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On the ethics of targeting others

Recent examples from major media outlets targeting harmless individuals demonstrates a major ethical failing – as compassionate persons and responsible writers, commanding a platform. This doesn’t mean writers must never target individuals; it means writers must be more careful and thoughtful than they are now.

Opinion writers present arguments in favour of some view or against another: usually the two work in tandem, as per, for example, critiquing homophobic arguments and promoting equal rights. Ideally, writers either target arguments from multiple sources, careful to avoid caricature (Strawman arguments); or directly tackle an individual or individuals’ arguments. Again, it’s usually a mixture of both.

Yet, life and environments are not equal between individuals. This brings in an ethical aspect to presenting an argument, piece of writing or photo that must anchor our decision to publish.

Basically, being right is not enough – even when the other person (so obviously) is wrong.

To give an example, please excuse this dip into personal acts, but I know it best, since it was mine.

Last month, fellow Guardian contributor Holly Baxter tackled an annoyance we both share: celebrity crowd-funding. Though she made some good points, I found the piece wanting in several areas, especially in the way she wrote about the artist Dev Hynes. I wrote a response, but then subsequently removed it. My reasons, as I explained, were due to the enormous amount of backlash she received, dripping with sexism, threats and unnecessary hostility – this is an unfortunate result of celebrity culture and the digital age and is quite common.

My one piece wasn’t going to change the world, but removing it meant one less piece criticising Ms Baxter. I didn’t threaten, namecall, and wasn’t nasty: I tackled arguments I found wrong. Baxter, facing a torrent of responses, might see my piece as yet another criticism – especially from a man – lumping it in with the torrent of negativity greeting her online presence. That doesn’t make her right, of course, but I wouldn’t blame her for that perception considering the environment she was facing.

My perspective of her arguments remains, but the question is whether I needed my readers to know that. I’m just another voice in the whirlwind of online opinion, this one aiming at a woman – which the Internet, at times, is as welcoming toward as Saudi Arabia.

In terms of ethical considerations, there are a two mains areas we writers – and indeed anyone – should be considering.

Principle #1: Does an individual’s actions warrant a response? If so, what response?

What exactly has the person done and does it warrant a response? This seems like an obvious question – but it also seems rarely answered before a response is Tweeted out, written about, etc.

Assuming a response is necessary, we must recognise a response need not be a blogpost or a column: it can be a Tweet, it can be a phonecall, it can be banging your head or screaming into your pillow. Those are all responses, on different platforms, seen by a different number of people. Indeed, not responding is also very important.

Each of those have different degrees of ethical attachments, too: a Tweet threatening to a rape a woman is a response, but unethical. If you’re a columnist at The New York Times, it might also be wrong to target a woman who has cancer because she makes you uncomfortable.

Of course, there might be good reason to tackle individuals, as many did for, say, Elan Gale (including myself but even then it was his supporters), writers who make light of euthanasia, widely-loved celebrities, Pope’s who don’t like gay people, etc. A response is necessary, on a case-by-case basis, due to the target being in some position of power, encouraging or participating in bad beliefs or activities. Our writing should help dismantle these negative aspects.

Holly Baxter had bad arguments, but did not warrant a piece: Elan Gale directly encouraged  horrible messages and uncivil responses at a non-existent woman, because he was on the side of the angels (apparently). Baxter, too, is a woman whereas Gale is a successful, straight white American man (which John Scalzi famously calls the lowest difficulty setting). Thus, even in terms of identity, things are not equal in how the world treats such people. Being ethical means taking all this into account.

Principle #2 Does writing and publishing this matter more than the person’s sense of safety and security.

A difficult aspect to balance is when someone’s sense of security and safety transmutes into uncontested privileged positions and viewpoints. No one should be beyond criticism for his or her actions or views, but again just because an action or belief is wrong is not sufficient reason to respond – or respond publicly.

We don’t want people to build walls of absolutism in terms of their moral views such that s/he is never wrong and criticism is only from those who are threatening and hateful.

That is, if the only response a target perceives to her views is character attacks, namecalling, threats, she might feel insecure but she probably won’t change her mind. Thus, her opposition all get branded as idiotic, sexist, scientistic, conservative, or whatever: thus, the best, more nuanced examples of the opposition are painted in the same colour as the fringe. Nuance isn’t sexy for attention and therefore for news or headlines.

By being silent, writers might encourage only the loudest, stupidest voices who vaguely share a writer’s view, but sometimes it may be necessary so that writers can speak later. Or perhaps in a different way.

Or perhaps not at all.

This is the dilemma: by being silent, an opposition consists only of fury, not reason (though fury and reason need not be opposed or mutually exclusive – but here I mean you aren’t threatening murder or violence.) Yet, that doesn’t mean absolute silence or no response at all, as indicated in the previous point. I don’t know how to answer this on a broad level, since I worry about making a principled stance. I think examining on a case-by-case basis, asking ourselves especially the first question, might help – though again, I don’t know. I would at least caution being part of the pile-on.

So, we must be sensitive to wanting to show a target is wrong. We must recognise we don’t want to always be silent and allow for walls of absolutism to harden around their views. But we also don’t want idiocy to be louder because we are silent – but at the same time, we want to recognise a target’s safety and security.

At the very least, we must recognise we’re talking about people and the way the world treats different people, of different sexes, different races, different positions of power, is not equal.

Example #1 of Unequal Platforms: Sacco and Kaczynski

A recent example of this was part of the Justine Sacco’s Twitter Saga.  BuzzFeed’s Andrew Kaczynski, with over a 100,000 Twitter followers and commanding an enormous platform in general, linked to Sacco’s terrible racist Tweet.

Sacco at the time, I believe, had less than 300 Followers and was not widely-known. Yet, for whatever reason, Kaczynski decided it appropriate to tell his many mostly young progressive (i.e. not racist) Followers about this unknown person. I’m uncertain whether Kaczynski started the Sacco antagonism – I think he and others were notified by a reader – but it would be hard to say he didn’t contribute significantly to drawing attention to her. Knowing people and keyboard courage, especially when targeting women on the Internet, it’s hard to make a defence of Kaczynski here.

Think about the disparity of platform: Kaczynski is well known across the Internet and Buzzfeed has a huge following. Sacco was almost completely unknown. Yet, Kaczynski saw fit to publicly shame Sacco. This wasn’t Steve Martin or some other powerful celebrity, with a PR firm and agent and manager: it was a harmless women travelling to South Africa – where, due to Twitter outrage, people photographed and tracked her.

I’m not blaming Kaczynski solely for this: I blame anyone who participated in publicly shaming and threatening her.

The point is there’s no clear ethical reason for Kaczynski to have brought people’s attention to Sacco.

(Media) people decide what makes the news – things aren’t imbued with some magic power of “being newsworthy”. Kaczynski and others help make it so. This brings attention and attention brings nastiness.

This means, we fail ethically by targeting people using platforms as big as a BuzzFeed writer’s to laugh at and mock and snark and hate an innocent woman who made a stupid Tweet, knowing that digitally pointing at something also means unlocking the floodgates of vitriol.

(Anyone can be targeted for making stupid jokes that make us seem bizarre and bigoted when we’re not. This should worry us. Think about if you or a loved one was Sacco.)

Example #2 of Unequal Platforms: Kellers and Adams

The powerful American media couple, Bill and Emma Keller, recently decided to target a harmless woman, in what Mary Elizabeth Williams dubs a “tag-team of opinionated horribleness”; with Emma Keller writing a now-removed piece in the Guardian and Bill Keller a The New York Times op-ed – two of the biggest and most respected papers in the world.

As Daniel D’Addario summarises:

“Lisa Bonchek Adams [the target] is a mother of three living with Stage 4 breast cancer. She blogs and tweets about what she is undergoing and the decisions she is making about her health; she does so frequently and to a large audience that’s rooting for her. And to a prominent husband-wife pair of journalists, she’s somehow offensive.”

There’s no need for me to go into what specifically was wrong witheachpiece, since plenty have already done so. I want to look at the Kellers in their ethical failing at publishing (and for being allowed to publish) their target pieces. 

What was gained by examining Adam’s writing, blogging, and Tweeting? Is there any evidence her doing so encouraged bad or harmful behaviour? Is there evidence to suggest at all that she encourages unrealistic expectations? Like so many targeted by powerful media types, there was no indication Adams had done anything so wrong it was worth writing about. Yet the Kellers’ writing went through anyway as did the publication.

Now of course we don’t only write target pieces when people do wrong and even praising pieces can indicate some degree of proper criticism. Yet, to get factual details so wrong, as both Kellers did; to portray Adams as doing something deceitful or bad (when all evidence suggests she’s doing the opposite); and to do so from such high, powerful platforms – twice – at one target is to crumple a sense integrity as writers.

These op-ed pieces weren’t diary entries or personal letters: they were on huge platforms commanding a large audience. This meant Adams’ family would read bizarre accounts of her; it meant Adams wasting time correcting instead of using her time for better things; it meant Adams portrayal in two major publications, that influence people’s views, would cast her as unfavourable and dangerous for cancer patients.

Did these pieces need to be written? Was anything gained? I can see little purpose, aside from excellent criticisms of the Keller pieces.

I’m not claiming that because you have a certain disease or sickness or whatever you get moral immunity and can never be criticised: but, as I’ve indicated, criticism must pass an ethical standard. There’s no justified reason provided by the Kellers to think Adams has done anything at all to warrant targeting – from such powerful platforms and such powerful people.

Example #3 of Unequal Platforms: Hannan and “Dr V”

Grantlandis a major sports publication. It has excellent writers, as per my favourite essayist Tom Bissell. I’m not a sports person at all, but this longform Grantland piece on a specific golf putter and its mysterious creator has rightfully being viewed as callous and horrible to the putter’s creator, the late Dr V.

The writer, Caleb Hannan, became interested in this putter and the science behind it. Upon finally contacting Dr V., “she insisted that our discussion and any subsequent article about her putter focus on the science and not the scientist.” The only way to continue the communication and engagement with her was for Hannan to have agreed to this.

Quite obviously, he did not, as he began discovering all sorts of inconsistencies in her background and writes about these. His investigation led to him discovering that Dr V had been born male. This might be surprising – but it’s no more surprising, in this context, than finding out someone was born with a different name. Hannan doesn’t indicate why Dr V’s original sex is relevant.

As Mike Handler says:

“[Hannan] writes about Dr. V’s existence as a trans woman in the narrative of her apparently unverifiable claims about her work history and education, tarring her gender by association as another potential lie or deception or inconsistency amongst many. Any number of human beings of all gender histories have engaged in exaggeration or deception about their education, work, or accomplishments; why is her purported behavior tied to her gender in this story?”

Perhaps one could say it’s relevant in terms of Dr V’s origin and trying to cover up her history, but so what? I don’t know how to write about trans individuals, but I would at least acknowledge that “outing” someone as being born a different sex, revealing a history she does not want revealed, is regarded as immoral (especially when she requested this).

This fosters an already negative and antagonistic environment that the trans community faces everyday – they’re called “crazy”, “deceptive”, and all sorts of idiotic things. Even if there is justification for linking her sex at birth as part of a series of cover-ups, why this needed to be such an important focus for Hannan is not clear. (It’s a bit creepy, too.)

However, the other horrible part is that Dr V. specifically asked that Hannan not discuss her at all; that he not publish her history. I’m not sure how that’s meant to work, but it seems strange for a reporter to casually write about a subject wanting assurances of nondisclosure before proceeding in an article that discloses so much. Isn’t this article more a confession that Hannan broke ethical protocol – even on so basic a level?

Added to this that Dr V had a history of trauma and problems, tried to commit suicide and indicated that her life would worsen if he went ahead – then committed suicide while Hannan was busy with this piece – and it’s the prime example of publishing mattering more than persons.

As editor Daniel Jiminez Tweeted:

“It might have been hard to discuss Dr. V’s fabricated past w/o getting into her #trans identity.  Which might be why you let the story go.” “If you choose to move forward with the story, I still don’t think that the #trans issue is relevant.” “There’s a persistent misbelief that being #trans is being deceptive. ‘She lied about her physics credentials’ would have been enough.”

Indeed, even ignoring the trans issue in Hannan’s failure (which is difficult), her request was ignored for the story, for the platform. Dr V. took her life soon after, I think, Hannan rejected her pleas to not publish. We mustn’t blame Hannan for her suicide, but we can’t ignore the relation considering what Hannan himself relates. I would rather we didn’t speculate without facts about his culpability and instead focus solely on this piece: and indeed, even doing so, it’s a disaster of journalism, a failure of ethical conduct, inhumane and dismissive of an individual’s right to privacy, and crass in its ignorance of a world that hates trans people.

Dan Solomon Tweeted:

“If we lived in a better world, the fact that a person is transgender wouldn’t be interesting at all.” “Exploiting the fact that we live in a world where that’s a sensational detail in order to sell your story is reprehensible.” “And while I understand why Caleb Hannan felt compelled to try to sell that story, I can’t understand at all why [Grantland] published it.

Here again is another example of a harmless woman being targeted by a major platform, for a writer to publish a story. Indeed, she was targeted because she appeared to have done something extraordinary, but a little nudge sent Hannan down the rabbit hole of public assassination through disclosing information and details that would hurt. This wasn’t some criminal, some famous celebrity beating up his wife: it was a harmless person, who wanted privacy, who had a history of trauma and had pleaded with Hannan not to write.

(Maria Dahvana Headley has an excellent response to Hannan’s awful piece, that touches on the overall themes here.)


I realise the irony: I’m targeting individuals here. But I hope, by so doing, you can see that my reasons are ethically justified, unlike the people here: they all did wrong, as I’ve outlined. Targeting individuals can be moral, but it needs to be done with a lot of care – certainly a great more than shown by these three examples.

Similarly, I’m not writing about unknown people, but fairly powerful media types who have used major media platforms to target downwards. The old rule of thumb that journalism should “punch down” is a good one, depending on whether we can justify what “down” means: I’ve hopefully shown that the targets were/are below these writers, in terms of power, in terms of group dynamics and politics (that all were women should be of note – not because women are lesser than men, but that the Internet so easily hates women).

I also wanted to illustrate my point with these examples, since I am a bit hesitant of criticising on a principled basis. Though each share a misappropriation of platform, they also are wrong in different ways for publishing. (Which should remind us that these were written in places where often a decision from another, usually higher-up person, agrees to publish.)

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It’s not that I want these pieces removed: I think they should never have been written or published in the first place. We need to recognise sensitivity and moral responsibility going forward.

A platform can be your massive Twitter account, your publication, your powerful blog. But we need to remember we’re dealing with persons, not digital dots on a screen: Words matter and the world is unequal. We should be using words to target proper harmful individuals, not harmless (indeed, we use words to help the harmless and helpful). We need to recognise pile-ons and politics and avoid contributing, doing what we can to help create a safer, better world.

The world won’t die because you didn’t publish or Tweet, but someone’s life might be a bit worse because you did.

Image Credit: solarseven / Shutterstock


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