This is the story of three white men who lost their jobs. SBS sports reporter Scott McIntyre, for a series of critical tweets on Anzac Day; British lawyer Clive O’Connell, for a tirade captured on video against fans of the Liverpool football club, and people from Liverpool generally; Sydney hotel supervisor Michael Nolan, for posting abuse on the Facebook page of feminist writer Clementine Ford. I could have chosen other examples, but hopefully these three recent ones are sufficient to begin to map a very contemporary set of concerns, at the intersection between social media and the debate not just about freedom but the very nature of expression.
One of these things, of course, is not like the others: few would class the torrent of vile and often violent abuse directed at Clementine Ford, and feminists and women more generally, as a form of ‘opinion’ worthy of protection. Yet a characteristic of this debate are the slippages between different forms of speech. Not only overt abusers like Michael Nolan but also critics of abusive language on social media are routinely described as bullies, or a lynch mob, or accused of policing speech. Broad equivalences are made, most notoriously perhaps in Jon Ronson’s book So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, in which disparate events are classed under the same rubric. Specificities are elided, so that a general point can be made, be it about ‘shame culture’ or online abuse.
Thus on the surface, these are all stories about men losing their jobs because of something they said. If we force ourselves not to make distinctions between the circumstances that led to the three firings, we’ll be much more likely to take a position against any of them happening at all. However, each case is underlined by a very different power dynamic.
McIntyre lost his job for expressing anti-militarist opinions which were publicly lambasted by then-communications minister Malcolm Turnbull, who also got in touch directly with McIntyre’s boss the day before the firing. Even though McIntyre’s (state-funded) employer cited breaches in the company’s social media policies, there is reason to argue this was in fact a case of state censorship.
An agreed-upon code of conduct was also adduced as the explanation for Clive O’Connell losing his private sector job for causing embarrassment to his employer – an embarrassment which could translate into the loss of clients.
As for Michael Nolan, it is not enough to observe that he brought his firing upon himself. The chain of events is more complex than that, and passes through Facebook’s continuing failure to effectively address abusive behaviour by its members. Frustrated with this abdication of responsibility on the part of the owners of the communications infrastructure, Clementine Ford had tried reposting some of the abuse she received on her own Facebook page, only to have her account suspended for 30 days for ‘violation of community standards’. Ford’s eventual decision to report Nolan’s behaviour to his employers may be construed as a misplaced form of retribution, but is in fact the consequence of a failure occurring elsewhere in the system – a failure which is political in nature.
The fact that the discursive spaces on the web are so unsafe for women, LGBT or people of colour is a mirror of the lack of safety across society at large. One of Jon Ronson’s informants tried to make this point to him in a passage of So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed that was cut from the final, published edition. In the exchange, a female user of the 4chan message board explained the culture of online shaming as follows:
4chan aims to degrade the target, right? And one of the highest degradations for women in our culture is rape. We don’t talk about rape of men, so I think it doesn’t occur to most people as a male degradation. With men, they talk about getting them fired. In our society men are supposed to be employed. If they’re fired, they lose masculinity points.
In another passage which did make the cut, developer Adria Richards expressed a similar idea through the famous quote of Margaret Atwood’s – ‘Men are afraid that women will laugh at them. Women are afraid that men will kill them’ – an analogy forcefully rejected by Ronson. Yet the distinction goes to the heart of this particular debate, for it grounds it in an understanding of the forms that social violence takes.
When we talk about freedom of expression, we must always remember that this expression is met unequally, and that censure, criticism and ridicule are fundamentally different from threats of violence and rape, or state and police repression.
From this constitutive distinction descend the others: dissent and criticism expressed from a subaltern position, such as when a journalist questions the myth of Anzac heroism, are not the same as a tirade against the fans of a rival football team, and by extension the people from the city the team hails from; just as losing a job in journalism with a public broadcaster for expressing dissenting views is not the same as losing a job in the private sector for embarrassing one’s employer. Moreover, the particular consequences of these kinds of speech – however serious in terms of one’s immediate livelihood – in most jurisdictions allow for recourse to employment courts (McIntyre is bringing such a case), which further sets them apart from psychological and physical abuse.
It’s not just that I don’t think we could draw a single lesson from the three stories I have asked you consider: it’s that I don’t think we should try, for it would require erasing too many of these distinctions.
We live in an age of precarity, which certainly contributes to viewing loss of employment as a grave existential threat; the growing tendency to equate all manners of workers with public relations professionals simply by virtue of their having a social media presence – hence the ubiquitous ‘opinions are my own’ disclaimer – will also fuel this anxiety. These things are real. But loss of employment isn’t the only consequence of online speech: the perpetuation of patterns of social violence is a far more common one, and the task of recognising and neutralising this violence, more urgent.
To the extent that I’m willing to make a general claim, it is this: safe spaces are also critical spaces. And for critical spaces to exist, we must not only protect the right to genuine dissent – as opposed to hate speech or abuse – but also ensure that the people who have been historically marginalised have a chance to speak. Beware of anyone who tries to convince you that those voices are the real threat.