The Need for Safe Space in Cyberspace

Post by Jennifer Evans

Today is International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia. What better reminder of the need for vigilance and action than a hate crime on a university campus in a major Canadian city? The interesting twist? The crime was committed not on the street, in a dorm room, or in a back alley. It was a personal attack in one of the most public of spaces: online. A student was targeted for no other reason than the fact that he is queer and out. Alerted to a series of hurtful and harassing memes on the internet site Quickmeme.com, he did what any concerned and offended person would do — contact the university”s Equity Services and the police to have the matter documented, the offending memes removed, putting the perpetrators on notice. To their credit, the Ottawa Police were swift to take up the call to action.

Beyond the irony of a targeted attack being committed so close to the day trumpeted on Twitter and Facebook for raising awareness about the struggles of sexual minorities, this incident provides yet another example of the need to devise new ways to think about cyberspace as a place to combat hate, raise awareness, and reduce harm. The internet is a place where we socialize, shop, trade photos, and gossip. It is also a place where bullying happens, where harassment is unleashed, and where anonymity reigns. Aside from the trouble of tracking down IP addresses and identifying offenders, there is the matter of jurisdiction. How do we enforce existing laws (like university codes of conduct or anti-bullying legislation) while devising new and relevant strategies of education and enforcement to ensure the harassment doesn’t happen again? Because that is what this is, harassment, and it is not just offensive but it is exclusionary and sometimes downright violent, if not in an obvious way, than in ways that make it difficult for students to learn, professors to teach, and the university to function.

Why is this kind of thing so damaging? We no longer need to be told that in the internet age, information travels quickly and opinion counts as fact. Ideas posted in Web 2.0 carry the illusion of legitimacy and erudition, even if most of the time it is more idle chatter than information. And we would be wrong to think that images presented to us online are somehow benign or without impact. 21st century Mad Men remain convinced that even the most annoying ads in the sidebar of our Facebook account might surreptitiously motivate us to consume and buy.

But this is not the danger posed by memes, those quirky colourful mini posters we send to friends, colleagues, and acquaintances or post on Facebook. They may be transitory expressions of emotion and critique. But they are also social texts in the classical sense. They are documents of popular sentiment, and if they were found 20 years from now by historians, they would be taken as evidence of how our society viewed both the mundane and pressing issues of the day — with humour, irony, wit, and, in this case, outright malice.

Universities are places of learning and thinking. And they are also places of work. In response to anti-bullying legislation like Bill-168 and student-driven initiatives to have the needs of diversity met, universities across Canada are developing safe space training to better educate students, professors, and staff about ways we might all ensure that university space — online as well as in the classroom — remains free from the stain of prejudice and hate. Another way that this is happening is by re-occupying (to borrow a phrase from another movement) the space of anonymity and aggression in order to re-cast it as a place of tolerance and opposition. Whether through “It Gets Better” videos or by simply tweeting our outrage at acts such as these, we leave our own mark online in opposition to the actions of the bullies. While it might not stop the next malcontent from clicking a mouse and uploading invective, or do away with the pain of being targeted, it still might be an important step towards making cyberspace a safe space. And that certainly is a step worth taking.

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