Every once in a while I like to share something which takes the issue of Gun Violence Prevention far beyond the boundaries in which the issue is usually discussed. And in that respect, what Jonathan Zittrain wrote today in The New York Times should be read and given thoughtful consideration by everyone in GVP.
Zittrain is the co-founder of the Berkman-Klein Center, a Harvard-based research group which focuses on cyberspace, in particular the legal issues that abound regarding internet use and abuse. His editorial is a response to the decision by Apple to make a change in one of its iconic emojis, the revolver, so that it now looks like a water gun rather than the cap gun image that used to adorn lots of messages that I received from Gun-nut Nation over the years.
Although Apple isn’t saying anything outright, the decision to ‘de-lethalize’ this graphic and turn a gun into a plaything is no doubt a response to a campaign waged by New Yorkers Against Gun Violence to get this emoji removed from the approved emoji Unicode list so that it could no longer be attached to any message flying through cyberspace. The campaign asked supporters to tweet Apple’s CEO and send him a letter which reads, in part, “We ask that you stand with the American people and remove the gun emoji from all your products as a symbolic gesture to limit gun accessibility.” Evidently, the campaign worked.
Zittrain has no issue with the idea of Gun Violence Prevention per se. In fact, I suspect that given his background and training, he’s probably as interested in promoting gun ownership as the man in the moon. The problem, as he sees it, is that Apple’s decision to remove the gun emoji by basically turning the image into something else, raises the wider issue of who owns the internet and who should be making the rules on how we all use this technology to share and spread ideas.
This isn’t the first time that policing internet content about guns has been raised. Last year the Brady Campaign asked everyone to sign a petition that called for Facebook to police user content that promoted the sale of guns, in particular advertisements for private sales that were posted either by individuals or Facebook gun groups, a campaign that resulted in Facebook announcing a gun-sale ban although like any content restriction it’s a toughie to enforce.
But telling a company what they can sell or not sell on a proprietary website is one thing (commercial advertisements are not considered free speech) telling a company or an individual what they can say about a product is something else. And here, for Zitrain, is where the rubber meets the road. Because what he is arguing is that emojis have become not just a way to decorate a cyber-message, but now constitute a cyber vocabulary in and of themselves. As he says, “To eliminate an elemental concept from a language’s vocabulary is to reflect a sweeping view of how availability of language can control behavior, as well as a strange desire for companies — and inevitably, governments — to police our behavior through that language.”
And this brings us back to the central problem, namely, who can and should control what we say to one another, even if what is said constitutes something offensive, or something that a lot of people don’t like, or even promotes a type of behavior that we want to eliminate or change? Note the demand by NYAGV to get rid of the gun emoji as a ‘symbolic gesture,’ which is exactly what raised Zittrain’s concern; i.e., where do we set the border for acceptable versus unacceptable when we are talking about symbols which represent figures of speech?
The GVP community is dedicated to changing a culture which celebrates guns and gun violence as proper social norms. But Zittrain’s fears about how to strike a proper balance between what we want and what we do to get what we want deserves an audience too. His commentary should be read and shared.