When real estate agent from the sleepy seaside town of Scottburgh, Penny Sparrow, described blacks on the beach as “monkeys” in a public tweet, she brought upon herself the terrible and swift retribution of the internet. Dazed and confused, Sparrow compounded her error in a terrible apology, followed by disastrous radio and news interviews. Within three days, Sparrow has had to go into hiding, fearing for her life. She’s out of job, and two political parties (including one that she was a member of) have brought charges against her.
I bet she didn’t think that this was how she’d be starting 2016.
That Sparrow is a racist is indisputable, even if she doesn’t know it. Her utterances are indefensible. And from what we last heard, she’s both unrepentant and perplexed by the furore. Yet I feel that, as a society, we have acted improperly to her.
Quite often on my Facebook feed I’ll see two men kissing, or an atheist quote, or something pro- or anti-Islam, or something about Tim Noakes, with the message: If you don’t like this, please unfriend me. Assumably, if you do this enough times, you’ll eventually end up only with friends who agree with you on all the major topics for which you could find a suitably inflammatory image. All the racists, homophobes, heathens, anti-vaxers, and carbo-loving freaks will be cut loose, free to mingle among themselves without tainting your timeline with their disgusting views.
And they’ll be doing the same. Since it’s so easy to proffer your opinion on every topic of the day, it’s easy to create your own little niche of convenience, reinforcing your beliefs with your new, carefully constructed community. The gun-lovers, Islamophobes, creationists, racists, and Trump supporters have just as much freedom on the internet as you do. It’s easier than ever for them to create a group where they will always have their preconceptions reinforced. And the “liberals” are speeding them along their way, telling them to not let the door hit their asses on the way out.
But here’s the thing: once they’re out of our community and in their own feedback loop, their beliefs will become ever more entrenched, fed by the culture of a society of their — and our — creation.
Let’s jump back to Sparrow for a second. Now that she’s been shunned by society, who do you think will befriend her? It won’t be the people baying for her blood right now, it’ll be people who think like her, or are even more radically racist. Other closet racists who take Sparrow’s experience as a warning will sure as hell not profess their opinions on the open Twitter, but will find little racist enclaves both on- and offline to vent their outrage at the way Sparrow has been treated.
Sparrow’s opinion is not unique. I’ve heard the New Year’s Day beachgoers referred to as “the hordes”, a plague of locusts, and “the oil slick”. This doesn’t come from strangers, but from friends and family. It’s improved over the years, although that might just be because my friends and family have learnt to not say that kind of thing around me, but it’s hardly uncommon.
These people are still my friends and family. I haven’t outed them, ousted them, or loved them any less. And I don’t intend to. They’re still my Facebook friends. There’s a couple of reasons for this.
Firstly, and most importantly, they’ll never change if they think that what they believe is normal. They are a dying minority, but racism is slowly receding. If all you see online (and offline) are other racists sprouting hate speech, it’s easy to believe that you’re still in the majority, and that your thoughts are normal. If more people around them are not racist or anti-racist, most will eventually conform to non-racism themselves. The receding tides of racism will flow out all the faster.
Secondly, my preconceptions could be wrong. While I’m sure that I’m right that racism is a bad thing, there are other little lessons, on different subjects, that I learn every day from people that don’t think the same way as me. A good argument can completely reverse my position on the topic of the day. Over time, good arguments by sensible people can slowly change the most entrenched beliefs. If I unfriend everyone who doesn’t think like me, the chances of me finding out that I’m wrong are severely curtailed.
I acknowledge that sometimes I had racist, bigoted thoughts, and even said stupid things in the past. But being around people with different beliefs helps me curtail it, and I didn’t end up being like Penny Sparrow.
Thirdly, the crazy internet backlash is getting a bit out of hand. It’s a divisive tool — Sparrow has been ostracised by the communities that disagree with her. There’s no chance that we’ll ever be able to find common ground, and perhaps over time bring Sparrow around to seeing how racist she is, and addressing that. We’ve closed the door on any hope of rehabilitation, at least in the short term. Watching her lose her job and face criminal charges might surfeit our bloodlust, but does nothing to improve our society as a whole or address any underlying issues.
Modern thinking is starting to come around to the idea that the way to reform people who act against society’s best interest is not to isolate them, but to embrace them. The Rat Park experiment, for instance, has led to new ways of treating drug addiction, finding that the root cause is often isolation from society. Tough love, while it may be an easier route for the family of the addict, turns out to be not so great for the addiction.
I don’t think it’s possible to hate the racism out of people. It’s like America trying to bomb for peace — a cursory factual examination quickly shows how flawed the thinking is. You can only fight hate with love. Don’t ask your racist friends to unfollow you, don’t disengage with them. Don’t challenge them head-on either, because that’ll just raise their defences. Speak out publicly against racism, make sure they know your position, and let love, time, and tide change their hearts. DM
Terry Pratchett forged his own sword from iron and meteorites purely for the occasion of the awarding of his knighthood.