Friday, March 14th, 2014
16

Writing In Public

Hamilton Nolan's stern post on Gawker, "Twitter is Public," spoke the thoughts of many a journalist yesterday. Those who write for a living (and are therefore themselves occasionally trussed, spit and taken for a spin on the rotisserie of public opinion) can't help but goggle in disbelief that the concept of "public" can be misunderstood. Journalists think about this all the time because the right to report and publicize has often been under attack, such as when the police try to stop someone recording or filming in the street, or when a celebrity or politician objects to the publication of public information, or when the government or police just feel like it. That is very shocking. And when people seem to believe that their published utterances on Twitter are protected by mysterious privacy rights, maybe something like those protecting the communications between psychoanalysts and their clients, that is shocking in much the same way. They're not protected at all! (Ask Justine Sacco, or any of these people.) And it's desperately important that they're not, because that's exactly how all of us ordinary people in a free society have a chance—have the right—to learn and know about and discuss what is really going on in the world, in our politics and businesses, in our churches and schools.

In Russia, the machinery of public discourse is being systematically dismantled this very minute, so we can understand what the cost is when the citizens of a country are not free to comment on public statements in any way they choose.

The hubbub on Twitter yesterday was to do with a distressing and important Twitter stream of people who'd been sexually assaulted. They posted whatever it was they'd been wearing at the time, in order to make the point that many people who are sexually assaulted are not wearing suggestive or provocative clothes. I read some of the stream on Wednesday night, and found it frightening, terrible and valuable to read. Then a BuzzFeed writer wrote a post about that Twitter stream the next day, and republished tweets from it. There was absolutely no requirement for this BuzzFeed writer to ask anyone whatsoever for permission to reproduce those tweets. She did ask for and receive permission for each individual tweet she posted, because she was concerned about the ethics of amplifying statements by assault survivors; the instigator of the tweets did not give permission to use her name or image, which caused more trouble.

That other side of this question is more interesting, and it's to do with freedom, and with writing about people, about ourselves and about one another, on and off the Internet.

There were those who believe that it is wrong, or insensitive, to reproduce and broadcast the thoughts and identities of people who've been deeply harmed. Writers will always do well to consider the likely cost of their words to anyone whom they may be describing. But in this instance, the whole point of the original Twitter feed was to make it clear to as many as possible that people do not "invite" sexual assault with their clothes. You could be wearing a t-shirt and jeans and be assaulted, and everyone should know that; ideally, everyone in the whole world would know that. If millions came to learn what these Twitterers had to say, then that is all to the good. If the people who know about it don’t brave the danger, then the only people left talking about sexual assault are the ones who have the least business doing so. I thought about Anita Hill a lot yesterday because she is one of the bravest and best people that ever was, to walk into the maelstrom of public opprobrium that she did with her eyes open, armed with nothing but her own integrity. Things changed for the better for all the women of this country because she did that. The Twitter feed on Wednesday was the same.

To write in public is to court disaster, but it is also to invite the truth. I don't know any better way of opening your heart to a deeper understanding of the world. If you have a Tumblr or Twitter account or mimeograph a zine or draw comics or write in a magazine or comment on a political blog or appear on TV, you are making yourself vulnerable to the judgments of others. And when I say "others," I mean people whose worldview is utterly foreign to you and into which you have absolutely no insight. That can get scary or even threatening, but what it really is is a gift, a liberation. It means we're alive together, we are free, we have brought our thoughts whole and real out onto the face of the world. So now, let's talk.

If public discourse is to be completely honest, things can and will sometimes get hairy. It's complicated, uncomfortable and painful to experience a clash of views. But for the most part, all that complication is good. Honest, civilized disagreement is the healthiest thing there is. It's a point of departure toward better things—really the only one we've got. In a better world we will pay attention to the (honest, non-troll) people who disagree with us and not just be scared or give up, but try to take the next step together.

Max Read of Gawker once said, with respect to online disagreements,

If I were giving advice, to myself as well as anyone else, I’d say this: Don’t feel obligated to respond to every bit of criticism or disagreement, at all. Assess its quality. Make sure it’s in good faith. Think about the ultimate goals of your critic and yourself. Be honest with yourself about what you want out of the discussion.

Wherever possible, respond in private, over email. (This way you can take the fraught problems of the “attention economy” and public performance in front of judgmental peers out of it.)

Most importantly: sleep on it. Always. At the very least, take a walk.

It is best to air our disputes in public if we can, but carefully, thoughtfully. But sometimes Max is right, and it is better to conduct such an exchange in private. One thing is for sure, anyone who engages much at all in online disputation can tell you that even someone who's been yelling at you like an angry bear will most often completely alter his tone the moment you respond. It's easy to forget there are human beings behind the keyboards.

We're all together, for just a little while, and this is public discourse. To submit to public judgment is valuable and worthwhile for everyone. We are so lucky to live in a place where we now have, for the moment, something approximating free speech. One of the most valuable and worthy contributions each of us can make to a free society is to share our thoughts and then not only to allow (because it's their right) but to invite and to welcome the judgment and commentary of others, however strongly they may disagree. Let's tell one another the truth as each of us understands it, and learn what we can.





Maria Bustillos is a writer and critic in Los Angeles. Photo of friends who don't look like friends by Mohd Fahmi Mohd Azmi.

16 Comments / Post A Comment

Freddie DeBoer (#4,188)

But for it to mean anything, it has to work for the people you like least of all as well as for the people you like most. There is no possible way to meaningfully or usefully divide "the right kind" of disagreement or argument from the wrong kind. As long as you are the one dividing good from bad, you're prey to your own biases, most importantly the one for self-defense.

I don't doubt at all that you want to engage in the kind of honest, rough-and-tumble discourse you say you do. But in my long experience, 99% of writers claim that they want to but actually shy away from the genuine article of real, deep disagreement. So they find ways to dismiss criticism that doesn't come from a small set of admirers and friends, and claim that criticism that actually meaningfully targets their work is somehow the wrong kind of criticism.

You've made fun of me for this attitude in the past, and let's face it, I'm a very dismissible dude, which is my own fault. But since you're thinking about this here– think it over. Not in relationship to me, I'm just some jamoke. Just think about whether individuals can ever be trusted to sort legitimate criticism from illegitimate, when the subject of that criticism is their own work.

barnhouse (#1,326)

@Freddie DeBoer I think you make a very good point, and wariness of one's own biases is the ground zero of real intelligence. Is there a single human being anywhere who wouldn't benefit from starting the day by asking himself, "Am I being an idiot now? How about now? Now?" and just going on in the same vein until bedtime. (I think not!)

either_ada (#264,008)

"But in this instance, the whole point of the original Twitter feed was to make it clear to as many as possible that people do not "invite" sexual assault with their clothes."

No–this wasn't the *whole* point. The whole point was to share these stories in a way that people who have gone through sexual assault–and who are very likely to be dismissed or vilified for speaking about it–feel they have some small modicum of respect and safety. A lot of the people involved in these conversations have carved out a small space on Twitter where they, like most of us, expect to be involved in a community of a few hundred or a few thousand at most. Small potatoes on Twitter. They didn't expect their tweets to be amplified in the way that a comment-mining juggernaut like Buzz Feed will do. Because many of their images and handles were shoddily disguised, some of their stories were outed to many of their friends, families, and acquaintances. That can cause a lot of real trouble for survivors and their families.

"If millions came to learn what these Twitterers had to say, then that is all to the good. If the people who know about it don’t brave the danger, then the only people left talking about sexual assault are the ones who have the least business doing so."

I strongly sympathize with the desire to change the dominant discourse about rape. But there is a reason Anita Hill is exceptional and heroic. That woman went through hell to speak up. And is *still* attacked for speaking up to this day. But she got to decide whether she was strong enough to speak out to a national public. These women's hands were forced and they are on Twitter right now, saying that they are sad and angry to have their tweets published (no, not all permissions were granted) and that they have been harmed. Why take that agency away from them? Why do a material harm to particular people in the name of an abstract good for an abstract set of people?

And this is the crux–the press having the freedom to speak up against public harms and the press using ethical discretion so as not to do harm are two different things. Nobody is saying in this instance that we need to dismantle the press–juxtaposing the systematic dismantling of the Russian press and free speech with people having ethical objections to American journalists' decisions about how they used the words of sexual assault victims implies a deeply false equivalence. What some people are suggesting is that we don't deny sexual assault victims agency over when and where their narratives are shared and who gets to oversee that narrative. Respecting the agency of sexual assault victims is *especially* crucial if you are making a claim to work against rape culture. They were trying to stake an ownership claim in their own experiences and then it was taken away from them. If you want to be an ally, be an ally and listen to the people you are claiming to want to help.

To say, "well, you shouldn't have gone out in public if you wanted to be safe" to a rape victim is… un-self-aware? bitterly ironic? hypocritical? cruel? Whatever it is, I think a different approach is warranted.

barnhouse (#1,326)

@either_ada Thank you for this thoughtful reply. If all those who were quoted in BuzzFeed felt the same way, that their hands had been forced, their agency taken away, I would agree with you. But, serious question, how is it taking their agency away any less to make the blanket claims you make on their behalf? At this moment a number of the tweets are still on the BuzzFeed post, signed, not blurred. Clearly opinions vary on this matter. If we are going to respect the rights of individuals then they must be respected one by one, not by making generalizations.

It's to be regretted, if those who posted to Twitter not understanding the public nature of that forum came to any harm. I honor the impulse to try to look after those who have been hurt, and I hope to be their ally. But for me, First Amendment considerations are always going to come first.

Aatom (#74)

@either_ada This isn't a clean metaphor you're using. It's not a matter of safety in public, it's a matter of visibility. You can stay home if you wish to avoid the gaze of others, or find a private meeting space for a like-minded community. But you can't walk down a public street and get angry when people look at you.

either_ada (#264,008)

@Aatom You could also think about it this way–if you were walking down the street talking to some friends about that time you were sexually assaulted, you would be doing it in public. Could someone legally record you and then post it on BuzzFeed? Maybe? (I don't know.) But would that someone be doing something ethically out of line? Probably. Would it do you some harm? Almost certainly.

either_ada (#264,008)

@barnhouse Yeah, exactly. If some people are OK with it, then fine. They made that choice and I respect their willingness to tell their story publicly. But not everyone did.

As far as the first amendment goes–there are a lot of things that you are entitled to do legally that aren't moral or ethical actions. That is the distinction I am drawing here.

barnhouse (#1,326)

@either_ada We agree, then. And you are right too that freedom of speech comes at a cost; what I'm saying is that it's worth paying. That is to say, yes, be sensitive, be careful. But the risk is worth taking.

either_ada (#264,008)

@barnhouse But who has the right to decide what something is worth on behalf of another person? I don't know what a person's safety and well-being is contingent upon better than that person does. We do know that some people get hounded and bullied for speaking up about assault. We know that some people are physically harmed for speaking up. We know that some people will lose the support of their family and friends if they speak up. We know that some people's mental health suffers as a result–often fatally. There have been several very public cases in the past few years showing us just that. (Not that everyone is as at risk for the same harms at the same level.) I'm not saying there is no value in speaking up–there is a great deal. But I'm not going to decide what that risk is worth to someone who isn't me.

@either_ada "A lot of the people involved in these conversations have carved out a small space on Twitter where they, like most of us, expect to be involved in a community of a few hundred or a few thousand at most"

This particular "community" had an audience far more than a few hundred or thousand. The original question was posed @steenfox, who has over 17,000 twitter followers. So all the responses were linked in a thread to a very popular twitter account, with a huge audience. In general, also, Twitter is a very bad place to have small, private, "safe space" conversations — and the more people who learn that, the better.

"They didn't expect their tweets to be amplified in the way that a comment-mining juggernaut like Buzz Feed will do. Because many of their images and handles were shoddily disguised, some of their stories were outed to many of their friends, families, and acquaintances. That can cause a lot of real trouble for survivors and their families."

The Buzzfeed writer asked the permission of each tweeter before publishing their tweets. She also blurred their identities if they asked to, and left their identities un-blurred only if they explicitly said that was OK. As Maria poitns out above, the Buzzfeed writer didn't have to do this, but did so anyway as a courtesy.

crazymonk (#264,010)

Isn't the real issue about the distinction between "writing" in public and "living" in public? For many of these Twitter writers, the distinction is lost on them. But I guess this is something best left for Social Media day in a high school Life Ed. class.

If only Dave Eggers had written a novel that explored the real subtleties here, rather than a broad caricature. Maria, do us all a favor and write a better version of The Circle.

nope (#264,016)

i used to read the awl+ regularly, but after reading this post, i won't any longer. people who are sexually assaulted are regularly humiliated and their experiences treated with disrespect. i don't care what journalists think about if twitter is private or not.

Okay. Best wishes.

IBentMyWookie (#133)

@Choire Sicha rupaulblinking.gif

Tulletilsynet (#333)

i don't care what journalists think about if it's spinach or not. i say it's spinach and i say the hell with it.

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