The Unethical Destruction of Justine Sacco

Justine Sacco, victim.

Justine Sacco, victim.

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..

  • Action
  • Recognition
  • Criticism
  • Acceptance
  • Apology
  • Contrition
  • Forgiveness

That is not, however, the sequence that the social media is becoming addicted to. That sequence is..

  • Action
  • Recognition
  • Criticism
  • Hate
  • Threats
  • Isolation
  • Personal destruction
  • Glee

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

Facts: CNN



141 thoughts on “The Unethical Destruction of Justine Sacco

  1.  One can’t help but wonder if the general alarm and offense of Sacco’s comments wasn’t so much what she said, that it was in poor taste was a given but perhaps what was more alarming was the cavalier way she went on to express a point of view that may in the end be harbored by many even if they dare not publicly admit to it and that too is the catch…. the head of a pr department going on to betray a kind of privileged stasis that may be tolerated by insiders on the quiet but never openly tolerated when one dares to show off how wonderfully repugnant and insensitive one can be, because they can afford to….. until that is the day they can’t. 

    Really are we surprised Justine Sacco said what she said or is she endemic of a privileged breed that harbor such points of views….???

    • So wealthy white people all feel the way she does and all make those comments amongst themselves, but never to others, then turn out in droves to pillory one of their own when they betray their trust?

      That’s alot of privileged white people out there…

  2. If there ever was an example of where the quality of opposing arguments gives me comfort and confidence, this issue is it. Over on twitter, the attacks on me and counter arguments consist of…

    1. “You’re a racist too.”
    2. “YOUR STUPID”
    3. The majority feel like I do, so you must be wrong.
    4. She’s a white bitch and obviously privileged
    5. She should have known she would be abused this way, so its OK
    6. She’s in PR, so we can be cruel to her.

    This is why I sometimes wonder why I bother. When the lack of ethical reasoning is this complete, I might as well be writing in Swahili. (I’m sure that’s a racist comment somehow too. I’ll wait to see what the mob has to say, since it knows best…)

    • “…I might as well be writing in Swahili. (I’m sure that’s a racist comment somehow too….”

      It would require stretching the term “racist” rather a bit, although the looney left is quite capable of it. Swahili is an artificial language developed by Arab merchants for use in dealing with the tribes of East Africa, particularly useful when buying slaves kidnapped or POW’s from other tribes.

  3. In my country, there is this saying: when u say whatever u want, you can hear a response that u dont want. I agree with some parts of the article but, honestly, u should know better Justine! I dont know Justine but I also dont know a single person who would make such a tasteless, disgusting and racist joke. U made ur own bed, now u hav to lie on it, sorry

    • The point is that making a joke intended for friends and acquaintances that others don’t like does not make the “bed” of personal vilification and destruction. A web mob made that bed, and for no good reason other than too hurt a stranger for making an edgy joke they probably didn’t understand.

  4. Well, just spammed a comment by someone who really thinks an email address of “ is going to fly, and whose trenchant analysis of the issue here is that Sacco’s joke was “in public” so that justifies everything. It’s amazing how many insulting and arrogant comments I get from readers whose analysis is at a sub-kindergarten level, and yet they are so sure of themselves.

    Then again, most of them aren’t sure of themselves sufficiently to use real names and e-mail addresses.

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