By all outward appearances, the ugliness of the Internet descended to terrible new depths in 2013.
In Western New York, one of the nastiest social media disputes of the year erupted in early December, when blogger Jodi Lynn Maracle posted a thoughtful missive on her blog about racist and sexist issues swirling around a new West Side restaurant. After four days of vitriol and plenty of reasoned debate, Maracle and restaurant owner Gabrielle Mattina met face-to-face to air their differences and the controversy cooled off.
Another, much larger digital conflagration ignited last week, when fans and critics of the Buffalo-born singer Ani DiFranco lambasted her for planning a songwriting retreat at a former Mississippi plantation whose owners are absolutely unapologetic about the institution’s dark history. Under pressure from those critics, DiFranco canceled the retreat and issued a thoughtful statement of explanation and a short apology. Which prompted even more criticism and discussion.
But in both cases, the net result of the painful back-and-forth that played out on Facebook, Twitter and in the digital cesspools of anonymous sludge that form beneath blog entries, was hugely positive. Yes, plenty of feelings were trampled in the process. Lots of offensive attacks were launched, and more than a few friendships and reputations were bruised. But what we got for all that unpleasantness was, I think, worth the act of suffering through it.
What we got was a kick in the brain. What we got was slapped out of our collective stupor, forced to acknowledge problems lingering in our neighborhoods and on our national conscience that many of us have been working hard to suppress.
Or, as Ani DiFranco said in her most recent apology: “I needed a wake up call and you gave it to me.”
It would be simplistic to say that digital media somehow changes the basic nature of these debates. It doesn’t. The function it serves is merely to amplify the discussions that would otherwise take place in private, in the highly filtered letters sections of newspapers and magazines and in traditional columns like this one.
Maracle, whose original complaint involved a picture in which the owner and an employee of Gypsy Parlor were dressed in revealing Native American costumes and later extended to the restaurant’s trading on the painful history of the Romani people, put it another way.
“So many have asked, ‘Why didn’t you just contact the women in the picture?’ ” Maracle wrote in her post-mortem on the Gypsy Parlor controversy. “Because rather than have yet another conversation behind closed doors and talk to two women about one costume, we now have four days worth of sharing, Internet conversation, education (I hope), and public participation far beyond the reach of three women talking.”
Social media amplifies the crucial conversation effect of these kinds of controversies more than traditional media because we’re seeing opinions proffered not only by abstract pundits or journalists, but by our close friends and acquaintances. When your neighbor publishes an opinion on a given debate, a crucial barrier to participation falls and the prospect of tossing your own thoughts into the ring becomes far less daunting. If your best friend asks you to reconsider what you consider to be racist, you’re likely to listen.
The downside to all this, of course, is the cloak of anonymity and power the digital realm provides to the most poisonous voices – which often happen to be the loudest ones. That’s not to say there hasn’t been plenty of anonymously proffered wisdom on DiFranco’s decision or the Gypsy Parlor situation, but the most thoughtful or probing contributions usually come with a signature.
As consumers, if we stick to the opinions with names attached and ignore most of the rest, we’re likely to gain a much fuller understanding of controversial issues than we might have before the digital democratization of opinion that so unsettles traditional journalists like myself. While it is true that Twitter and other anonymous playgrounds illuminate the vilest corners of the American id, even this is a positive development that puts us face-to-face with the most terrifying strains of our national identity. Painful, but helpful.
Both of these smoldering controversies have been tremendous conversation-starters. They’ve forced many of us to acknowledge the cumulative danger of small racist gestures, to think harder about the fuel we may unconsciously contribute to oppression and about the ways we might continue to educate ourselves.
Like any worthwhile transformation, this one doesn’t come without some pain and suffering. But in the end – just ask DiFranco and Gabrielle Mattina – we’re likely to be better off for it.