With issuing a crappy, insincere apology after her decidedly insensitive-at-best, racist-at-worst tweet (“I’m going to Africa. Hope I don’t gets AIDS. Just kidding. I’m white.”), Justine Sacco is proving to be even more annoying than she seemed when she was offline but going viral while flying on an airplane to see her father in his native South Africa (to be sure, a picture of her racist background, i.e. her father participating in the white flight from South Africa, is emerging).
The “duh” moment, of course, is that a Public Relations executive should know better than to tweet something so easily vilifying. Also, a seasoned PR person should know that one shouldn’t tweet anything immediately before going offline for over 12 hours. The marketing community on Twitter are all still in shock over the obvious gaffe perpetrated by a very senior exec at a ginormous NYC media company like IAC.
Enough has been written already about those obvious takeaways. What I’d like to talk about in the Justine Sacco saga is not Justine herself (whom I think should take this opportunity to learn from Jason Alexander’s example and really examine her belief systems) but rather the process through which we vilify and summarily judge other humans online and off.
Many newspapers, including Valleywag that broke Ms. Sacco’s tweet, wrote stories just around three facts: 1. The tweet itself. 2. Ms. Sacco’s job 3. Ms. Sacco’s inability to see the firestorm brewing online because she was on a long, signal-less international flight.
When I saw the tweet, I immediately understood what the hubbub was about but I could also see the tweet in a “compassion fatigue” context. I could read it with a tone of thinly-guised despair, like “South Africa’s high disparity between the number of white women and the number of black women who contract HIV is very upsetting to me, so I must joke about it.” I often joke (only in private with my husband) in that sarcastic manner about things that break my heart, like racism, poverty, etc. John Stewart makes a living joking sarcastically, teetering on the thin line between appropriate and shocking. I went with my merciful view of Ms. Sacco’s tweet and Ms. Sacco herself. Until I found out more.
Burying the Garbage
Big time traditional media joints like The New York Times knows how people like me think. They dug through Ms. Sacco’s older tweets to find evidence of a history of insensitivity to bolster the original summary judgment of Ms. Sacco as a disposable, hateful racist bitch. They found their evidence. Ms. Sacco has tweeted distasteful thoughts before. The process was complete. We could all breathe our last Sacco breath, because she has been sentenced and sunk based on her own words. We all need reasons to filter out distractions from our attention span, and evidence of blatant racism and insensitivity is a guilt-free reason to sweep a person permanently into the “junk” pile.
Schadenfreude, or the “enjoyment obtained from the mishaps of others” (m-w.com, subscription), was cited often as a reason for the trending #HasJustineLandedYet hashtag. People like to cite this morbid obsession humans have with “car wrecks” as the reason firestorms like this erupt in social media. I agree to a certain extent. Shock, awe, perhaps horror fuel the constant refreshing of the hashtag feed. The interesting part to me is when we stop searching. When do we stop following the story? When we’ve made our decision.
Some “stop tweeting about Justine Sacco” messages came out immediately. Those tweeters had already made their decision about Ms. Sacco – she was trash and she didn’t deserve any more attention. Others, like me, took a bit more “evidence” (if you call some carefully selected tweets evidence) to convince us that Ms. Sacco was in fact deserving of a royal brush-off.
Washing Our Hands of It
By this time tomorrow, the majority of Internet interlocutors will have gone quiet. Many will regret even taking part in the conversation. Once we’ve made the decision that Ms. Sacco is garbage, we’ll regret we’ve handled some of the resulting refuse. This feeling should be a wake-up call that we need to step back and learn the very lessons Ms. Sacco should’ve mastered by now.
The beautiful piece of irony in this and other social media fallouts is that the judgment tweets people publish can return to fuel judgment on them. Sure, Ms. Sacco is apparent trash, but what will a future employer think of your “She’s an idiot” (or worse) tweets? Will your tweets seem gossipy? Harsh? Will they paint you as a militant in some way? How will you feel about it in a few days?
It’s tempting to jump into the mix, but mixing it up is not without its own consequences. The consequences I’m concerned with today are the apparent acceptance of the full court press of vilification of one obscure woman who should’ve known better, and our blindness to the irony of our own acts of judgment. I’m not here to preach a “don’t judge lest ye be judged” sermon. I’m here to remind you that rummaging through other people’s garbage makes you stink. Be careful and beware. The Pitchfork Press judges without prejudice and without pride. You don’t have to feel compassion, and it’s natural to brush unworthy people and events into the rubbish bin, but think twice about advertising these actions.
Personally, I’m hoping for some redemption for Ms. Sacco. My own cursory judgment paints a fictional characterization of her, a girl raised in America by a domineering and racist South African ex-pat father. Her story would go like this: through a series of mishaps leading devastating circumstances, Justine breaks down the cold walls surrounding her heart and goes to work as a PR entry-level worker for a non-profit Aid for Africa. Making South Africa her home, she works her way back up the ranks as she spends her life traveling the world raising money, saving lives and inspiring many poor black youths (two of whom she adopts when their parents die of AIDS). That’s the story I want to see. I hope she at least opens her heart enough to see that there’s another belief system out there.
I hope you do too.
Photo credit (Judges walk): Peter aka anemone projectors on Flickr