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.

St. Paul, MN

Maya Dusenbery is executive director in charge of editorial at Feministing. She is the author of the forthcoming book Doing Harm: The Truth About How Bad Medicine and Lazy Science Leave Women Dismissed, Misdiagnosed, and Sick (HarperOne, March 2018). She has been a fellow at Mother Jones magazine and a columnist at Pacific Standard magazine. Her work has appeared in publications like Cosmopolitan.com, TheAtlantic.com, Bitch Magazine, as well as the anthology The Feminist Utopia Project. Before become a full-time journalist, she worked at the National Institute for Reproductive Health. A Minnesota native, she received her B.A. from Carleton College in 2008. After living in Brooklyn, Oakland, and Atlanta, she is currently based in the Twin Cities.

Maya Dusenbery is an executive director of Feministing and author of the forthcoming book Doing Harm on sexism in medicine.

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