The Miss America pageant was held last night. Now, normally, that wouldn’t rate even a minor blip on my radar. In my not so humble opinion, pageants objectify women, no matter how much they try to stand on their heads to make it all about “character”. I don’t care if some contestant gives great answers to all the questions, has a 4.0 average in school and spends all her free time working for orphanages in third world countries; if she isn’t a conventionally attractive woman, she’s not going to win.
Last night, however, something happened that made me have to pay attention to this particular pageant. The winner was Miss New York, Nina Davuluri. Nina is stunning to look at, of course, as befits the winner of one of the biggest beauty pageants in the world. But Nina committed the unpardonable sin (to some) of having been born in Syracuse, New York to…*gasp*…Indian parents.
And cue the online outrage in 3…2…1… Not surprisingly, Twitter exploded.
Side note: I like Twitter, a lot. I don’t tweet much, mostly blog updates, but Twitter is a great way to get information on breaking news very quickly. It’s not always accurate information, granted, but once you start getting multiple information streams coming in, it’s fairly easy to sort the wheat from the chaff most of the time.
So, yeah, the tweets. Apparently there are a lot of people who slept through basic civics, history and geography classes in school, and they all came out to play last night. Other sites have done a great job of collecting and posting some of these tweets, notably Jezebel, Public Shaming, and BuzzFeed, so I’m not going to do that here. But if you think I’m exaggerating about the vileness of the tweets, by all means, go check them out. I’ll wait here.
People were outraged that she was “a Arab”. They complained that since her heritage is Indian, she wasn’t qualified to be Miss America. Some rocket scientists even implied that she was a terrorist, and tweeted their offense that she won the pageant so close to the anniversary of 9/11.
People, in other words, acted like ignorant, racist shitweasels. Shocking, but not surprising, sadly.
Now, I don’t want to have to defend Nina from anything at all. From what I’ve seen so far, she’s got a major strike against her: She was overheard commenting on the previous Miss America, who was also Miss New York, saying that she was “fat as shit”. Body shaming does NOT fly with me, so I have a problem with this woman immediately.
But the critical tweets were rarely about her actions, or her character as displayed by those actions. Nope. What got the shitweasels good and stirred up was the fact that the new Miss America was just too brown. They immediately went into frothing rages, forgetting their geography (India is not in the Middle East), politics (India has no discernible ties to Al-Qaeda), civics (People born in this country are full-fledged American citizens with birthright citizenship thanks to the concept of jus soli), and history (Except for Native Americans, everyone is in this country thanks to their immigrant heritage!)
Even if these folks forgot all those concepts, what in the world happened to not saying horrible things about someone just because you want to say horrible things? Ok, since I’m officially an Old, I was raised with the whole “don’t say anything if you can’t say something nice” schtick. I’m not really talking about that. I’m just talking about thinking it’s not generally a good idea to just blurt out obviously crappy statements about people.
I have a theory about it. I think that the generalized use of teh intarwebs (no, it makes me chuckle to spell it like that) is so new to us as a society that even people who’ve grown up using it are still trying to get their heads wrapped around exactly how to use it. We’ve only had Internet available to the public since 1995. Facebook was founded in 2004. Twitter came along in 2006. The age of instant communication is very new. Never in history have people been able to broadcast their thoughts and ideas so quickly and so widely. Once upon a time if I or any of my acquaintances said or did something stupid, it was only known by the people who heard/saw it and the people they told. It was then, usually, forgotten about depending on the severity of the malfeasance. But now, people can display their idiocy to others far, far removed from their immediate social circle, and the display can stick around for a very long time. Our parents didn’t have that capability, and the rest of us Olds who’ve since mostly caught up still didn’t really have a handle on it well enough to guide our kids relative to this new medium. So many people are still in the phase where they think that they’re able to say whatever they want because it’s just being shouted out into cyberspace. I like to think, at least, that most of the people saying such ugly things on Twitter would never say such things directly to the person they’re talking about. Personal interaction, where you can see the reaction of someone to your speech, tends to chill at least the outward expression of hateful thoughts for most people. When you can immediately see that using racist (or sexist or ableist or any other -ist) epithets offends or hurts people, you tend not to do it as much, I believe. This doesn’t change the underlying racist (or any other -ist) thoughts and ideas, but at least it makes for more pleasant public social experiences.
Here’s the somewhat good news: there was in immediate response on Twitter protesting the protesters. It was heartening to see folks jump into the fray and post supportive messages and criticism of the knuckle-draggers. Most of the people whose tweets set off such a firestorm of condemnation from other Twitter users have since either deleted their Twitter accounts or have made them private. I like to think, because I’m the hopeless optimist and believer in the basic goodness of humanity that I am, that some of these people have been taken by surprise by the pushback to their ideas, and are rethinking their positions.
Which brings us to the concept of public shaming. I would never argue that the people we’re talking about should have been forced, by any official means, to not say the things they’ve said. Free speech is most definitely one of the most precious rights we have as Americans. Even if it’s speech I disagree with, I will never say that people shouldn’t say things with the intention that they should be somehow formally prohibited from doing so (within some constraints which I see as reasonable; see ‘fire in a crowded theater’, etc). However, I will say that people shouldn’t say things strictly from my personal opinion of social standards point of view. It’s the difference between saying you should suffer the consequences for “bad” speech by going to jail or by having people tell you you’re a frothing, ignorant, shitweasel. These are two totally different things; public shaming is NOT censorship. You have the right to speak unimpeded by the government, but you do not have the right to speak without possible consequences.
There’s a very relevant discussion going on over at Popehat about speech and public shaming. This initial post talks specifically about the Miss America incident, with some general arguments both pro and con listed for consideration. There are also links to a couple of previous posts that have a great deal of food for thought in them. It’s worth spending some time reading the posts and the comments, I think.
My opinions and thoughts about speech on teh intarwebs is still evolving as I keep reading and researching more. But the whole kerfuffle here is a great starting point for anyone who wants to evolve a bit in relation to racist attitudes and how saying racist things on the Internet may not work out exactly as you’d planned.