RJ The Symbol and the Man

Dave Rindos (arkeo4@UNIWA.UWA.EDU.AU)
Mon, 13 Mar 1995 11:17:48 +0800

It seems that we might be witnessing an interesting cultural phenomenon at
work here -- the movement of an event from the particular and individual
to the symbolic and collective. I also believe that unintended
consequences, and possibly undesirable ones at that, might well grow out
of this transition. As I hope to show, the issue is -- do WE want control
over our sub-cultural space (this list) or do we wish to give the power
for decisionmaking here to others in the larger, and far more formal and
less flexible (possibly even depersonalised), institutions?

I think we can agree that a particular human, RJ, is/was sending out
messages which, in turn, generated replies. At times, RJ countered with
rebuttles which, again, at least at times, might generally be judged as,
minimally, less than polite -- at least to the extent that he appeared to
attack the motives of the writer, or attributed beliefs to them which
seemed to have no evidential basis. Some posts, though not the majority,
clearly were personal attacks upon named individuals. Given the total
volume of the "RJ thread," this datum can be fairly easily overlooked by
most readers, but I think we can appreciate that this would likely NOT be
the case for those people who were attacked. I think here, moving to the
more general, cultural, level, we are in agreement that the public,
broadcast part, of net space should NOT be used for personal attacks upon
named individuals (though some may disagree on this issue, on which see

I think we can also agree that a specific mailing list (as opposed to,
say, an unmoderated NEWS group) is, more or less, "by invitation only"
space. There is another real person, the list-owner, who is in the
*position* of being forced into making rare, but very real, judgments on
whether another specific real person should be "disinvited" to the party
on the basis of, again, very real events. In making this decision, the
list-owner, we can be pretty sure, has to be guided by not only what
appears on the public space of the net, but also in private communications
sent her or him. Those of us in the public space will, of course, be
unaware of this kind of data. And that is as it "should be" since the
private communications are likely perfect examples of just what should
NEVER be posted publicly (since they likely constitute complaints about
the behaviour of another person).

Incidents of an individual being called, at least by some, "unruly" will
occur and the list-owner has to make a decision. I (though I might be
somewhat influenced by my own experiences) will generally assume the owner
has attempted to weigh the real factors and make the best decision they
can under the circumstances, and in doing so they will be taking into
account the data they have to hand (which, in practice, will be more than
I could have). In some cases, I am willing to assume I would believe that
this might not be the "right" decision, in the sense that I might have
chosen differently, at least based on the data available to me for a given
case. While I might query PRIVATELY to the list-owner the reasons for the
decision, I would hope that the list-owner would NOT make the reasons
public. To do so would be to, again, break the rule against public
attacks upon an individual, even by giving the FULL reasons for a
specific person being excluded (a general notification or clarification
might be posted, however).

Now, all of this has happened. It seems that, from what RJ has posted, he
has been given the boot [but I stress that the SOLE data that he has IN
FACT been booted comes from him -- it would be rather in keeping with
other posts were this to turn out to be a bit of an oversimplification].
This latest [last?] posting by RJ is [again in keeping with his earlier
ones] is occasioning a high volume of posts questioning the list-owner's
alleged decision. A few respondants have said words to the effect of "I
find the Delete key easy, so I didn't mind him being around." Others have
mentioned that they had to pay a real financial cost for his posts and the
rejoinders (not to mention now, the meta-discussion which is probably
using far more bandwidth than all of RJ's up-loaded stuff put together).
A few, rather sensibly, have pointed out that RJ has not been shot or
sacked from his job, and hence even if the list-owner is wrong, the harm
done to RJ as a person is fairly minimal as such things go.

The vast majority of posts disagreeing with the list-owner's apparent
decision to get rid of RJ have dealt with RJ (or, better said, his posts)
as a symbol for "free speech." At this point, of course, we are no longer
talking about ANY of the real events above, nor are we really even talking
about RJ. We are talking about a cultural value, and in the process
"depersonalising" and "deindividualising" both RJ and the list-owner.
This can be appropriate when we are dealing, in fact, with a matter of
cultural significance. And it seems to me that to raise the issue of free
speech on the net in this context is, in fact, to make this larger claim;
something that most people posting along this line tend to make fairly
obvious. But are we here choosing the CORRECT cultural issue?

For here is where we get to a bit of a crunch. To invoke these kinds of
values in this context, is also to say that the existing cultural and
societal sanctions, rather than personal, informal, and situation-specific
ones such as might be used by a list-owner, provide the ONLY appropriate
manner in which to deal with any problem at hand on a mailing list like
anthro-l. In other words, we are making a strong claim that the only
PROPER way to intervene in a situation like the one RJ created is to
invoke sanctions larger than the net itself. Put bluntly, what seems to
be implied here by conflating RJ and Free Speech is the following: let him
(or anybody else) stay until he clearly has broken the law, and then let
him continue until somebody takes legal action against him which turns out
to be successful, and which, as a result, will also (might or might not)
stop his postings.

Quite frankly, I do NOT like the idea of increasing involvment of the net
with the law; this despite (or more likely because of!) having been forced
into becoming the "bad-guy", the first person successfully to pursue a
legal case regarding defamation broadcast via the net. Quite frankly,
that whole business could have been VERY easily TOTALLY avoided had the
to-be-defendant's sys-op taken the proper, INFORMAL, step of first
warning, then if need be, as a person with EFFECTIVE control of
net-behaviour, cut the group news-feed of the person involved so that very
hurtfull lies and misrepresentations of me as a person would no longer be
broadcast. I asked the sys-op to do no more than this, and cited the
long-standing netiquette tradition that list-owners, sys-ops and the like
INFORMALLY maintain basic standards of decorum. But the sys-op involved
refused (even after the user had been convicted of defamation by a court
of law) saying he could/would not interfere with the user's right to
communicate. He, of course, invoked the cultural value of free speech and
said that the responsibility was upon me to take legal action if I didn't
like what was being said about me. Given the peculiarities of the
situation I had no choice but to do so. In this specific case, the
defendant was passing on the alleged "real reasons" why UWA fired me from
my job and he was also caliming that the garbage he was passing onto the
world had come directly from highly respected WA anthropologists. Oddly
enough I believe I can now prove that the defendant was CORRECT in his
general belief: Even though the specific claims themselves are false and
horrid lies it now seems to be the case that, in fact, I WAS sacked on the
grounds that these kinds of defamatory lies became viewed as the truth --
but that delicious little irony is quite irrelevant here. Also
interestingly, it seems that the same sort of process discussed here
[conflation of real individuals with larger cutlural symbols] created the
environment which permitted the defamation to succeed, but that is a topic
for another thread on cultural function and the role of symbols in social
and political discourse. For now it is only worth pointing out that I DO
wish I hadn't had this particular little field experience, and wouldn't
recommend it to anybody.

So, returning to the RJ business, it seems that the cultural value of
free-speech must be put back into a real context: that of how in fact we
wish the net (or other institutions for that matter) to function. Free
speech already has limits under the law. I am NOT sure if we want to
limit ourselves to the legally enforcable notion of free speech on mailing
lists, and I am not sure if we want to go to the trouble of having to use
the law to make decisions in such settings.

Given this observation, we might wonder which level of sanction is the
appropriate one at which to deal with perceived problems raised by
individual posters on a mailing list. For me, and I think for the
long-term good of the net as a medium of communication, I believe that the
benefit of the doubt should be given to the list-owner in cases like this.
Not because the list-owner is always correct (though she or he IS likely
to have more data than the readers), and not because I do not value free
speech (to hold that we may develop informal rules restricted of it in
certain settings is not to deny the principle in general), but because I
think certain types of SANCTIONS are more appropriate in THIS specific
settings than others. So I can easliy sign a petition to stop a
GOVERNMENT attempting to censor the net but support the list-owner's
privilege to exclude the unruly. Ultimately, the reason is the same -- I
do not believe we should have to rely upon the larger cultural
institutions as the SOLE source of sanctions in our own sub-cultural

Sorry this is so long, but as you might guess, it IS something I have had
to think about a bit...and from several directions.

continuing his field work on "Pride and Privilege in Australian Academia"