Fighting ‘entitlement racism’ on social media

Racism on social media follows twisted forms of illogic, slipping into circles of self-fulfilling claims brooking no argument – and the media platforms claim that they only connect people.

Racist expression has surged in the past few years. The populist revival of white nationalism exemplifies a more extreme streak in this surge. This no doubt has been licensed and reinforced by Trumpeteerianism, Breximania, and related modes of national xenophobias, pretty much globally. Racisms today are re-prompted and promoted by the relative anonymities and distancing that some social media platforms not only enable but in some ways actually encourage.

A recent extended Facebook experience offers the opportunity to tease out some of the ways this now seemingly viral outbreak is manifesting and reinventing the circulations of racisms. The experience specifically had to do with antisemitism but speaks to more general racially pernicious operators at work today.

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I had noticed in passing in my Facebook feed references from a person who had “friended” me – and whom I did not otherwise know – to Jews as being “our oppressors”. After the second such posting – he literally did not know exactly to whom he spewed – I commented that the claim is silly on its face and dangerous in implication, given recent shooting rampages in synagogues and shopping malls, and that he should be mindful of his characterisation. Following a bit of back and forth, it was clear he was not going to cease. So, I explicitly characterised his claims, now mounting and more brazen, as “antisemitic”. 

Posting Man, in a sense an imposter, denied that what he was saying was antisemitic because “true” claims cannot be so. Denial – one might call it implausible deniability – is the first operator of this expression of racism. But the denial is revealing. It implicitly acknowledges the perniciousness of racism but rationalises away why the expression in question is not. It admits to the wrongfulness, if only they were guilty of it. It takes pains to mark distance as a means to render their racist expression innocent.

Ramped-up racism

What followed in almost daily posts and comments over the next few weeks was a ramping up of the antisemitic expression and its deniability. It was as if Posting Man were awaiting someone to call him out as fuel for the venom. The expression was reinforced, in a sense, egged on, not just by and over my objections but by this self-licensing of these increasingly brazen comments of this self-entitling man just to shoot off his mouth. This served in effect to isolate the objector – here, me – as the objectionable and troublesome Jew bringing their troubles upon themselves. (I nowhere identified in the exchange as Jewish but my name no doubt gives me away as nominal member of the “inglourious basterds”.)

The discourse ramped up, in specificity and tone, from Jews not just as oppressors but as controlling all of mainstream media. No specification of what or where or who, ignoring my questions to this effect. When I pointed out that actually mainstream media throughout the Western world were largely owned by white men, a few Jews among them, the discussion – never addressing my counter – veered to Jews controlling the world’s banking system. When I produced evidence that actually the major global banks too were largely controlled by white men, a few Jews among them, and some small number of Chinese, the claims shifted yet again. 

Now the Zionist conspiracy was at fault. When I pointed out that not all Jews are Zionist, and not all Zionists Jews, the response was that they were not talking about all Jews. The Jewish conspiracy ultimately became responsible – I can’t make this up – for having been behind all the major terrible events of the “past century or so”. The assassinations, wars, terrors, recessions, depressions. America joined World War II only because of the Jews. I was waiting for the earthquakes and hurricanes . . .

Racism’s operators

Embedded here are a number of further operators of racisms. So, second, the claims float, refusing to be pinned down, not just to evidence but to an actual logic of reasoning. Reasoning in any compelling sense is foregone in the interest of self-fulfilling claims-making. A closed circuit of self-referentiality ensues. Critique is kept at bay by insisting it is outside the circuitry of self-enclosed meaning-making. One has to believe to believe. A non-believer is pariah, not to be convinced so much as excommunicated. I was repeatedly told I was lying – about them, about Jews, about myself. A liar among thieves of reason can only be counted as a survival mechanism.

Third, the problem of denouncing the colour line, as W.E.B du Bois can be read to have made clear, is that one is made the problem. The critic of racism is made the problem child of modernity. Jews, it was said well into this exchange, brought their troubles upon themselves. What followed was an insistence on considering, once again, “the Jewish Question”, this reinforced by posting an article featuring that title from a contemporary national socialist website. The implication, given the reference to Jews behind 20th century wars – all wars, no distinction – is that they were as responsible for their own deaths in Auschwitz as were the Herero and Ovambo at the hands of German colonisers, or the Congo basin inhabitants at the hands of the Belgians, or in a different register, the Palestinians at the hands of Israelis. The culprits were not the white guys – anyone but.

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Fourth, “truth” is mobilised as the vehicle of racist expression. When he could no longer evade the characterisation that the views he was expressing were explicitly antisemitic, he embraced them as “true antisemitism”, as though unconvinced by the antisemitism, one should be bowled over by its supposed “truth”. The power of truth-claiming lies just beneath the surface of racist claims-making. Truth is made an instrument of domination. In pointing out that radical overgeneralisations upon which such forms of racist expression operate by definition have a kernel of embedded truth partial in every way, denial came in the form of charging the critic with lying. 

Fifth, the now standard retort had to come. With nothing else to fall back on as defence, charge the critic with playing the race/antisemitic/racist card. The counter to critical charges of racism is to charge the critic as racist. For what? In the end, for invoking race, collapsing their wrongdoing with the critic’s naming of the wrongdoing. Take away the power to name and racisms are liberated to speak their polluting mind. The power, as I have argued at length elsewhere, of postraciality as the current modality of racism. If drawing relevant distinctions is the first act of thinking, racisms’ refusals of distinction can be said to be thinking’s demise.

Sixth, the arc of racist claims-making projects itself through the animation of constantly moving chess pieces on a board with no rules. Where a racist claim fails to stick, or warrants scathing objection, or often enough is made just on a whim, move to the next space as it advances one’s interests. There is but one rider: advance the interests, the survivability of the white pieces while knocking off the black, or any that stand in or up for the black. In standing in and up for the black pawn one is made so. As Jean-Paul Sartre famously insisted, “If the Jew did not exist, the antisemite would invent him”. And Frantz Fanon made explicit the implication that blacks and Jews are interchangeable in the racist mind: “When you hear someone insulting the Jews,” he writes, “pay attention; they are talking about you.”

Sins of social media

The seventh deadly sin: social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter and Reddit or 4chan hide behind the fence of free speech. Registering a concern is hidden in the platforms’ seams. It takes more than two clicks just to find the avenue. Google Maps gets you faster from one side of Los Angeles to the other, and that takes like two days in good traffic. A complaint about “hate speech” – is that what this is? really? – disappears into the netherworld of underpaid, overworked and marginally trained assessors. 

The keywords are missing here. No pejorative racist terms. Only endless rationalisation, bent and warped and preaching to its choir, ramping up the noise till the voices in the head take over. This is polite society’s version of “the Jews will not replace us”. Platform responsibility will be denied just as Uber refuses to call its drivers employees. We are just connecting people, they insist. Well, connection can be deadly too. Not every expression in the final analysis should have a platform. Not every crazy view should get a megaphone. It’s not all good, nor blameless.

Finally, the game is up. What Philomena Essed characterises as entitlement racism concerns the self-license to assume the power to decide what racist claims can be expressed, what can be  done to whom and how, in the end what it is to think, to be, to do. Now, entitlement racism is showing its ugly face across social media. But racist exploding tends sooner or later to implode in the face of incessant critique. Humpty Dumpty is in pieces, falling off the platform. Like Hamlet, however, we remain haunted by the ghostly visitations on the social ramparts.

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