“I Have Been the Witch and I Have Been the Hunted”: My Time in an Internet Mob

Jon Ronson has written a very powerful story for the New York Times on what happens to non-famous people whose moments of shame go viral. In particular, he focuses on Justine Sacco, who tweeted an offensive joke about AIDS in Africa, became internationally notorious, and got fired, within a matter of hours.

The article is powerful and alarming, and you should read it. Equally, you should read Tressie’s thoughts on the same issue, which are rather good even by her standards:

Once, I applied for a crappy job. Despite my credentials and experience, the owner of the company told me that he had hired “a black” before and she quit without giving two weeks notice. The owner was “understandably” anxious about hiring another black. Understandably. When you have “a race” you are always standing in the gap for all the people with a race. 

But since white people do not think of ourselves as belonging to a “race” in the same sense—when a white guy cuts you off in traffic you think “What an asshole that individual is,” while when a black guy does it, you think, “What assholes those people are”—and since we have the numbers and power to impose our delusive race categories on others while rarely being forced into one ourselves, we are rarely forced to stand in for all white people in this manner. (Nor should we be.) The public shaming of a Justine Sacco, or an Elizabeth Lauten, represents a rare opportunity for people of color to turn this particular table. “Being stripped of your personhood to stand in the gap for a group of people against your will is rage inducing. It simmers through your veins,” Tressie writes (and she would know, since this is her daily and hourly experience). “It is horrible to lose a job for that. It is a privilege to have never before lost a job for that.”

I love many things about Tressie’s piece. For one thing, I’m glad to see a prominent thinker who’s out on the farther-left-than-“The Daily Show” end of the spectrum actually acknowledge that there may be something wrong with treating people in this fashion even if they are racist. (In Justine Sacco’s case, even that much isn’t clear—the point of her joke may have been, as she insists, misunderstood due to its sloppy construction, and her South African family does have a history of support for Nelson Mandela.) On Left Twitter, it often seems as if decisions about whether mere common decency or sense or proportionality even apply are debated solely in terms of a) what’s strategically effective and b) who’s on what end of a power differential. “There is no good or evil, only power,” said Voldemort to Harry Potter, and there will always be a slice of both the left and right that agrees.

But Tressie’s piece is, far more importantly, a reminder to those of us who feel sorry for Justine Sacco that we’d better not stop there. The internet’s power to humiliate is rarely levied against so privileged and resilient a target. More often it’s used against white women who say the wrong thing about a video game, or black women who argue for explicit-verbal-consent laws and always-believe-the-accuser-in-a-rape-case policies. (Note: I have serious reservations about that whole movement. For reasons. But I do think you should get to make the argument without having your fucking life ruined. Also, obviously, I think men should stop committing rape, threatening rape, and treating rape as a joke.) More often the internet’s shaming power is used against poor people whose crime was looking funny and poor and shopping at Wal-Mart. (Haw! It’s funny because human frailty!) More often it’s used against black people who are guilty of just standing around. Quite often it’s used against black people who are guilty of having just had something horrible done to them. Within hours of his death, we had all seen the photos of Michael Brown smoking pot. Meanwhile, his killer, Darren Wilson, a man who shot a child, a man who would later tell the grand jury a hilariously melodramatic story about his fears that Brown (who had already taken multiple shots) would “bulk up” and charge through a hail of bullets like goddamn Juggernaut, a man whose main supporting witness was almost certainly a fraud—that man went on enjoying his anonymity for considerably longer.

So, yeah. It’s not that you shouldn’t feel sorry for Justine Sacco, or even mad on her behalf. But please don’t stop there.

One time, a few years ago, I found myself closer than usual to the heart of one of these incidents. The victim was not a powerless person of color, but a relatively powerful white woman, a tenured professor, a well-regarded novelist. In fact she was my thesis advisor. I had had a good experience at the MFA program at University of South Carolina-Columbia, on the whole, and I had had a friendly relationship with Janette Turner Hospital, my adviser. I also mostly liked or loved my colleagues, and I liked the other faculty. Nothing I’m about to say should be taken as critical of any of them. I intend to criticize me, and Gawker, but mostly me.

As I say, I had no particular reason to complain about JTH, but I heard some stories from colleagues—people I found credible (and a few I didn’t)—whom she’d treated rudely, and I’d even witnessed one or two interactions where it seemed to me that she was unnecessarily harsh. In particular, students in the cohort behind me were hurt and alarmed to learn that she had accepted a visiting professorship at Columbia University, which, as any graduate student knows, is a serious disruption to a person’s life. It wasn’t entirely surprising when, a few months after I left and a few weeks after she did, she sent our listserv an email back from Columbia, “a very different MFA planet,” that came off airily condescending. “[T]here’s only one other place I’ve ever taught where there was a comparable atmosphere, and that was MIT, where I taught for 3 years,” ran one typical passage. It was hard not to see the omission of USC as a rather cruelly pointed one.

That wasn’t surprising, and it wasn’t surprising when my old colleagues were livid. To the (unavoidable) injury of having to find a new thesis advisor or committee member, she had certainly added some insult. I felt they had valid grounds for anger.

It was a little more surprising when the thing got picked up by Gawker. (You can do the googling yourself.)

It seems to me that Gawker could serve, and occasionally has served, a real social function. I like some of the writers. The site has begun to move into genuine journalism, with occasionally brilliant results. And they used to sign the paychecks of one of the country’s most necessary political commentators, Maureen Tkacik. But, I mean, the site is literally called Gawker. It feasts on the private shames and embarrassments (or even the mere misfortunes) of people unlucky enough to have names that generate pageviews. It is a Murdoch tabloid for people who wear black-plastic-framed glasses. No one should be surprised that the site is owned and run by a rich Tory snob; Gawker’s entire M.O. is Tory. It appeals to the part of us that likes a good public flogging. No matter how often its writers attack homophobes, sexists, Republicans, et cetera, the basic workings of the site are as conservative as the Coliseum.

I don’t think anybody deserves the kind of massive humiliation and free indirect scorn they dish out.

That’s not strictly true. I think war criminals deserve it. I think Henry Kissinger deserves it. I think the people who wrecked our economy deserve it. I think Jamie Dimon deserves it. I think in the case of people so powerful and so corrupt that they can’t be gotten by any other means, it’s probably OK to go ahead and tell the world about their weird private problems. RT their weirdly worded household Post-It missives till they’re confined to bed with a panic attack. JTH? Even her worst enemies wouldn’t put her in that category. And she was not my enemy at all.

But, as the shaming unfolded, I didn’t venture even the mildest word in her defense. Worse, I followed the entire mini-scandal with the kind of, well, gawking avidity that I usually consider myself above. There were a couple of reasons for my silence. One is that her apparent attitude toward her old students had made me question our relationship. Were her kind comments on my thesis just a case of damning with fake praise, like the things you say in a recommendation letter for an employee you’re dying to be rid of? Another is that, as I’ve said, I saw genuine anguish in my colleagues’ reactions to her behavior, particularly the email, and I didn’t want to risk sounding even mildly critical of people in pain. I can defend both of those reactions. What I can’t defend is that the whole painful spectacle entertained me.

Most of the people who tweeted their “shock” and “anger” about Justine Sacco were of course feeling neither emotion. They were deeply amused. Ronson touches on this in his story.

The anger soon turned to excitement: “All I want for Christmas is to see @JustineSacco’s face when her plane lands and she checks her inbox/voicemail” and “Oh man, @JustineSacco is going to have the most painful phone-turning-on moment ever when her plane lands” and “We are about to watch this @JustineSacco bitch get fired. In REAL time. Before she even KNOWS she’s getting fired.”

The furor over Sacco’s tweet had become not just an ideological crusade against her perceived bigotry but also a form of idle entertainment. Her complete ignorance of her predicament for those 11 hours lent the episode both dramatic irony and a pleasing narrative arc. As Sacco’s flight traversed the length of Africa, a hashtag began to trend worldwide: #HasJustineLandedYet. “Seriously. I just want to go home to go to bed, but everyone at the bar is SO into #HasJustineLandedYet. Can’t look away. Can’t leave” and “Right, is there no one in Cape Town going to the airport to tweet her arrival? Come on, Twitter! I’d like pictures #HasJustineLandedYet.”

It’s often remarked that the Internet is making it harder for our society to find a way to ensure that artists and writers are paid for their work. Usually this conversation has to do with the ease with which we can steal and pirate intellectual property, but it’s also true that novelists, songwriters, and filmmakers must struggle to compete with the free spectacle offered by other peoples’ Googleable misjudgments. It is so easy to watch; it requires even less emotional and intellectual commitment than does TV (which has gone serialized and insists on being enjoyed in rigid sequence, like a prix-fixe dinner.) It takes willpower not to join in, especially if the victim seems racist, or cluelessly privileged, or (as in my old advisor’s case) unaware of the rule of American life that says we must hate a condescender even more than we hate a site that professionally traffics in gossip. To the obvious reasons any moralist might present for exerting that bit of willpower—because it’s not fair; because, with that measure ye mete …; because hearsay and rumor could make criminals of any of us; because any abuse we condone in our dealings with the powerful will be used tenfold on those without power—I can make one small addition: because you’ll feel like such an asshole later.

One response to ““I Have Been the Witch and I Have Been the Hunted”: My Time in an Internet Mob

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