Wednesday, 15 May 2013

The geography of hate

(This is a response to USB researchers' Twitter "Hate Map", written by NUPRI's research assistant, Johanna Fraser)

A recent map created using twitter posts as reference points for understanding where and how much hate exists in the United States has recently been brought to light. The map, which can be found here, uses hateful speech--homophobic, anti-disability, and racist twitter posts--to show the so-called "geography of hate" in America. Researchers--led by Dr. Monica Stephens at Humboldt State University--use the map to geo-tag the origins or hateful speech on twitter based on negative references to particular keywords--queer, fag, cripple, and dyke being examples.

The map has, in my opinion, rightly, received a lot of heat for the possibility of presenting a flawed or misleading view of the general views of individuals living in particular regions. The data used to create the map was collected from an aggregation of all Tweets posted between June 2012 and April 2013 that used the "hate" keywords. These tweets were then screened by students to classify them as either positive or negative and only those deemed negative by the screeners were used to create the map.

On a very basic level this project seems to make an interesting point about hate in America, particularly hate on the internet in America. However, besides the obvious problem with relying on subjective student understandings of what constitutes positivity or negativity in relation to hate speech, the map has a deeper and more harmful impact.

That is, while it is important to draw attention to hate it is also, as silly and optimistic as it sounds, it is also important--if not more important--to draw attention to love.

North Americans, I propose, are infatuated with darkness. Numerous papers in the last decade have focused on this aspect of the modern psyche. While it is not necessarily a new phenomenon in the history of humanity--Greek tragedy certainly presents us with a dark image on par with modern art and film--it is becoming more and more acceptable for people, particularly in our neck of the woods, to focus on the darker side of life. In casual conversation about the merits of this or that week's top box-office hit the common thread is that movies are better when they are more realistic; and what makes them more realistic in our eyes? Well, a film can be said to be realistic when it presents us with the darker underside of humanity--that part of us that exists in all of us but which we hide--our darker side. Thinkers have been quick to claim that this explains our generation's obsession with Vampires, Werwolves and Zombies. These mythical creatures present us with a more "realistic", if metaphorical, view of human nature. Inside all of us is a monster. Perhaps that is why we love True Crime television shows, why our favourite characters are the anti-heros, the Dexter Morgans, the Hannibal Lecters, and even more banally, the drug-addicted Jackie Peytons and rude and uncompromising Dr. Houses.

Works like Dr. Stephens' "hate map" do the same thing that modern art and popular culture do to us. It presents us with a distorted understanding of reality. It shows us where hate is strongest, but ignores where, even within those boundaries of, for example, anti-queer speech, love exists. On first glance, for example, it would appear that the entire Mid to Far Eastern U.S. is rife with racism. When one first clicks on the "racist" option the entire right side of the map lights up a glowing bright red--indicating, according to the creators, the "most hate". A swift double click, though, and you find that within the glowing red glob there are in fact only a few counties and regions that contain within them large numbers of hateful Tweets, double click again and you find that in fact there are only a few towns, some of which are quite sparsely populated that still glow red, the rest of the map left either a light or dark blue indicating "some hate" or--more commonly--not lit up at all.

My question, then, is whether we might find out that in those non-lit up places, or in the light blue shaded areas, or even in the middle of the most frighteningly and brightly red towns we might find, if we cared to look, the most powerful sentiments of love. We have, as I noted already, a tendency to look on the dark side. We think it is realistic to presume that the United States is hateful, racist and homophobic. That's what we see on the news and in films and in popular culture and that is the image which is presented to us by researchers like the ones as HSU that created this map of the geography of hate. But it is not the truth. The world is not a dark place. It is a place with both light and dark and sometimes, if you know where to look, or if you even just care to open your eyes to it, you will find that the light has a way of outshining the darkness in the same way that when you are in a dark room the light from the hallway finds it way in through the crack at the bottom of the door.

So, my message of peace for the day is to find the light in even the darkest of places and Tweet, post and talk about that instead. Perhaps, then, researchers can create a map highlighting the Geography of Love.



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