August 7th, 2009


Ban the ban

In A sneer on the face of a judge last week I railed against the obnoxious "zap the weakest link" social structure replicated in reality shows like Big Brother. That very day, after the post went up, a banned Big Brother contestant named Sree Dasari slashed his wrists. The newspaper coverage focused on whether people with "underlying mental health issues" should be screened out. Few commentators seemed willing to draw what seems like one fairly obvious conclusion: that there is something cruel and undesirable in the Big Brother format itself, and the politics it implies.

Because it was an example closer to hand -- a medium "we" control -- I added a paragraph to the sneering judges piece about a Big-Brother-like Suggest Ban feature added to a bulletin board: "ILX, a bulletin board I used to frequent, added a "Suggest Ban" button a couple of years ago, allowing users to vote other users "out of the house", hence declaring people with unpopular opinions "the weakest link" and waving them "goodbye". It gets used to boot out anyone with a mildly divergent take. That isn't exactly pluralism, now, is it, boys? In good societies, surely everyone has something to contribute? And just what are the implications of this "eliminate the weakest link" idea for immigration, for dealing with the homeless and the socially excluded, for integrating the talentless?"

I've just learned that Bimble, a contributor to that board, shot himself a few days ago. He had recently been SB'd -- temporarily banned. According to people close to Bimble (a manic, enthusiastic, gender-reassigned post-punk fan living in Seattle), the ban did contribute to his decision to take his own life. In the thread about this, though, although many posters wished they'd been more attentive to Bimble personally, nobody suggest-banned the practice of suggest-banning.

Now, I can understand why. Yes, such a suggestion -- on an RIP thread -- would have brought an angry swarm of posters and moderators telling the person who made it not to politicize a recent death, and even suggest-banning him for suggest-banning suggest-ban. It would probably be pointed out that Bimble had underlying mental health issues, that there were other factors involved, that it's un-useful to point a finger of blame in the days following the suicide of a deeply disturbed person, that bipolar depression episodes can be triggered by anything, that you can't set the rules of a whole community by the mental state of its weakest member. All true, all true. But you can and should look at whether there's anything structural you can do to prevent similar things happening -- to similarly weak people -- in future. I think the "let's suggest-ban suggest-banning" conversation is one that particular online community needs to have at some point over the coming weeks. And I think a "political" response is not out of order here. The politics of exclusion are deeply relevant to cases like Bimble's and Dasari's.

There's an article about BBC motoring show Top Gear in today's Guardian which touches on the same issue, but shows the risks on the other side of the equation. Top Gear's obnoxious, provocatively right-wing presenter Jeremy Clarkson, testing an Audi and a comparison car whose make isn't revealed, calls the second vehicle "the perfect car for anyone whose business is selling pegs and heather". A pie and a key is laid out on the car's bonnet, and the humourous theme of the piece becomes that this is a car for "pikeys" -- slang for gypsies.

The language Guardian commentator Jodie Matthews uses is similar to the language in my paragraph about ILX. "In good societies... everyone has something to contribute," I said. Jodie says that using the term pikey "fails to value the contribution that Gypsies and Travellers make to British culture. It implies that various and diverse groups of people can be easily and lazily labelled, and that with this label comes particular behaviour. It makes some individuals feel like outsiders."

There's a problem here, though: the euphemism treadmill. The term "gypsy" -- used as if it were unproblematical throughout the Guardian article -- is itself considered as offensive a term, by some people, as "pikey". More recent PC usages for the same micro-population ("traveling people" and "Roma people") are either too vague or not widely-enough adopted to be clear. And the inclusiveness language that Matthews (and I) adopt is particularly bland: "everyone has a contribution to make" is a pretty wishy-washy sentiment to trade for the rather pleasurable (if stereotypical) specificity of the phrase "people who sell pegs and heather". I'm not sure that people who say "everyone has a contribution to make" necessarily like and know Roma people better than people who talk about "selling pegs and heather".

What alarms me most about Matthews' piece -- though I'm obviously siding with her against the obnoxious Clarkson and his right wing populism -- is this bit. Clarkson's appeal to nudge-nudge, wink-wink racism, says Matthews, "has been a strategy of racist discourse since at least the 19th century. It was effectively employed by George Smith of Coalville in his anti-Gypsy campaigns of the 1870s, and even by those who sought to romanticise Gypsies in the late 1800s."

While I agree that the vilification and the exoticisation of outgroups often does involve the same stereotyping, I don't think you can cluster them both as undesirable. To be romanticised is beneficial to a people, a community, a nation. It does wonders for your tourist takings, for instance, and generally lures people to educate themselves further about your specific differences. An anti-racism that attacks positive affect as vigorously as negative affect seems to me utterly misguided -- motivated, perhaps, by the fear of difference it's not too hard to tease out of statements like "everyone has a contribution to make". If the soft right consigns difference -- with a few affectionate racist jokes -- to a place where its stigma is at least visible (if damned to the "natural" predations of Social Darwinism), the soft left fudges it in an abstract fog of equality of opportunity, which is finally nothing more than the opportunity to be the same as everyone else.