The power of data used to be in its combination. A survey might combine 1000s of respondents to create a picture of the various relationships between social facts: individually they might be decontextualised, but data works together to create patterns for us to interpret. A biographical interview should combine lots of data about one person to create a context for understanding what a person is about. Similarly, a historical study uses the available data to create a picture of a time, a movement, a battle or a political party.
I may be hopelessly nostalgic, but I feel it used to be the case that this kind of analysis was necessary in order to make a full assessment of a person, a government, or any social phenomenon. Academic and journalistic writing would examine careers and trajectories: asking what did someone say or do, and why, who to and what for. When it comes to the far right, say, good studies looked at the history of a party or an individual. They would examine change and continuity, cause and effect. It seems that in order to make the judgement that the thing in question is fascist or racist or any other ‘ist’, one needs the full facts of the case.
Quite rightly, though, this approach can be critiqued because groups, events, and people are not consistently one thing or another. It is harder to categorise something as X, when a full description demonstrates it to be internally contradictory. Even for an individual incident, we can ask questions about the motives of the speaker or doer, and how it is interpreted. I’ve long appreciated the idea of Bernard Guerin in ‘Combating everyday racial discrimination without assuming racists or racism: New intervention ideas from a contextual analysis’, in which we can see incidents that are racist, without attributing the cause to some internal racist property of the person. Guerin sees ideas of internal properties as unhelpful as they essentialise, lay blame on individuals and not the social, and don’t make for good interventions. I think it also relates to David Oderberg’s thoughts about those in a liberal society feeling that they shouldn’t be judgmental.
But… we don’t want to fall into the trap of never judging, of being the moral relativist who can’t see right from wrong. This, combined with both the way that modern technologies record, splice and flatten each time and space instant, as well as the assumption that we cannot fully understand that instant, means we have chosen to make judgments based on single, verifiable, transmissible - and decontextualised facts. Jon Ronson calls it the ‘war on flaws’.
For me, this seemed to begin with opposition to the extremists. When the membership of the BNP became bigger, it began to include people who weren’t interested in fascism, and many of them weren’t even particularly racist (and no more so than those in other parties). They were drawn to anti-immigration and anti-multiculturalism politics, and a party that was, according to Goodwin, attempting to ‘modernise’. Furthermore, the idea that individuals were somehow synonymous with parties had already broken down, so these BNP activists were hard to attack on the grounds of mere belonging - they were ex-Labour, ex-Tory, ex-everything, so if they were long term ‘bad’ then they were bad for the main parties too. Thus, attempts to discredit became based on individual instances - where people had said something outrageous, and ideally something that would be expected if they were a fascist or a racist. Instead of doing the impossible of examining someone’s heart or character (a la MLK), or judging a longer record which again might be inaccessible, we could judge on the single fact.
This was extended, famously, to UKIP in later political campaigning. Individual activists would be outed for something they said (on one occasion something they said as a Conservative councillor), and although the particular words may have been also said by people in other circumstances, they were deemed indicative of their UKIPness (i.e. presumed racism or anti-immigration attitude) and used to discredit them.
Now, however, this approach is everywhere, and has become a Hobbesian war of all against all, with an appeal to an assumed universal rightness of the mob. It’s also able to transcend time, because almost all of us have long-term public records on Facebook and Twitter. I’m assuming that most people have said stupid things, or used inappropriate words at some point. Shouldn’t some of this be forgotten, and individually we can remember, be mortified and try to not do something so silly again: maybe it was an accident, a misunderstanding, a didn’t know not to, or a deeply buried attitude that isn’t usually expressed.
And maybe it was a joke… The Justine Sacco tweet Jon Ronson writes up was. It was only one tweet, as opposed to a lifetime's work, and would be better judged as part of and in the context of everything else she's said and done. I think there are two important points to consider in this example, one being how the one example has been decontextualised, and the second about the way that the decontextualised example is drawn into a particular political debate where comparisons are legion.
We seem to be in a position,perhaps due to the way technology allows data to flow freely and preferably in tiny chunks, where combinations of words are judged purely in themselves. So a phrase or wording used becomes detached from the motives of the speaker and the context it was used. So when Sean Penn said 'Who gave this son of a bitch his green card?', there was much commentary about how he or it was racist. It's my belief that this was an anti-racist comment gone wrong. Some have noted that Penn and Alejandro González Iñárritu are good friends, and it was the kind of banter they would get up to in private. This defence misses the point. It probably is necessary for them to be friends for this to work, but it could be set up with someone the speaker trusted. This isn't sufficient, however. The more important point is that the line was meant to be public, was meant in a particular way, and this only works with the context. That is, we know that Penn is a liberal activist, and that he knows about anti-Mexican sentiment and discrimination, that this is often spoken of in terms of green cards, and he opposes it. He repeats these words to draw attention to them, he's paraphrasing the racist, doesn't agree with it, and is using the fact that González Iñárritu is super successful to show why the words are wrong. He's doing what we call in the UK 'taking the piss': we must remember that people say things they do not mean because they are being ironic or sarcastic. In Britain this is the basis of a great deal of everyday talk and TV comedy: satire is a national sport, and as Will Self puts it, we have 'a commitment to never saying what you mean, but only indicating it to those who are in the know'. For some viewers this evidently fell flat, and anti racists can claim that either he's demeaning the cause or perhaps making a distinction between poor migrants and his friend. There may be some who misunderstand because they don't know the context, or understand it but feel that others won't get it and it will create more ill feelings, or wilfully misunderstand it to make a point.
Similar issues come up all the time, with slightly different threads to pull at. The row over rape jokes is a case in point. Here, it seems that the original words need not be dissected, with the spreading of the datum and argument being, X comedian made a rape joke... rape jokes are never acceptable... X should be admonished. But comedians will argue that nothing should be off limits, and there can be good jokes about rape. Sarah Silverman's is a good one, and some would ask if this would be OK I said by a man. Again, this misses the point: a woman could make a nasty rape joke, a man could do this joke. It's the total context that matters, and the identity of the speaker is just a shortcut. Comedians are able to say the opposite of their own opinion, with the audience understanding this, because of a shared history.
The second point relates to the way such pieces of data are drawn into a political debate. Somewhere I saw someone comparing the Justine Sacco case to that of feminist activists being trolled or otherwise abused. In some respects this is valid: it's the same herd or mob mentality. But it's very different with regard to who's doing it to whom. For those already engaged in the political debate, battle lines are already more or less drawn. So the feminist activist will write her (rarely his) piece and will be attacked by anti-feminists, usually men. But this is based on expressed and genuinely held beliefs, and those attacking and defending are genuine enemies. Those who are taken out of context or picked up for a flawed moment are not necessarily on the opposite side or any side, but are attacked nonetheless. Sacco didn't expect to be in this dynamic at all for her joke. Sean Penn was attacked by potential allies, or those who he could ally with.
Penn, of course, is doing well enough to laugh this off, maybe avoiding putting a foot in it on future occasions. Those engaged in political battles will just be hardened. However, I'm interested in the response of the average Jo... Many will be reluctant to say anything again of this kind, avoiding getting involved in case they say the wrong thing: the twitter mob have lost a potential ally for their views, if not their methods. Others may be bounced into an opposing position, creating another person who can join the trolls, angry that their flaws were blown up out of all proportion.