October 20, 2012

On Free Speech

This week, the Web site Gawker did what they do best: They found an ethical issue and tightrope walked that thing all over the Internet.

As a brief replay, they managed to “uncover” one of the Internet’s largest trolls, a guy who proudly “pushed buttons” by posting some very controversial stuff.

Controversial is putting it incredibly lightly.

“Controversial” is posting gruesome pictures of abortion clinics in a pro-life ad.

This guy just found pictures of half-naked teenage girls, or women who were being violently beaten, or jokes about rape, and posted them to a corner of the web which can often promote some very seedy behavior.

Known on Reddit as “Violentacrez,” Michael Brutsch is a seemingly normal guy until you realize everything he’s promoted online, then he totally looks the part.

Gawker’s unmasking of this guy is both a good thing and a bad thing: With him revealed, the world is now aware of what kind of behavior is allowed online. However, revealing his name and occupation also got him fired, and while we may think he “deserves” this, that’s a moral judgement that I’m nowhere near able to make.

When I first heard this story, I was shocked to hear about the sheer number of subreddits this man created. Some of the titles, like “Choke a Bitch,” or “Pics of Dead Kids” can really catch you by surprise. Yet, it’s no surprise that this kind of stuff exists. There are some very “interesting” people in the world, capable of doing all sorts of things, and my general impression of Reddit has always been that they’ll allow it all, so long as someone finds it “funny” or “hot.”

I became enraged, however, when I read that Reddit was trying to play the Freedom of Speech card.

Like the humor often used in many of these offensive subreddits, running underneath the covering of Free Speech is a cheap shot; It’s shallow, and overall, it’s weak.

Freedom of Speech is often seen as a untrumpable card for people with guilty consciences to play. Worse, running to this argument too many times absolutely dilutes its power.

The idea of freedom of speech was presented to give anyone the ability to question their government, to have and hold their own opinions. This is an unalienable right that all should be afforded. I should be allowed to think one of the 2012 presidential candidates is an out-of-touch guy with a slimy, scaly smile, and I have the right to say that.

When I start talking about ways I’d like to harm him, or when I start acting in a way that could harm him, I can no longer hide underneath the umbrella of Free Speech when the, ahem, “stuff” starts to fall.

Brutsch and anyone else who ran to defend him aren’t “fighting” or even “defending” Freedom of Speech. They’re weak, nocturnal cowards who are hissing at the light which has just entered into their dark corners. These people aren’t even “speaking” anything by posting these pictures. They’re gawking at them instead, affirming their right to be posted and gawked at further.

Furthermore, posting these pictures can absolutely bring harm to those who are in them. At the very least, having these images cast about online can harm these young girls’ character. I don’t think anyone who was disgusted  by Brutsch’s postings would dare to think about a worst case scenario for these girls.

Looking and laughing (or worse) at pictures of anyone being violently assaulted turns their plight into nothing more than a joke and a free evening at home. It further desensitizes our attitude towards violence.

And here’s the kicker: Reddit first defended themselves, saying they “stand for free speech,” adding “we are not going to ban distasteful subreddits. We will not ban legal content even if we find it odious or if we personally condemn it.”

How noble of them.

And yet, just as they had last year when Anderson Cooper ran a piece on Brutsch’s Jailbait forum, they’ve backtracked once again.

They’re no longer “standing for free speech,” and are now they’re saying they “regret” giving this man a golden idol of an award for his actions on the site.

They loved him when his material was bringing in loads of visitors, but Reddit only wanted visitors who were going to come in, look at some pictures, and leave.

Now that Brutsch is responsible for bringing in visitors who want to turn the lights on, they’re willing to ban him and sever all ties, more or less apologizing for ever letting him access the site much less moderate all of this nefarious content.

And Brutsch? Does he get off free and clear?

He has lost his job, though that’s for none of us to call punishment, judgement or Karma.

“Well, I am to some degree apologizing for what I did,” said Brutsch in his interview with CNN. Then he begins replacing the blame.

“Again, I was playing to an audience of college kids. And you know, when two years ago, when all of this was at its height, the audience was appreciative and supportive of the sort of gallows humor that I put out there.”

If I may paraphrase: “It was fine when people thought it was funny. Now that no one is laughing, I guess I’m sorry…”

I’ll conclude with this: I watched the video of Brutsch being interviews by CNN’s Drew Griffin today and was overcome by one thought.

So many things we do, say or see online sound so much different when we’re reading them in our internal voices. We may have known about a guy who calls himself violentacrez who posted all sorts of sordid material online, but seeing him, hearing him say by name the different forums he created, makes it more than real. In fact, it’s the sheer realness of this guy that makes it so creepy and so dangerous. Then watching him squirm under the lights, looking for any appropriate thing to say as Griffin mentions that he has a daughter…it made Brutsch seem serpentine, at best.

No, this is not a man who cares about free speech or who just wanted to “push buttons.” This is a man who absolutely knew what he was doing and is only upset that he’s been found out.

And now Reddit is abandoning what they thought was moral high ground to turn the lights off again, so as not to scare away any more of the riff raft.

And Freedom of Speech is left looking a little worse for the wear.

Image Credit: eyeidea / Shutterstock

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