Thinking Hard About Racism in the United States

Harriet Tubman Series, Panel #4 (Jacob Lawrence, 1940)

Casual Racism

Bill Maher’s comedic use of the term “house nigger” inspired another round of hand-wringing about casual racism. In the aftermath, Ice Cube showed up on Real Time and offered a clear-eyed perspective on the situation. This is what Ice Cube said to Bill Maher. “It’s a word that has been used against us; it’s like a knife, man. And you can use it as a weapon, or you can use it as a tool. It’s been used as a weapon against us by white people, and we’re not gonna let that happen again…. That’s our word now. And you can’t have it back.” Which is fair enough. But without defending the casual and gratuitous use of incendiary racial language, I’m also thinking online brush fires that ignite when someone uses racially (in)sensitive language don’t really help us to think properly about racism. Indeed, these brush fires can become smoke screens that misdirect our attention from racism’s enduring (and decidedly non-casual) psychological and institutional foundations. Racism is not really about language, and is certainly not caused by language (we should not confuse casual with causal).

Autonomous Individuality

The underlying emotional and psychological dynamics that do cause, institutionalize, and perpetuate racism are incredibly complicated (see, for example, Joel Kovel’s fascinating and disturbing White Racism: A Psychohistory, with its echoes of Norman O. Brown, first published in 1971). Owning up to and eradicating the racially disparate and unjust outcomes in our society requires honesty and introspection that is very difficult to summon. We are simply not used to thinking about the deeper psychological and broader social sources of inequity and injustice. Instead, we default to rote images of the individual as autonomous agent, actor, and author of her life’s drama (a foundation concept in natural law moral philosophy). We default to conflated behavioral-linguistic perspectives on social change. That our words constitute (cause / determine) reality. While heuristically satisfying, this default approach to understanding and addressing our most pervasive and deeply rooted social problems, almost by definition, will fail because the concept of autonomous individuality itself is deeply flawed.

Brownian Motion

We are not our own islands (as Melville would have it, isolatoes). We live in a Brownian world, energized and propelled by random, colliding interactions at every level of our existence – environmental, biological, social, and personal. This Brownian perspective applies no less to the specific behaviors and speech acts of individual humans than it does to the collisions of various populations. As Walt Whitman wrote, “I contradict myself, I am large, I contain multitudes.” We all constantly iterate and endlessly revise ourselves. We are all rough drafts. Works in progress. We say and do stuff that we later regret, and while it’s entirely appropriate to call bullshit when someone with a public profile messes up, the important result is not the punishment inflicted, but the lesson learned. The arc of one’s life, the direction, matters far more than specific speech acts, which from a Brownian perspective, actually do mostly constitute “noise” and not “signal”. At the same time, a Brownian perspective on how order and structure emerges from randomness, flux, chaos, and messiness can tell us a lot about how emotional responses to racial difference become reflexes that cement racist instincts into rigid social and political habits and institutions.

Grasping Complexity

We intuitively grasp this truth, that we are, in a sense, both less and greater than the sum our parts as individuals. Which is why so many people who probably actually are racist by even the loosest personal definition of the term (they spew racial epithets, eye with suspicion those who possess different skin color, instinctively assume other races receive preferential treatment that harms them) will still vehemently deny they are racist. While these people may generally accept the “autonomous individual” premises of Western traditions, they resist the implication that “racism” defines their own individuality in some essential way (even while they might be happy to assume others, from other group identities, are “essentially” flawed or marred or defective). They appreciate their own complexity, even as they may deny this complexity to others.

Life Outcomes

If the goal, then, is to reduce the impact of racism, we need to focus less on specific behaviors of individuals and more on life outcomes of groups. How does racism influence these life outcomes – family stability, emotional health, higher education, professional success, stable income, community status? What would a world in which racism less directly affected life outcomes look like? What is the best way to remove barriers and create openings for populations most directly and persistently harmed by racism? How would these methods account for the more complex and messy roots of racism? One approach would be to adopt explicitly public health and “population health” lenses to help us think more deeply and creatively about what it would mean to stall vicious cycles that perpetuate racism and its effects and set in motion virtuous cycles that would loosen the grip of concepts and constructs of race on society.

Population Health

A population health perspective can more fully and cleanly account for and absorb both the external “motional” patterns of groups (as they slide, glide, and collide in relation to each other), along with the internal “emotional” patterns of individuals within groups, that benefit from and are harmed by racism. “Population health” refers to a shift in focus from individual health outcomes and personal health determinants (e.g., diet, exercise, genetics) to the social determinants of health. The population health perspective defines health not merely as the absence of disease or infirmity for an individual, but as the measurable, collective capacities of people to “adapt to, respond to, or control life’s challenges and changes.” A major challenge for population health advocates is to reduce inequities and gaps in the health of populations produced by environmental, economic, and cultural circumstances. Population-based health care would recognize gun violence, stop-and-frisk policing, incarceration, homelessness, dental insurance, and childcare all to be examples of social determinants of health. The data-driven Healthy People 2020 initiative of the Department of Health and Human Services nicely illustrates the conceptual framework for thinking about population health and public health.

Emotional Stress

A vast body of data illustrates the negative impacts of racism on physical and emotional health. Most profoundly (among the many ways we can document racial inequity), racism embeds and embodies disproportionate amounts of emotional stress within minority communities. By almost every measure, minorities, simply by virtue of their skin color, face obstacles in any particular moment of their day that will produce extra quantities of tension and pressure (measured by cortisol response). The negative impact of these moments is accretive and amounts to asking racial minorities to carry a backpack that becomes incrementally heavier each day during their journey through life. The cascading, flooding impact of this pervasive stress on life outcomes within minority communities is pernicious and extreme, with costs that extend well beyond these communities. And while we might also say that the history of the races in the United States has made all of us crazy, clearly our institutions and policies have perfected the art of burden-shifting so that the costs of this craziness are still borne by those among us whose ancestors were the initial victims of racial injustice.

Toward a (Partial, Halting, Tentative) Vision of Racial Equity

Because it rests on solid research and technical foundations, the population health approach offers robust tools for accelerating progress toward racial equity based on public health and social cost notions of the harms inflicted by racism. And because it steers clear of some of the more hot-button and easily exploited and abused impacts of individual behaviors and speech acts, the population health approach creates opportunities for building and sustaining broad foundations of public and political support for the goals of racial equity and racial justice. Finally, in helping us to escape from the heuristic trap of the autonomous individual, the population health approach frees us to consider the complex, shifting, and fractal nature of the interdependencies that characterize our relationship to ourselves and to the worlds we inhabit.

Casual Racism and Gratuitous Harm

As for Bill Maher’s linguistic gaffe, it seems fair to say that people should not use racial terms of abuse, simply because this language is gratuitously harmful. There are not circumstances one can easily imagine that justify the distress caused by the use of racial epithets (although ironically, controversial speech in the service of comedy may, sometimes, be one of those justifications). Language ownership and control may be contentious issues, but dignity and respect and memory are not.

The Dindu: Towards a White Nationalist Taxonomy of the Saved and the Damned

red-spotHere’s another Breitbart search for ripping open our nation’s damaged, fucked-up heart of darkness. In these inverted times.

Meet the Dindu, white nationalist term of art for an African-American who refuses to take responsibility for his actions with the refrain, I dindu nuffin. Breitbart threads riff off permutations and illustrations of Dindu behavior for dozens (and sometimes hundreds) of comments, generally in response to the posting of provocative videos calculated by the organization’s editors to inflate, twist, and bend reality to the specifically dark emotional needs of the site’s denizens. Dindu Nuffin is actually one of the more mild and restrained language conventions, typically the starting point for unrestrained invective that will pretty much knock your socks off.

The term Dindu probably originated as a meme on the 4chan”/pol/” boardgaining popularity within the white nationalist / neoNazi / Gamergate subculture in the 2014 and 2015, in response to the emergence of the Black Lives Matter movement. Andrew Anglin’s white supremacist, neoNazi Daily Stormer website often invokes the Dindu meme, which is apparently considered an epically witty and clever bit of wordplay / imagery. This Daily Stormer post entitled Black Lives Matter: The Rise of the Dindu, includes a variety of racist memes, telling you most of what you need to know.

Casual and freewheeling use of the Dindu label is now firmly embedded within the network of alt-right, neoNazi, don’t-get-out-of-the-basement-enough websites and message boards associated with Gamergate and Pizzagate, including the chan websites and Voat. These fringe (visually and otherwise) sites are the refuge of the young, the alienated, and the angry, mostly of the white and male, Adam Baldwin / Milo Yiannopoulos variety.

That Breitbart Media (catering to older conspiracy-minded Americans in flyover country) also incites and encourages use of the term only demonstrates the extent to which a (pseudo-Christian) white nationalism is indeed Breitbart’s beating, pulsing, spewing, tabloid heart (not marginal, as Steve Bannon claims), and to that degree also the centerpiece of a smash-and-grab Whitefellas movement politics:

  • Fashioned in the past quarter century by denizens of talk radio, cable news, and digital media, beginning with Rush Limbaugh and Bill O’Reilly;
  • Enabled by super-wealthy / politically savvy paleo-conservatives such as Charles Koch, Second Amendment freaks spurred on by the gun industry, and Federalist Society legal reactionaries such as Antonin Scalia; and
  • Culminating with the lugubrious takeover, in the past decade, of pretty much all of our county, state, and national political institutions.

In this sense, Trump’s rise is epiphenomenal, of course, consequence and not cause, hence Steve Bannon’s unbridled contempt for media and intellectual elites who desperately avoided the exfoliation that would have allowed them to see this revolution coming. And Bannon is not wrong to savage the non-tabloid media, for his Euro-Christian / nationalist / racial / culture /identity movement has been a long-time itching and a long-time hatching, and indeed has never really stopped breeding through the generations.

In the children’s scary story, The Red Spot, a spider lays its eggs in the cheek of a young girl named Ruth while she sleeps. Ruth’s mother reassures her that the red spot on her cheek is only a minor irritation and that it will go away if she leaves it alone, so long as she doesn’t scratch it. The red spot becomes a red boil, hot on Ruth’s cheek. And Ruth’s mother said, “that sometimes happens, it’s coming to a head.” A few more days passed, and by now the boil was unsightly and painful. “We’ll have the doctor look at it,” said Ruth’s mother said. The doctor could not see Ruth until the next day. And that night, while Ruth soaked in the bath, the boil burst. and a swarm of tiny spiders poured from the eggs their mother had laid in Ruth’s cheek.

Clearly, we are Ruth. And we are also Ruth’s mother. And so now out seeps the poison, which will not be stayed, which frenzied, unhinged baby spiders propagate where they may. The unleashed cultural energy of the angry, emotionally damaged conservative movement now extends well beyond insular online communities where these people can breach moral boundaries with impunity. The rising Trump tide has liberated this movement to take their show on the road, via provocateurs such as Milo Yiannopoulos, but also on crowd-sourced platforms such as Urban Dictionary that are the cultural property of everyone. In the spirit of shattering norms just for the hell of it, Dindu made its first appearance in the Urban Dictionary in November 2014, with subsequent definitions appearing during the spring and summer of 2016, as Trump’s ascent liberated the animal spirits of formerly caged and sequestered white nationalists, and of generally angry white folks. The definitions below.

  • An innocent African-American, a description used by the family members of criminal African-Americans who din do nuffin. (Those dindus are acting up in Detroit again.) (Mike Brown and Trayvon Marin are the epitome of dindus.)  (November 18, 2014. Up/Down Vote Ratio: 4,420/436).
  • African tribe of intense warrior tendencies, promiscuity, irresponsibility, and low IQ. Over thousands of years, this tribe crossed the continent village by village slaying all the men, raping all the women (and children), and destroying the homes. By the modern era, all peaceful, noble, and inventive tribes of Africa had been eliminated by the Dindus. (“Isn’t there somewhere in the world, a functional black society?” “No, the Dindu blood runs deep.”) (May 24, 2016. Up/Down Vote Ratio: 730/99).
  • A “du-er” of “nuffin”, meaning a ghetto-dweller, who claims he “dindu — didn’t do — anything wrong” (within sight of a security camera or, at any rate, anyplace within the last five minutes). Also known as a thief, a robber, a home invader, a rioter, a looter, a rapist, or a murderer by people with a sense of reality, the dindu is , nevertheless, relatively innocent by rap-culture standards. The dindu runs when “scared”, which defeats his purpose of not being noticed by the police, but never mind. Liberals embrace the dindu (in spirit) during afternoon BLM rallies but hightail it back to white surburbia after sundown. Nobody likes dindus. (If you don’t want to be a “dindu”, don’t steal stuff, hurt people, or otherwise act like a damned fool.)  (August 9, 2016. Up/Down Vote Ratio: 323/23).
  • A replacement, more “acceptable” term for a young black man. Primarily men brutalized and killed by police officers, whether they were armed and threatening or not. Originates from the mothers and family of the young black men who exclaim that their son “didn’t do nothin’ wrong,” often in an American dialect that makes it sound like “dindu nuthin.” It’s nothing short of blatant racism…and while its use is defended on the grounds that it’s targeted at criminals who wrongfully claim innocence, it’s still overwhelmingly used in regards to black men, whether or not their claim to innocence is legitimate. Similar to the way “Allahu Akbar” is used to mock middle easterners whether they’re Islamic extremists or not. (“I know, I know, poor boy dindu nuffin, right?”  “Yes, he stole a cigarillo. I didn’t realize theft was punishable by death in America, my bad.”) (August 7, 2016. Up/Down Vote Ratio: 53/407).

For me, at least, the significance of the appropriation of Urban Dictionary, which through the years has certainly harbored the colloquialisms and vernacular and street dialects of (mostly) young people across a diverse spectrum of backgrounds and interests, has been its seizure for the explicit purpose of trolling (Bannon has called his followers hobbits, but clearly they are trolls). The ratio of up/down votes for the four Dindu definitions is far more extreme than the ratios one normally encounters with Urban Dictionary, and also a far larger “electorate” than one will normally find with a term that has only four definitions. Which is at this point a pretty classic sign of herd-based trolling (for counter-examples, see the numbers for hipster, which is one of the most voted-upon words in the dictionary, and also the numbers for two other alt-right favorites, libtard and cuckservative).

I’ve seen this shit before, but am certainly no less stunned than everyone else – the elated and the gob-smacked alike – to find us where we now stand. When Richard Sherman did his howl on national television after shutting down the 49ers Michael Crabtree to capture the NFC title for the Seahawks in 2014, Fox News online comment threads went postal about Richard Sherman’s impertinence and audacity. Sherman was then a new experience for the NFL and its fans, but the racial spuming of the Fox News cohort – with all of the gutter tropes that one might expect – was nonetheless pretty astounding. This is what I wrote at the time.

Had the Seahawks not prevailed against the Broncos, the trolls would have come hunting for Richard Sherman. No physical mugging, perhaps, but certainly a hungry, persistent claim upon his spirit and soul, retribution for not following the unspoken rules of the race game, for not being sufficiently grateful, sufficiently humble, sufficiently ignorant, sufficiently safe.
In the aftermath, we must wonder why, more than 150 years since the American Civil War, we continue to labor under illusions and misconceptions and prejudices and fears that illustrate the degree to which socially constructed racial categories still rub raw our psychic wounds.
And, too, we must wonder about the unmediated or disintermediated structure of our discourse, the degree to which open online publishing and illusions of digital anonymity tap deeply into the fear centers of our brain, a persistent amygdalic hijack inflamed by coded words and images, a pervasive and journalistically devastating reduction of thought, conversation, ideas, and truth — the constituents of our social coherence — to a mere slurry of tokens, memes, verbal discharge that resembles sewage more than it does considered speech.

What I now realize, of course, is that we should not wonder that we cannot eradicate these destructive and self-defeating “speech” practices. Nor should we wonder about the corrosive impact of the Internet on community standards and norms that allow any civilization and culture, baseline, to subsist. Much has been written about the toxic terminology of the alt-right – shibboleths that both confer status and safety upon the movements true believers, sympathizers, and fellow travelers (see here and here). But truly, there is something deeper going on here than even the free speech debate.

In his recently published (and really excellent) cover story for The Atlantic, David Frum (who’s had more intellectual and political lives than Wile E. Coyote) imagines the playbook Donald Trump (via the sinister counsel and dark arts of his advisers) might use to systematically, selectively, subliminally and (somewhat) sadistically destroy liberal democracy in the United States. Now others – myself included – may also at times long to destroy liberal democracy, but certainly not by using the means employed by the Trump / white nationalist / blow-shit-up axis, nor on behalf of the medieval vision toward which he is leading us. And one of Frum’s great insights in this essay is that this new autocracy will exploit and abuse the soft power of digital and social media to manipulate, intimidate, distract, and cow the American people. The new fascism will not physically terrorize the population, but will not lack for other novel ways to mess with our heads and screw with our destinies. The goal being to accrete power by sowing confusion and doubt about whether reality and truth, certainly with reference to the public sphere and our national life together, even exist. To substitute nagging fear and anxiety, alongside periodic moments of emotional catharsis, for connections to each other based on shared conceptions of science and data and intellectual inquiry, the meaning of words, the possibility of education and enlightenment, the vitality of communities that honor diversity (the spaces in-between each of us) rather than seeking to obliterate those spaces.

Which brings us back to Breitbart and the curious concept of the Dindu, which reveals the maniacal instinct of the silo-hardened alt-right to sprint straight toward their most primitive, hidebound beliefs about huge swaths of the population, grouping within a Biblically simple, pre-Linnaean  taxonomy of the saved and damned those who look like them and those who do not. Will the fever pass? Who the hell knows?

But I did take comfort from a useful Politico essay Rutgers University historian David Greenberg about the “perils of calling Trump a liar.” Which is not a good title. But the article itself probes some really interesting ideas in the history of concepts of journalistic objectivity. Specifically, Greenberg reminds us of Archibald MacLeish’s dictum that objectivity in journalism is not the same thing as being neutral, balanced, or even-handed. “It is current-day fancy to consider a journalist objective if he hands out slaps and compliments with evenhanded impartiality on both sides of the question,” MacLeish said. “Such an idea is, of course, infantile. Objectivity consists in keeping your eye on the object [and] describing the object as it is.”

Words to live by. In these inverted times.

The Mugging of Richard Sherman: Fox News, Free Speech, and the New Racism

In February, the Seattle Seahawks annihilated the Denver Broncos in Super Bowl XLVIII, an outcome decisive, complete, without reproach, and — given the leadership of Scripture-spouting nerd quarterback Russell Wilson — virtually providential.

More than anyone else on the Seahawks, the victory belonged to the team’s All-Pro cornerback Richard Sherman, for this triumph redeemed not merely Richard Sherman, “talented football player”, but perhaps even more, Richard Sherman, “freewheeling, trash-talking, truth-seeking, life-affirming human being.”

Joe Namath, who rashly guaranteed victory in Super Bowl III, tossed the coin at the beginning of Super Bowl XLVIII. So fitting, because Richard Sherman, more than any player since Namath, 45 years earlier, staked both his professional and his personal reputation on the outcome of the Super Bowl.

The reputational stakes matter. Had the Seahawks not prevailed over Denver, the Sherman story would likely have taken a darker turn, as high stakes gambles that fail often do. To better understand how much of a turn, and how dark, we must unspool a larger and more sordid story, one in which national media outlets such as Fox News and ESPN commit to dubious journalistic practices that encourage race-baiting and that actively and systematically corrupt the meaning and impact of free speech.

A Short Disquisition on Free Speech

Free (or independent) speech is the foundation precept of democracy and the enabling condition for human dignity. It is the ultimate human right. In a world where many nations severely limit freedom of expression, it is incumbent on Americans to fiercely defend the right to free speech.

At the same time, we must recognize that free speech (understood as expressive freedom) differs greatly from speech that is merely “free” (understood as the absence of transaction costs, intellectual effort, and community standards). Free speech is a positive good. “Free” speech is simply the absence of restraint.

The Internet, imagined as communications pipe that vastly shrinks the transaction costs of speech, has served us well as a “speech utility”. However, “utility” is not utopia. The benefits of easy access to Internet chat rooms and comment threads are self-evident. In the past decade, however, the frenzy to eliminate speech transaction costs on behalf of a cynically flawed, business-driven concept of “community” has permitted a serpent to slip into this garden.

Enter any of these online communities — particularly on any subject that involves President Obama, the federal government, taxes, global warming, health care, or race relations — and consider whether you may not have been deviously transported to the Eden that provides the setting for Lord of the Flies. Far from experiencing communion, on these comment threads you encounter hailstorms of cheap, empty, incendiary, malicious, and craven speech, not always and not inevitably, but sufficiently often and with enough predictability that one quickly forgets that speech was ever anything but acid-tipped shards and fragments of thought.

In this online vortex, the governing rule of engagement seem to be “stand your ground” and “ready, fire, aim.” Lacking a shared and committed and enforced awareness of what constitutes “community” online, we instinctively assume a combat stance.

Anonymity is clearly part of the problem. In the absence of any expectation of transparency or accountability, there is really nothing to prevent us from acting on our worst impulses. The effect, as we know, has been to drive Americans further apart, into solipsistic echo chambers of ill repute.

When speech is easy, slick, shallow, rote, insincere, or unkind, we debase our words, we debase ourselves, and we debase our democracy. We cannot afford to confuse this sort of speech with the independent speech that both secures and affirms our civic and personal freedom. Indeed, “free” speech and independent speech must fight to the death, and only one can prevail.

Richard Sherman. Better at Life.

In October 2012, most Americans learned about Richard Sherman for the first time, when in a Sunday Night Football game between Seattle and the New England Patriots, Sherman picked off Tom Brady and then taunted Brady after the game ended with the now-famous Tweet, “U mad bro?”

In March 2013, Sherman once again blew up the Internet when, smarting from Skip Bayless remarks about his limitations as a player, he told Bayless on ESPN First Take that “in my 24 years of life, I’m better at life than you.”

Sherman’s media profile rose enormously after the First Take episode, not merely because he is telegenic, confident, and articulate, but because unlike most professional athletes he has refused to separate (or has simply not been capable of separating) his professional identity from his personal identity. More to the point, he has refused to distance either his professional or his personal identity from an emerging commitment to serve as an emissary for his community.

  • Is Richard Sherman a black man? Then how can he be so articulate and intelligent?
  •  Richard Sherman a good man? Then how can he be so gangster and thuggish?
  • Is Richard Sherman a team player? Then why won’t he shut up?

As one journalist wrote, Richard Sherman chirps at the media like a modern-day Muhammad Ali. He is a meme machine, Not surprisingly, Sherman’s audacity, particularly when amplified by the emotion surrounding professional football, has enormously irritated many Americans who just don’t know what to make of him.

Of course, these are precisely the questions that Richard Sherman wants us to ask, the point of his mission being to discomfort, disrupt, and shift our perspective on what it means to be young and black and male in the United States in the early part of the 21st century. What he’s saying is “I’m here. I’ve made it. I deserve what I’ve achieved. I don’t need to change. But if you have difficulty accepting me, than perhaps it is you who needs to change.”

In 2013, Richard Sherman claimed the spotlight, and forced us to look at him not just as a football player, but as a man. Black, dreadlocked, and tall, yes. But also a kid from Compton who rose far beyond the expectations of American society for kids who match his profile, and who can claim, in his 25 years, to have fully realized his potential. In other words, Richard Sherman is great at life. How can we ask anything more of him?

By forcing us to look at him, understand him, and accept him on his terms, Richard Sherman also has required us to look at, understand, and accept the community that birthed and raised him. The bottom line for Richard Sherman is that in the United States young, black, males are like a Rorschach ink blot. Whether we, as a nation, see “potential” in this Rorschach both illuminates the fault lines that divide us and discloses where we can build bridges that unite us.

Foxhole of Fear and Loathing

This brings us to Fox Nationa digital arm of Fox News devoted to capturing the raw, authentic popular voice, our native soundtrack, as it were.

In its Statement of PurposeFox Nation extends an invitation to all of us, with commitments to tolerance, mutual respect, open debate, civil discourse, and freedom of thought, expression, and worship. Terrific! Sounds to me like a summons to a kind of national high tea, or an NPR “conversation,” cool and refined and sublime. I’m on board!

Except Fox Nation blatantly is not (fair and balanced), does not (embrace all of us), and will not (commit to tolerance, mutual respect, open debate, civil discourse, and freedom of thought, expression, and worship). Instead, with Orwellian cynicism, Fox Nation invites us into a black hole of national fear and loathing.

Fox Nation lives on and lives for troll-bait. And race-bait. Which its managers know can reliably dog-whistle the misbegotten, the misinformed, and the intellectually malnourished to a trough of despair, from which Fox benefits both financially and politically.

And this is the problem. At the end of the day, online “conversation” and “commentary” and “community” on Fox Nation and on far too many other digital news platforms, is about little more than mouse clicks, the cheap high of canned cat food, the meth wheeze of suffering that knows no name.

The Mugging of Richard Sherman

Let’s backtrack. In March 2013, Richard Sherman “takes down” Skip Bayless. In reality, if you watch the video, what one really sees is an uncertain, tentative 24-year old man who has entered the den of the dragon at ESPN to deliver a message to one of the more powerful, if reviled, sports media celebrities in the nation. With Stephen A. Smith writhing on the monitor to the far left of the television screen, and with Skip Bayless acting like, well, Skip Bayless, Richard Sherman, in the heat of battle, must have wondered who was taking down whom.

Nonetheless. The Internet blows up. Richard Sherman acquires infamy. And the next day, USA Today publishes “Richard Sherman blasts Skip Bayless on First Take”, a short piece on the Sherman-Bayless spat that pulls out some of Sherman’s tastier “money quotes”.

Hilarity ensues. Over the next few days, the USA Today article receives 176 reader comments, most of which are thoughtful and/or light-hearted. By March 9, the Sherman-Bayless controversy fades from the news. Everyone moves on. Except for Fox Nation.

… Time Passes …

On January 19, 2014, Richard Sherman tips away a Colin Kaepernick floater that allows the Seattle Seahawks to defeat the San Francisco 49ers to win the NFC championship and earn the opportunity to play the Denver Broncos in the Super Bowl. As the game ends, Richard Sherman, overcome by emotion, goes off on 49ers receiver Michael Crabtree while being interviewed by Erin Andrews in front of the entire world. The Internet blows up again. Richard Sherman acquires even more infamy.

Fox Nation Gets Ornery

Here’s where the story begins its descent. On January 20, 2014 (as it happens, the federal holiday for the birthday of Martin Luther King, Jr.), Fox Nation publishes a selectively edited digest of the March 7, 2013 USA Today article, without identifying the story’s dateline, leading many readers to assume the Sherman-Bayless interview occurred after the NFC playoff game with San Francisco, not ten months earlier.

Hilarity does not ensue. Over the next four days, Fox Nation republication of the USA Today story receives 170 reader comments, most of which are misinformed, crude, angry, racist and/or unintelligible.

Let’s roll the Fox Nation “conversation” tape (not edited for grammar, syntax, spelling, nor for consumption by children).

  • You can take the boy out of the ghetto and EVEN send him to Stanford BUT you can’t take the ghetto out of the boy!!!
  • And then they wonder why some of them are called what they are called . This is the proof .
  • Wish some of that would rub off on the rest of his race.
  • Gee, not another hyper-esteemed angry balack man.
  • $400.00 for Rosetta Stone is a bit much for a copy of “Ebonics”
  • Thanks manyou just proved to a large percentage of us what we thought all along. Black football players are just street thugs in shoulder pads. Slime.
  • This nut played a minor roll in Planet of the Apes.
  • New body guard for the Black House in DC..
  • If Obama had a football playing son.. he would be just like Sherman!
  • He gets his arrogance from Obama.
  • Arrogant, hateful, and just really disgusting human being.
  • I remember a boxer that talked like that, and he is part brain dead today……….. good luck with that jive talk now, because you can be half brain dead too Richard!
  • Did you expect anything different from a blaaaaaaak football player he’s another OJ waiting to happen .
  • Richard Sherman is an animal. Nothing more.
  • I think Rodman spoke a lot like this in the past as well. And then, one day, they wake up singing happy birthday to a murderous dictator.
  • Just another delusional, self appointed, egotistical hood rat! Can’t wait to see him break a leg and have no where to go on his uneducated pass from Stanford….you reap what you sow!

Heading into the Super Bowl, it’s now clear that many people in the United States took Richard Sherman personally. He had morphed into something raw that stuck oddly in their craw, indigestible, not quite choking, but certainly neither pleasant nor comfortable. In days that followed the NFC Championship game, sentiment did shift back towards some semblance of rationality and balance, and in the end Richard Sherman played an important, but not outsized, role in the Seahawk’s Super Bowl victory.

And so Richard Sherman did silence his critics, and truly his capacity to walk the talk may well have silenced them indefinitely. But the fact remains that had the Seahawks not prevailed against the Broncos, the trolls would have come hunting for Richard Sherman. No physical mugging, perhaps, but certainly a hungry, persistent claim upon his spirit and soul, retribution for not following the unspoken rules of the race game, for not being sufficiently grateful, sufficiently humble, sufficiently ignorant, sufficiently safe.

In the aftermath, we must wonder why, more than 150 years since the American Civil War, we continue to labor under illusions and misconceptions and prejudices and fears that illustrate the degree to which socially constructed racial categories still rub raw our psychic wounds.

And, too, we must wonder about the unmediated or disintermediated structure of our discourse, the degree to which open online publishing and illusions of digital anonymity tap deeply into the fear centers of our brain, a persistent amygdalic hijack inflamed by coded words and images, a pervasive and journalistically devastating reduction of thought, conversation, ideas, and truth — the constituents of our social coherence — to a mere slurry of tokens, memes, verbal discharge that resembles sewage more than it does considered speech.

Finally, and probably most importantly, we must consider institutional culpability, the degree to which Fox Nation, along with many other media websites, knowingly and with exquisite calculation, leverages the social psychology of fear (savagely so, given their “media” credentials) by actively dismantling community standards and civic obligations, the mechanisms we have traditionally used to “mediate” speech and to anchor it in a shared belief that empirical truth and spiritual awareness remain aspirations, loftier and more elusive than opinion and emotion perhaps, but still barely within our reach, and predicated on the social trust that collective pursuit of knowledge requires.

Can Free Speech Survive “Free” Speech?

In what way does eliciting and encouraging this version of the vox populieven under the guise of promoting “free” speech — serve any purpose beyond the embellishment of dark emotion and the destruction of civil society?

Fox Nation’s misleading and incendiary republication of a fragment of the USA Today story only encouraged the haters, people who would casually and anonymously make statements to Richard Sherman hyper-esteemed angry balack man that they would never directly say to Richard Sherman human being.

So let’s make speech truly “free”, as in “without cost”, as in “loose and licentious and profligate”, as it is on the Fox Nation comment threads. And this is where we will inevitably land, in a boisterously uncivil, angry, belligerent society.

How do these rage-filled online expletives differ from road rage? Would we allow them on our streets? Would we allow them in our classrooms? Would we allow them in our churches? Would we allow them in NFL stadiums?

But what if speech were not “free”? What if it were not so easy for people to debase and embarrass themselves? What if we all had to work even a little bit hard to fashion and explode Internet hate bombs?

Here I’ll be charitable. One month out, six months out, how many of the folks “sounding off” about Richard Sherman in response to this half-baked article would be proud of what they had posted to the Fox Nation website? How many would stand by their words? How many actually would take these statements offline and repeat them directly to Richard Sherman the human person? Probably very few.

Anti-Free Speech Manifesto for the Digital Age

Setting aside the strange timing of the Fox republication of the USA Today article, and for the failure to make clear the Sherman-Bayless interview had occurred 10 months earlier, not after Sherman’s Erin Andrew rant, what accounts for the remarkably divergent tones of the USA Today and the Fox News comment threads? Well, we might start with what happens when a reader clicks on the Comment button on the USA Today website.

Before one can publish comments, USA Today requires anyone posting to an article’s comment thread to read the media compnay’s “Conversation Guidelines and FAQs” document, which establish clear standards of community conduct, “rules of the road” that actively forbid acts of online “road rage”. USA Today also encourages readers to report abusive or inappropriate content and reserves the right to suspend users and remove comments that violate the rules of the road. Finally, USA Today refers readers to its general Terms of Service (last updated September 23, 2013), which includes a section detailing the newspaper’s policy on user-generated content.

By contrast, Fox News does not offer or require engagement with any conversation guidelines. Moreover, by omission, the Fox News Terms of Service (not updated since May 7, 2010) pretty clearly communicates to its readers that there are no community standards, no conversational rules of the road.

Fox News actually states in its Terms that management exercises no control over user content, and that visitors to the site who post comments should not be surprised if they are the target of offensive, indecent, inaccurate or “otherwise objectionable” content. Moreover, Fox News assumes no responsibility or obligation for monitoring or removing posts that violate common standards of discourse. Fox expects little from its readers and receives less.

How would an influential news organization like Fox actually encourage truly democratic discourse, not empty, angry spewing. How about an Anti-Free Speech Manifesto for the Digital Age? With this Anti-Free Speech Manifesto, we might encourage Fox to lead its huddled, starving masses with their wisest self, not to their most cynical or most angry self.

For example, Fox might adopt the simple precepts below as the minimal conditions for posting comments on your website.

  • Require comments to be at least 100 words. This requirement elicits some minimal thought process and intellectual filtering, rather than impulsive eruptions of bile from our darkest places.
  • Require people to wait 24 hours before they can publish their comments. This mandate encourages people to cool their jets and forces them to reflect a bit on whether they really want to be responsible for the comments they are on the verge of posting.
  • Require people to register and post using their real names. This rule ensures that people “own” and take responsibility for their speech.

Speech should NOT be free. People need to take responsibility for their words as much as they do for their actions. Public speech, in particular, and in a democracy, should require an investment of time and thought, decency and generosity, wit and humor. Everything we don’t find in the meretricious “conversation” Fox Nation sponsored when it poached, pinched, and published the USA Today article about Richard Sherman’s Skip Bayless “takedown.”