NPR had a story on today that jogged my memory about a social media fiasco from last year I had since forgotten: the fate of Justine Sacco. If the name is not familiar to you, the story will be. She was the woman who posted an immensely ill-judged Tweet about AIDS, from one side of a transatlantic flight to Africa, and emerged on the other side of it to realize that her entire life had been upended as a result. The original remark-- which was stupid, as she confessed time and again afterward -- was meant to be parody of what a bigoted and foolish person might say upon going to Africa, and it ended with a notorious line implying that white people can't get AIDS. (Do you remember Justine now?) This joke landed on the web about as rudely and uncomfortably as Sacco did on the tarmac in South Africa, where she abruptly learned, once she was allowed to reboot her personal electronic devices, that in the past few hours people all over the world had come to despise her -- that she had been fired from her job -- and that nothing would ever be the same.
She's not the only one. I'm sure we could think of similar cases if we pooled our recollections. We all enjoy very much being not the person who said these things (hell, I'm enjoying it right now). It all becomes a lot less pleasant, though, when we pause to remember that, while you and I can stop thinking about these incidents at any moment, and probably will do so pretty quickly, the person who made the offending remarks has an entire lifetime to lead after that point. Once you ask the "where are they now?" question -- and learn, say, that Sacco lost her job, or that the girl who made the notorious "Chingchong-linglong" video was forced out of school, it becomes a lot more difficult to savor our own brief exemption from the shame. You may even suddenly recall something cruel, stupid, and ugly that you said in the past (and don't tell me there wasn't anything, even if you were school treasurer and president of the Key Club) -- something which, if it were dug up now and attached to your name by people around the world, and played in endless loops on TV, and referenced by every comedian, would incline you toward the life choice of suffocating yourself under a mattress. After pursuing such reflections, one realizes that in joining in the mockery and the outrage, one had behaved very much as a chicken, falling in beside one's fellow chickens and pecking some poor oddball to death. One also realizes that the oddball could well have been you. The only reason it wasn't this time was luck, and there's no guarantee it will last.
Pecking is really the right word for it, too, since these internet immolations are accomplished not by any single executioner, but by a thousand small cuts and jabs, mostly delivered by people who don't bother to realize what they are doing. Each of us thinks: well, it's only one blog post/Tweet/status update; the person it's targeting would never even read it. So we casually perpetuate the mockery (nobody get's hurt-- nobody will know!)-- believe me, I've definitely participated before too.
Yet by cumulative result, this process can ruin lives. It's an old story. The "moral community" -- a much-sentimentalized but really quite heartless entity -- circles around the outsider, because she has given herself away by the minutest of missteps. It's like the ending of the Nijinsky staging of the Rite of Spring. There, the town's virgins move in a ring until one of them stumbles-- after which she is thrown into the center and made to dance to her last breath.
The worst by far are always the employers and university administrators in these situations, who glide in sanctimoniously once the action heats up to try to placate the mob. One always has the sense they would not have cared in the slightest had there been no uproar, but as soon as it starts, they are ready to grab a torch and join in. They generally begin by tossing the offender out to the waiting pitchforks, and follow this up with some pious statement to the press -- one that makes free use of the words "deplore" and "We always strive...". In all this one hears the voice of Lot, speaking to the people of Sodom gathered around his door: "I have two perfectly good daughters, you know -- here, take them if you want! Just please go away!"
Not that it ever does them much good. The mob doesn't actually want to have its outrage soothed; it wants to have it enflamed. Concessions only tend to confirm in its mind that it was right from the start -- otherwise, why would you be willing to give ground? Besides, if handed one piece of red meat it will think itself entitled to more. You know the script after this point. Our heroes are trapped in some half-destroyed building and are sheltering the one boy in the universe, Eduardo, who can summon the mystic powers to save us all. The depraved generalissimo outside has his machine gun nozzle pointed in their direction, and is insinuating over the bullhorn: "We are reasonable men, you know. We ask for such a simple thing, really. All we want is that you hand over the boy. We'll let the rest of you go." The heroes and the audience, however, know that only a traitorous craven would follow such instructions, and that only a fool would trust the generalissimo to keep his word. They understand that whoever surrenders Eduardo gets mown down with him, and the rest of the bombed-out villa will be torched too. Or something like that. At any rate, my point is that the corporate shareholders and university trustees would hand over Eduardo in a heartbeat, but they will still be machine-gunned when they do.
This is the same reason why apologies from the original malefactor, no matter how abjectly and plentifully they are given, seem never to get her anywhere. Piteous pleas for mercy don't go viral. We, who in the course of twenty seconds of internet reading, believe we know everything there is to know about Justine Sacco, have a way of never even finding out that such apologies have been made. But if we do, we don't let them interfere with our merry and much-cherished outrage. The apologies are easily dismissed on the grounds of insincerity, of "too-little-too-late." It's all a rather strange and unbidden compliment we pay to the Justine Saccos, really. We attribute to them a wholeness of identity and a coherency of personality that we could never claim for ourselves. They are such fully-integrated people that any one of their hasty and ill-judged statements on Twitter or on Facebook can stand in for all they believe and cherish as human beings; they are that post. Only for the rest of us is reserved the privilege of having some days that are better than others, of having some statements and ideas that are more thought-through and carefully-delivered than others, of having a "real me" and a not-real me, and so forth.
Suppose we are that malefactor, though- what options are left to us? I turn now to the advice-dispensing portion of the post. Il principe for the casualties of principle.
To summarize the lessons so far: it turns out that not much good can come of abasing oneself before people who enormously enjoy hating you. Humility will get you nowhere. Let us then consider your other options. Suppose you make some honest and sane response, that goes along these lines: "I'm sorry I said it, it was stupid and cruel and insensitive of me, but the rest of you are not so perfect either, and anyways I've already suffered far more than is proportionate to this one thing"? Such words will bring on an even greater disaster than before. Not only have you now confirmed the grounds on which the public bases its hatred, you have also introduced a note of self-pity. This forms a deadly concoction, made up of both weakness and resentment. The public, smelling blood, will lunge.
Perhaps your best bet, really, is to be entirely unrepentant (along the lines of: "And I'd do it again too!") The outlaw's "calm and haughty look," says Baudelaire, "damns the multitude around the scaffold," (Ageller trans.) and he's right. The mob will be thrown into confusion by this choice on your part. So long as you had been apologizing, by contrast, the mob had felt sure that you were in the wrong, and it was in the right. Indeed, having no independent standard for judgment, and no ideas nor thoughts, your apology had been the only thing the crowd had to go on. If you refuse to render it, your persecutors begin to wonder if they had not gotten hold of the wrong standard after all. It is very upsetting and difficult for conformists for there suddenly to appear multiple, and contradictory, things they might conform to. Your best hope is to become one of these things.
If you're unrepentant enough, indeed, the mob may even throw down its weapons and anoint you their new leader. Perhaps they will endow you with an hour's nightly slot on Fox News, and you can go on to lead mobs of your own, with whose assistance you will string up bogeys of the opposite political persuasion.
What you will not be allowed ever to do, either way, is to return to a world in which you are not defined by the attribute of racism and prejudice that has been attached to your name. Your choices are either to waste yourself begging forgiveness from people who have nothing to gain, and a great deal of self-righteousness to lose, by granting it to you; or else to sign up with a rival clan where prejudice is actually a kind of badge of honor. You've seen this second movie too. The pith-helmeted explorer has accidentally poisoned the ancient nemesis of the tribe, thinking he was hospitably sharing his canteen, and is being hoisted on their shoulders in commendation and bedecked with ornaments. He protests, with much flustered British understatement: "I didn't quite mean to become your new God, it was really rather an accident to begin with, all a sort of misunderstanding..."
Why do we do it, by the way, those of us who do the pecking-- those of us who till now have managed to stay in the circle, and who have not yet been forced to dance the jig of apologies in the midst of our chanting peers (though we may yet have to, if we insist on writing blogs)?
It's not pure sadism that motivates us. The more sympathetic, though not ultimately exculpatory, explanation is that "internet outrage" functions as a way of maintaining some semblance of moral values-- and of human connection -- in a place that often seems devoid of both. We can see the outline of good in another person-- however distant and anonymous she or he may be -- if we can be brought to believe that this person shares our sense of what is evil-- shares in our outrage, that is. When we are deprived of any stronger and subtler solidaristic bond than this one, there will be a considerable temptation to settle for this simulacrum. In short-- everything they used to say about "faceless mass society," and its tendency to scapegoat and stigmatize, is all the more true of the internet. It is a realm in which society got a lot more massive, and a lot more faceless, in a very short period of time. Mass conformity in such a place is a kind of protest against its loneliness, but also irreducibly a product of it.
The cases that provoke our outrage do so, moreover, because they tend to confront us with things we see in ourselves and in our own past but don't wish to admit to -- a racist joke we made or guffawed over, occasions on which we said something deliberately hurtful or small-minded about another person or another group of people. We have such moments in our histories. They have a way of swooping in on us in the shower or when waiting in line and suddenly upending our stomachs and making us cringe -- "Did I do that?" And usually we conclude, after considering the question -- no, that wasn't the real me who did that. The true self is someone else.
We never grant such concessions, though, to the victims of internet outrage. As I've demonstrated here, some of them don't even get names that can be held separate from their misdeeds. They are the "Chingchong girl," the "white people don't get AIDs" lady, the Mozilla executive with the anti-Prop 8 donations, and on and on. Do you remember their real names-- as in, the names that reflect some personhood beyond one short-lived, stupid and/or nasty thing they did? I don't. I didn't even know who Sacco was until the NPR announcers read out her offending Tweet -- then it was, "Oh right, the AIDS lady."
Immolating one person's identity and reputation by these means is also a kind of sacrifice we make to our collective hypocrisy. The victims perish -- or at least, suffer -- so that the social order does not need to. Humiliating one person for the crime of homophobia or racism or misogyny helps us to feel that there is greater distance between ourselves and these objectionable qualities -- and, more than that, that these are individual faults rather than characteristics of our entire social world. The more frightening voice inside us is stifled briefly by these means. For a short while, we no longer have to consider the possibility that you and I, the good chickens, the sure-footed movers, may also be to blame.