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Computer Nets Need Same Standards as Public Displays

Column by Jonathan Richmond

Advisory Board

"How do you get one hundred jews into a V.W.?" asked Yngve K. Raustein '94 on the computerized bulletin board known as eunet.jokes. Raustein, who posed the question from an Athena workstation at MIT, also supplied the answer. "Two in the front, three in the back and the rest in the ash tray." Another of his series of "jokes" making fun of the murder of Jews in the Holocaust was a story about a Gestapo officer who asks "a little Jewish boy" his age and, upon being told "I'll turn five this autumn," tells him that he won't. There is also a joke about a "jew [sic] with ... gas tanks on his back" being an addict or a pusher -- a reference to the gas tanks which killed millions of Jews during WWII.

As a result of the posting, Athena received three complaints asking that Raustein's account be deleted. One of those who complained, Henk de Groot of Digital Equipment Corporation in Holland, says he received a response from Athena telling him and Raustein "to settle the matter in private." Raustein says he also received this note. Raustein then sent e-mail to de Groot telling him he was a "stupid shit" and other abusive terms. De Groot concluded (in a further posting to the bulletin board) that MIT "will not do anything against it, even though they know what's going on, so I assume that MIT does approve of this kind of posting and is willing to pay for the expense of it."

At the end of his "jokes" Raustein had asked if anybody could remember similar material, and more "Holocaust humor" was submitted by others, along with complaints about Raustein's original posting. Raustein, who clearly knew his behavior would cause offense -- he had put at the top of his "jokes" the caveat "Some absolutely disgusting jokes here, that will probably offend a lot of you" -- responded by saying he regretted not encrypting the jokes before sending them, and he promised to do so in the future. Claiming that his "jokes" were not racist, he then said: "If anyone has more Jewish jokes (or other kind of tasteless jokes, except racist jokes), but [would] hesitate to post them to the net, please e-mail me!" He would then compile and encode them and "post them to an appropriate forum of humor."

Ensuing discussion, both on Usenet and Athena mailing lists, expressed a range of opinions. One writer from France said, "The original post has nothing to do with ethnic humor and everything to do with fascist/Nazi humor ... A public forum such as eunet.jokes is not always the appropriate place for this kind of humor because you don't know who is reading what you post." A posting from England, however, defended this type of humor because the "world needs free exchange of ideas."

Joseph M. Grossman '94, secretary of MIT Hillel, wrote to Athena's "Jewtalk" mailing list regarding the "jokes." In his response on Jewtalk, Raustein said "I understand fully that the jokes were very offensive to some of you, and I have apologized for not trying to keep the wrong people from reading them." He also said he would not submit such material again, "except, maybe, in private."

One MIT student followed up by saying that the effect "of his jokes are to spread hatred and ridicule. That is racism and is hurtful to Jews even when they do not hear these jokes." Another said "Raustein is an anti-Semite, no two ways about it. He not only eagerly spreads these "jokes," he does it with obvious relish, and solicits others for more material for his collection ... Anti-Semitic remarks and "jokes" are not protected speech, they are racist and harassment, and are in violation of MIT's harassment policy."

A further MIT student, however, answered that it was "ludicrous to claim that someone is obviously an anti-Semite just because they are not so scarred by the Holocaust that they can laugh about it... In any case, I find any policy which says, in effect, `Any speech which someone finds offensive is harassment,' to be patently offensive and in direct conflict with the principles of free speech embodied in our Constitution and society."

In many countries of the world which restrict the transmission of racist material, Raustein's posting would be illegal. The fact that some of the countries reached by Raustein's postings have such restrictive laws raises the question of whether Raustein -- and possibly MIT as owner of the equipment used -- are breaking the laws of those countries. In the United States and at MIT, there are more shades of gray. Those opposed to any restriction can cry "freedom of speech," citing the First Amendment. Those who do so, however, act as if speech was the only freedom to which we are entitled. People at MIT are also entitled to exist in a non-threatening professional and educational environment. The difficult question is not whether one particular right should be supported, but what to do when two rights clash.

While there is an explicit side to "freedom of speech," there is also an implicit side that is perhaps best understood in the context of how women are regarded on many computer nets. Raustein's recent posting is not, of course, the only example of boorish activity on the net. There is a constant torrent of material which is derogatory to all manner of races and people. Perhaps particularly noteworthy because of their wide acceptance are remarks and "jokes" at the expense of women. Recently on eunet.jokes, for example, we heard yet more reasons "Why Beer is Better Than Women," including "After you've had a beer, the bottle is still worth five cents." Another post asked, "What's the excess skin around a vagina called?" Answer: a woman.

While jokes against particular races generate a massive flap, similar material aimed at women generally receives no reaction at all. Is it any wonder that participation on Usenet is so heavily male-dominated when behavior such as this is so common? Are women not going to feel uncomfortable about joining an environment where these views are expressed? Isn't such discomfort in itself a form of restriction on their freedom of speech?

The problem is exacerbated because the computer has gained a special status which tacitly exempts it from the standards expected elsewhere on campus. While anti-Semitic and misogynistic material is unhesitatingly put on computer bulletin boards, would Raustein or others so readily post it -- and sign it -- on actual bulletin boards around MIT? No, because there would be a tremendous uproar and possibly disciplinary action. Remember the fuss made about the negative image of women supposedly projected by the "Sabor Latino" poster that Hispanic students put up around campus to advertise a dance? And it didn't even reduce a woman to a vagina, much less laugh at turning an enitre civilization into ash.

"Jokes" are not the only form of intolerant behavior on the computer. Discussion on many net newsgroups is completely lacking in civility, and would be regarded as unacceptable if conducted among people meeting in person. People will send e-mail they would never drop in the U.S. mail.

The computer somehow makes it easy to do things which would otherwise be unacceptable. It is too easy to detach the keyboard and the screen from the people receiving the invective typed there. And we have all become used to screaming when we see something we don't like on a bulletin board, but shrugging our shoulders when it's on the net. What we need to do above all is tell ourselves that as a community, we must set the same standards of mutual respect on the computer as we do everywhere else. And we must also deal with infractions of such mutual respect on the computer in the same way we deal with them everywhere else.