By Alex Ehmke
April 4, 2014
Rick is your classic American bigot. He knows interracial coupling is to blame for this country’s current turmoil, the president is an Islam-practicing Kenyan, and “the gays” are conspiring with “the blacks” to force the ultraliberal agenda on an unsuspecting public. These ideas are a given, but they don’t spread themselves. That’s where Rick comes in.
You see, Rick has discovered the Internet device, and its unique ability to give everyone in the world direct access to Rick’s well-developed conclusions. So, Rick sets about commenting on YouTube videos, and tweeting, and posting, and chain-mailing every email that uses the n-word more than once. Will people see the things that Rick posts? Absolutely. Will they publicly lambaste him for his blatant prejudice? Most definitely. Will they see that this is exactly what Rick wants? Probably not.
You see, Rick won’t do anything newsworthy in his life. He isn’t particularly intelligent, talented or important; he’s just a guy. But by attacking Cheerios for using interracial couples in its commercials, or Richard Sherman for being a black man, or Honey Maid for treating gay couples as actual couples, his views are brought front and center. He enjoys the notoriety as much as any avid netizen who succeeds in trolling the entire country at once.
However, Rick’s smug satisfaction goes deeper than his moment in the national spotlight. That’s because Rick recognizes that by drawing the ire of the American public for even a brief time, he has successfully distracted them from putting their anti-bigotry energies towards efforts that actually matter.
A strikingly stubborn achievement gap plagues public schools. Laws that might grant the LGBT community equal treatment are scuttled by a tiny but well-funded opposition. The death penalty is disproportionately given to racial minorities. But Rick has diverted attention away from these national problems that dramatically affect the lives of millions every day, and he did it with a YouTube comment. And how is he so successful? Because we enable him.
Rick gains power because a generation of internet users has failed to recognize some obvious truths about their internet use. First, there are bigots in the world, and they really believe what they say online. Second, if you scour the internet and look hard enough, you will find their utterly ridiculous commentary. But third, and most importantly, these people and their beliefs do not matter.
When you shame individual bigots by sharing their tweets, I know you have good intentions. You’re calling me to action by reminding me that the Ricks of the world exist. But here’s the problem: I already know that Rick exists, and so does everyone else. Many people are related to a Rick (usually that crazy uncle that stopped getting invited to Thanksgiving), and the rest have heard ample stories about his awkward, dinner-ruining antics.
So you’re not raising awareness so much as you are belaboring the point, and worse you’ve stolen awareness away from the problems that do matter. Many news events deserve my public outrage and concentrated energy (like the above-mentioned political issues, or bigoted epithets by congressmen and CEOs), but you’ve gotten me busy making sure all my Facebook friends know that @Coondog_Henson is, shockingly, a racist.
The solution here is not to engage with the casual bigot. This has nothing to do with “turning the other cheek” or some sticks-and-stones nonsense – Rick is a prick, and he deserves a good beating (figuratively, of course). Instead, this has everything to do with recognizing that Rick, in the truest sense of the cliché, is not worth our attention. Instead, we should be channeling our energies towards issues that actually matter in the hopes that real progress might be achieved in spite of the casual bigot.
Alex Ehmke is a second-year student at Columbia Law School. He graduated with economics and political science degrees from Southern Methodist University. He now spends the majority of his time watching Rangers baseball and trying to find Shiner Beer in New York.