An editorial composed by the editorial board of the New York Times and published May 30, 2013 says this:
Facebook belatedly moved to further restrict hate speech that glorified violence against women . . . . Some of the misogynist pages had headlines that read “Violently Raping Your Friend Just for Laughs” and “Kicking Your Girlfriend in the Fanny because she won’t make you a Sandwich.” Other pages included images of women being abused. . . .
It was only after advocacy groups . . . mounted a campaign, sending 5,000 e-mails to Facebook advertisers and coordinating petitions signed by more than 200,000 people, that the company reacted publicly.
The company’s slow response may be indicative of a deeper problem in technology and Internet-based companies — most of them are primarily run by men. Facebook is, of course, a notable exception in that its chief operating officer is Sheryl Sandberg . . . .
These words exemplify much of what is wrong in diversity education: there is a legitimate reason to get mad, but too often it is used to support tangential, counterproductive, and even nonsensical words and actions.
Consider the last paragraph just quoted. It says that Facebook’s slow response to complaints about these offensive pages may have been due to the fact that most Internet companies are primarily run by men. And then it says that, actually, Facebook has a woman as its chief operating officer. And not just any woman, but Sheryl Sandberg, who has been a highly visible proponent of what some call a new feminism.
One might have expected Ms. Sandberg to insure that, as the editorial puts it, Facebook would respond “right away when users first complained about the sexist content.” Yet evidently she did not, nor did Facebook’s many female employees – even though the editorial says there were “many” objectionable pages. This appears to be a story, not of men disserving women, but of a corporation demonstrating low sensitivity to user complaints.
But that’s not how the New York Times editors chose to read it. As the quote shows, they invented an opportunity to insult male managers across the board, knowing that they could do so without penalty. To illustrate, imagine what would happen if that last quoted paragraph (above) were transferred to a different context:
The school’s slow response to its male students’ complaints may be indicative of a deeper problem in K-12 classrooms — they are primarily run by women.
Words like those, published in the Times, would probably generate objections. In addition to the sexist tone, people would point out the logical error of generalizing to all women based on one instance of underperformance. When targeting men, however, different rules apply. There is no outrage. There is not even a recognition that, judging by Facebook’s user base, the company’s managers largely seem to be giving female users what they want. It is ironic that editors opposing sex-based hate speech would not be able to resist a disparaging remark about men.
Violence against women is certainly a serious issue. Yet the Times editors implicitly trivialize it. Consider the juxtaposition in the first quoted paragraph (above): we have a Facebook page on “Violently Raping Your Friend Just for Laughs”; and then we have one on “Kicking Your Girlfriend in the Fanny because she won’t make you a Sandwich.” Are these supposed to be somehow similar? Violent rape and a kick in the rear?
No doubt there are people whose relationships with siblings, friends, and lovers have all been so stilted as to never permit the experience of kicking or swatting one another playfully, in the fanny or otherwise; indeed, there may be cultures whose occupants think we should all be like that. And sometimes circumstances call for professional input, on a case-by-case basis, into a couple’s interactions. But in this case Exhibit B simply distracts from Exhibit A. Evidently the Times editorial board couldn’t find a better second example. That raises questions of whether there would still have been an editorial without the “Violently Raping” page – which in turn underscores the importance of verifying the genuineness of that page (below).
It could be that the contents of the butt-kick page were so deplorable as to put it on a par with the rape page. But we won’t know. The Times, being the nation’s leading investigative newspaper, does not seem to have preceded this editorial with any actual investigation to indicate what was on either of those pages. Nor is there any specific commentary on them in the editorial. It is not clear that the editors even visited them, as distinct from just accepting whatever the complaints said about them. This is an unfortunate effect often encountered in diversity-related commentary: it can quickly lose analytic quality and become a grandstanding affair in which everybody rushes to demonstrate that they, too, are superior to the target of their put-on irritation.
The editorial assumes that readers can tell, just from the titles of those two Facebook pages, that they were bad and should be silenced. That seems like odd thinking, for management-level individuals at a newspaper – at a company, that is, whose survival depends upon a free press, and upon readers’ willingness to go beyond mere one-line summaries. By the editors’ reasoning, this identically titled post should also be shut down, despite what appears to be a completely different purpose, and so should a homonymous post at Democratic Underground dated May 22, 2013.
Regarding the “Violently Raping” Facebook page, that Democratic Underground post said this:
Apparently that’s a Facebook Group. There are videos being posted of women being raped. Not sexual role-playing rape. Real rape. Being dragged from the side of the road and gang raped rape. What the fuck is wrong with our society?
It is not clear how to interpret that item. Does “Apparently” mean that the writer has not personally viewed the Facebook page? (Has anyone actually seen the contents of that page?) The writer does seem to have specific knowledge of videos of women being gang-raped; then again, s/he says that the alleged videos display rape by strangers. That doesn’t sound like a page that would involve “Raping Your Friend.”
If the writer of the Democratic Underground post is expressing firsthand knowledge of that Facebook page, then it is no surprise that it got shut down: for its content, not for its title. Gang-rape videos on a Facebook page. There must have been a lot of controversy about that, in the months leading up to the May 2013 shutdown.
But no, there wasn’t. A date-specific Google search suggests that nobody noticed the “Violently Raping” page before May 2013. Never mind the Times and other mass media: there weren’t even any blog posts about it. It supposedly showed gang rapes, material awful enough to be Exhibit A in the Times editorial; and yet nobody commented on it. Is that because Facebook deleted all of the contents of that page, and has apparently disabled searches for remarks relating to it? Well, another Google search, focusing just on the Facebook site, does turn up thousands of hits – but none of the specific comments appeared before May 20, 2013. when the 200,000-person campaign was underway. This is not what one would expect.
What was actually on that page? The only trace I could find was Google’s cached page, offering “a snapshot of the page as it appeared on Apr 25, 2013.” Here’s how it looked then, less than a month before shutdown (click to enlarge):
Maybe I am missing something about how the page worked. But it looks like it was empty, at just the point when it was about to become a centerpiece in the attack on Facebook misogyny. It seems that it may have held its offensive content for no more than a few weeks (possibly just a few days), in late April or early May, at which time it suddenly became the poster child of the 200,000-person petitions.
In that case, one must be impressed that the protest organizers heard of it and were able to use it so effectively, on such short notice. Then again, with such tight timing and such sketchy background information, a skeptic might ask whether the page was actually another sexual violence hoax, created by people complicit with the mass campaign, for purposes of stoking passions and building up that list of 200,000 signers.
The Democratic Underground blog post mentions an incident in which three Chicago teens were prosecuted after raping a girl and posting a video of that act. Which presents an obvious question: where were the prosecutors, with respect to the gang rapes supposedly shown in the “Violently Raping” page? A month after that page was taken down, there appeared to be no movement toward any prosecution. How could that be?
Yes, one can speculate that the reference to “our society,” on that Democratic Underground page, was not a reference to the U.S. or any other country where prosecutors would investigate such videos. One can speculate that prosecutors have indeed investigated, and have concluded that the videos were mere theatrical performances. But why speculate? Why would a renowned investigative newspaper leave readers to guess about a story so important that it deserves an editorial? All the Times gives us is a vague rejection of unspecified but presumably misogynistic material that was allegedly posted by an unidentified miscreant. You don’t have to be a journalist to conclude that this is just damnably lame.
If those Facebook pages were important enough to warrant an editorial in the New York Times, they were important enough to warrant direct investigation of what was on them, who created them, and what happened to those people. Without that, we have the worst form of “diversity” orientation: an exercise in drive-by blaming, without any attention to real-world facts.
A Clinical Dimension
Facebook has the prerogative of preventing people from expressing themselves on its website. The exercise of that prerogative is not without consequences, however. Repression and, in this case, vilification can drive people underground: it can teach them to become more cautious about what they disclose, without necessarily having any beneficial effect on what they really think and feel, or on what they say and do among themselves. In fact, a mystique can form when people perceive that certain material is suppressed for being too naughty.
It seems reasonable to ask whether there might have been a more productive approach to the situation described in the Times editorial. For example: rather than shut down the entire page and erase virtually all traces of its existence, could Facebook have made use of the adverse publicity?
It would seem, for example, that Facebook could have deleted the site’s offensive contents, but could have used the page itself to reach out to people who would be attracted to the “Violently Raping” name. For instance, Facebook could have posted, on the site, a brief description of its former contents, an explanation for its takedown, and a report from its own inquiries into who created the page and what their motives seemed to be — something, anyway, to anticipate questions like the ones posed here, and to demonstrate that the company was guided by a thoughtful process, as opposed to being manipulated by people with a seemingly fact-free agenda. Optionally, Facebook might also have allowed a window of time during which users could offer moderated comments and reflections on that page, perhaps with a set of FAQs responding to user inquiries and pointing toward relevant Facebook policies.
Remember, we are not talking about the people who committed the alleged rapes. We are talking about the adult or perhaps the teenager, very or perhaps not very intelligent, male or possibly female, who would have created such a page. (The possibility of a kid, or a female, comes to mind especially from the “Just for Laughs” part of the page name. It sounds unrealistic, or maybe frivolous, reminiscent of Brenda Ann Spencer’s notorious “I don’t like Mondays” explanation of her decision to shoot 11 people in 1979.)
The creator of the Facebook page is probably not a rapist; a rapist would presumably not draw public outrage to his/her support for that particular crime. We don’t know whether this person created that page in a bid for attention, or to impress his/her peers, or to derive a sense of revenge for some perceived wrong, or for some other reason. There is much to learn about the person, about media like Facebook, and about the person’s environment. Among other things, it appears that s/he may have arrived at a place in life in which good relationships with women do not exist or are failing to moderate what s/he chooses to post. There is a prospect of mental health issues; and in that case, we can quickly find ourselves lined up on the sidewalk with all the other respectable people, hooting at the mentally disturbed individual pushing a cart down the street.
In place of a cyber lynch mob or a posse riding off in defense of womanhood, one might consider a more openminded and compassionate online engagement with people who would create and use that kind of page. An illustration appears in this quote from an American Bar Association publication:
Here’s how one community recently approached an incidence of hate speech by calling attention to it rather than attempting to suppress it—by encouraging speech that pointed out how out of place the hate speech was in a community that values the dignity of all.
Matt Hale, a notorious racist, was recently asked to speak at the University of Illinois at Springfield. Hale is the leader of the World of the Creator, a white supremacist group. His presence on campus was controversial. Several students, faculty, and community members thought that the university should cancel his appearance. Instead, he was allowed to speak. Hale’s audience was not impressed. He came across as having a confusing set of beliefs that were out of place in a democratic, multicultural society. Several faculty and students spoke out against his message of hatred.
By allowing Hale to speak, the university recognized free speech rights but also provided a means for community members to respond. Communitarian and libertarian goals were both met.
That was not an open invitation for Hale to present his most objectionable (and possibly most ludicrous) material. He had to account for himself — and thus, neither was it a conviction in absentia. There was an opportunity for the person and his followers to see why others weren’t persuaded. Not every follower would grasp the message immediately. But recurrent treatment of this nature could help to dispel any mystique and soften any alienation experienced by nondelusional followers.
A Marketing Dimension
The Times editorial suggests that, after all these years of teaching and persuading men to care about women’s issues, the men in charge of Internet companies still don’t get the message. But, assuming the truth of this view for purposes of discussion, why would that be happening? In my experience, men are sometimes taught that someone will attack them if they fail to use the right words to express the officially approved ideas – that, in other words, they will be penalized for trying to think independently about such issues, and are generally safer just letting the women tell them what they are supposed to do. That sounds more or less like what happened in this case, not only to the men but also to women like Sheryl Sandberg: there were isolated complaints, but it can be hard to keep up with random voices when you’ve got more than a billion active users. So they waited, as they had been taught to do, and eventually a clearer message came through.
The Times sees this as a wake-up call for Facebook. But maybe it is also a wake-up call for feminists. Gratuitously attacking men, as the Times editorial does, is unethical and ineffective. That approach has been worn out. Men do not deserve to be treated like boors or idiots. There are always oddballs and exceptions. But for the most part, there are broadly understandable reasons why people think and respond as they do.
For one thing, the approach of treating rape as a woman’s issue is wrongheaded. It is not clear whether the “friends” being raped, in any videos that might have appeared on that Facebook page, would have been solely female. According to a report produced by the National Institute of Justice (Gonzales et al., 2006, p. 7), several million American male adults have been raped. Moreover, there appear to be subsets of men (categorized by e.g., certain racial, cultural, socioeconomic, physical, and/or psychological characteristics, including especially but not only gays and prisoners of law or war) who are particularly likely to be raped and psychologically scarred (e.g., Coxell & King, 2010, p. 373). Treating rape as something that simply does not happen to men counterproductively discourages disclosure by male victims, compounding the girls-only misimpression.
To the extent that women have claimed rape as almost exclusively their own problem, they seem to have committed a tactical error. Doing so may invite men to consider it peripheral, when in fact men have good reason to be concerned about it – not only for their own safety, but also for love of the women in their lives, and for the consequences of having to live with thoughts and other ramifications emerging from what rape may have been like, and what it may mean, to wives and others who have experienced it. Bystanders at a crime – especially those who care about the victim – can experience a sense of helplessness more debilitating than that which the victim him/herself experiences; sometimes victims possess resilience or perspectives with which to put the matter into a kind of context.
Transforming rape into a women’s issue has the further consequence of setting men up as the enemy. This seems to be the mentality underlying the Times editorial. Teaching men that they are always potential rape suspects (not to mention the enduring potential for false accusations) can have at least two deleterious consequences: it may foster distance – it can impair empathy that might otherwise stimulate intervention on behalf of an attacked woman – and it may promote an unfortunate impression that it is normal for men to visualize themselves raping women.
That latter impression does not mesh with what research says about men and rape. Contrary to such a message, there are considerable differences among us in this area. For example, Knight et al. (2009) cite a number of factors (e.g., hostile masculinity, impulsivity, unemotionality, prior experiences of abuse) that tend to distinguish perpetrators from non-perpetrators. As one might expect, Hawes et al. (2013) suggest that men with a combination of psychopathy and sexual deviance may be far more inclined to become repeat offenders. Koch et al. (2011) find that sexual sadism occurs 17 times as often in homicidal as in nonhomicidal sex offenders. And so forth. To repeat the obvious, not all men are alike. As with women, the worst tend to be markedly different from the best.
It will not be surprising if men fail to take the initiative against sexual violence, when they continue to confront blanket sex-based condemnations. Consider, for instance, the remarks of Dartnall and Jewkes (2013). They claim, among other things, that sexual violence includes “unwanted exposure to pornography” (p. 4). By that definition, the boy who inadvertently leaves a copy of Playboy lying where his sister can see it is guilty of sexual violence. Such reasoning recalls statutes that label men as sex offenders if they get caught taking a leak in an alley. Such behaviors are not pretty, but neither are they dangerous. They seem to be attacked just because they tend to be committed by men. Making them out to be sex-based crimes dilutes the concept of sexual violence. In treating that pornography example as “male sexual entitlement” (p. 5), Dartnell and Jewkes display a level of personal bias that seems unlikely to lead to accurate and ethical research. It is not that Hoff (2012) is necessarily correct when he contends that, actually, men are more likely than women to be victims of intimate partner violence. It is that people like Dartnall and Jewkes seem precommitted against the very possibility of ever reaching such a conclusion. That is not the attitude of a competent researcher.
Men should be active against sexual violence. For reasons presented above, they have incentives to do so. It is unfortunate that people with an ax to grind have been allowed to hijack the dialogue. The topic of rape calls for nonsexist, nuanced treatment across multiple levels of intervention, from the societal down to the individual. It has potential to bring men and women together to fight it. In places like Facebook, perhaps we will learn to fight it in a way that is less inclined toward sweeping condemnations and self-gratifying moralization on some grand national or global level, and more oriented toward bringing dignity to the engagement and (where appropriate) treatment of individuals who position themselves as spectators applauding it — when and if that happens.