EDUCATION FRONTLINES: Escaping social disapproval
By JOHN RICHARD SCHROCK
On March 15, 2019, Brenton Harrison Tarrant, a 28-year-old Australian, entered two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand and used semi-automatic weapons to kill 51 people and injure 40 more before he was captured by police while heading to a third mosque. He eventually pleaded guilty and was sentenced to life imprisonment with no possibility of parole, the first time such a sentence was ever imposed in New Zealand, a country ranked the second least violent in the world.
Tarrant was an alt-right white supremist. This was not a viewpoint publicly approved in the Australian community where he lived. In the pre-internet age, Tarrant would have felt isolated and alone all of his life.
“In a tolerant setting, even prejudiced persons will often refrain from discriminating in order to escape social disapproval.” This description by Delgado and Steffancic is from their 2018 book “Must We Defend Nazis?” published by New York University Press.
But in this internet age, Tarrant had a way to ignore the social disapproval of his local community. He found an audience of other hidden supremists spread around the world on the internet. They gave him a virtual community of approval. That is why he mounted a camera to broadcast the devastation of his massacre in real time and put another video camera on his helmet.
In the pre-internet age, a lonely supremist would grow old, alone in isolation. But now they have a medium to connect and recruit. In addition, they can be anonymous online. By communicating with fake monikers, agents of hate can avoid being identified by their local community and avoid responsibility for the results of their hate speech. A person online no longer has to think before they speak because there is no way to know who they are. And public discourse has sunken to record lows.
Many folks think that they are free to say anything they want. They are wrong. There are both criminal laws and civil laws involved. You cannot yell “Fire!” in a crowded theater. You cannot threaten to commit bodily harm. There are laws against obscenity. –False advertising. –Copyright infringement. –Plagiarism. –Libel and slander. –Defamation. You cannot incite to riot. –Nor to commit sedition.
And for speech that is not specifically prohibited or subject to lawsuit, you may have free speech but not freedom from consequences. A teenager of sufficient age may wish to “tell off” his parents, but he risks finding the front door locked and his suitcase of belongings on the porch the next time he comes home. Social ostracism or disapproval has been the social consequence. Now, hiding identity on the internet, while cowardly, avoids the consequences of social disapproval.
Other actions can be just as troubling as hate speech. The bystander to a tragic auto accident may film the last agonies of a trapped person, and place it on the internet to the distress of family members. Current laws cannot prevent a wide range of such actions now possible. The maintenance of dignity for others resided in the social morality of a community expressing disapproval and imposing guilt or shame.
So today, many countries and media companies must sort out their management of online platforms. Facebook rapidly took down the footage of the tragic New Zealand shootings posted by Tarrant. But Delgado and Steffancic note that “…the United States stands virtually alone in extending freedom of expression to what has come to be called hate speech.”
Our greatest generation of World War II veterans are rapidly dying off. They heroically fought against Nazi and fascist supremists. But now another generation of Nazis and fascists has openly marched down the streets of Charlottesville, Virginia on August 11–12, 2017. That would be illegal in modern Germany, but not here. Our conceptions of “free speech” and the idea that counter-arguments alone are sufficient to prevent evil is highly questionable in a time when supremists can use the internet to hide from community disapproval.
The upcoming decisions by media and government will determine if American ideals can survive in a new era of speech without responsibility.
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John Richard Schrock has trained biology teachers for more than 30 years in Kansas. He also has lectured at 27 universities in 20 trips to China. He holds the distinction of “Faculty Emeritus” at Emporia State University.
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