I’ve been having an interesting conversation with my friend Drew Jacob in light of a story he sent along to me. Because the details of the story were a bit difficult to fully understand and because they involved allegations of sexual harrassment/assault, I hesitated to write anything here. I felt that I simply didn’t have sufficient information to provide much in the way of informed commentary.
That said, as our discussion went on, we began to get to some of the underlying issues that made the story stand out to us; these focused on questions of vigilantism and justice. And that, I think, gives me some purchase for a discussion.
The basic story, which has apparently gotten quite a lot of attention in certain quarters but which I hadn’t seen before, is that a woman was made to feel very uncomfortable by a man at a party that was connected in some way to a recent science fiction convention she attended. At one point, the man was taking up too much space while sitting next to her and was leaning on her; at another point, he seemed to have followed her and then rubbed her arm as if consoling her when her boyfriend became ill. She reported the man to security and to the convention staff who responded to her concerns in a way that she deemed appropriate and helpful. After the convention ended, the woman wrote a post (which she says then went viral) that contained the man’s name and photo, as well as information about his educational and employment history in order to bring attention to him and his behavior (which was, she apparently learned, something he’d done before).
The interesting question, for someone who writes about heroism, is whether the woman’s actions constitute vigilantism (which I oppose) or, to borrow a phrase from Jacob, citizen-activism (which seems like something we might want to encourage)?
My problem with vigilantism is that there aren’t any rules to follow and any action undertaken is entirely up to the individual who decides to act as a vigilante. Since we’re all generally bad judges in our own cases, it’s an awful lot of power to put at one person’s discretion.
But can the same be said of citizen-activists? And what distinguishes the two?
Here’s Jacob, who is interested in:
the circumstances under which activist citizens … can be a force for good, and temper or eliminate the inherent risks of vigilantism.
[Consider] campus safety escorts for women late at night. If the volunteer escort’s intention is to use his fists if anyone tries to assault her, then he’s a dangerous vigilante; but the point … is that an assault is less likely to occur in the first place if there are multiple people walking/biking the area where assaults often happen. It is a deterrent, not an attempt at superheroism, and that may well be the defining characteristic of a “beneficial” vigilante [read: citizen-activist]… that, and the criterion I suggested in our earlier correspondence: having a group or organization rather than acting alone, and being transparent to the public and (especially) law enforcement.
Neither Jacob nor I have any of this figured out, but it seemed like an interesting place to begin a discussion.
So … is the woman in this story a vigilante or a citizen-activist? What makes you think so? And are these categories helpful in distinguishing between behavior that makes us uncomfortable or concerned (because it could be dangerous to individuals or our community) and behavior that ought to make us more comfortable insofar as it attempts to assist us and our community? Or do you think that my discomfort with vigilantism is unwarranted?