Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Courtesy and Crime

On March 22, I posted on my newsgroup an essay on pseudonyms and anonymity, “Pseudonyms Anonymous,” where I noted that, having experimented with pseudonyms and anonymity in some writings in the distant past, I now always use my own name, with full disclosure as to who I am. Anyone who wants to know who I am can find me, and even show up on my doorstep if they are of such a mind.

Part of this apparent fearlessness is that I’m not that important; if I were seriously famous I might have to take steps against nutcases (see “We Get Letters”). But I’m not that famous and I don’t get many threats.

Anyway, on March 26 (am I prescient, or what?), a tech blogger named Kathy Sierra posted about how she’d been threatened online, to the extent that she cancelled a public appearance.

That resulted in a story in my local newspaper.

This was followed by a Call for a Bloggers’ Code of Conduct by Tim O’Reilly, one of the Web 2.0 mavens.

O'Reilly's machinations also made the local paper (one of the things about the SF Bay Area is that the Internet is a local story for us).

The story has a link to O’Reilly’s proposed “Code.”

Okay, reality check here. Threatening or implying a threat to another person is a crime. It's assault. If anyone made some of the threats that were made to Kathy Sierra in person, rather than anonymously over the internet, said person could be arrested and jailed, especially if there were any reason to suspect that the threat was serious. If it was said in any venue that had security, e.g. a bar, said person would be promptly ejected probably with some prejudice. Alternately, if some makes such a threat against you and you hit them over the head with a baseball bat, it would probably be called self defense.

One would think that this is an important point. It is nowhere to be found in the “Code of Ethics.” In this “Code,” “stalk or threaten others” is given the same weight as libel and copyright violation, and criminality is never mentioned.

The first article in the Chronicle also deals a bit with the fact that this sort of harassment is most often directed at women. In each successive iteration, that aspect of the story becomes less prominent. The “Code” is completely gender neutral, as if misogyny weren’t the most prominent aspect of the initial story.

I hear there’s no racism in America these days as well.

To divert attention from what are basically anonymous hate crimes towards so ill-founded a concept as “courtesy” is beyond ludicrous. There are some people who consider “courtesy” to be violated if anyone uses “foul language” i.e. the usual sort of language used every day in the military or college dormitories. Others consider it to be discourteous to refer to a black Presidential candidate as “articulate” or “clean.” Context can mean a lot when it comes to “courtesy.”

Hate speech is hate speech, racism is racism, and misogyny is misogyny. These exist on both the right and the left, although my own experience is that the right is somewhat more open about its racism and misogyny, while the left tends to get much more upset when theirs gets pointed out to them (that’s probably just me being discourteous).

Just because women like Ann Coulter and Michelle Malkin get hateful emails doesn’t mean that the emails came from “lefties.” A lot of sick people are simply beyond politics. But such events do feed into the sense of grievance that both of them bring to the table, and I’m sure that both believe the hate mail comes from their political enemies. Similarly, abusive threats to feminists and women generally are political only in the sense that everything is political, although the orchestrated attacks on the two female bloggers who worked for John Edwards was specifically political. However, despite appearances, deranged nitwits aren’t that big a political block.

The enablers of those deranged nitwits, however, are.

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