Cyberbullying Isn’t Activism: The Limits of Social Media – Lucas Elek

During the days before winter break began, in the wake of the Ferguson and Eric Garner decisions, our campus erupted over racial insensitivity sparked by a picture posted on Instagram. The photo, from Halloween, showed six Williams students each wearing a costume consisting of a taco suit, fake mustache, and sombrero. A group of students took to Facebook to argue that the costumes were insensitive to, and stereotypical of, Mexican culture.

I understand the outrage over the costumes, but I was concerned in equal measure that, as the night wore on, this reaction to ignorance and cultural insensitivity devolved into a vicious witch hunt. An opportunity to teach had somehow turned into an arena for cyberbullying. While the actions of the “Taco Six” were harmful to the community, they were clearly not malicious as much as massively thoughtless. This distinction does not ameliorate the insensitivity and hurtfulness of the costumes, but it does—or rather, should—guide our reactions. Our everyday, common-sense morality is more than adequate to recognize the difference between ignorance and malice. Neither is good, and the two may at times go together, but they are not equally bad. And more importantly, they prompt different responses.

The same caveat cannot be made for the cyberbullies who launched an extended and personal polemic against the costumed students and called them out by name on social media.

Now, full disclosure, I come from a place of privilege: I am a white male from middle-class suburbia. I know many at this school have been oppressed by the dominant white culture and I cannot relate to that struggle. But I do know that there is an important difference between expressing frustration at an incident and perniciously attacking individuals. I want to make something clear: if someone has offended you, you have every right to tell them. You should email, or private message them, or better yet, talk to them in person. Lambasting these individuals publicly on social media does a disservice to you and to them.  When did we as a school decide we would revert to middle school-era tactics to solve our problems?

There have been some who have defended their cyberbullying by calling it activism. I am a huge fan of activism. I wish this school had more of it. But ruthlessly attacking individuals on social media isn’t activism. It’s just mean. If you passionately believe these students did something wrong, you should confront them in a civil manner. Rise over the ignorance; do not sink below it into malice. I want to reiterate the fact that there were many, many comments on social media that did not attack the so-called Taco Six. This piece is directed at individuals who, despite the clear opportunity for learning, chose to antagonize, rather than educate their fellow students.

Earlier this year there were two pieces that came out in this publication entitled “Victim Culture” and “A Response to Victim Culture.”  These were the best articles I read all semester, but I had a problem with them; they were both written anonymously. Anonymity was something I didn’t really understand. It wasn’t until the Taco Six incident that I understood why the authors of those editorials had sought to mask their identity; they feared retribution from their peers. The authors of these two pieces sought to have a conversation about an incredibly important topic on campus, but I wager that it was fear of cyberbullying that led them to publish namelessly. We as a school have created a culture on campus that has successfully muted dialogue on controversial topics. If we are to be a campus that moves forward on these issues we cannot solely rely on social media as a platform for debate. To do so would only enable hateful cyberbullying and discourage those with meaningful contributions to express themselves.

What a small group of Williams students decided to wear one night was insensitive, but how a few members of our community responded was even worse. Last month showed that our campus has a long way to go before we can all feel safe.  Exploring and discussing these topics is incredibly important if we are to grow as a community. Imagine if the hateful character assaults were replaced with conversations that provided explanations to those who acted offensively. This is not to absolve the costume wearers of their guilt; they wronged members of this community, and should apologize for, and learn from, what I hope was a mistake.

The “Taco Six” controversy finally points to social media as the common vector of insensitivity and the unproductive sort of response that only adds wrong to wrong. The networks that purport to connect communities and enable communication have only made it more difficult to stage productive dialogues.

The kind of posts and comments put online would never be enacted or spoken in person. We view social media as a world separate from the real one, a world without empathy, compassion, and accountability. Living, breathing humans are reduced to “profiles” or reputations—names, blurbs, and a few curated photos—disturbingly easy to demonize or drag through the mud. This is not a world where change is created. In order to change our world we must face both our fears and each other. I hope to grab coffee with some of you to discuss this more; I go to Goodrich most mornings and could always use some company.

7 thoughts on “Cyberbullying Isn’t Activism: The Limits of Social Media – Lucas Elek

  1. I think I speak for all of my brothers and sisters of color when I say that this article is totally whack.

    When you commit a hateful and community-damaging crime such as the one that these individuals have committed, it is important to understand the following: they don’t deserve our respect. Meeting extreme white supremacy with a mere civil response is just a weak token compared to the damage and fear cause by this hate crime

    Mr. Elk, have you heard of appeasement? That’s what led to Hitler growing so powerful. The students of color in this community have appeased and appeased while the threat of white supremacist ideology has grow stronger. We cannot be civil any longer. We are humans too; we have emotions; and we will not be shut up.


    • (First, if you disregard my opinion because I am writing anonymously, it is because some of my friends would stop being my friend for thinking critically about your response, a response which you should recognize as complete bullshit if you indeed believe in community. As a result of my anonymity, you will probably assume I am white, but this is your mental shortcut if you choose to take it. I will give you no identifying characteristics in the hope that you respond to my argument, rather than presume to characterize and dismiss my response as completely the product of my identity.)

      (Second, whenever you presume solidarity of a movement that does not exist, your statement is in error. In fact because there are POCs who would disagree with your statement, the opening statement is false.)

      (Third, if it is satire, I don’t care, because it exhibits common responses that I feel are in error. I take it to be sincere.)

      0. I take as a given that white supremacy should be eroded. The question of the means by which this should be achieved is what concerns me and should concern you.

      1. Of course the community has been damaged by the appropriators, but it is not clear that the action was hateful, and this means everything in how one might respond to this incident productively. You might like to think of the action as categorically hateful or as inheriting the intentions of a unified historical White oppressor. However, the picture is more complicated than that.
      Taken as an incident, while it probably owes its provenance to this historical pattern of brutality, it is not clear that the act was malicious in the sense of their actual intentions. A comment below yours also seems to think that this act actually involved malice. This interpretation suggests a lack of understanding of how racially insulated white people tend to work: While it might seem impossible *to you* that a white person could be unaware of the implications of a choice of costume, and it seems reasonable to suppose that they thought of the problematicity of the choice and simply disregarded it callously, I guarantee you that many white people are insulated enough from these issues in general that this didn’t even occur to them, and given how basic they are to dress up like tacos, this characterization almost certainly applies to them, especially if their explanation of the costume as arising from a shared enjoyment of Taco Tuesdays is actually true.

      In this light, it is worth examining how one might actually engage with these people in a way that produces a positive change. If indeed they are that ignorant, then swooping out of nowhere (from their perspective) with talk of how they are just a component of the oppressive historical collectivity known as white supremacy will naturally be read as “unjustified POC aggression,” since all of these ideas would be new to them, and it is unlikely that anyone will admit they have done something wrong publicly at the time of accusation if that accusation requires them to accept what amounts to a philosophical system of interpreting race and action. On the contrary, it is entirely likely that this sort of response will help to reproduce the white victim narrative that is so detestably ignorant, specifically because on social media it is easy to be reduced to your race, and in call-out culture this is an acceptable mode of communication.

      2. As for damage to the community, the psychic damage is also a complicated issue and I will not take it up here. However, it is worth noting that no one died as a result of their actions. This is in stark contrast to the actual historical brutalities of white supremacy. Please do not make the mistake of assuming the world is simpler than it is: both the various white perpetrators of genocide and the costume-appropriators participate in white supremacy, but the degrees of severity differ extremely, and thus merit different responses. In particular, to respond with the anti-racist anger of history to particular white people now seems disproportionate, even if it can be understood empathetically as a response to gradually accumulating, simmering anger about daily slights and multifacetedly unfair arrangements.

      3. You wrote that because of these actions (appropriating sacred costumes), these people “don’t deserve our respect.” This is a common rhetorical device used to generate solidarity, and I believe it is gravely mistaken. Society is founded on mutual respect, and if you are interested in eroding that even more than the actions of the Taco Six already have, I deem this method irresponsible and likely to produce more white backlash (physical or mental) than desired. I also suspect that is motivated by vengefulness rather than the values that make a society worth living in, but this suspicion’s (in)validity does not impact other arguments’.

      Moreover, respect presupposes knowledge of what is to be respected, and as argued before, it is likely that their extreme disrespect was not intended. Thus, the issue of the appropriate response becomes complicated again, which I presume is not what you want to hear, but alas.

      4. However, for the sake of argument, I will presume that you are correct and that in some real sense these people no longer deserve our respect. This does not have to be the sole criterion for action. In particular, it can be a “fact” that they do not deserve respect, but still imprudent to actually act as if this is the case. I mean to suggest that cyberbullying them in response may not increase our chances of eradicating white supremacy, specifically because of white backlash and the white victim narrative that will certainly arise in response to what is also aggression.

      From the perspective of achieving the goal of eradicating white supremacy, it is perhaps counterproductive to righteously state an attendant “fact” of desert. This might be the kind of response you share with an ingroup (and that’s your business), but it is shortsighted to use this language to an outgroup one of whose members you are explicitly disrespecting.

      5. Meeting white supremacy with “mere civil response” can and has worked. The Taco Six are not exterminating you, therefore they are not “extreme.” The Taco Six were probably ignorant, therefore they are not “extreme.” To my knowledge, they do not make death threats, and given my understanding of their character, this is literally inconceivable; they just don’t care. Please reevaluate the extent to which you think they have damaged the community. They are not police brutality, policies that collectively encourage racial segregation, for-profit prisons, or employment opportunities lost because of the nonwhiteness of a name. Rhetoric suggesting that they are just as bad as those things? Utterly irresponsible or mistaken, and probably counterproductive.

      6. Get the author’s name right. If I attributed to your typo as much ill intent as is often attributed to white people in call-out culture, I “ought” to be angry. But I am not. I simply wish to point out to you how it is actually possible to misinterpret mistakes as racism, since racism is not the only factor that decides how someone behaves. In our case the interpretation that convinces me is that ignorance and lack of self-awareness are also relevant explanations for the actions of the Taco Six. (Will you presume to know more about white people than a white person who thinks and talks about these issues a lot and can turn an analytic lens onto their “own” people with the privilege of detached consideration? Will you?) (Alternatively, if you know them and they were actually malicious, then the situation changes, but I doubt you know them.) (I said earlier I would not reveal my race, but we are far enough into this so that you have now definitely presumed I am white.)

      7. Don’t compare this to Hitler. Not all situations can be best resolved with violence. Who would you invade? With what forces? The world is not simple in the way that it appears in historical depictions of WWII.

      8. Your claim that white supremacy has grown as a threat is unsupported. Not to say that I agree or disagree, but that you do not support the opinion. In response to one example you might adduce, the anti-black death threat in Prospect was written by a black student, as I’ve been told by a black student. (The ends justify the means? Hmm…)

      9. I presume we strive to be adults. One characteristic of adults is that they can control the expression of their emotions to achieve their purposes. For example, one might let slights go or not express one’s anger in raw form if cool-headedness would achieve a goal better. I am not suggesting that we do not respond to ignorance and racism. I am however suggesting that no incident on this campus merits cyberbullying and succumbing to our base urges for revenge and outgroup-hatred.

      10. In particular, if there is to be a productive response to a campus incident of this nature, it will probably assume a form that is interpersonally challenging but not threatening.

      Cyberbullying not only does not challenge someone in a deep way but is also threatening; it relies on the mechanism of the public dogpile to compel submission, and thus can only trigger a superficial threat response and perhaps more explicit racism. This represents an irresponsible use of technology.

      If I knew any of them, I would reach out to them. But I do not know them, and so my appeal can mean nothing to them. I commend those who are willing to talk.

      If a personal conversation is to have any effect on changing someone’s mind, it will be initiated by a POC who knows them and who has considerable empathy or by a white person who knows them and who is familiar with issues of race.

      11. Do not mistake this for a moral claim about the responsibilities of these relevant parties. “You can’t expect POCs to educate white people always” and objections of this sort are addressing an issue of fairness rather than an issue of efficacy. The dirty implication is that if certain white people are legitimately ignorant and as a result hurt someone in an impersonal way (as by donning sacred costumes), it is unlikely that they will discover these issues on their own, and so actually changing their mind will require someone else’s effort.

      If every POC actually believed that they never have to educate anyone, then the vast array of internet articles written about these issues with various degrees of sophistication would not have been written. Indeed, just giving links to these articles could help, as long as it phrased in a way that is not self-righteous, for example “I have a midterm to study for” rather than “I shouldn’t have to explain this to you,” even if the former is false and the latter is true.

      12. Of course this is difficult. Of course this is not fair. And of course this has implications for white allies.

      But hardship does not justify the logically invalid, often hypocritical, and shortsighted arguments that are given lazily and righteously in support of cyberbullying/call-outs or in characterizing particular racist situations. The world is goddamn complex, and for your own good you should pay attention to that.

  2. Trust me…you don’t speak for all students of color. Stop trying to act as the representative for all non-white students. Not everyone who isn’t white is as closed minded as you are.

  3. Not that I necessarily agree with everything that was said during the response to the taco six reaction, but from my point of view, some sort of call for the girls to take personal responsibility for their ignorance and MALICIOUS INSENSITIVITY was necessary. Can you honestly, in good conscience say that if the girls weren’t called out that they’d ever have to deal with their privilege and rudeness in a way that would really truly make them reflect upon it at all? There’s a huge difference between being vaguely intellectually for some cause and actually realizing the effects of your own actions on the issue. Plus, this was a Halloween costume, so it clearly took some time to think about. Do you really think that these girls spent as long as it took to assemble the outfits without thinking about why they were doing so? Like why they were dressed in all the signifiers of Mexican heritage? I don’t. Something like that costume took thinking, planning, intent, and some clear decision to ignore the problematic root of why this costume was “funny” or “clever”. Not that I entirely condone the social media responses to this event, but it’s very clear that every time something happens it’s the up to the victims to explain and DEFEND their offense, which only builds upon their distress. It’s not fair to expect POC to react to offensive things as model citizens and lambast them when they don’t respond within the confines of academic, liberal, WHITE discourse. Things like this incident are emotional and merely one incidence of a larger pattern of disregard for the equal existence and value of POC. Like, can you tell me with absolute confidence that you’d be responding in the same way if it was a POC student or students “mocking” stereotypically “White culture”? Because the whole Lawrenceville prep school incident seems to suggest otherwise, that when bullying and outrage is morphed into WHITE OUTRAGE it doesn’t matter that it’s bullying or “mean” or whether some (white) girl’s feelings are hurt, only that (white) outrage has been acknowledged and appeased. So maybe the responses were a bit emotional and intense. But calling it cyberbullying absolves the initial perpetrators from their position of being perpetrators and instead remakes them as the familiar position of the WHITE VICTIM of POC RAGE, and absolves the college from having to take action to address this incidence as a racial problem instead of a “cyber bullying problem,” which absolves them from the negative reviews of having a “race problem” and allows them to maintain their clean reputation in time for all of the national college rankings. Basically your response doesn’t take into account all of the sides of the story, only the “WHITE VICTIM” narrative.

  4. Or how about African American yachtsmen for Romney? Or African American Nuclear Physicists for Romney?Society tends to have low exintcatpoes for certain groups, and pretends not to notice when they are given special preferences or when ordinary rules and constraints are not applied to them.The source of the problem has a source, but very few people are capable of facing it honestly. Even Thomas Sowell and Walter Williams are hesitant to look at evolutionary explanations which provide reasonably accurate statistical predictions.

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