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Privilege and Platform

Freedom of speech is a right often confused with the ability to say things consequence-free. People are generally free to say whatever they damn well please, a privilege compared to most areas in this world where expressing your viewpoint can often land you months in prison, torture, or death. However, this freedom seems to be incorrectly equated with the idea that speech is not often interconnected with privilege, oppression, and status, most specifically through the platforms it is given. To speak does not come with an automatic guarantee that your speech is protected from criticism, from being called out, from being presented as oppressive or privileged. Furthermore, to lie about your privilege by hiding your identity under the pretenses of someone whose speech is often oppressed or dismissed is an exercise in using one’s status to deviate from what would otherwise be the actual lived experience of that person, taking away opportunities for a platform of their own.

Platforms are symbolic, deeming someone an “authority” on a matter; that their judgment and experience is deemed more insightful or more experienced than others. These platforms define the ways in which areas of culture are often filtered back to us. Whether it be through the news, the Internet, or television, someone is being given the authority to say that their opinion or type of experience is a representative viewpoint for worth listening too and accessible to all.

Except the problem with that is, like most experiences in our culture, platforms are often rewarded on the basis of privilege, mostly towards white, cis-gendered, straight men. Not only does this constantly filter information through this lens, it reminds us of the lengthy, problematic debates over freedom of speech and who actually gets to exercise that freedom by having access to platforms. In this case, we have two very different experiences – the first, Bill Graber’s faux identity hoax over at LezGetReal, and blogger Alex Holzbach, an editor of Tumblr’s political hashtag system.

First, I’ll start with Graber. Graber has recently made the news in the wake of the Free Amina hoax, in which an American man living in Scotland, Tom MacMaster, was revealed to be posing as a young Syrian woman, blogging about LGBT issues in Syria. Similarly, Graber has also been ousted as creating a fake identity by using his wife’s identity to run the site LezGetReal, a space described as: “Real lesbians from around the world who aim to provide hard-hitting commentary on politics, issues, and events that affect the LGBT community.” The site states that it is indeed fully LBGT-friendly, and that yes, heteros are welcome. Graber started LezGetReal under the pretense of being a gay woman and has since attempted to distance himself from MacMaster’s actions by stating, “My motivations are completely different than his… I’m afraid that the more people that know about me [being a man running the blog], the less people that will read it. [sic]”

I received this late last week.

I honestly thought about contacting Graber. But I realized that in doing so, I would be validating the fact that I believed he had a story to tell, that his actions were indeed okay, if misunderstood, and supporting his claim of, “If someone had been doing it effectively”¦ you can believe I never would have.”

Really? Persephone’s own Jamie Hagen does a pretty top-notch job here. Arlan at Your Daily Lesbian has created a pretty immaculate space discussing pop culture. SheWired, Grrl2Grrl, Curvemag, Pam’s House Blend, A Brown Girl Gone Gay, A Story of Two Mom’s, Effing Dykes, and Sistahs on the Shelf are all excellent spaces discussing identity, current events, and mainly just writing about themselves as actual gay women. Yet somehow, in Graber’s opinion, all these writers and all the existing spaces out there were somehow just not up to par with what he, a married, straight, white man, could contribute to his experience as a gay woman. That even though he could be rewarded for just being who he is, whether he is willing to be aware of that or not, he decided to participate in the same online minstrel act that MacMaster himself had. While his actions have caused a stir in the media over whether or not blogs could be “trusted,” he had not only taken away a lead space for someone who was actually gay to run LezGetReal, but also casted distrust on other lesbian-run spaces for fear that they might be”faked.” He held a platform, and his actions have made it consequently harder to get one.

Then there was this. It was noted last week that Alex Holzbach, a person who has gone on record claiming himself as an anti-abortion activist, genocide definition maker-upper, and all-around misogynistic proclaimer, was one of the curators of Tumblr’s political hashtag system. The tagging system in Tumblr is a way to link up to similar events or writing by other bloggers, making it easier to see what is going on in similar discussions. Only, here’s the problem: Tumblr gave a platform to a man who held an anti-affirmative action bake sale, handing out cookies to black and Asian students; who believes abortion seekers should be jailed; and expresses many more status quo, by the book, sad, standard white guy hate politics the ability to filter content which he deems “suitable” when browsing the hashtag. A bigot was allowed a platform to deem political content appropriate for a public space. A Tumblr user, Alexander Ryking, offers up the following to Tumblr users who questioned whether it was appropriate for Holzbach to be a Tumblr hashtag curator:

“”¦ Advocating censorship is a very feminazi thing of you to do; you’re both pathetic scum. Not only that, but you’re also idiots too stupid to see how easily a right-winger could use your argument against you; right-wingers can just as easily make a case to Tumblr that it is promoting left-wing extremists practicing Hate Politics. And you want to complain that he’s ‘undermining your rights’ while you’re trying to undermine his First Amendment right? Really, cunts? Finally, for the record, MOST people on BOTH SIDES of the political aisle reject your racist, sexist notion of privilege; it’s only left-wing fringe radicals like you trash who buy into that nonsense. Do the world a favor: Go kill yourselves you feminazi twats.” (Alexander Ryking, on Tumblr)

Of course, it was again pointed out that while free speech is indeed free, it doesn’t mean you get to go without dealing with consequences, nor does it mean that what you say is valid or can’t be deemed hateful by the people who it is directed at, especially when your privilege influences the way they are socially treated. When free speech is conveniently claimed in hopes of not being called on hateful, oppressive language, it only cheapens the actual struggle of people whose lives suffer under a set of wide-spread beliefs like such:

“In a discursive setting, hateful language and abuse like that individual’s is meant TO FRIGHTEN, TO HURT, and TO SILENCE. Calling women with whom you disagree “feminazis” and “pathetic scum” and “idiots” and “cunts” and “twats” and “trash” and telling us to go kill ourselves is intended to shut us up. It is intended to make us slink away from debate, intended to make us cower in fear at the violence embedded in the words and the tone in which they are written or spoken, and intended to make us doubt ourselves and our ability to participate in public debate. It is intended to reassert dominance by a dominant group over a marginalized group, and it is intended to undercut the credibility of all women who dare to speak against those who uphold the social privilege status quo.” (Invertebrate Party, on Tumblr)

Of course, it’s easy to block this concept out if privilege backs you up in every sense of the word and supports the mere fact that you live and breathe. So while in one sentence someone screams about being oppressed by “feminazis,” I find it interesting that instead of doing what oppressed people have done for years, which is fight back with backed evidence of oppression, they have resorted to name calling and suggestions of killing oneself. Flavia Tamara Dzodan, a media facilitator and one of the writers who initially pointed out the absurdity of giving someone like this a platform (as well as attacked for it) said, “We are already told in media, in press, in numerous blogs, in everyday political discourse, that we shouldn’t have the right to make decisions about our bodies. We are consistently told that our rights are negotiable and interchangeable tokens to be used for political advancements. Tumblr should know better than to give a platform to someone who wishes for our further oppression.”

Again, Holzbach is allowed to say and believe whatever he wants. However, why would Tumblr, a well-known, popular blogging platform, want to give this guy a position as a political editor where he is supposed to curate thoughtful political discussion under the guise of “freedom of speech”?  Is Tumblr aware of how bad this makes them look, even if they don’t officially “endorse” Holzbach’s opinions? There isn’t a single other person out there who might hold a libertarian view, sans hateful speech, that might be more well-suited to actually have this platform?

And that’s the bottom line of all this. Both Graber and Holzbach are mad that their platform is being questioned because of their privilege. Both men seem to have a hard time considering the fact that it is problematic that they either faked their identity to gain access as a “lesbian” or that their “threatened” speech is somehow oppressive towards others. While Graber is actually not hateful, his case reeks of unchecked privilege, that he, a married man (a right that many of his lesbian contacts are not legally allowed) is somehow the most qualified source of what it means to be a gay woman and to lead a predominantly gay community as opposed to all of the actual gay women out in the world. That Holzbach, a man who gets to decide what becomes worthwhile political information, is indeed someone who supports oppressive ideologies – unless they interfere with his personal life.

The hope of these situations is that we can better understand what it means when we give someone a platform, when we deem their voice worthy above all others. If you give yourself a platform and have to “pretend” that you are a gay woman to hide the fact that you are a straight white man, perhaps you do not realize that there is someone with that experience who deserves it more, and that as a white guy, you pretty much are seen as expert on many issues, whether you believe it or not. If you believe that people of color somehow cheated their way into “your” right to education, that women are somehow inferior and should be jailed for what is a decision between them and their doctors, are allowed to curate what is suggestively an objective tagging process, then you are not worthy of a platform either. Latoya Peterson might have said it best at the peak of the Free Amina hoax on what happens when we constantly filter our information through one type of person:

“This whole drama hearkens back to the enduring issue of diversity in media. Most people can see, visually, the lack of racial/ethnic diversity and a failure to incorporate women into the higher echelons of news and culture institutions. But the problem runs far deeper than that. Who do we consider an expert? Frustration is the only word that came to mind when the news coverage of the MENA region started and television networks could deliver me nothing that wasn’t filtered through a white man over the age of fifty (and in some cases, someone who may have directly contributed to the cause of the unrest). How can we adequately frame issues from around the globe without featuring voices from around the globe? Traditional news has always been about selection – what a roomful of men thought the world needed to know about.”

Indeed. Maybe it’s high time that we start reframing what qualifies one to give an idea of how things are actually experienced and start giving platforms to those who actually live through what these two feel the need to be experts on.

By TheLadyMiss

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