crimes of intention, they are acts which do harm in and of themselves. In fact, it is exactly those who are not racist or sexist who are making the worst transgression, because they are knowingly contributing to a public culture that accepts racism and sexism against their own conscience.
In 2017, we are realizing more than ever how important our public online spaces are. The news media is completely infiltrated by special interests. Journalism is beholden to inside access privileges and patronage, and not the (mostly) non-paying public. Our government is overrun by corrupt demagogues who no longer pay heed to public mores. And, perhaps worst of all, celebrities act as public avatars and speak our minds for us without any consultation.
All we have left are our precious public spaces. Facebook, Reddit, Twitter, and the rest of social media. Although social media companies are deeply flawed in every way, I believe it is a huge mistake for us to buy into the pessimistic view that they are cultural and political wastelands. Scary Mommy, for example, is an important public page with 3.5 million followers, and is quite influential to parenting culture. Social media is the last and only bastion of truly public and democratic speech, regardless of how one feels about Mark Zuckerberg. I would prefer that a less ethically challenged company control global social media, but the current reality is that it’s the best we got. Please, someone change that, but until then…
I don’t care if you’re woker than woke, if you truly love your Asian wife and your Asian in-laws, or if your best friends really are black women who crack jokes about their own hair and you’re just dying of laughter and want nothing more than to join in on the laugh circle of sisterhood. Social media is a public and civic arena that we need to consider invaluable, like a park or a city plaza. It is, in the parlance of political economy, a “commons,” and the excuse of “it’s just a joke bro” is what in the same parlance is called the “tragedy of the commons.” That is, we think of it as some infinitely renewable resource that we can feel free to litter, piss, and shit into without any consequence.
The consequence is the viability of our digital public spaces to serve the public, on the public’s own terms. No matter how much fuckery happens over at Facebook HQ, they can’t control what we say, or how many people we say it to. When people call out racism, sexism and xenophobia online, think of them like good samaritans calling out littering in a national park. It’s all we ordinary people have left, and we have to take a stand for it.