The promise of the internet is universal access. Everyone can be a content creator. Everyone can participate. Everyone can contribute. Sounds like a utopian ideal, right?
I am deeply suspicious of utopia. I agree with Josiah McElheney:
In 1929, it was possible to propose literal utopia: “This is how we should live; we should create a society that’s structured on these utopian principles, and we will have a better world.” I think it’s really clear that, as soon as you actually try to create utopia or impose utopia, it creates horrible violence. I have this notion of talking about utopia as a model, something that’s never intended to go beyond the model stage.
We have the Internet-we are way past the model stage. So now what we get is the violence.
I proposed a memorial for those people whose enslavement and trafficking financed the building of Faneuil Hall in Boston. This history has been detailed by many scholars and, frankly, is an open secret in Boston. It has long been known that humans were traded in storefronts on Merchants Row and that they were sold on Long Wharf and other areas of the city from the beginning of the colonial period. This history-this known history-is not marked anywhere in the city. Actually, that is not exactly true-there is a plaque on the building that contains the phrase, still used by a free people. That is a hint that there were people who, for whatever reason, were unfree.
So I proposed a memorial. People have been very interested in the idea and as a result, there have been a lot of stories in the press about it and about me. That's good. One of the reasons I proposed this object was to begin this engaged conversation about how we remember our history through the built form and, more importantly, what gets remembered and what are willing to do to enshrine memory. I wasn't interested in the "debate" about changing the name of the building (I'm still not interested in that.) What I wanted to do was see if it was possible to tell the whole truth about Faneuil Hall, about the colonial relationship to black peoples, and the human and economic sacrifice that is at the heart of the building.
I had a great conversation with Renée Graham of the Boston Globe and she wrote an editorial about the work. After it was up for a while I noticed that there were comments. Reading them was eye opening.
Almost all the comments were anonymous. Where there were names, they were simply labels-the links went to pages that indicated there was no additional information about the commenter.
Now, Renée's byline is on the article, as is my name. My place of work is referenced. It is very clear who we are, where we are, and what we think. All of that is laid out in the article. So people have direct access to us through email, Twitter, and other platforms.
I talked to Renée about this since may of the comments were deeply personal attacks against her as a person. She told me she never reads the comments and cautioned me not to do so. Then she told me that she gets a lot of these kinds of things in her email. I was stunned. Just imagine opening your email at work and getting anonymous messages from people calling you names or repeating vile, racist canards about black laziness and negligent black fathers.
I don't understand why these people are allowed to be anonymous. I'm out there. Renée is out there. You know our names, faces, where we work, and what we think. Why don't these people have to stones to put their names and faces on their comments? Why don't they just say where they work? Everyone knows I'm a Professor at MassArt, it's in every article. People do web searches and send me email based on this information. Why can't I do the same when they make a comment on an article about me? I thought this was supposed to be an equal platform for communication?
I think people say these things because they mean them. If they say them out loud and people hear them, what would probably happen is that they would be forced to answer for these kinds of vile statements. That is different than an online debate. Face to face, I would see your face. I would remember it. I would be able to identify you as a person who has a bigoted nature. Online there is none of that. You can hide behind an avatar or an ironic name. It gives a bigot freedom. It allows snakiness as a currency in a discussion about memorializing people who were traded, trafficked, enslaved, and worked. To death.
Today there was an editorial about the piece from the Editorial Board of the Globe. Within hours, there were commenters. Anonymous. Vile.
Some people say that these are 'bots or Russian trolls looking to gin up controversy and anger. It works. I read the comments and I had to take a shower.
This is not dialog. This is not a conversation and it's not advancing ideas or helping a public discourse. Why do we allow this?
There have been a rash of white people getting busted on cell phone video calling the police on black people for living their lives, calling black people "niggers,' and generally getting caught behaving in the ways that black people have always known the they have behaved. The difference is that they are caught. They do not have the internet to keep them anonymous, in fact the internet is doing just the opposite. They have been met with immediate and equal consequences to their behavior. They have lost jobs, lost clients, been shunned, and the list goes on. I don't have a lot of sympathy for them. In fact, I don't have any sympathy for them at all.
I want that for all of these anonymous commenters. I'd love to know their names, workplaces, and contact information of these people. I would love to send these comments to their family, friends, churches, and communities. I want them to be known the way that I'm known. That would be utopia.