A couple of years ago, I made a pledge to myself concerning the R Word. It wasn’t the pledge you see posted now and then, the one that says you’ll never use the word again. After my own shameful past and need for penance, that’s a given. No, the pledge I made to myself was that never again would I give my silent approval to the use of this hate speech by saying nothing when I heard it or saw it written. It’s easy to keep quiet when the alternative is that awkwardness that comes with being a scold. But I realized that every time someone lets it go without comment, they’re saying it’s okay. And it really isn’t.
Most of all, I promised myself that when I saw the R Word used on Facebook, I would report it as a violation of the site’s Community Standards.
Even though I know what the response will be.
Some of the different hats I wear in my life don’t always compliment each other very well. Even though I hate the R Word with the zealotry of a late convert, I’m also a writer, and I don’t take the cudgel against language without real hesitation. But as a writer, I have to accept that words have actual power, and when we use them, we have responsibility for the outcome. The concept of hate speech results from the acknowledgement that powerful things sometimes need to be checked. I’d prefer that in this particular case, the checks would be self-applied, and that simply basic humanity would lead you to look at a language containing approximately 1,025,110 words and pick one that didn’t cause so much pain to a particularly vulnerable population. I’m not for banned language, as a rule. But I recognize that hate speech occupies a very particular place in our culture, and our response to it is especially important.
I am aware that not everyone shares this view. I am particularly aware that Facebook doesn’t agree, because every single time I’ve reported a use of the R Word on Facebook, I’ve received the same response. I can almost recite it by heart at this point.
“Thank you for taking the time to report something that you feel may violate our Community Standards. Reports like yours are an important part of making Facebook a safe and welcoming environment. We reviewed the comment you reported for displaying hate speech and found it doesn’t violate our Community Standards.”
The other day, I saw someone on Facebook use an anti-gay slur in a pretty casual manner. The word was pretty garden variety (three letters, starts with an F, popular in the 80s) and was being used in a non-threatening, jackassy kind of way way, but I reported it to Facebook because a slur is still a slur, and the thing about hate speech is that unchecked, it helps to create a permissive environment where the really bad stuff can flourish. I reported it because it was the right thing to do. But I’d been here before with the R Word, and so I was curious to see if the response would be different.
A very short time later, Facebook replied. The anti-day comment was found to be in violation of their Community Standards and had been removed.
A few days later, I saw a comment that said (with my apologies for quoting it here), “They should sterilize the retarded and deport them to Mexico.”
Aside from how a trip to Mexico sounded kind of nice, this struck me as a clear example of hate speech. It even has threats, at least implied in the “should”.
Nope. Not in violation. Facebook was fine with it.
I’ve heard from a lot of people about what might differ between the two hateful slurs may have made the difference to Facebook. A few people suggested that for Facebook to take action, they must have a large number of complaints about a post or a comment, and the LGBT community is much better situated to mobilize and self-advocate, a point that I will readily admit is absolutely true. But this isn’t a contestant on American Idol. Community standards aren’t a thing to be voted on, as if it would be fine to legalize assault if enough people signed off on it. They are standards for a reason. Something is either acceptable by our society, or it isn’t.
So why is using my daughter and her friends as a joke (or worse, as the Mexico comments illustrates) acceptable, and other forms of hate speech are not? Why are they denied basic human dignity in the eyes of so many? Why is their pain alone an accepted necessary by-product of free speech? Do they ever get to be human without it being upvoted by a certain quota of readers?
I don’t know. I can’t know. All I’m certain of is that the poisons in our society only get washed away by people who care, not by laws or by social media outlets and their arbitrary choices about who gets to be a human being and who has to settle for being a punchline. Community standards change when the community feels sick when they read a word, and when they feel like they need a shot of Listerine when that same word exits their own mouth.
I don’t think the disability community is going to move that particular boulder with hate speech referrals on Facebook. But I’m going to keep filing those reports, and I’m going to keep posting screenshots of their distasteful responses. My community needs to have standards that recognize the humanity of all our people.
The village matters.
(EDITED TO ADD AN ADMITTEDLY GRUMPY POINT OF CLARIFICATION: I guess I really do need to say this; I didn’t originally do so in my piece because I thought we were talking at the grownups’ table. When I write about wanting society to take the R Word seriously as a form of hate speech, I’m referring to cases where it’s being used in that context. You can keep your fire-retardant ironic vintage Underoos, and your grandma can keep saying sweet things about that nice retarded boy who bags her groceries. I thought that was obvious. I still do, but here you go. -R)
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