Well, at least not the sort of “traditional” racism and hatred that gets flagged and immediately taken down. You know, the wayward, vitriolic name-calling and pre-antebellum sentiments that treat women as property, blacks as subpar citizens, ad. naseum. I do understand that these sorts of comments are important and they might carry the most venom… but they don’t necessarily do the most damage. Rather, this is a post about subtleties in online comment feeds- the ones that pass by the any human or computer flagger, the supposedly “balanced” arguments that are of course nothing of the sort and proliferate not just the ether of the Web, but the public political and social imagination. This is a post about coded racism.
I’m borrowing the term coded racism from Jessie Daniels and Matthew Hughey, who suggest in their writing that we have a real problem on hand with “decoding” internet racism. They write that one of the chief reasons these coded comments are so prolific (and more importantly, hard to argue with) is that they are folded into language appealing to “common-sense” arguments. With their work as a starting point, I set out to see the topoi of “common sense racism”- if it exists (I think it does), what its argumentative and linguistic structures are, and what it means for the future of interactive news on the web.
I’ve read more online comment feeds in the last few weeks than I care to admit. A lot of the feed slipped past my scope of interest- xoxokim and sergeantjerry55 telling eachother to eat bullets was not particularly useful of inventive. But there are a number of comments, some deceptively simple or even popular and non-devisive worth looking at.
Like this thread which will be the focus of my post here, which was a tangential conversation going on in the comment section of this article about Treyvon Martin regarding style of dress and whether or not that makes a person suspicious:
lala Lam GailScottt: I have a little more respect for the person that knows how to wear a belt.
Mexoplex lala Lam: because wearing a belt is SO much the judge of character of a man. next youll be telling me the color of one’s skin is a determining factor….. oh wait…..
Gilsharkey Mexoplex: Well, see wearing a belt isn’t all that important, but ensuring that your baggy pants don’t fall down to your ankles as you’re hopping down the street does demonstrate a certain level of class and self respect.
ü Oakspar77777 GailScottt: The person in a suit does merit more respect. His clothes say that he espouses ideas of buisness, hardwork, and success. The person in the thuggery espouses drug use, gangs, and violence. Now, the suit wearer may be a wolf in sheeps clothing, and actually be a crook. The one in thuggery might actually have never broken a law in his lifetime. From their looks, I cannot know the truth of their life. I do, however, know that the one trying to look like a criminal is more likely one than the person trying to look like a successful buisnessman.
ü Shannon MacLeod Oakspar77777: Again, this is the definition of prejudice and why it’s not a good way to run around judging folks. Although, if I ever do get the urge to rob a convenience store or break into some houses, I’ll be sure to wear a three piece suit to avoid being shot. Thanks for the hot tip”
I’d like to point out two particularities in this conversation that are noteworthy. The first is the tonal differences between those who support the idea of making judgments based on appearance and those who don’t. While it’s not entirely easy to predict intonation/intent online, the level of sarcasm in the comments from those not supporting judging appearances is markedly increased compared to those in favor of the judgment. When “Oakspar77777” comments at the end of this thread suggesting that she’ll wear a three-piece suite next time she robs a convenience store and sarcastically writes “thanks for the hot tip,” her point is to make it obvious that she finds the conversation irrational and biased. “LalaLam”s comments also show such blatant sarcasm in this thread. The point here is that the language AGAINST the coded racism is stronger, more sarcastic and edgy, which is counter-intuitive in many regards; logic would suggest the racists would potentially have more to prove or would be fighting more critics. Largely, this illustrates the ease by which coded racist language does not need to rely on tropes of sarcasm as a form of ethos.
So what kind of ethos does the coded racism above (and all over the internet) rely on? I’d like to suggest that it goes back to the topoi of “common sense.” The participants engaging in the coded racism use a form a “mock civic discourse” in the above thread. To prove that their views are “common sense,” their responses are casual, matter of fact, and reply to the previous comments in a tone that suggests they are diplomatic (but firm) and open to civic debate. A good example of this is when “Gilsharkey Mexoplex” acknowledges a critique that wearing a belt isn’t a good indicator of the quality of the person. In an authoritative response that acknowledges the critique, he writes “Well, see wearing a belt isn’t all that important, but ensuring that your baggy pants don’t fall down to your ankles as you’re hopping down the street does demonstrate a certain level of class and self respect.” The diplomacy here is the acknowledgment that the belt may not be an important indicator of character, a conceit that serves to illustrate the flexibility of the reply and set up the responder as a reasonable and common sense type of person. On the semantic level, even the “does demonstrate a certain level” indicates a hedging which is a rhetorical strategy meant to show flexibility- a quality important to a common sense rhetor- and a great mask for coded racist remarks. Thus, the ethos acts as a massive buffer to the subtleties of what the person is actually saying- remarks that are heavily influence by preconceptions of race and class.
An even more noticeable incidence of this fake civic discourse phenomena is GailScottt’s response, which suggests that people in suits should be taken more seriously because they espouse ideas of hard work and determination and that “thuggish-looking” people recall drugs, violence and gangs. To prove his coded racism here, he offers another move typical of “civil” discussion, which is that he offers a viewpoint that counters his own, but ultimately strengthens his own ethos. Like a scene out of Cicero’s writing, he offers a side narrative whereby “the suit wearer may be a wolf in sheeps clothing, and actually be a crook,” admitting that he may not know the truth of their life. The admittance of ignorance here is a credibility maneuver to again appear rational and reasonable and have the subsequent statement that “someone trying to look like a criminal is more likely one than someone trying to look like a successful businessman” appear common sense and not imbued with racist principles or philosophies.
This conversation thread, while very much indicative of the common sense racist topoi, was not an anomaly by any stretch. Countless articles and comment sections, regardless of the subject matter, featured similar linguistic principles and used ethos in a similar manner. This Huffington Post piece on a gaffe made Marsha Blackburn about equal pay for women brought up similarly contentious debates in the comment section. And even though the issue was not race but gender, the logic was still the about common sense prejudice. Comments like this were common in the forum:
“I know that most people who come to this site don’t want to hear it, but the gender gap is mostly a myth. Women tend to choose less lucrative fields, and tend to work fewer hours than men. Here’s a link to an article, here on this site, that explains it:
Again, on a semantic level, the use of hedges to illustrate a certain fairness in argumentation (women tend to chose; gender gap is mostly a myth) were common and helped to code a bias in a seemingly logical argument. If the commenter can create an image of themselves as “for the facts” and reasonable, the implicit biases of the logic seem to slip through the cracks. And in a similar move to the previous thread, this author is even willing to let his argument slide slightly to the other corner in order to increase his credibility and make his point. By noting that the gender gap is just “mostly” a myth (not completely, that is), he appears less extreme, and thus, potentially more objective. Imagine if the above comment was revised to something like this:
“The stupid bitches on this site don’t want to hear it, but all this talk of gender gap is just total bullshit. Women are usually dancers or artists or teachers and things like that and don’t work as much. This article explains it too”
It’s easy to see how that sort of a revision would not be necessarily beneficial for this commenter. It would immediately flag him as a sexist idiot and his point would be lost and not worth anyone’s reply. Rather, his evocation of common sense topoi, to the “facts” and more importantly to his credibility help him avoid this fate.
The effects of common sense racist, sexist, ad. Naseum topoi should not be underestimated. Even though these arguments can be flushed out for intense biases, prejudices and even straight malice, they are often highly affective as they “appear” reasonable, flexible and indicate a “good character” of a person willing to engage in civic discourse. As we become more engrained in online culture and interactive news becomes more of a staple in our lives, it’s worth noting that this model of conversation will likely proliferate, making it all the more necessary to start identifying these patterns and countering them with an ethos other than sarcasm and disbelief.