Wednesday, January 16, 2013

If You’re Thinking About Comparing Something To Slavery …

… And it’s not actually slavery, here’s my advice: Don’t.
So far, I’ve avoided writing about the tragic death of Aaron Swartz, the internet genius who was under a federal indictment for allegedly illegally accessing and downloading articles and documents from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, among other charges. I haven’t avoided the writing about Swartz’s case because it might reflect badly on the Obama Administration, but because of the nature of Swartz’s death: He killed himself.
This, unfortunately, is something I know more about than anybody would care to know. If you’ve been through the suicide of a family member, you know it’s not the kind of thing you can reduce to platitudes. It’s easy for those who lionized Swartz and his work, but who never had to deal with suicide in their own lives, to reduce Swartz’s death to a simple equation: The government killed him! Those of us who’ve struggled with suicide for real – as in, in our own lives – and have dealt with it, thought about it, agonized over it, and tried to make sense of it for many, many years … we know it’s never that simple. Which is not to say the government bears no responsibility; it’s distinctly possible that overly zealous prosecutors pushed Swartz over the edge. But there had to be something more going on in Swartz’s life, and that something has a name: Mental illness.
So I’ve avoided the subject because I’m not going to get into a simplistic debate about whether the government is or isn’t to blame for Swartz’s suicide, when I know it’s way more complicated than that.
On the other hand, it’s hard to avoid the subject altogether, unless you choose to avoid social media, or, for that matter, the internet itself. Which leads me to the image at the top of this post, an image I’ve seen on Facebook and elsewhere on the net today, and to a subject I most assuredly won’t avoid: The tone-deafness of so many of my fellow liberals, often of the White persuasion, when it comes to racial metaphors like slavery.
I get the point of the image. There’s this thing called “civil disobedience” that’s played a long, honorable role in the advancement of civil rights and civil liberties in America. Sometimes, the right thing to do is to violate the law in order to demonstrate that the law is unjust, or to advance a cause that’s more important than mere adherence to the rules. Working to free slaves at a time when the law protected the institution of slavery? Yes, that certainly qualified as legitimate civil disobedience. As did sit-ins and protests and boycotts of discriminatory businesses in the days of segregation.
It may well be that what Swartz allegedly did – “broke into the computer networks at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to gain access to JSTOR, a nonprofit online service for distributing scholarly articles online, and downloaded 4.8 million articles and other documents,” according to the New York Times – qualifies as a legitimate form of civil disobedience, too. But how, exactly, does it compare to freeing slaves and all that that entailed?
It doesn’t, of course. Honorable, perhaps. But the Underground Railroad? No.
In fact, at the risk of alienating my liberal friends who have found in Swartz’s case and in his untimely death another cause célèbre, the slavery comparison really approaches a Godwin’s Law level of insensitivity: Comparing Swartz’s actions to people who risked their lives to free slaves exaggerates the importance of what he did and trivializes slavery itself and the enormous risks people undertook to escape it.
And let’s face it, using the slavery comparison here, to criticize the Obama Administration’s handling of Swartz’s case, only makes it worse: The White guy was like the Underground Railroad, man, and the Black president was like a slave catcher!
I suspect whoever made the image in question never intended to convey that kind of message, but the subtext is there, intentional or not. And that’s what I mean when I say it’s another example of tone-deaf (usually White) liberals misusing racial metaphors.
So, I’ve made this handy flowchart – I’m big on flowcharts – to help my fellow White liberals know when it’s okay to compare things to slavery:

Pretty straightforward, no?
Hey, anytime I can help.


  1. This is one of your most perceptive pieces. That chart gets a retweet.

  2. Dave von Ebers:

    I can think of sooooooooooooooo many things that the chart would come in handy for!