Friday, December 27, 2013

What Happens When You Say Something Bigoted in Public?

The confluence of events sometimes teaches us  what might happen.  First, take the case of Justine Sacco:

Roxane Gay writes about it:

PR executive Justine Sacco wrote an offensive tweet before boarding a flight from London to Cape Town, South Africa. “Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding. I’m white!” she said. Between the time Sacco tweeted and when she landed in South Africa twelve hours later, the hashtag #HasJustineLandedYet trended worldwide. A great many of the tweets including the hashtag were downright hilarious. Even Donald Trump, a paragon of ignorance, chastised Sacco on Twitter, saying, “Justine, what the hell are you doing, are you crazy? Not nice or fair! I will support @AidforAfrica. Justine is FIRED!” 
Internet sleuths figured out which flight Sacco was on and when she would land. Her work and cell phone numbers were uncovered. Her entire online footprint was revealed. She had made inappropriate tweets before. She had Instagram and Facebook accounts. These have all been deleted but nothing on the Internet really disappears. The digital echoes of her mistakes will endure. Sacco’s former employer, InterActiveCorp, immediately distanced themselves, condemned her words and she was fired. During her flight, Sacco gained thousands of Twitter followers, an audience raptly waiting, somewhat gleefully, to see what would happen next. Justine Sacco unwittingly scripted a gripping, real-life soap opera and she wasn’t even there to watch it unfold. 
Here was instant comeuppance for someone who said something terrible. Here was comeuppance for a white person generalizing shallowly about Africa, the continent, as if it were one large country with only one story to tell. Here was a woman reveling in her whiteness and assuming that her whiteness was some kind of shield against a disease that does not discriminate. I was amused by the spectacle. I followed along even though something in my stomach twisted as the hours passed. It was a bit surreal, knowing this drama was playing out while Sacco was at 38,000 feet.
Sacco's tweet was racist and stupid.  What happened next?  This:

At first the discussion around her tweet was relatively trivial, with people wondering if Ms. Sacco’s account had been hacked. Yet as soon as it was clear that she had made similar comments in the past, the Internet turned into a voracious and vengeful mob. Ms. Sacco was tried and judged guilty in a public square of millions and soon attacked in a way that seemed worse than her original statement.
Within hours, people threatened to rape, shoot, kill and torture her. The mob found her Facebook and Instagram accounts and began threatening the same perils on photos she had posted of friends and family.* Not satisfied, people began threatening her family directly. The incident was a trending topic on Twitter and a huge forum thread on Reddit.

That was Justine Sacco.  Now compare this to the case of Phil Robertson, the patriarch of "Duck Dynasty," cable television's largest show.  Robertson has expressed opinions which many would call bigoted.  For instance, in a recent interview he states:

“Start with homosexual behavior and just morph out from there. Bestiality, sleeping around with this woman and that woman and that woman and those men," Robertson said before paraphrasing a Bible verse. "Don’t be deceived. Neither the adulterers, the idolaters, the male prostitutes, the homosexual offenders, the greedy, the drunkards, the slanderers, the swindlers—they won’t inherit the kingdom of God. Don’t deceive yourself. It’s not right.”
Though he's worried about the state of this country, Robertson seemed even more concerned about non-Christian cultures.
"All you have to do is look at any society where there is no Jesus. I’ll give you four: Nazis, no Jesus. Look at their record. Uh, Shintos? They started this thing in Pearl Harbor. Any Jesus among them? None. Communists? None. Islamists? Zero," Robertson explained. "That’s eighty years of ideologies that have popped up where no Jesus was allowed among those four groups. Just look at the records as far as murder goes among those four groups.”


As a devout member of the Church of Christ, Robertson has been a frequent speaker and preacher around the country, especially since gaining fame from the highest-rated nonfiction series in cable TV history. Anyone who takes the time to watch those videos will find plenty of things to discuss and debate.
Check out these nuggets:


A good woman is "hard to find. Mainly because these boys are waiting until they get to be about 20 years old before they marry 'em. Look, you wait till they get to be about 20 years old, they only picking that's going to take place is your pocket. You gotta marry these girls when they're 15 or 16, they'll pick your ducks. You need to check with mom and dad about that, of course." -- Speaking at Sportsmen's Ministry in Georgia in 2009.


In a recent interview with GQ, Robertson made anti-gay comments that sparked his indefinite suspension from “Duck Dynasty” by A&E. In the same article, in remarks that haven’t gotten as much attention, Robertson also talked about growing up in Louisiana before the blossoming of the civil rights movement, saying  “I never, with my eyes, saw the mistreatment of any black person. Not once. Where we lived was all farmers. The blacks worked for the farmers. I hoed cotton with them. I’m with the blacks, because we’re white trash. We’re going across the field…. They’re singing and happy. I never heard one of them, one black person, say, ‘I tell you what: These doggone white people’—not a word!… Pre-entitlement, pre-welfare, you say: Were they happy? They were godly; they were happy; no one was singing the blues.”

That indefinite suspension Robertson got?  It's already over:

A&E announced Friday that it will "resume filming" the hit reality television show "Duck Dynasty" with star Phil Robertson following his indefinite suspension from the network last week for comments he made in an interview with GQ Magazine about gays, non-Christians, and African Americans. The network also promised it would work with Robertson to promote "unity, tolerance and acceptance among all people." A&E announced the decision to end Robertson's suspension with a statement provided to the Hollywood Reporter.
"Duck Dynasty is not a show about one man's views. It resonates with a large audience because it is a show about family… a family that America has come to love. As you might have seen in many episodes, they come together to reflect and pray for unity, tolerance and forgiveness. These are three values that we at A+E Networks also feel strongly about," the statement said. "So after discussions with the Robertson family, as well as consulting with numerous advocacy groups, A&E has decided to resume filming Duck Dynasty later this spring with the entire Robertson family."

I have no deep conclusions to draw from this comparison, and I am not implying that there's some conspiracy that would explain why the two cases, somewhat similar, resulted in such very different outcomes. 

Money matters in the Robertson case ("there's no such thing as bad publicity"), but it's also true that social media, such as Twitter and Facebook, have broken through the brick wall which we used to imagine was erected between the public and the private sphere. That brick wall is still around those who exist in the public mainstream (commercial) space, but not in the social media more generally.   
*A different example of unrelated individuals getting harassed is given here:

In October, after an Ohio University woman was photographed receiving oral sex in public and later filed a report saying she was assaulted, “men’s rights” supporters attempted to harass the women in question. They incorrectly identified her as a different Ohio University student, and posted that student’s contact information online. After she was flooded with messages calling her a liar, she withdrew from her classes and was afraid to leave her home.