Are real-world dialogues our best hope for overcoming online discrimination?

Blog post written by Nathan White, RJ4All Volunteer

It may come as a surprise given how ‘woke’ I am, but I have quite an ambivalent attitude toward people holding discriminatory views. Let me elaborate. I do not care what people think, or whether they hold racist opinions for example. It does not keep me up at night. However, this lack of concern, or attention paid, is on the condition that these views do not manifest in ways which affect the wellbeing or prospects of myself or others.

I am not saying that we should stop trying to promote equality and diversity causes, or claiming the amazing efforts of countless individuals and groups to make the world a more tolerant and fair place are not valuable. What I am saying, is I do not believe we will ever reach a stage where everyone in our society is ‘anti-racist’ or agrees with movements or causes such as Black Lives Matter. Of course some people can have their world view broadened, but not everyone will want to. An inevitable and unfortunate bi-product of diverse opinions, which we laud as invaluable as a society, is prejudice which in its purest essence is the preference of one over another – e.g. the familiar over the different. I do not mean to ignore the long, intricate and important history of racism’s social-construction, embedding in popular discourse or normalise the past and present horrors the popular acceptance of these views have enabled. Whilst these discriminatory perspectives are predominantly learned and exist in a myriad of ways currently, I hold the slightly pessimistic opinion that we cannot fully eradicate them from society. I feel attempts to do such a thing would be futile. I fear the closest to what some may consider an idyllic reality is an extension of the mainstream, surface-level, illusion that we are a post-racial society, where divisive and discriminatory opinions are deliberately ignored and shunted to the margins of society where they grow and strengthen. Views which ominously are creeping toward the centre of political and social discourse. 

On social media, we see discriminatory views expressed more openly and freely than we are likely to witness in our interpersonal connections. I am not going to try and explain why social media brings out the worst in people or advocate for using less social media. That’s not my place. What I am going to focus on is what exactly it seems to bring out of people. But we need to recognise that their actions demonstrate an attempt to fill a gap, or solve a problem, existing within them. So until we bring more honesty, genuine openness and social accountability into the social forum, we cannot even attempt to stop this. Achieving this however raises critical questions over how to achieve this; how do we introduce accountability whilst respecting privacy?

Often, I do believe what is expressed online may be a more honest reflection of where our society is right now. I am not blaming social media as a platform, but recognising how people readily use it to express themselves in ways they may not in real-life interactions for fear of reprisal or social implications due to their anonymity and physical distance. Nothing I have said so far should be ground-breaking, and I am not trying to be. I am not trying to reinvent the wheel here. But the reality stands that we have online tools which indirectly empower certain people to be discriminatory, as some might feel that nothing will happen because those around them either encourage it or do nothing about it.

The recent online abuse of footballers and other athletes based on their identifying characteristics demonstrates this perfectly. That said, I don’t think it’s useful to view these instances in their silos as we create an impression these are isolated incidents. Whether it be the hijacking of a Black + LGBT university event using discriminatory language, slurs and imagery or the abuse of individuals directly; the level of vitriol people can display online, that we have come to expect somewhat, are by some accounts becoming more blatant, abrasive and brazen than we have ever seen before.

Nevertheless, unlike real-life interactions, where accusations of discrimination can become one person’s word against another, social media provides a permanent record of comments, photographs and videos. However, as shown by Ian Wright’s abusers’ recent court case, even with ample evidence and the best intentions, ‘nothing’ gets done. To clarify, I am not calling for prison sentences being handed out, or even blaming the judge or legal system. I am just doubtful of how appropriate and effective these macro-methods have been and will be in counteracting online discriminatory actions in the long-term due to their scale and frequency.

Answering the question of ‘what should be done?’ to those found involved in deliberate acts of hate speech and discrimination is one society needs to address. All too often we bemoan that ‘nothing’ has occurred, but what do we actually want? Personally, I am not sure – it is incredibly complex. I do not want to advocate for uniformly ‘cancelling’ or demonising individuals, but equally I do not want there to be no consequence. Each situation requires individualised and fair assessment within the context within which it took place.

When these incidents, which occur all too frequently across politics, sport, popular culture etc., we get momentary outrage followed by calls for social media firms to ‘do more’ and tiresome re-affirmations that various organisations and individuals ‘we do not stand for discrimination’ and their commitment to ‘calling things out’. Of course, some responsibility does rest on the shoulders of social media firms, but we cannot keep underplaying the responsibility for society as a collective. We, as a current society are too quick to absolving our responsibility, whilst pointing the finger and blaming others – ignoring the role we play in situations. Whilst effective in the short-term, signalling ‘something has been done’, beyond removing accounts, deleting content and wider censorship, social media platforms are relatively redundant in this mission. Censorship can often martyrise individuals, grows their support and narrative of ‘challenging the status quo’. Moreover, there are ample platforms in modern society to share their views and calls to action on…why do we try to convince ourselves that a block or a ban in one or two spaces will solve the underlying issues? One reason may be to try and insulate ourselves from the ‘real’ views which disrupt our illusionary understandings of reality. But whether on social media or not, these people will make their voices heard and actions demonstrated in other mediums. Removing them from social media and creating an illusionary safe space which does not demonstrate the true mood of society or the reality of these people’s views is not productive.

Another issue is that, we often focus on the most trivial elements of the wider issue such as endless debates and articles whether it’s ‘right’ for players to take the knee, with interviews, features, ‘knee-gate’ scandals. Really, what does any of it matter? I agree with Wilfried Zaha in that kneeling being an obligation removes it of any protest power. Choice has been removed and it has been reduced to a commercialised symbol which in my opinion serves no real purpose. But that is not the point. When we focus on triviality and symbols, we present an assumption that the ‘cause’ underlying the movement is widely accepted and understood. Well I can tell you, there is evidence that in the case of kneeling, it is not in some areas. Rather than focusing incessantly on the expression of the cause, we ought to pay more attention to the cause itself. Means do matter to the ends, but when the ‘ends’ are forgotten or underplayed, the means become irrelevant.

I do understand when I see people say things like ‘BLM went about it in the wrong way last summer’ and that there are ‘other ways to make your point’. The actions of a violent minority cannot be condoned, nor should they be taken as representative for the whole movement; as the minority conducting these discriminatory acts should not be held as examples of the wider British public. However, I would like to stress these alternative and more ‘acceptable’ ways of doing things have been shown, in many cases such as those listed above, not to work consistently. Despite all the best intentions, you cannot trust a system you do not believe works for you. So people take action into their own hands. Again, a broader feature of ever-more disillusioned fractions of society who feel marginalised or left-behind by modernity. This is where I would like to give credit to the PFA and FA, because they have recognised that ‘business as usual’ responses to player abuse are not working and something needs to change. The challenges of today are not even the same as yesterday, so we cannot expect the same approaches to bear success.

Now, I am not criticising any of these actions in and of themselves or their intentions, but I want to highlight a continuous problem here. It has become a predictable cycle. A cycle that perpetually fails to address the ‘root’ causes of why people are seemingly accepting these views and being emboldened to act on these opinions in growing numbers.

This all seems incredibly pessimistic and bleak, I know, but I am still optimistic!

I am neither trying to paint a bleak picture, nor suggest that nothing can be done and that all these efforts are futile. I just think we need to constantly re-look at what is occurring, who we have been putting responsibility on, how stories have been framed, what needs to change and what we can do going forward. We cannot continue to expect these huge organisations to solve the root of our social issues and blame their ‘inaction’, whilst we ignore or own responsibilities and absolve our implications

For the actions I have mentioned above to have their desired effect, I think we need, what history has shown us capable of; making it harder to express or act on these inflammatory views and confronting them through honest and open debate. Constantly affirming that these acts are carried out by a ‘small minority’ who do not represent the views of most people does not mean we can ignore it or that it’ll just disappear. I do believe most people in this country are decent, and also recognise the much purported counter-argument that ‘things have gotten better’. But still, our social fabric requires a lot of interrogation because comfortable assertions that there isn’t ‘real’ racism in society anymore, things aren’t that bad or that ‘nobody I know would be racist’ are often misplaced. In many cases, you will know or have heard someone display discriminatory actions. In fact, I would put money on it. And much like myself, I would also put money on you either ignoring it or choosing not to engage in most or all instances.

Without those around such individuals speaking up and confronting them, I do not believe the change we so desire is going to be seen. I am not calling for people being baited out on social media and opened up for a reversal of abuse. I think this regresses, rather than progresses, things. I am talking about having real conversations and using relationships to challenge behaviour, aligning with what I have said before, that meaningful change will require influencing our local spheres. Again, I do not believe these should occur in the public sphere for fear of ‘cancelling’ and the like which in turn may embolden these individuals. The crucial question then is, how do we make people feel more comfortable having ‘difficult’ conversations? Conversations where the expression of inflammatory, ‘outdated’ or ‘misled’ views are met with gradual teaching rather instantaneous torching and punishment.

We need to ask ourselves why those we may feel uncomfortable speaking out, what consequences do we fear, or do we even think these things matter? How can we allow it in private but then act outraged when it occurs in a more sinister and public manner?

I have not researched this, and am not sure what’s driving these trends, but I do believe the pressure, especially from my generation, for political correctness and tabooing of subjects and conversations has a large role in this. Again to clarify, there are numerous topics and narratives I do agree have no space in popular discourse, but I feel in many cases our censorship has gone too far. I have seen these be used to good effect as ammunition by those with discriminatory views trying to devalue and discredit genuine movements for equality. As we have pushed harder for social progress through denoting what people can and cannot say, and pushing for protection from offence of any kind in popular discourse, we have seen horrific views continue to manifest more and more frequently. I am not in a position to argue whether this is correlation or causation but to me it seems it’s no wonder people are afraid to speak, to have the open conversations which are necessary to depower the far-right, far-left and those spouting hatred. They fear reprisal for ‘saying the wrong thing’ and feel they cannot ‘express their views’ – people stop saying anything at all.  We ask for hard conversations about race, but demonise the sharing of views we disagree with as racist at the first opportunity. Whilst many of these ideas may be outdated, the more we vilify people for sharing them, the further we push them into the fringes of society where real divisive movements lurk. We will continue to fan the flames of the political margins which undermines our social fabric. We need to be open to the possibility of offence and recognise everyone gets things ‘wrong’. Because unknowingly and unintentionally we are pushing more and more people to ‘radical’ positions.

We have seen the far-right grow globally, and must all recognise our direct and indirect role in that. We need conversation rather than indiscriminate cancelling or ignoring. We need understanding rather than attacking. We need to be more sensitive without alienating. We need to provide people, I am speaking of those who are not intentionally being discriminatory, the chance to learn.

As a caveat, I now understand that not every individual’s local sphere will have people who see these discriminatory actions as a problem or feel comfortable enough to speak up. I often forget that my diverse friendships, social networks and role models are not necessarily the norm beyond London.

So, how can we build these relationships and conversations into our broader social fabric?

To finish, I want to make it clear my intention is not to provide the ‘right’ way forward or the ‘truth’, but rather to share another way of looking at these issues. As always, disagreement is welcomed and encouraged; I would love to hear your views!