The Twittercide Of David Leavitt

A fatal terrorist attack at an Ariana Grande concert? Funny!

Social media and multiple popular blogs and websites are flaming with hate directed at David Leavitt, a freelance writer who didn’t get his annual ethics alarms maintenance performed and is now paying the price. Perceiving himself as a mad wag,  Leavitt took to Twitter for some levity following the horrifying event described in this lead from the BBC:

“Twenty-two people, including an eight-year-old girl, have been killed and 59 were injured in a suicide bombing at Manchester Arena, at the end of a concert by US singer Ariana Grande.”

Let me rephrase what I wrote before: Leavitt’s ethics alarms were not merely badly serviced, they had fallen apart into rusty chunks. He also hadn’t been paying attention to the world around him: did he miss the fate of Justine Sacco, who tweeted a joke to her friends that the cyber-mob decided was racist (though it wasn’t) as she boarded a plane, and by the time she had landed found that she had lost her job and become a national pariah? Had he not noticed that the Aflac duck had a different quack in 2011 after comic Gilbert Gottfried tweeted a series of jokes about the tsunami that devastated Japan and was promptly fired from what Gottfried had called the greatest gig in the world?

Either he had been practicing his craft (“Freelance Writer. CBS, AXS, Yahoo!, Examiner, & etc. I review #Games #Tech #Fashion #Travel. Casual #MTG #Twitch streamer”) from a cave, or he is an idiot, but in either case, he decided to tweet this…

then this…

Somebody apparently grabbed Leavitt and shook him hard (but not hard enough) as his tweets went viral and he was on the way to becoming the latest Justine. A few hours later he tweeted “Too soon?” and this apology:

Too late. HisCBS PR disowned him;  AXS sent his contribution down the memory hole; so did Yahoo. Boston’s WBZ, which had employed Leavitt, issued a statement condemning his jokes and saying that he was not an employee. Publications like Mother Jones, the New York Daily News,  Heat Street and The Daily Mail had placed essays attacking him on their websites. The reaction by British websites and news organization was even more intense. David Leavitt can forget about vacationing in the United Kingdom. Ever.


1.  Nobody deserves to have their life destroyed over two tweets. Let me quote at length what I wrote about the Justine Sacco’s cyber mob, because it applies with equal force to Leavitt:

 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 Sacco’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 we 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.

2. When the Cyber Furies strike, it is not unethical for their target to be rejected by employers. It would certainly be exemplary conduct for someone to stand by Leavitt in this crisis, refuse to pile on, and give him a chance to redeem himself. No employer has an ethical duty to do so.

3. Twitter should be regarded by all users as ethically perilous, and every considered tweet should be thought of as a pre-unethical condition. The ethic alarms should start ringing, if faintly, every time a Twitter user considers making a statement on that platform. We have seen public figures, pundits, bloggers, actors, journalists, professors, scholars, celebrities and, of course, the President of the United States represent themselves as fools, jerks, bigots, ignoramuses, cowards, assholes and worse on Twitter, and the malady is getting worse, not better.

4. Leavitt’s apology was dreadful. On the Ethics Alarms scale, it was a hybrid of #9...

Deceitful apologies, in which the wording of the apology is crafted to appear apologetic when it is not (“if my words offended, I am sorry”). Another variation: apologizing for a tangential matter other than the act or words that warranted an apology.

and #10, the worst of the worst…

An insincere and dishonest apology designed to allow the wrongdoer to escape accountability cheaply, and to deceive his or her victims into forgiveness and trust, so they are vulnerable to future wrongdoing.

He said he was sorry if his jokes offended anyone, which is not the same as recognizing why they were inappropriate and acknowledging that they were. Saying that he didn’t recognize the magnitude of the tragedy is either a lie—look at his first tweet, with “MULTIPLE CONFIRMED CASUALTIES” at the beginning—or further proof of depravity. How many people have to be hurt in a terrorist attack for it not to be funny to you, David?  “I always do this” is just a particularly obnoxious version of the Golden Rationalization, #1 on the list, “Everybody does it,” along with #41A, Popeye’s Excuse, or “I am what I am.” The fact that you are habitually a callous jerk, David, is not a mitigation.

The gratuitous “condolences 2 families” is so perfunctory as to be offensive all by itself.

5. Nonetheless, exposing oneself as a jerk  in a few thoughtless tweets should not condemn anyone to social isolation, misery and penury. A better apology, however, is highly recommended.

Pointer, Source: Advice Goddess Blog

59 thoughts on “The Twittercide Of David Leavitt

  1. Completely agree with this post. I don’t feel sorry for this guy, but the response has been disproportionate. People who make idiotic comments like this should be curtly castigated and then ignored. As a side note, I should add that I found the President’s comments on the attack appropriate and admirable. Anyone of whatever ideology who would murder teenagers who are just trying to have a night of fun is indeed an “evil loser.” Trump is absolutely right.

    • He’s right, but I share with George Will and Charles Blow frustration that we have a President whose vocabulary and rhetoric is so pedestrian. “Loser!’ is an all-purpose Trump insult that he’s also applied to people like Marco Rubio and Jeb Bush. The only way someone can go to the schools the President did and leave without a better vocabulary is not to ever listen to anyone.

      • Fair point. I guess I appreciated this rare instance in which the moniker loser seemed uniquely appropriate. There are certain cases where the bluntness of Trump’s language can come in handy. What could be more loserish than to resort to violence against innocent teenage girls in order to advance an ideology of pure nihilism and destruction? The criminals who perpetrated and planned this attack have literally nothing to offer beyond their capacity for destruction. They will continue to destroy, or try to destroy, but they are indeed the real losers here.

        • Obscure reference of the day: “He who can destroy a thing, controls it.”

          Bonus points for each of author, media type, and character. Minus points if you google it…

          Spartan and valkygrrl should hold their response and let lesser geeks than we take a swing!

        • As has been mentioned here before, most people talk like Trump. That’s an advantage for him in some ways. I want my leaders to be smarter, more articulate and wiser than I am, but then we have that “understands people like me” section in all those polls. Due you trust someone more like you, or less?

          • Come on, Jack. Smarter and wiser and more articulate than you are? You want the pool of leaders to be non-existent? Don’t forget, candidates for high office also need to be crazy enough to want to get elected. Which narrows the pool even further.

              • O.B.: Agree. Nobody likes to be talked down to, and Obama was sometimes guilty of that. But eloquence and condescension aren’t the same thing, even if they occasionally go hand in hand. For instance, Bill Clinton (rather than Hillary) had a particular knack for being articulate while also being fairly understandable to the common man. The problem with Trump’s limited range of expression is that it betrays other limitations; a narrow capacity for persuasion, for instance; a tendency to be imprecise, which, when it isn’t being exploited by detractors, can lead to confusion among his associates.

                • Abba Eben – brilliant man with a phenomenal command of the language. Not only does he not condescend, but the listener is the one who comes away feeling more intelligent for the experience. It’s a gift.

                • “The problem with Trump’s limited range of expression is that it betrays other limitations; a narrow capacity for persuasion, for instance.” The guy’s a salesman. He’s not persuasive? Frankly, I think his bluntness is very persuasive to our enemies.

                  “a tendency to be imprecise, which, when it isn’t being exploited by detractors, can lead to confusion among his associates.” He speaks in word clouds. So what? His detractors? They have no interest in understanding even his fairly clear meaning. They just attack it. I think his associates are perfectly capable of understanding him.

                  So your objections add up to what? He is supposed to be removed from office? Democratic presidents are always golden tongued and Republican Presidents are idiots. What else is new. So you’re saying all Republican presidents must be removed from office. Got it.

                  • And Clinton is even a greater huckster than Trump. They’re not even in the same league. The first black president. What a joke. Why wasn’t that actionable cultural appropriation? Oh, I forgot. Bill’s a Democrat. Well that explains it.

                    Just don’t try to bass off Bill Clinton as eloquent. He was a snake oil salesman.

                  • Whoa, whoa. I was mostly agreeing with you and Jack, Other Bill. I don’t like politicians who condescend or sound condescending. I think some degree of eloquence is a requirement for virtually any office job with a modicum of responsibility involved. Where on earth did you get that I thought Trump should be impeached?

                    • Because these days any complaint by the left about Trump is deemed grounds for removing him from office?

      • I think the current president would be justified in calling both Blow and Will losers. As our eloquent Ivy League educated, immediately prior president did, essentially, to roars of approval from his acolytes, when he ad libbed, “I won.” So Trump talks like a cabbie or a construction worker from the Bronx. Big deal.Of course, next, Paul Krugman will want to impeach him for his pedestrian vocabulary. Don’t these people realize how silly they are making themselves look?

  2. An 8 year old died as a result of terror and he made a joke out of it. Proper Karma would be for his child to die, but I’ll settle for him being condemned to poverty for life.

    • Steve, he may not have known the details of the specific victims, so I disagree with your idea of Karma. He made an insensitive joke, yes, but I’m pretty sure he didn’t set out to make fun of an 8-year old’s death. Proportion is the key word here.

    • You’re speaking out of grief, I hope so I’m not going to pounce but I think you should take a deep breath and think for a moment.

      The answer to a dead child is not another dead child. And it certainly isn’t the answer to an assholeish statement about a dead child.

      Now take another deep breath.

      David Leavitt needs some time to think about what he’s said. Perhaps the coming months a a pariah will give him the time to learn.

      Another deep breath.

      Don’t be that guy today. Right now it’s time to weep, and if you’re the type who’s so inclined, to pray for the families who lost people.

      Another deep breath. Keep doing it till you stop seeing red.

      • Grief and rage. I have more than a few friends in the UK, including a few not too far from Manchester. Any of them could have been in harm’s way this time out.

        Actually, rather than weeping or praying, let’s think here for a minute. Obviously killing a child for the killing of a child is mafia-like, and just an expression of rage. Still, it would be hard to feel TOO much compassion if he suffered the loss of a child after joking about an incident in which a child, actually several children, were killed, and not to feel like it was hell slapping back at him.

        The real lesson to be taken away from this is that, although sometimes humor can be used to take the sting out of a tragedy, there is a right and a wrong way to do it. Making jokes about a disaster or attack while the sirens are still blowing and the full impact of what happened isn’t known, is really, really stupid. At best it’s going to leave you with a lot of egg on your face. At worst it’s going to make you look like a soulless, malicious asshole. Hell, making off the cuff remarks about an event like this is unwise. The lessons were out there, and they had been for a while: Justine’s attempt to be like Sarah Silverman that doomed her, Charlotte Church’s dumb post-9/11 comments that destroyed her US fanbase and sent her album sales into a tailspin from whence they never recovered.

        This is an object lesson to those of us, myself included, who sometimes feel the need to be the first one in with a snarky comment or a joke to show how sharp we are. Know what it is you are joking about before you joke about it. Ask yourself if the momentary high of zinging someone or something is going to be worth it a week later when that comment is still out there. Ask yourself if this comment could go sideways. If the high isn’t worth it or the comment could go really bad, then maybe it’s better to let someone else play Oscar Wilde with the snark or Winston Churchill with the quips (BTW, both of those men were probably a riot in small doses at parties, but ugh, I pity those who had to put up with them all the time).

        • Steve – I also find myself enraged; but not by this doofus and his career suicide. I save my rage for the animals that perpetrated the crime and facilitated it.

    • An 8 year old died as a result of terror and he made a joke out of it. Proper Karma would be for his child to die..

      Nope. That’s wishing for the death of an innocent.

      When something like this happens, considerable slack has to be cut regarding such intemperate words, so please don’t take this as a criticism. It would take someone inhuman to remain as cool and rational as is required.

  3. I also tweeted him, called him an ethical and moral dunce, and said if he steps foot in the UK he deserves to be beaten to a pulp. Just drop him off for 5 minutes at any fire station or police station and look for him in a nearby alley.

    All silliness aside, Jack, what DO you think of street justice or instant justice. If someone said something to me that was on its face offensive and offended me to the point where I lost it and attacked them,, do I get a pass, or is that just another rationalization, maybe even the other side of the current situation where the offended person is essentially God?

  4. Lesson for all to learn, especially the President, think before you tweet and sometimes it is best to keep your thoughts to yourself. They may come back and bite you in the proverbial a$$.

      • Or even better, my favorite, attributed most often to Lincoln but probably not his words:

        Better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak out and remove all doubt.

  5. Not to be a spoil sport, but the ethics here isn’t his joke. He’s entitled to as dark a sense of humor as he wants and should be without fear of retribution for his personal tastes in levity however sick. So outrage over his joke seems misplaced. I mean really, we tolerate sick and sicker jokes all the time. We even laugh at them on occasion.

    The ethics here is publishing that joke with no concern for the audience at all. Be angry at that.

  6. Since I am not on Twitter, I did not hear of the David Leavitt controversy until today when I was looking through “Today’s Paper” on the online New York Times before I read the print edition, to which I, as an old man, still subscribe. I saw a headline about “David Leavitt” and his offensive tweets. My first thought: David Leavitt? I can’t believe he would ever do that.

    That’s because for me, the only David Leavitt is the novelist who first made a splash with his excellent short story collection “Family Dancing” when he was 23 back in the mid-80s. That is probably true of a lot of us older people, especially people who read literature and don’t watch much TV or social media.

    What I discovered in the past hour was that David Leavitt the novelist and University of Florida professor has been hounded, harassed and targeted by people who assume he is this other person. I could only think back to first reading Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar” back in 1965 in ninth grade when the part of the play most terrifying to me was the scene where the angry mob, mistaking Cinna the poet for a conspirator with the same name who killed Julius Caesar, literally tears the man to death as he yells, “I am Cinna the Poet!” futilely trying to establish that they have the wrong person.

    After reading books like Ronson’s “You’ve Been Publicly Shamed” and others, I got off Facebook, Twitter, Disqus commenting years ago. As you can see here, I still make comments on rare occasions.

    But I feel I am better off missing a lot of stuff. If it’s not in a book, The New York Times or The Washington Post, I don’t know about it — and at 66, that’s how I want to live my life.

    • Thanks for this, and especially the Cinna the Poet analogy, which is very apt.

      At this point in their evolution, you can’t really rely on the Post or the Times, unfortunately; not on political matters.

      • I read Politico, too, but I prefer not to rely on the fake news. As a published writer my age, I do not trust anything without the much-maligned “gatekeepers.” Please do not reply. Thanks.

        • Who are the much-maligned “gate-keepers” to which you refer? Censors? Lawyers? Self-anointed authorities? Partisan hacks? I really have no idea. Both the Post and Times jettisoned the commitment to genuine independent Ombudspersons. I detect no gatekeepers at either paper.

          Please don’t tell me when to reply on my own forum. When I want the last word, I’ll take it. Count on it. You just set an Ethics Alarms record for chutzpah.

          • What he’s saying Jack, is at age 66, he’s too tired and close minded to have his worldview challenged and would prefer to stick with people who feed him what he wants to hear to feel good about the worldview he’s adopted and refuses to challenge.

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