Some years ago, when lawprof Danielle Citron was throwing her Cyber Civil Rights Symposium, then-adjunct prof Marco Randazza called it a “circle-jerk,” much to the distaste of the tenure track academics. They didn’t appreciate his coarse language, but worse, they didn’t appreciate his calling out their lying to each other. Inside the circle of like-minded believers, nobody points out that a fellow traveler is full of shit.
When New York Law School professor Ari Waldman threw a conference named after Tyler Clementi, no one was invited who wasn’t inside the circle. Indeed, some of the speakers have been subject to criticism here. There were no discouraging words to be heard, but tons of applause for the lies they told themselves.
One of the most curious aspects of the conference was that its purpose was to eradicate cyber-harassment. I asked Ari at the time to define cyber-harassment. After all, if you’re going to throw a conference about eradicating something, it would seem necessary to know what exactly you were arguing should be eradicated. Ari’s response was typical academic deflection:
@ScottGreenfield among our work, as we unveil the program going forward, is to fill such gaps and provide platform for debate on all sides
— Ari Ezra Waldman (@ariezrawaldman) October 2, 2015
That was the last I heard from Ari Waldman. No answer was forthcoming. I didn’t expect there would be, even though that didn’t stop the participants in the conference from universally agreeing to burn the witch.
After the conviction of the villain of their story, Dharun Ravi, was reversed, Ari decided he was going to go public with his quest, and began a stint at PrawfsBlawg to pitch his cause. I used the opportunity to remind him that he had yet to define what it was he was arguing to eradicate.
You may recall, Ari, that I had asked for your definition of cyber-harassment back when you put on your Tyler Clementi conference. You responded that you would let me know, but I heard nothing further.
Perhaps this would be a good opportunity for you to provide your definition. Thanks.
It was polite and non-confrontational, as academics tend to seize upon unpleasant tone as an excuse to avoid unpleasant questions. In his follow-up post, without noting my question in that passive-aggressive way that seems to characterize social justice, Ari included his “definition”:
But definitions are important. There are a host of definitions of “cyberharassment” or “cyberbullying” milling around. And imprecise and inconsistent definitions frustrate our ability to understand, talk about, and solve the problem. Danielle Keats Citron, author of Hate Crimes in Cyberspace and the leading cyberharassment scholar, defines cyberharassment generally as repeated online expression that intentionally targets a particular person and causes the targeted individual substantial emotional distress and/or the fear of bodily harm. There are five core elements to that definition: repetition, use of digital technology, intent to target, targeting, and substantiality of harm.
Before one begins ripping to shreds the failings of this definition, couched in words to give the appearance of a somewhat objective approach, but devoid of the requisite substance that would distinguish a crime from your annoying mother texting you, Ari goes on:
Cyberbullying is a subcategory of cyberharassment that includes all five of those elements but is focused squarely on youth-to-youth behavior. It can be understood as repeated online expression that is intended to cause substantial harm by one youth or group of youths targeting another with an observed or perceived power imbalance. This definition retains those five factors and adds two important elements: youth and power imbalance, the latter of which is actually common in many forms of cyberharassment.
Notably, this is about “youth-to-youth behavior,” meaning that Ari wants to put kids in prison over this. It’s not that he hates kids, but that some kids evoke his tears, while others don’t, and he is just as happy to burn some children for the sake of his favored kids as Citron and her less-than-honest sidekick, Mary Anne Franks, are happy to burn innocent males for the sake of distraught females.
The asymmetry of power, which could be based on identity (i.e., a member of the majority attacking a member of a traditionally marginalized and discriminated minority), draws the line between schoolyard teasing and bullying. It should come as no surprise, then, that young members of the LGBTQ community are uniquely susceptible to bullying and its tragic consequences. They are bullied because they deviate from the norm and because antigay bullying is either tacitly or explicitly condoned by antigay bigotry and homophobia in society at large.
As Ari makes clear, despite his lame attempt to present it in a slightly neutral fashion, this is about criminalizing kids who make gay kids feel badly. While no one would argue that hurtful speech directed at gay children is acceptable, the issue is that his solution is to imprison children. To justify this extreme fix, he offers the big lie:
This definition of cyberbullying captures the worst online aggressive behavior while excluding the otherwise mean, hateful, and distasteful speech that free speech norms tend to tolerate. Cyberbullying is, at bottom, cyberharassment involving youth. And it is an epidemic affecting our schools.
Well, no. While it’s true that this vague and worthless definition would “capture the worst online aggressive behavior,” it’s utterly false that it would exclude “mean, hateful and distasteful speech that free speech norms tend to tolerate,” the latter phrase being some sort of angry acquiescence to the existence of the First Amendment. How dare the Constitution get in the way of Ari’s imprisoning children who hurt the feelings of gay children!
At his Tyler Clementi Conference, there was no one in the room who didn’t gush at the cause, cry sad tears for the hurt, and chant “burn the witch” along with Ari. But he’s out in public now, and can no longer hide inside the circle of friends, where no one will tell him that he’s full of shit.
It’s one thing to spew bullshit in a room full of compatriots, where every lie that confirms their bias is applauded and embraced. But when you leave that circle jerk, the lies won’t work anymore.* The only way to assure that no one calls out the bullshit is to stay safely within your circle. Once outside, you can’t get away with the lies.
*In the comments to Ari’s post, they rip to shreds his misrepresentations of facts surrounding Clementi and the problem of gay suicide. While those inside the circle may happily accept lies in support of their cause, outsiders aren’t so amenable.