Remember Justine Sacco? It's possible the name escapes you, given that her story was so many daily news cycles ago and the culture that ate her alive has claimed so many more scalps since. If you need a refresher, she's the PR executive who, in December of 2013, fired off an AIDS joke about South Africa via Twitter just before getting on a flight to that country. Over the next 12 hours, while she was coasting in blissful ignorance at 35,000 feet, her life was systematically torn apart by the internet, which picked up on her tweet -- originally sent only to a handful of followers -- gleefully spread it virally and turned its sender first into a hashtag then a full-fledged phenomenon. When Sacco finally landed, she had been fired from her job and she was a global pariah. She tried to apologize but no one wanted to listen and she ultimately had to delete all her social media accounts and go into hiding. In creating his book, So You've Been Publicly Shamed, author Jon Ronson interviewed Sacco. She talked about the trauma -- yes, trauma -- she suffered because of what happened to her. She said she cried out her body weight, had her life regularly threatened, and would wake up in the middle of the night in a state of panic. Ronson's response to this? "Sometimes, things need to reach a brutal nadir before people see sense."
The problem is, Justine Sacco wasn't the nadir. And people haven't seen sense. Venting our outrage and engaging in public shaming is still, as Salon's Mary Beth Williams writes today, America's favorite pastime. The relentlessly crusading vigilantes of Twitter are still more than happy to assemble and, like a school of hungry piranha, strip the flesh off of anyone who has the bad sense or bad luck to say or do something they believe shouldn't be allowed to stand.
Which brings us to the story of a bunch of assholes who left racist jokes and comments on a picture of a young black kid that a friend of theirs had posted to his Facebook page. It all started on September 16th, when a guy named Gerod Roth, who worked for Polaris Marketing in Atlanta, took a selfie and slapped it up on his Facebook wall. Over his shoulder in the shot was the son of a black coworker of his, a cute three-year-old boy named Cayden. Well, it didn't take long for Roth's friends to chime in on the shot. The first comment was from an Emily Irene Red, who wrote, "I didn't know you were a slave owner." That set the tone. From there it was a whole lot of racist and racial cracks, with one person writing, "Pls tell me his name is Toby," another saying, "But massuh, I dindu nuffin," and still another leaving an image of a "little black sambo." All in all, tasteless and purposely offensive as hell, especially considering that the target of this stuff was a toddler. Almost anything can be joked about and a private conversation between two people or even a group of people isn't the kind of thing that should be subject to the demands of people not involved. But let's remind everyone once again that Facebook isn't private, which means that of course someone got ahold of these comments who absolutely did not take it lightly. You don't even need to guess what happened next being that this is 2015 and the internet is the internet.
Fast-forward to now. The mother of little Cayden has decided that the best way to handle this situation is to somewhat melodramatically turn her son into a hashtag, so #HisNameIsCayden has become a trending topic. (It's only a matter of time until somebody just goes ahead and legally puts a hashtag in front of some poor kid's name from birth.) Meanwhile, Gerod Roth, predictably, has been fired from his job at Polaris Marketing, predictably because tens of thousands of people rose up on Twitter and made him the target of a massive shaming campaign, one in which his very livelihood was demanded as supposed penance for his crimes. Emily Irene Red? The woman who left the "slave owner" comment? She's lost her job as well, news that was greeted as a victory among those who'd also targeted her, insisting that because of eight words on a Facebook wall she deserved to have her life ripped to shreds. And the outrage hasn't stopped. Almost every person who left a comment on Roth's picture has had his or her name hashtagged by the mob and the demands continue for those people to face harsh real-world consequences for making offensive cracks on a Facebook picture -- cracks that, while awful, would've been a largely victimless crime had this whole thing not apparently cried out to be blown up into an international incident.
Let's be clear here: I'm not defending the people who made racist jokes at the expense of a little kid. But let's likewise be clear: Making racist jokes at the expense of a little kid is a really shitty, horrible thing to do but what it's not is an injurious act. These people didn't beat up Cayden or shout obscenities or slurs at him and make him cry. They deserve to be called out for being both assholes and idiots, given that they were dumb enough to not think their words had the potential to travel across the internet at light speed. The problem, unfortunately, is that as a society we don't just call people out and be done with it. There's no restraint when mob justice is at play. We demand blood now. We demand a scorched-earth cleansing with fire.
I've written this before but it always seems to bear repeating: We don't simply overlook the things that offend us anymore. Not when there exists the machinery for vengeance and for reveling in the come-uppance that can be doled out on a whim. The standard offense/outrage cycle remains a fact of life in the age of digital media. And that’s really what it is — a cycle, a mechanism. That’s a problem. Because while it may be completely reasonable for someone to face a certain set of consequences for the things he or she says, it’s gotten to the point where the reaction to hearing something we don’t like has become pretty damn unreasonable. It’s one thing to voice a complaint or to turn off the offending content and go on with our lives, but we don’t do that — not anymore. We spread our outrage like virulent wildfire across social media in the hope that our anger can become the anger of others, so that as many random people as possible can hear our roar and ultimately join in our personal pissy-party pile-on. What’s more, as the number of aggrieved mounts and the noise intensifies, the cost of satisfying us becomes higher. It no longer becomes about wanting to let the person who said or did something we don’t like know that he or she might have been thoughtless or cruel or uninformed — it’s about silencing that person or simply taking away his or her livelihood. It's about utterly ruining someone.
Try to be objective for a moment and answer this question: What's worse? Making racist, homophobic, sexist or generally tasteless comments or jokes on the internet, or tearing someone's life apart piece by piece until that person is genuinely a shell of what he or she was before you played his or her judge, jury and executioner? What's worse? Offending somebody or reducing a person you don't know anything at all about down to eight words on the internet and determining that that's all that's needed to bury that person under death threats and doxxing attacks and to attempt to ensure he or she doesn't work again for a very long time?
Ironically, Justine Sacco resurfaced in the news today. She's now the PR person for FanDuel, a fantasy sports company currently part of a huge insider trading scandal, and she issued a statement in the wake of the latest development in the controversy. Know what this news was met with? Her return as a trending topic on Twitter. Some defended her and suggested everyone go back to living their lives, but for some it was a wonderful little blast from the past, a reminder of that time when the entire internet gathered to take down the most terrible person who'd ever been born: the person who made that South Africa AIDS joke that one time. Some reveled in the return of Justine Sacco's name to the thunderdome that had nearly ruined her.
Nope, we're not even close to hitting that "brutal nadir" yet.