Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Facebook Dissed Me, Censored My Speech

I normally do not engage in political discussions on the Internet, and I often reserve these conversations for having with only close friends and family.

See here is the deal. I was censored at a very young age to keep my thoughts about politics, but not religion, to myself. My mother used to tell me stories about her cousin who was called before the House Un-American Activities Committee when this cousin was a professor at Temple University. While I have not attempted to verify the veracity of my mother's statements (simply because everything that I have verified that she has told me thus far has been true), her cautionary tale kept me in check.

When I enrolled in undergrad at Wayne State University and came home with one of the leftist, if not Marxist, publications, my mother again gave me a cautionary tale about how my activity in any leftist ---particularly Marxist, Communist, or Socialist--organization could jeopardize my father's security clearance.

When I finally transferred and completed my undergraduate degree at Georgia State University and had to sign an oath as a student that I would not engage in treasons acts against the U.S. government (remember Georgia seceded from the nation), I better understood my mother's concerns.

But the benefits of my entrenched habit of keeping a lid on political activity and discourse that revealed my streak of radical thought became crystal clear while on an interview with the U.S. State department when an official asked me, "have you ever published anything that advocated an overthrow of the U.S. government?; have you ever published anything that was critical of the U.S. government?; have you ever participated in any activity that advocated overthrowing the U.S. government?" I proudly answered NO to all inquiries about being critical of the U.S. government in any public forum.

So guess how surprised I was when Facebook warned me that my language in a private chat with a high school buddy could be abusive or harassing to others. What were we talking about? Well, my high school buddy innocently said, "I'm watching Fox News. They are too much." Or something to that effect. In response to his comment, I replied that "whites are going to be a political minority, and the 2010 census will reveal that they are a racial minority too. It will be nice for blacks to be part of a majority culture. Perhaps we can become a political majority too." Or something to this effect.

I thought the conversation was pretty benign. This is one of those friends who is like family, so he has sat at my mother's dining room table and engaged in those heated political debates that were part of the discourse in our household, with jazz playing in the background and usually good food on the table. Thus, he knows how intense the conversation can get, which is why an exchange like the one above is extremely benign for us.

Hum, Facebook censors speech. Now I am curious about how many right wing, gun toting, militia, anti-govenment groups have Facebook pages and are actively engaged in posting news feeds and other information on Facebook. If you know of any, do send me their names because it is time to compose a letter to Facebook.

I hate to shut down my Facebook page because it is my main source of contact with my younger cousins, nieces, and nephews: those generation X, Y, and Z folks (are we at Z yet?). Not engaging in Facebook will cut me off from these relatives. I know you are asking: why don't you just call or write them? Well, they don't call or write, they text and interact on Facebook. Also, my students are more likely to "hit me up" on Facebook to ask a question about a course than they are to come to office hours.

Facebook has a right to protect members against harassing and abusive speech. But I also have the right to cease communicating with someone in a private chat who is verbally harassing or abusing me. I wonder if this is a First Amendment issue. I wonder which words are programmed into Facebook's software that spawn that pink warning sign about abusive and harassing language. I wonder if I hurtle anti-black and racial epithets and invectives will Facebook display that pink warning sign. I wonder if Facebook is using the color pink because they think pink is a less offensive color.

Well, I wonder. But I do know that there is something wrong about the pink warning sign that subsequently warned me that my chat would be shut down for five minutes. It also caused me to wonder where is the line between critical inquiry and abusive speech. Perhaps I will walk to this line again and step over it just to see how quickly my speech is censored. The problem is, I am unsure where the line is drawn.

Certainly, I have been quiet long enough and have not had any reason to be sanctioned or censored because of my speech. But perhaps this is the problem. Perhaps it is time for me to speak up. But as I recall, I was always getting in trouble with my English teachers and professors about something I read or said, and I thought that what I was saying or was reading was benign too. I suppose it is all about perspective. If you are reading Franz Fanon in a public school in the 10th grade, this could be a problem to some folks.

Okay, if you know of any right wing, militia, racist, anti-government groups on Facebook, please forward their names to me at Let the research and protest begin!


j.e.baugh said...

Hi, Professor, I too have a love-hate relationship with Facebook and am anxious to see how this turns out for you.

As a student of African-American literature, I have been watching with interest the shifting demographics in America for precisely the same reason you mentioned in your Facebook post. It is interesting to see my fellow white Americans begin to squirm at the prospect of being in the minority. We're about to get a taste of our own medicine, as the saying goes. I can only imagine that the fear rising in the halls of power and the backwoods of the South is but a drop of what minorities have suffered in this country.

Don't back down and leave Facebook. You have as much right to be there as anyone else.

Rochelle Spencer said...

First--you were reading Fanon in the 10th grade? (When I got to college, I struggled through Wretched of the Earth, even as I acknowledged that what I was reading was life-altering) Ok, Michele, this confirms what I've always thought about you: you are a genius...

But also, we have to keep in mind that the founder of Facebook is very conservative (despite the fact that he is gay, and the conservatives aren't known for being very gay-friendly). This has always bothered me about Facebook, and I am more troubled that instead of targeting Sarah Palin's FB page, which has resulted in violent threats being sent out to members of Congress, FB decides to go after my enlightening and inspiring cousin!

I agree wit˙ J.E.--don't leave FB, but use it to do what you've always done: fight for positive social change.

Willis said...

Censoring your private chat conversation, wow. That makes me wonder if Facebook is federally funded? If it is, then big brother has a fired a warning shot or at least raised a pink flag. You might have to start rolling like Deniro and Pesci in the movie,"Casino" and start talking in your car with the radio up loud and a hand over your mouth.

E. said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
E. said...

And I honestly think that it's some glitch in the software that you mentioned.

I have heard some really awful language and hateful ideas on facebook that is malignant as melanoma.

I'm sure you'll get a full apology if you press the issue, I'd be shocked if you didn't.

If we find any pages that fit....I'll let you know.

Please don't leave though!!!!!!!

M.L. Simms said...

Thanks for your comments. Obviously you guys know more about Facebook than I do. I will visit Ms. Palin's page to see the nature of the postings before I compose my letter to Facebook. Thanks!

M.L. Simms said...

Rochelle, I'm not the genius. It was my mother, your aunt Shirley, who steered me towards this literature. And, let's add Simone de Beauvoir's "The Second Sex" and "Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter." I just read whatever was on the bookshelves, then she'd encourage me to discuss the books with her. I got in trouble in undergrad for reading the Marquis de Sade. Hey, it was on the bookshelves, what can I say?

Michaela C. said...

Hi Michele--
I am shocked. Please do not leave fb. I am glad I finally found you again and treasure your posts. I hope, of course, that this was a glitch, but part of me feels very cynical about the direction some of the right-wing discourse has taken since Obama has become president. It just seems like a lot of prejudice is slowly, and sometimes suddenly, bubbling to the surface in ways that make me worry. I recently saw a very interesting interview with Mark Potok of the Southern Povery Law Center on PBS, in which he talked about a surge in hate crimes the night of the Presidential election and in the months afterwards. Noam Chomsky has recently written about an increasingly fascist strain in among the right wing, very scary stuff. It'll take a concerted and sustained effort of decent people. on the right and left, to push back against the likes Sarah Palin and her ilk.