Unethical Website Of The Month: Redbubble [UPDATED]

Just because we have free speech and any company can peddle uncivil, hateful and divisive political stickers, decals and T-shirts doesn’t mean doing so is right, responsible, or good citizenship. [NOTE: In the original post, I represented that Redbubble made or designed this merchandise. That was mistaken (thanks to Alexander Cheezem for the correction.]

Above is a sample of what this site sells to encourage juvenile, inarticulate and boorish Americans to breach manners and standards of appropriate political speech, so they can  make our neighborhoods as ugly, angry and divided as possible. There is a lot more.

People like those running Redbubble (and the creators of the merchandise, of course) are the political equivalent of professional arsonists. They profit from making the country and the culture worse.

Is “I’m just giving people what they want” on the Rationalizations List yet? I don’t think so.

I better fix that.


Pointer: Zoltar Speaks

39 thoughts on “Unethical Website Of The Month: Redbubble [UPDATED]

  1. Thanks for sharing this site, Z and Jack. Personally, I figured such a site was inevitable. There will be/are more, however, this one has had it’s first and last visit from me.

    • Might get ‘accidentally’ broken in rural Texas. If Bobby Wayne Redneck is pissed off already (or drunk, or both) it might get broken by an ‘accident’ traveling in excess of 700 feet per second.

  2. Ethical or not if it produces a profit it will happen. After all this is a free market country. Increasing share holder value, in the short term, is what it is all about.

  3. The person that manufactured it, the person that purchased it, the person driving the vehicle with it posted on the back window, and the person that took the photo and posted it on the internet for the world to see have all earned themselves a Masters Degree.

  4. You can also buy a “When they go low, we go high” design from the very same creator. Sigh. No self-awareness.

  5. Okay, I think your analysis here is wrong — or at least woefully incomplete. This is mostly because Redbubble isn’t what you think it is.

    Redbubble is an online marketplace for print-on-demand services. To quote Wikipedia:

    “Redbubble (formerly stylized as “RedBubble”) operates primarily on the Internet and allows its members to sell their art work as decoration on a variety of products. Products include prints, T-shirts, hoodies, cushions, duvet covers, leggings, skirts and scarfs. An executive described the company as “a community of artists who upload their artwork in digital form.” The company offers free membership to artists who maintain the copyrights to their work, regulate their own prices, and decide which products may display their images.”

    Joining — ie. starting a “market” on Redbubble — is almost pathetically easy, and doesn’t require (to my knowledge) any human intervention by anyone at the company. The entire production line is almost certainly largely automated, with little-to-no human intervention (or at least little intervention of humans with meaningful authority) throughout the process.

    So of bloody course there are people who abuse this to sell stuff like the window decal in your picture. That doesn’t make the printing company “the political equivalent of professional arsonists.”

    Personally? I blame the “artists”… although one can easily argue that Redbubble should vet their submissions more.

    TL;DR? You can’t just go from “these products are being sold” to “the company must be unethical” without understanding what the company is. Things are more complicated than that nowadays.

    • I did not know that. Important information to have. “Woefully incomplete” is fair.

      However, the only criteria for UWOTM is that a site have an address and engage in unethical conduct. It I ran a roadside market open to local artists, I would still be ultimately responsible for what I helped them sell. If artists submitted racist images, they are indeed blameworthy, but I’m the ne giving them access to the market. It’s still “I’m just giving people what they want!”

      “It’s largely automated!” is another rationalization. You can’t blame the machines, at least not until Skynet takes over…

      • Your analogy fails for several reasons. First off, the website has more in common with a product listing service or directory (plus printing company) than a roadside market.

        Secondly, your original argument was that they were “the political equivalent of professional arsonists.” A market that simply fails to adequately vet vendors — and thus leaves itself open to being taken advantage of, whether deliberately of otherwise — can hardly be described as such. Irresponsible, yes, but not actively promoting and “sell[ing things] to encourage juvenile, inarticulate and boorish Americans to breach manners and standards of appropriate political speech, so they can make our neighborhoods as ugly, angry and divided as possible.”

        If they actively encouraged that sort of behavior, of course, that would change things… but you didn’t establish that.

        As for automation… hardly. The first step of any ethical analysis of conduct is to establish just what said conduct is. Your arguments centered around the idea that they were actively designing and selling “uncivil, hateful and divisive political stickers, decals and T-shirts.” They were, in fact, not.

        This is why I call your analysis wrong: You condemned conduct that the company wasn’t engaged in. From there, I proceeded to analyze just what they were actually doing.

        The level of automation involved is highly relevant to this, as each person who takes a look at a “fuck trump” window decal on its way to production is one more person whose ethics alarms can ring. In a purely (or even largely) automated system, however, it’s quite possible that literally nobody is looking at them, and thus nobody’s even noticed that their service is being used in such a way.

        You argued that they were actively selling this stuff, so pointing out that it’s quite possible that they don’t even know that their website is being used to sell things like that is quite relevant.

        And then, of course, we get into the other side of what the company is, since, well, they’re a printing company… but I think I’ve written enough for now.

        • I really don’t understand why you think these are distinctions worth making, other than what I have already granted you: they did not make or design the stuff. They still are publicizing and profiting from it. It is a website. It sells stuff that is as I described. Nobody is forcing them to do it. Doing it is unethical.

          Would you make the same argument in Redbubble was assistaing in the sale of nervegas? Bonbs? Fuzzbusters? Term papers? well, maybe you would.

          The site is accountable.

          • The evidence does not show the site is accountable. Redbubble merely permitting the sale of unethical art does not translate into being accountable for the art, any more than the owner of an unmoderated forum is accountable for the messages posted in such a forum. No principle exists that holds the seller of art or literature responsible for the content of the art or literature.

            Think about it. Redbubble could be accountable for blasphemy, under the reasoning behind your argument, if one of the artists sold blasphemous art. And yet, it could also be accountable for colluding with the religious right if an artist were to sell art with an anti-abortion message.

              • Redbubble is a printing company, one that offers a forum for people to post art that people might want printed on their stuff. Their “product” here is the service of running stuff off.

                (They likely also make a profit from the sale of the materials that they’re printing on.)

                They also offer a forum for people to sell art that people might want printed on things in a rather interesting form of horizontal integration.

                The “stores” on RedBubble are run by the artists, not the company. As I’ve noted, you can argue that RedBubble should be moderating things better (or, possibly, at all — and I haven’t bothered reading their ToS for artists), but censoring speech in a forum like that generally runs into an ethical morass — should, say, Big Frog (a company that does custom T-shirts to order) refuse to print materials because they disagree with the shirt’s political message?

                A quick search, by the way, finds that materials like the above are endemic to pretty much every similar and similarly-run service on the ‘Net. One “store” on CafePress, for instance, features an entire line of products featuring the lovely message, “Fuck Trump. If you like Trump, fuck you too.” A search of the site for the first two words of that message finds that they match a total of 246 designs on 21,300 products.

                Obviously, the fact that RedBubble’s competitors are doing the same thing has no bearing on the ethicality of their business practices, but it does show the general environment they’re operating in: Simply by offering a system for people to sell customized products, they’re guaranteed to get those who will use it in unethical ways.

                And if this is what’s going on, is it fair to say that they’re doing it “to encourage juvenile, inarticulate and boorish Americans to breach manners and standards of appropriate political speech, so they can make our neighborhoods as ugly, angry and divided as possible”? Is it fair to call them “the political equivalent of professional arsonists”?

                That’s my issue here, not the issue of the ethicality of their products or conduct. If you want to condemn them, condemn them for what they’re actually doing.

      • Genesys IS Skynet… And the Internet looks more and more like Genisys.

        Oh, machines are not thinking yet, but they provide a total insight into your life, if you let them. And those things are used by bad guys, including hackers, thieves, governments, and progressives who attempt to destroy someone over a post, either now or years ago.

        Virtue signaling can get you in trouble, when the winds shift and the head hunters have evidence of what you said when it was in vogue.

      • By that same rationale, a bookseller would be culpable for heresy or blasphemy if the store sold books critical of one or more religions.

        a library would be promoting National Socialism if it lent out copies of Mein Kampf.

        • There’s no political or intellectual content, just “I hate.” Someone who hands out weapons to two mobs shouting at each other can’t be defended. And a book store that sells racist or anti-Semitic screeds IS culpable. Not liable. Culpable.

      • Not quite: I’m not saying that what they’re doing is ethical; I’m saying that Jack’s analysis, as written, is inadequate to establish that they are.

        This is summed up in my conclusion: “You can’t just go from “these products are being sold” to “the company must be unethical” without understanding what the company is. Things are more complicated than that nowadays.”

        The fact that I see ethical issues anyway? That’s why I pointed out that “one can easily argue that Redbubble should vet their submissions more.”

        • You “argue” that they should? The have an obligation to do so, which is why the designation of unethical website is still fair. I agree that your clarification of the way the site acts is useful and germane, and that the post is incomplete without it. But it doesn’t make it a less unethical website at all. If its products were legally libelous, Redbubble would be as libel for damages as the designers.

        • Alexander Cheezem,
          The company is enabling.

          Everything you’re talking is making the same “it’s not me doing it” rationalization as Pontius Pilate even though, like Pilate, they literally created the conditions by which it could be done and handed them them the tools to accomplish it.

          It’s their website, it’s their business, they are responsible for the contents of their website; PERIOD, end of discussion!

          • So then there is an ethical duty (not merely justification) to suppress the distribution of unethical speech?

            Redbubble could be simultaneously accused of promoting baby murder (if an artist sells art defending the right to choose an abortion) and trying to control women’s bodies (if another artist, at the same time, sold art critical of abortion).

            How far does this principle apply? Can Amazon be accused of promoting National Socialism if it sold copies of Mein Kampf? Can amazon be accused of promoting Communism if it sold copies of the Communist Manifesto?

            • And that, in a nutshell, is why I used the phrase “one can easily argue that” in my initial reply. Mind, I don’t think that Amazon proper is the correct analogy here — that honor goes to the Marketplace subset of the site.

              The situation isn’t nearly as clear-cut as it would be if they were directly selling things, and that means that Jack’s analysis needs — at a minimum — several extra steps.

              It doesn’t help that my point — that Jack’s analysis is off — keeps being misunderstood as me arguing that the site’s practices are ethical. I’m taking no stance whatsoever on the ethicality of the site or the company’s business practices; my position is (and has been) simply that Jack’s arguments are invalid.

              If he wants to argue that the site or the people running it are unethical, he has to point to conduct that they’re actually engaged in — I’ve ultimately been saying no more and no less.

              • What they are engaged in is having a website that encourages and distributed uncivil and divisive messages, fomenting anger and division. That’s all the is required. It their website? Yes. Is this crap on it? Yes. Does that coursen and divide the culture? Yes. It doesn’t matter, from the viewpoint of being an unethical website, whether it a store, a billboard, a joke or a turnip. The website contains unethical content. It is responsible. Your complaint doesn’t even amount to sophistry. It’s pretty close to trolling.

                    • No one was arguing that you must allow Chimpmania to post here.

                      The key factor to determine if a host of content is culpable of said content is editorial control. Bill Levinson explains it .

                      We remind our readers that exercise of editorial control makes the owners of a discussion board, whether at the Daily Kos, Bay Area Indymedia, or MoveOn.org responsible for its content. The instant the forum owner censors or deletes material it considers “inappropriate,” it is implicitly stating that the material it allows to stand is “appropriate.”

                      Our position on “exercise of editorial control” is that MySpace should let this garbage stand, to be denounced by others. If we wanted to, we could look up the MySpace profiles of the individuals who posted these cartoons and drag their MySpace identities all over the place, thus allowing their behavior to reap its own consequences from everybody but their fellow anti-Semites. However, our contact’s E-mail says that MySpace has exercised editorial control by deleting his account, purportedly for behavior offensive to Muslims. If MySpace is indeed exercising such control, it needs to deal with the individuals who posted these cartoons, and do so quickly.

                      You have not even asserted, let alone shown, that Redbubble exercises editorial control over the artists.

                      you choose to exercise editorial control over the comments, and under Levinson’s principle, anything you allow is considered acceptable by you. But another WordPress blogger could decline to exercise editorial control, and as such not be culpable for the content.

                    • No, it’s posted and offered by the artists.

                      RedBubble itself has been known to take stuff down, but only on two occasions I’m aware of. One involved a pair of “artists” who offered “Hipster Hitler” merchandise which stirred up a good bit of vociferous condemnation from Jewish groups; the other involved baby clothes with pictures of serial killers.

                      However, your argument in the OP went well beyond condemning them as unethical: as I’ve noted a few times, you argued that they were “the political equivalent of professional arsonists.”

                      That requires a great deal more than inadequately-exercised editorial control.

                    • I’ll stand by that. Passive complicity is still complicity, in both criminal and civil law, and ethics as well. Controlling the content of one’s own website is a minimal ethical burden.

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