On Alexandra Wallace, incivility, and responding to hate speech

On Tuesday we covered the racist rant by a white UCLA student named Alexandra Wallace that has been making the rounds–and, I think, offering some lessons about the challenges of responding to ignorant and hateful speech.

As Jos noted, the Asian Pacific Coalition at UCLA offered excellent suggestions for how to respond to the video in a productive way. It was an attempt to preemptively cut off a cycle that, Anna North points out, happens a lot in this internet age: “offensive statement, public condemnation, threats, public condemnation of threats, rinse, repeat.”

For those who defend the First Amendment rights of all the Alexandra Wallaces of the world, it’s a standard principle: Instead of censorship, answer bad speech with more speech. And while I agree (booooo censorship!) I’ve always found that pat answer a little frustrating. Because inevitably that some of that “more speech” will also be “bad” speech. And because, as a culture, we are apparently incapable of holding multiple ideas in our collective minds at one time, all this speech often gets lumped together as evidence of “incivility.” And we lose sight of what we’re even talking about.

So some reminders: The original video was straight-up racist and unacceptable. You can condemn it as such while simultaneously defending Wallace’s right to say it. In fact, you should definitely do this. Death threats are never ok. Period. Responses that are racist or sexist or any other -ist are also not ok, but they don’t somehow make the original video better. Angry responses, however, are more than justified. In other words, swearing is not the same as being racist.

Civility is a nice goal, but it shouldn’t be demanded in response to hate speech. And the difference between hate speech, offensive speech, and simply angry speech shouldn’t be erased under the big umbrella of “incivility.” Because when it is, injustice is perpetuated.

That said, my favorite response to Wallace is as civil as they come. Hyperbole always wins.

Atlanta, GA

Maya Dusenbery is an Executive Director in charge of Editorial at Feministing. Maya has previously worked at NARAL Pro-Choice New York and the National Institute for Reproductive Health and was a fellow at Mother Jones magazine. She graduated with a B.A. from Carleton College in 2008. A Minnesota native, she currently lives, writes, edits, and bakes bread in Atlanta, Georgia.

Maya Dusenbery is an Executive Director of Feministing in charge of Editorial.

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  • http://feministing.com/members/toongrrl/ Jessica “Jess” Victoria Carillo

    Sound off. But the video looks awesome and the Sisters are completely badass from what I can tell on their facial expressions. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oyHytccvBB0

  • http://feministing.com/members/folktronic/ Rob

    Absolutely best response ever. Hilarious and highlights how absurd the original rant was.

    On a side note… Jessica, your photo is from As Told By Ginger and you just linked to Hey Arnold. Let’s be BFFs?

  • http://feministing.com/members/scyntillations/ Cyn

    I disagree. The title of this piece describes Wallace’s rant as “hate speech,” which means it is not protected speech and she does not have the freedom to insult and degrade the entire Asian-American population.

    Certainly, I do not condone any of the body/slut shaming or violent nature of comments against her, but I also do not condone protecting her right to make this rant. We can be civil in our responses to her, but she does not deserve to be defended.

    • http://feministing.com/members/rhoanna/ Rhoanna

      Hate speech is protected in the US under the First Amendment. The Supreme Court has struck down laws banning hate speech. Lower courts have also struck down public university conduct codes that ban hate speech. So such speech, regardless of how abhorrent you or I or anyone else thinks it is, is protected.

  • beet

    The issue is a horrendously racist video made about Asian students, yet the “authorities” we link to to opine whether this is “really racist” — Angus Johnson, Robert Shibley, Matthew Hurtt — (even though they are not all with the same perspective, nonetheless) don’t include any actual Asians. Even Feministing and Jezebel don’t have any East Asian writers. So I am feeling a bit of lack of perspective here. From some of the comments over at Angus Johnson’s blog, I think this is symptomatic of broader problems within the UCLA community in general.

  • http://feministing.com/members/gibby/ Nina

    While I agree that the video is a racist, ignorant rant – it is not hate speech. Hate speech includes an incitement to violence, and while this video is abhorrent, it does meet the criteria for hate speech. And unfortunately this student does have the right to insult the entire Asian-American population if she so chooses.

    Freedom of speech does not include the RIGHT TO NOT BE OFFENDED. As much as I hate that people like this UCLA student exist, it still is her right to say what the hell she wants. And calling it hate speech is just another spectrum of a much larger problem of censorship. You might not like whats he has to say, but she does have a right to say it.

    • beet

      No, Nina, you are 100% wrong. Hate speech is ” any communication that disparages a person or a group on the basis of some characteristic such as race or sexual orientation”. In law, hate speech is “any speech, gesture or conduct, writing, or display which is forbidden because it may incite violence OR prejudicial action against or by a protected individual or group, OR because it disparages OR intimidates a protected individual or group”.

      So this is absolutely hate speech. And by denying it is hate speech, you are apologizing for it. Also, if you are not the target of this speech, you need to check your privilege because you have no idea what it is like to be a target of these kinds of attitudes ALL THE TIME.

  • http://feministing.com/members/azure156/ Jenny Gonzalez-Blitz

    Fortunately freedom of speech is a two-way street, which means that as much as Alexandra Wallace has the right to spew her loathsome drivel, we have the right to say she’s a complete backwards idiot for it.

    Oh, wait, this is about being civil? I leave civility up to the many many people who are way better at it than me.