On Landings, Soft and Otherwise, and Aggressive Lacks of Proportion

At some point Thursday, the title of Jon Ronson’s essay changed from “How One Stupid Tweet Ruined Justine Sacco’s Life” to “How One Stupid Tweet Blew Up Justine Sacco’s Life.” The change helps, because while “blew up” is figurative language—and thus, obviously not to be taken literally—the statement that Sacco’s life was “ruined” implies that it was ruined. But it wasn’t. Justine Sacco went through a rough patch and deservessympathy; she lost her job because of the Great Making Fun of Justine Sacco that occurred, and anyone who loses their job because of a joke made on twitter deserves sympathy.

But not that much sympathy. Let’s have a sense of proportion. Justine Sacco has gotten another job. She’s okay, particularly compared to the many, many people in the world who are not okay. To make this point, we don’t have to rhetorically gesture towards children born with AIDS in countries with historically disadvantaged health care systems (however tempting it might be to wave that bloody shirt). After all, a generous reading of Sacco’s tweet shows her to be well aware of that cavernous divide in destiny. But even on the scale of “lost your job for unwise tweeting,” Sacco’s experience just doesn’t rate. She lost a good job, and for a while she didn’t have a good job, but now she has a good job again.

By contrast, the Texas teen who was fired from her “fuck ass job” for tweeting that it was a “fuck ass job” lives in a different world than Justine Sacco, as do most people. Lots of people lose their jobs for all sorts of arbitrary and ridiculous things. The world is profoundly unfair, constantly, but there is very little that’s surprising about a publicist who acts like a fool in public losing their job. Justine Sacco was a publicist who made her employer look bad, publicly, and so her employer fired her. It sucks for her, but she’ll never be reduced to delivering pizzas in Texas.

And yet, Jon Ronson’s article so aggressively lacks this precise sense of proportion that it might convince you to overlook little things like the glaring absence of his subject’s ruined life from an essay ostensibly about how twitter ruins lives. This point is worth underscoring; for an essay with her name in the title and the word “ruined” in the URL, there’s very little in the actual essay about how Justine Sacco’s life was ruined, mainly because she didn’t want to take part in this latest iteration of her saga. She had something to lose:

I wrote to Sacco to tell her I was putting her story in The Times, and I asked her to meet me one final time to update me on her life. Her response was speedy. “No way.” She explained that she had a new job in communications, though she wouldn’t say where. She said, “Anything that puts the spotlight on me is a negative.”

By contrast, that heroic Texas teen who spoke truth to fuck ass power is enjoying her fame, to judge from her twitter feed (full of retweeted greetings from people around the world, telling her she’s famous in Argentina, etc). She’s not much of a victim, either, because she only lost a fuck ass job. But in a world where one person has a lot to lose, and one person has so much less, how is it that the first person absorbs all the sympathy? Again: the chances of Justine Sacco taking a fuck ass job are pretty slim. Most people in the world work fuck ass jobs their entire lives. We can sympathize with all and sundry, but we shouldn’t let empathy confuse us about the difference.

By contrast, Ronson wants to mourn Justine Sacco, specifically, as a casualty of internet shame-culture, and he wants this so badly that even thought she no longer counts as a casualty—her life having been subsequently un-ruined—he cannot not use her in this way. Indeed, since the actual Justine Sacco does not wish to participate, it’s easy to see that the essay is not really about the actual Justine Sacco. It is about what she has come to represent: the sympathetic victim of internet mob violence, a white woman who said something that some people took to be racist, but who never could have deserved the slings and arrows of the outrageous fortune that befell her. Hers is the melodrama of a world turned upside down by stupid tweets: what happened to her is not fair. And unfairness, arbitrary termination, and public scorn are not for people like her.

If Ronson’s story was really about Justine Sacco, in fact—if she had chosen to participate—it might have become a more complicated story about class and reversion to the demographic mean. People generally stay in the socio-economic class they’re born into. This is what passes for justice, and it’s the standard by which the “ruin” of Justine Sacco’s life might become a pitiable spectacle: look on her works, ye mighty, and despair! Even a white person, etc. But it’s only because we expect her kind of person to be treated fairly by life that an arbitrary shift of fortune can even become legible. You can only mourn your arbitrary termination if it wasn’t a fuck ass job.

Jon Ronson’s story is not really about Justine Sacco; it’s about “the way we tweet now,” and the worrying ways in which even white people who aren’t monsters sometimes suffer unfairness. It’s a public confession, his discovery of an empathetic connection with his victims that he wants to model for us (along with a disconnection from “SJW’s” that he also seems to want to bring us to share). He once believed in the wisdom of the crowd, he writes, and so he gleefully took part in the ritual shaming of people like Justine Sacco. That god has failed, however; he now sees the error of his ways and repents. He’s even written a book about it, to be published in March, apparently: So You've Been Publicly Shamed. As the title suggests, it’s an effort to identify (“you”) with the victims, the subjects of public shame campaigns.

Here is Ronson’s confession:

“In the early days of Twitter, I was a keen shamer. When newspaper columnists made racist or homophobic statements, I joined the pile-on. Sometimes I led it…in those early days, the collective fury felt righteous, powerful and effective. It felt as if hierarchies were being dismantled, as if justice were being democratized. As time passed, though, I watched these shame campaigns multiply, to the point that they targeted not just powerful institutions and public figures but really anyone perceived to have done something offensive. I also began to marvel at the disconnect between the severity of the crime and the gleeful savagery of the punishment.”

I have a certain sympathy for Ronson’s perspective, I’ll admit. People can be ugly, petty, and vindictive; a lot of people, in concert, can be all of these things, only much more so. The waves of twitter rage that settle on a target can be quite a non-ideal method of dispensing reparative justice, to put it simply: people have a lot of anger, aggression, and grievance, and when a lot of people pile that rage onto the figure of a name and a quotation, it’s often disproportionate and arbitrary. No one would mistake what happened to Justine Sacco for anything like justice. This is no one’s favored method of creating a utopia.

But, of course, I don’t know of anyone that is claiming that it is or was. It happened, but things happen all time. It wasn’t justice, but there is no justice in this world, and it’s mostly only children and white men who claim otherwise, even implicitly. Children and white men often find it easy to look out at a world in which suffering and reward are dispensed with an arbitrary disproportion, and to avoid coming to the conclusion that shit is fucked up and bullshit. In the abstract, racism, sexism, or homophobia are bad things, of course—what good liberal would deny this?—but in practice, well, it’s complicated. Justine Sacco turns out not to be a monster. She turns out to have feelings, and more than that, she turns out to resemble us. Yes, we’re against racism, but if being against racism means that a sympathetic white woman suffers, well, hold up, this is not what I signed up for.

Ronson’s argument is essentially a reactionary liberalism taking shelter in the privilege of the status quo: while the ideals of twitter shaming campaigns are well-founded, their application, in practice, is problematic. They go too far. Innocents have suffered. His rhetorical appeal, therefore, is like the many liberals who have written books and essays and memoirs about how they joined the communist party (or Occupy, or whatever) only to discover that it didn’t instantly solve everything painlessly and precisely, who find fault with every activist who isn’t literally the saintliest fantasy of MLK and Gandhi rolled into one. The theory is (still) good, they always say, but the practice leaves something to be desired. I’m all for anti-racism, but you know what, I can’t get on board with disrupting people’s commute. It’s a shame what Israel is doing to the Palestinians, but if a boycott will impact well-meaning Israeli liberals, hmmm… And so on.

As I said, I have a (limited) sympathy for this perspective. There can be a vengeful lack of empathy that a sense of injustice can enable those who are inclined to be vigilantes to enjoy, and expressions of anti-racism can sometimes also be self-indulgent narcissism (like this blogpost, perhaps?). Most often it’s a mixture of lots of things, good and bad; people are complicated and imperfect. Plus, the disproportionate cruelty of what happened to Justine Sacco was hardly, in and of itself, something to be proud of: she made an ignorant joke on twitter, and she lost her job. That sucks. But we are capable of thinking more complex thoughts than that simple cause and effect. After all, the people who made jokes about Justine Sacco on twitter were not the people that fired her. She was fired by her employers, who most likely judged that Justine Sacco had become a liability to their interests, because she had. She was fired because her employers judged her to be a bad publicist. Unless you think she has a God-given right to employment—no matter what effect her publicity has on her employer—it’s hard to argue that they were wrong. She may not deserve to be placed in the stocks, but she spoke freely in a world where free speech has a cost, and for once, she was presented with a bill for it. She was a bull in a china shop, and she paid for the dishes that she broke. But only white men and children expect to live in a world where there are no consequences. Only people of a particular privileged social class get to expect employment to be given to them by God.

Which is why we should look askance at anyone who takes “no consequences” to be the default, the standard against which any efforts at reparative justice must be measured. Ronson’s essay (and his book, presumably) has a gaping lack of empathy when it comes to people who are not well-meaning liberals that have fucked up. People like Justine Sacco get loving, empathetic attention; those who complain about them, however, disappear into a mob, a faceless mass.

Take, for example, the very different kinds of empathy he gives to Adria Richards and to the two dongles that she had the audacity to complain about. He treats them differently by treating them the same. When he writes that “The people I met were mostly unemployed, fired for their transgressions, and they seemed broken somehow — deeply confused and traumatized,” he merges the two groups together:

“I’m not one to shed tears, but” — he paused — “when I got in the car with my wife I just. . . . I’ve got three kids. Getting fired was terrifying.”

“I cried a lot during this time, journaled and escaped by watching movies…SendGrid threw me under the bus. I felt betrayed. I felt abandoned. I felt ashamed. I felt rejected. I felt alone.”

Both of these people were fired, but while being fired always sucks, the former was fired for breaking an actual rule (don’t create a hostile environment for women by making dick jokes at the conference where he made dick jokes) and the latter was fired for breaking an implicit rule: if you’re a woman, shut up about men being dicks in public (to say nothing about being a woman of color). In a perfect world, neither of these people would lose their livelihood for making statements in public, but in a perfect world, neither of these people would depend on the whims of capitalism for their ability to feed and sustain themselves and their families. This is not that world. But by blurring them together, by making “internet shame culture” the villain, here, we lose sight of the fact that employment is an arbitrary crap shoot always, and tweeting is just one of the random things that can result in getting fired (when you aren’t shielded from consequences by the privilege of your position).

This is not to say that there’s nothing to see here: it is interesting and novel that “internet shame culture” is even remotely legible as a thing, much less something that can make a corporation take notice. The “democratization” of normativity that social media makes plausible (if not quite common) is an interesting development; a great many people can make themselves heard that couldn’t, before, and that’s weird and disturbing if you expect people like Justine Sacco to be treated with loving sympathy and gentle forgiveness. Some kinds of privilege are eroding in some places, even first world privilege. There are fewer places where a white person can crack jokes about black people and be insulated from any possible negative consequences, as a variety of (mostly) white people are horrified to discover.

Because there is something new about this semi-democritization of public morality, however, historical analogies are suspect. Ronson, for example, wants to compare twitter shaming to “the last era of American history when public shaming was a common form of punishment.” He wants to compare #HasJustineLandedYet to being literally placed in actual stocks, being publicly whipped, being beaten and spat upon by crowds. This is kind of an absurd comparison. Absurd comparisons can sometimes be useful, of course, when treated with care: I would observe, for example, that the backlash against public shaming and “mob justice” was, in the 19th century, a drive by the state to monopolize the practice, to claim the right to judge and punish for the judiciary alone. It took a long time, but by the end of the 19th century, judges, lawyers, and police had taken control of the rituals of justice that had previously been more directly in the hands of communities who (in the absence of a judiciary) had made their own justice. This was good and bad. In structurally racist societies, “public justice” could and did mean ritualized racist violence; in the South, and in other white democracies, democratized justice often meant the lynching of black people. In structurally misogynist societies, democratized justice could and did mean the public shaming of women for their sexuality. Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter is about many things, but one of them is the fact that when a woman gets pregnant out of wedlock, she will carry the shame of her indiscretion in public, while the father will escape public shaming. Justice is, and has always been, unequally applied. Democracy is a good thing in the abstract, because in practice it’s no better than the power structure that the demos embodies, like any other system of government. If we look back at “the last era of American history when public shaming was a common form of punishment,” the main thing that strikes us about the power structure and ideals that it embodied should be that lots of people were not people: everyone but white men with property could pretty much count on a life of humiliation and injustice. That’s what those systems were for.

We still have those form of public shaming and putting-in-place. As the instigator of “dongle-gate” wrote at the time, “I publicly called out a group of guys at the PyCon conference who were not being respectful to the community.” Because our society is structured by racism, patriarchy, and a variety of other violent banalities, it was not long before this woman of color was fired for the sin of speaking up.

Effective immediately, SendGrid has terminated the employment of Adria Richards. While we generally are sensitive and confidential with respect to employee matters, the situation has taken on a public nature. We have taken action that we believe is in the overall best interests of SendGrid, its employees, and our customers.

Empathy is a good thing, in the abstract, because in practice, it’s no better than the even-ness of its application. If you are concerned about public shaming as social control—if your empathy directs you towards the kinds of people who are mocked on twitter for being racist or homophobic—do you therefore direct your empathy away from the quiet forms of social control that the racist homophobes need never fear being subjected to? There is a reason, after all, why Justine Sacco’s tweet stirred up a lot of anger. There was a reason why those Silicon Valley tech-bros telling dick jokes attracted the ire of The Big Mean Internet: the banalities of everyday brotriarchy are what usually keeps women in line. Tell the women on the receiving end of organized campaigns of online harassment, who fear for their safety and sanity, about the troubled, embattled tech-bro who can no longer tell dick jokes in public. It’s strange and unsettling when the status quo changes, when the dividing line between who needs to watch what they say and who has free speech starts changing, or becomes uneven. But it’s nothing to do with fairness or justice. And those who are born on the right side of that line can take comfort in the fact that justice will still reliably revert to the demographic mean. Everyone will land, but some people fly first class.