In a heart-wrenching letter posted to Tumblr on Dec. 28, Leelah Alcorn — the 17-year-old transgender girl who apparently committed suicide after a long battle with her parents over her gender identity — wrote that she hoped readers would hear what happened to her and try to "fix society."
But as the note began circulating more widely this week, the Internet's self-appointed vigilantes have turned themselves to a less ambitious quest: "fixing" Alcorn's mother, Carla, and her father, Doug.
Carla was, per Alcorn's Tumblr note, the primary antagonist in her battle to gender-transition; when Leelah, born Josh, told her mother she was transgender, Carla "reacted extremely negatively, telling me it was a phase," Leelah wrote. That is not, needless to say, the reaction endorsed by LGBT advocates or family psychotherapists. So in revenge, Leelah's supporters dug up Carla's Facebook page and flooded her with messages about Leelah's death.
"You're disgusting." "You awful b----." "Your daughter killed herself because of you." "The entire Internet ... can see what you have done."
"I hope you read her suicide letter and cried your heart out," one person wrote. "But you probably didn't. You don't seem to be able to care for others in a way a normal and healthy human being does."
Vigilantes also posted the phone numbers of both Alcorn's mother and father. On Tumblr, one user urged her followers to call Carla's employer, a relatively new tactic in the online-shaming game.
"Honestly?" tweeted one user who posted Doug's phone number. "I'm ok (with) terrorizing Leelah's parents for eternity."
The sentiment is understandable, in some ways. As my colleague Terrence McCoy wrote this morning, Leelah was a smart, witty, self-aware girl, a caricaturist at an Ohio amusement park and a junior in high school. The pain and isolation she describes is heartbreaking. And the issues of transgender suicide and acceptance, which Leelah writes about in some detail, are huge, real, urgent subjects that require our action.
But if you think the best, most effective possible action you can take to advance transgender rights is to harass the grieving mother of a recently deceased child, you lack imagination, humanity, any experience with grief, or some combination of the three. Whatever else Alcorn's parents may be — or appear to be, on the basis of a couple Tumblr posts — they are also grieving parents who just lost a bright, articulate child in one of the most soul-rending ways possible.
What, exactly, do you know about it?
"We're presented these people as one-dimensional avatars of views we're meant to either endorse or repudiate," wrote Flavorwire's Tom Hawking in a thoughtful essay on vigilantism earlier this week. "They're not so much people as they are symbols, faces to be published with a topical caption in all-caps Impact."
Except, he points out, they are of course people. People we don't know at all.
"Doxing" has become a trendy tool in the online activist's workbench this year; in some unsettling conflation of old-school flame-war trolling and legitimate protest, advocates for justified, worthwhile causes — like transgender rights — have resorted to personal attacks and petty vengeances, often in negligence of real issues and to the detriment of innocent people.
In the past year, the Internet has — in the name of truth, justice or some other moral high-ground — doxed feminists, anti-feminists, Facebook racists, rape victims, gay school teachers, tasteless self-portraitists, Jenna Jameson's former personal assistant and police officers unrelated to the shooting of Michael Brown. Just last month, the self-explanatory (and wildly controversial) Tumblr called "Racists Getting Fired" claimed several careers and many, many more followers — resonating in large part because of the idea that it only "doxed for good."
This isn't the nasty, ethically unsound mischief of old, its followers argued. This is justified. This is activism.
The problems with this philosophy, of course, are manifold. For one thing, as the ethicist Shannon Vallor points out, doxing often intentionally exposes people to harm — which, news flash, is bad on its face. Then there's the inevitable collateral damage: innocent friends or relatives or coworkers of the victim, who are suddenly afraid someone's going to show up at their house. (The Alcorns, for instance, have three children besides Leelah. And "Racists Getting Fired" ended, abruptly, when it doxed a woman who had been framed.) And once an Internet mob is unleashed, there's no telling how wild, how disproportionately or undeservedly terrible, its ravings will become.
The whole process is brutal, and blunt, and blind — it requires reducing your opponent to a caricature and throwing little darts at it.
Little darts may comfort, of course. But I doubt it's the kind of social "fix" that Leelah Alcorn was looking for.