That’s a Good Question: Is online hate speech defensible?

There’s an interesting conversation going on over at Good Men Project, it revolves around some pretty nasty language Chris Brown used on Twitter.

Essentially, in response to being called a “worthless piece of s***” he resorted to (maybe) threatening sexual violence towards Jenny Johnson, the comedy writer/Twitter personality who called him out. As the story expanded it became apparent that she’d been using similarly salty language over the last couple of years, which prompted some people (on the article comments and elsewhere online) to point out that she deserved some credit for escalating things too.

When someone makes a sexually violent comment towards another person I never respond well to the “s/he asked for it” argument, but there does seem to be a double standard applied in this case. Personally, I would never say the things that either of them said in a public forum. Johnson is a comedy writer, and regularly caustic in her tweets, so there’s an argument to be made that it’s all in good fun. Except that looking at her history of tweets she regularly baited Chris Brown and apparently got exactly the response she was looking for.

I guess my gut reaction is that both were being disrespectful. I don’t think his tweet reached the level of a threat, though if they had a history in person (say, lived in the same city and got coffee at the same 7-11 regularly) that might make me think twice. But more importantly, her language I think deserves to be criticized as roundly as his. And that’s something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately, being honest in our interactions and not giving anyone a free pass. Context does matter, and the fact that Chris Brown has a history of violence and doesn’t seem particularly apologetic about it does not make him a sympathetic character. But I think he’s an easy target, and anyone looking to lob grenades in the hope he will say something stupid should take a look in the mirror as well.

When it comes to what do we as a culture do about it, things get a little more complicated. I’m not sure that virtual lynch mobs really accomplish anything, especially when people feel it’s appropriate to toss death threats out (and trust me, it happens all the time, just search “kill you” and see what comes up. I’m not on Facebook and don’t really care for the service, but the fact that they are pretty tough about making people sign up as a real person reflects a greater need across the web. You don’t get to throw out hate speech unless you’re willing to own it.

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