Should there be some kind of control over what can or cannot be published? And who should do it? This has come to the fore once more with the release of the HRC's report on racism in the media. As I've mentioned in previous columns, the Internet has put an entirely new spin on this issue because now, it's not so much an issue of what can or cannot be permitted but whether or not it's practical to stop it. And I read this week that some users of Chat rooms accessible from a local ISP have complained about racist texts left by person or persons unknown and want it removed.
Back in the 'old days' of the Internet in the 1980s, when I ran New York On-Line, the racists of that time would occasionally leave provocative pieces on one of the Bulletin Boards NYOL networked out to the planet. And, no doubt when Y-World launches its own Chat rooms shortly, they will be plagued with the same nonsense. What should be done?
When I edited NYOL I discovered that one of the worst things to do was to respond to it, as this was almost entirely the reason for posting such crap in the first place. They want to enrage you, they want you to engage them, that's how they get their kicks. Being called a, 'nigger-loving commie faggot, whatever, whatever' I regarded as a compliment, not that I would have ever thanked them for it.
Should it be removed? Personally, I think not. Let it stay, not that anybody except a newcomer is likely to want to read it anyway. And most of this garbage gets cycled off the system over a fairly short space of time. Of course that's not necessarily a good enough reason, many people feel deeply offended by such bigotted views and rightly so. The issue however, goes much deeper than this.
Does censoring such views do anything to alter their opinions? Many feel that 'free speech' encourages these views or at least encourages others to voice such views, views they'd normally keep to themselves. I'm rather sceptical about this, as people with bigotted views tend to be bigots regardless. In some ways, I'd rather know who they are and how many there are of them than have them skulking around in the back alleys of their minds.
And in any case, can peoples' views be changed by making their thoughts illegal? The Nazis burnt unacceptable views in their millions (and many of the readers of such views) but it didn't change anything nor did it stop such views from being thought or articulated. For years the former GDR banned Nazi views (as did the Federal Republic) but the Nazis are still there and in frightening numbers.
The other major issue around 'free speech' is how does one define what is acceptable? In the case of racist views, the issue is fairly clear cut but in the area of 'pornography' for example, the boundary gets blurred. What's acceptable to some is totally unacceptable to others. The problem with 'absolutes' is that enforcement has a habit of being applied indiscriminately. What starts out being used against people with socially inacceptable opinions, ends up being abused, all in a 'good cause' of course.
Yeah well, it's all well and good having what many may feel is a 'liberal' approach to the free expression of ideas I can hear you thinking - but I'd rather not be subjected to such trash. I could reply, okay then, don't read it. But until you stumble over it, how do you know it's there in the first place?
I could for example, write a script that scans (or just deletes the entire text) for 'offensive' words and inserts a warning that the following text may be offensive to some readers but this amounts to censorship however you look at it. What if the 'offensive' words are in fact written about such offensive words such as a readers's response to racist texts? This means therefore, that every word posted on any system anywhere in the world has to be read first!
Aside from anything else, short of installing 'software censors' such as the ones that already exist on the Net eg 'Net Nanny', such a practice is impossible both technically and in many instances, legally. The US 1st Amendment precludes such a priori censorship judging that what's being censored is not the words themselves but the thoughts that lie behind them.
On a practical level, which at the end of the day constitutes the real world we live in, these repellant thoughts are a tiny minority of all the words on the Internet and are they really worth bothering with anyway? We only know about them largely because the mass media brings them to our attention or we stumble across them accidentally as we wander from site to site.
More important to my mind is the idea that racist ideologies reside not so much in words like 'nigger' or 'kaffir' or 'kike' or whatever but in the mindsets of the dominant cultures that control the media, which in turn reflect the dominant ideology of the society and which perpetuates them through 'benign neglect'. Hence the difficulty many have in pinning down the notion of a racist or for that matter, sexist or classist, media. The mass and here we mean largely print media in SA never prints the word Kaffir as an insult, yet it still manages to be racist.
To take a practical example, Y-World, along with many other black-owned media in this country faces the problem of getting advertisers to buy space here, judging or at least assuming, that our audience is largely broke. Nothing could be further from the truth of course. Our audience is predominately LSM 6/7/8, in the top earning slots but you try telling an agency or advertiser that! This is racism of the most insidious kind, yet there's not a single racist word to be seen., everything is very polite.
Changing mindsets is not necessarily about changing minds, at least not directly. Pre-conceived notions about an entire culture comes from centuries of dominance which tend to be self-perpetuating and self-reinforcing. If advertisers never advertise in black-owned media then the advertisers are never likely to penetrate the market and hence never see their sales figures change.
So too with the mass media's coverage of crime, to which there are two distinct aspects. One, most crime is committed not against whites but against blacks (as it probably always has been), yet the mass media tends to promote crime against whites and downplay or under-report crime against blacks. Second, is there really more crime now than in the 'old days'? How do we know? After all, under Apartheid, black communities were effectively walled off from the media, not only from the reporting aspect but also physically. Crime was literally confined to the ghettos. And, we have no statistics with which to compare the two situations. This applies to virtually all the historical statistics we have such as rates of deafness and other disabilities amongst black communities. Health statistics from the former 'Homelands' are non-existent hence how can we can compare today with yesterday?
The mas media therefore tends to operate under the illusion that now everything is 'normal' they can report things 'normally', yet this is far from the truth as we can get. Things aren't normal and won't be for a long time which brings me back to where I started. Should we censor the Net? I have to say a definative No. The Net offers us an unparalled opportunity to blow the lid of a complacent, white-owned and dominated media. Okay, so some twisted minds also get to spew their their bile but in the scheme of things, they're small potatoes. The Net presents us with the opportunity to explore and expose ideas and to challenge commonly-held assumptions about the way things are or should be.
So, you don't like what the Man has to say? Then say it out loud