Media executive Justine Sacco tweeted an impulsive, racially provocative joke on the social media site Twitter that a lot of people found offensive, didn’t like, or felt they could justify participating in cyber-bullying as if they found it offensive. As a result, she has lost her job, is being portrayed as a virulent racist across the web, receiving threats and hate messages from strangers, and has become an international pariah.
It doesn’t matter what the tweet said. It was a tweet–140 characters directed at nobody in particular, that harmed nobody in any way, unlike, say, the tweets by various celebrities trying to direct mobs to where George Zimmerman could be found and beaten. Nobody attacking her knows this woman, what’s in her mind and heart, what she has done in her life or the good works and deeds she may be responsible for. And yet thousands of strangers, many of whom are almost certainly, on balance, less admirable people than Justine Sacco in many ways, have chosen to use her 140 ill-chosen characters as provocation to throw a huge, greasy monkey wrench into the gears of her life.
Their conduct—I would say every one of them who piled on after the first couple of indignant Twitter users to register an objection—is far, far worse than anything Justine Sacco has done that we are aware of. Their conduct is cruel. It is unnecessary. It is excessive. It violates the principle of the Golden Rule, because I doubt that there is a single one of Justine’s tormentors who hasn’t written, or uttered, or laughed at, at least as politically incorrect a sentiment as what she tweeted, or worse, and probably many times. This mob mentality on the internet, with anonymous, flawed human beings swarming like Furies around someone exactly like them, because it gives them a feeling of virtue and power…What a rush to be able to destroy another human being from afar!… is toxic, dangerous, and getting worse by the day.
I write here often about the importance of cultural enforcement of ethical values, how we each are responsible for thinking hard about right and wrong and joining in the shared societal duty of enforcing those standards that will ensure the best, happiest and most productive lives for as many people as possible. That process, however—and I have been guilty of not emphasizing this enough—requires the responsible application of the ethical virtue of proportion. We do not make society better by turning it into a fearful place where a single misstep brings abuse and shame down upon our heads from the entire community. “Nobody’s perfect” is listed in the site’s rationalization list, because people use it defensively to pretend that wrongdoing isn’t wrongdoing at all, since to err is human. But “Nobody’s perfect” is also true, and all know it. This knowledge, I would think, would naturally temper a reasonable individual’s response to something as trivial as an insensitive tweet. The ethical sequence, in such situations, is..
That is not, however, the sequence that the social media is becoming addicted to. That sequence is..
- Personal destruction
No society can exist with roving mobs of vigilantes looking for opportunities to display their power and reduce their targets to pleading, ruined, submissive, pitiful pariahs. That, however, is what the social media is becoming. Such a place is not fun, not friendly and not safe. It isn’t beneficial to society, but harmful to it. Justine Sacco was not the offender here, but the victim. If this is how Twitter is evolving, then Twitter should be abandoned by sane and decent people, and left to the Furies, the mobs, the vigilantes, the haters and the destroyers to fight among themselves, like scorpions in a bottle.
I’m sorry for what happened to you, Justine. It was out of all proportion, and you didn’t deserve it.
Pointer: The Blaze