RSA Acceptance for 2020

Portland, Oregon, here I come! I do wish I had not been dead-named on the acceptance email, however.

“Jamming (Un)Ethical Programs: Digital Hospitality and The Far Right”

The CFP for the 2020 Rhetoric Society of America conference asks us to consider hospitable rhetorical practices in light of contemporary concerns. For Derrida and Levinas, the task of hospitality is to navigate between the Law of unconditional hospitality, which demands universal hospitality to the Other, and the laws of conditional hospitality, which draw the limit. Though following the Law may seem aspirational (if impossible), unconditional hospitality leads to discursive, material violence if left unchecked without procedures to make decisions when welcoming one guest comes at the exclusion of another. 

This presentation addresses the violence of universal hospitality in how web hosts and social media platforms decide to respond to the far right extremism hosted on their domains. I start with what Jim Brown calls “ethical programs:” the procedures that are developed to make deliberate and spontaneous decisions to navigate the Law/laws of hospitality. Drawing from Brown, Casey Boyle, Scott Barnett, and software studies scholarship on the performativity of algorithmic ecosystems, I will first demonstrate how ethical programs emerge and constantly “re-program” themselves through the intra-action of human and non-human relations, temporally enfolding within a rhetorical ecology. As a case study, I track some of the ethical programs developed to “deal with” Gab, a far right website that has been directly linked to each of the suspects in the 2018 Pittsburg synagogue shooting and the 2019 San Diego synagogue and Chirstchurch mosque shootings. 

Following Gab from its origins as a non-political community on the German-based decentralized social media site Mastodon to a hub for violent antisemitism, I show several moments where a “glitch” in the usual decision-making procedures lead to change in response: when the web host GoDaddy banned Gab after the Pittsburgh shooting, despite previous warnings about Gab from the Southern Poverty Law Center; when the “free speech” web host Epix re-platformed Gab to advertise Epix’s openness to other far right “alternative social media;” when Mastodon’s decentralized structure left its founder technologically unable to delete Gab, even though its users had violated both Mastodon’s terms of agreement and German anti-hate speech laws. In doing so, I demonstrate how the methodology of using ethical programs as a lens to perform diachronic and synchronic analysis helps spot discursive places where we can see how an individual’s intentional decisions intersect with technological, ideological, geopolitical, and economic systems outside any agent’s control. I argue that a comparative reading of such places reveals a popular tendency to implicity take the Law of hospitality as a normative goal. I conclude by suggesting how rhetoricians, particularly in digital rhetoric, might extrapolate from this case study when crafting (in)hospitable rhetorical practices in this contemporary moment.


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