Not Everything Is Worth the Same Outrage Even If It Says Rape

I started seeing the tweets on Friday. Apparently there was a shirt that said “Keep Calm and Rape A Lot” being sold on Amazon’s UK website by a third-party company called Solid Gold Bomb. People were outraged. Initially so was I, but I’ve been trying not to just knee-jerk retweet. I didn’t have a lot of time, but it was quickly apparent to me this was a case of an automated process gone wrong. I didn’t give it much more thought. As it turns out, the shirt was in fact produced by an automated process, the company has apologized, the shirt is no longer available … but people are still outraged.

Not everything is worth the same level of outrage. Even things that have rape messages on them. In a world where GoDaddy produces the same slick, bullshit Superbowl ads every year, I just can’t care much that some — admittedly lazy and poorly thought out — automated t-shirt slogan generator produced some bad slogans. Entire product lines of clothes are still being produced that sexualize pre-teen girls. Women’s magazines and men’s magazines are published every day enforcing gendered stereotypes that worry me. Rape jokes in movie and television are still common (many people still think it’s okay to joke about prison rape.) Liquor ads that demean women appear in nearly every glossy magazine I’ve ever seen. Now that’s pervasive!

But they should have filtered the word list! Of course, they should have filtered it. It’s even possible some foolish person intentionally left “rape” in because they thought it might be funny. But I doubt they gave it much thought. The entire product line was clearly done with as little attention as they could get away with. Products or advertising reviewed by multiple people from large companies with influence and staff are far more harmful than a t-shirt that got almost less review than a tweet. But they should be reviewing the shirts the program generates! Again, I agree, they probably should have. They made a mistake. They aren’t likely going to do it again.

I’m disappointed that the Miss Representation organization pushed this story so hard, even putting AmazonUK on their leader board of worst offenders. The Miss Representation documentary is intense. Go see it. I’ve actually tweeted #NotBuyingIt before for products I’ve run into with sexist messages. I support this method of improving culture (and aside from GoDaddy it seems to work pretty well). However, their promotion of this story — the first tweet I saw was from the @RepresentPledge account run by Miss Representation — greatly amplified a story that doesn’t have much to it. What does it say when automated software errors and a very small bad decision (to not think about the word list better) is being treated the same as sexist, misogynist Superbowl ads made by huge companies like Budweiser and Audi?

Miss Representation has some choice on what outrages they spotlight. This one isn’t that outrageous and probably could have been cleared up with a quick note to the people selling the t-shirts (who appear to be genuinely mortified1). It diminishes the message Miss Representation is trying to get across when products of unintentional error are lambasted with the same harsh outrage given to gleefully sexist GoDaddy ads or routinely degrading magazine ads. Frankly, I’m just not buying it.

  1. If they were the evil misogynists some on twitter and other comment threads claim they are, would they really have bowed to public pressure in less than twenty four hours? Surely they would have held out longer! Moreover, as far as I can tell, the first tweet I saw from @RepresentPledge was at 3PM my time on Friday and that shirt was taken down less than two hours later. Further awful (and automatically generated) t-shirts were still up but it takes time to take everything down.

Comments suck right? So why do you have them?

A study is going to be published that supposedly shows stories with uncivil comments below them results in people being less informed. That’s the gist. The sad part are news and blog sites posting about this study, including noting people shouldn’t read comments, on sites that have comments on every story! As an example, Mother Jones published a piece on it that concluded:

To be sure, we all retain the option of not reading the comments. Which, in light of the latest research, is looking smarter than ever.

Mother Jones makes little effort to moderate their comments (beyond automated spam flagging that disqus supports). They also do not encourage their authors to engage with the comments. Their comment threads are full of people making uncivil claims, full of falsehoods and otherwise not very useful (though I’ve had some good discussions there). The sad part is their own piece on this research had no self-reflection about what Mother Jones could do to make their comment threads better.

Of course, poor comment threads are not limited to Mother Jones, nor were they alone in publishing a story about this study while having comments on their site. Most versions of the story I saw go by were for sites I know have comment sections. I know comments can be civil and actually add to discussions and my understanding of the topic (see Scalzi’s blog, Metafilter and Biofortified for a few examples). But having a good comment section is work. Authors and site owners have to actively read comments and either remove off-topic (or uncivil) comments or respond to them regularly to create the kind of atmosphere that encourages everyone to make useful (or at least not harmful) comments.

The response to this study shouldn’t have been: now we all have proof no one should read comments! It should have been: why do so many sites allow comments when they clearly aren’t willing to invest in making them worthwhile?