On Wednesday the New York Times announced the appointment of a new member of the New York Times Editorial board, Sarah Jeong. On Thursday a series of racist Tweets Jeong had sent in the past four years surfaced online. You can see those Tweets collected here:
Meet the newest member of the New York Times editorial board.
I’d say that these tweets were part of her resumè when she applied for the job. pic.twitter.com/CLgFvPeAgM
— Garbage Human ? (@GarbageHuman_) August 2, 2018
Among those Tweets, all of which were written in the past three or four years:
“white men are bullshit”
“oh man it’s kind of sick how much joy I get out of being cruel to old white men”
“dumbass fucking white people marking up the internet with their opinions like dogs pissing on fire hydrants”
“I just realized why I can’t stand watching Breaking Bad or Battlestar Gallactica. The premise of both is just white people being miserable.”
“Are white people genetically predisposed to burn faster in the sun, thus logically fit to only live under ground like groveling goblins.”
I think it’s clear to say that if you replace the word white in these Tweets with black, Hispanic, or Asian, the New York Times would immediately fire the person and denounce their old Tweets. That’s especially the case because the New York Times previously fired a conservative editorial hire within six hours when past Tweets surfaced.
Hell, if a white baseball player had Tweeted any of these things about any other race when he was 16 or 17 years old, the New York Times would have covered the Tweets as a front page sports story and lined up to condemn the very idea that these Tweets could have ever been sent, demanded abject apologies from the Tweeter, insisted on re-education camp and cultural sensitivity training as well as a strong condemnation from the baseball team, and probably chastised any fan who cheered a player involved in such Tweets.
And that’s all despite the fact that none of us, hopefully, look to baseball players or any other athletes as thought leaders or cultural arbiters about complex issues in modern day society. Which is, you know, the exact job, in theory, of a member of the New York Times editorial board.
So how did the Times respond to these Tweets and subsequent criticism of her hire?
With this statement:
“We hired Sarah Jeong because of the exceptional work she has done covering the internet and technology at a range of respected publications.
Her journalism and the fact that she is a young Asian woman have made her a subject of frequent online harassment. For a period of time she responded to that harassment by imitating the rhetoric of her harassers. She sees now that this approach only served to feed the vitriol that we too often see on social media. She regrets it, and The Times does not condone it.
We had candid conversations with Sarah as part of our thorough vetting process, which included a review of her social media history. She understands that this type of rhetoric is not acceptable at The Times and we are confident that she will be an important voice for the editorial board moving forward.”
Sarah Jeong then responded as follows:
“As a woman of color on the internet, I have faced torrents of online hate, often along this vein:
I engaged in what I thought of at the time of counter-trolling. While it was intended as satire, I deeply regret that I mimicked the language of my harassers. These comments were not aimed at a general audience, because general audiences do not engage in harassment campaigns. I can understand how hurtful these posts are out of context, and would not do it again.”
I want you to read these statements again carefully before you read any further here because they are important statements and cultural signposts of our modern era.
Now for my thoughts:
The New York Times response here is total bullshit.
I’m going to unpack my statement, but I wanted to be succinct and direct at the beginning.
The newspaper, and Sarah, are using the fact that she’s an Asian woman as an excuse for her racism. Worse than that, by including mean Tweets sent to her they are attempting to label her a victim and hence take away any responsibility for her for her own racist Tweets. That is, the New York Times is further encoding the idea that the rules for what can and can’t be said online or elsewhere are dictated by your race and sex which are, you know, two things that no one can control at birth. This is the very foundation of racism and sexism, the idea that at birth you are allowed to say and do things that others can or can’t do based on your race and sex.
In other words, for all the talk of #whiteprivilege the New York Times is creating its own form of privilege, identity based speech privilege.
Make no mistake, what the Times is doing here is racist and sexist.
The Times then takes the next step that Jeong’s racist speech was predicated on the fact that sometimes individual people online say mean things to an Asian woman online. This makes her a victim and thus she isn’t responsible for her own speech as well. Plainly, this is bullshit as well.
I’m a white guy who has made a living online for fifteen years. People have said, and continue to say, mean things to me online for the past 15 years. Many of those mean comments reference my race, sex, or place of birth in a pejorative manner. Many of them also have attacked my wife and family.
Do you know how many times I’ve responded to these insults with blanket condemnations of other races? Never. Do you how many times the New York Times would excuse me if I’d written the same Tweets as Jeong and directed them at Asian, Hispanic or black people at any point in the past 15 years? Never.
(Can you even imagine what the Times would do with Tweets like Jeong’s written by Donald Trump?!)
This means that I, as a white man, would be judged based on my race and sex for what I Tweet and Jeong, as an Asian woman, is not being judged based on her race and sex for what she Tweeted. That’s a self-evident and glaring example of a double racial and sexual standard. One person is being allowed to say something that another person isn’t based entirely on their race and sex.
Which is, you know, the very definition of racism and sexism.
The way to cure issues of race and sex in this country is not by setting forth different speech standards based on the race and sex of the speaker, it’s by holding everyone, regardless of their race, gender, politics, sexual orientation or ethnicity, to the same standard. (I’ll expand on this theory in a bit, but for now let me return to the Times statement).
While the Times argues that Jeong’s comments were satirical responses to online trolls, her Tweets that I linked above are not directed at any one. They are Tweets sent out to everyone who followed her Twitter feed. These weren’t satirical responsive comments directed at trolls online and even if they were, does one person pretending to be a white guy, remember we often don’t know the race or gender of an anonymous person online, justify you attacking an entire race, gender, or ethnic group? Of course not.
You don’t respond to an individual racial attack by attacking the entire race of your presumed attacker and get to defend yourself in his manner. Imagine the outrage if a white baseball player had defended his Tweets by saying, “Sorry, I was responding to a black guy who was mean to me on Twitter by using racial slurs satirically to him.” The Times would lose its mind over this defense, which is the same one they just used. But, again, that’s not what was happening here, Jeong was attacking white people in general and white men in particular because left wing speech standards allow minority speakers to say things about white men that they would never be permitted to say about any other group of people.
Reading the New York Times statements here proves how broken our modern day speech standards are when it comes to race and sex. I don’t believe that any truly intelligent person can read these Times statements as anything other than tortured attempts to justify an indefensible standard predicated on different treatments for different people based on their race and sex.
The Times statement, at its very core, is racist and sexist.
Now, having said all of this, I may surprise some of you with this next statement: I believe Jeong deserves to keep her new job.
That’s because I don’t believe we should be policing speech and firing people based on old Tweets or old jokes or a small sample of writings over decades of written words. That doesn’t further my belief as a first amendment absolutist because the goal of this speech policing is to effectively silence the impact of an individual’s words by refusing to allow them employment in the future.
The concept is similar, regardless of who is making the argument, liberal or conservative: “You said or wrote (x in the past) and therefore you are not allowed to do (y in the present).”
I believe this argument needs to die whether someone is white, black, Asian or Hispanic, male, female or transgender, American or foreign born, conservative or liberal. I believe in speech standards that are fairly and evenly applied to everyone. I don’t think we should encourage people on the left or right in this country to go find a sentence written years ago as evidence of why someone shouldn’t be employable in the present. But, and this is key, that standard has to be applied to everyone regardless of their politics or their ethnic background, whether they are a “Guardians of the Galaxy” director or a comic telling a joke that someone decides is inappropriate.
I don’t believe that the modern day game of speech policing is healthy for our country or our democracy because I think the end result is it artificially stifles robust public debate and it, rightly I believe, leads many to point out the insane double speech standards countenanced in our country today. We can’t only fire white people for what they’ve said or done in the past and consider that justice.
I’ve got a radical idea, there are millions of black, Hispanic and Asian racists in this country too. Probably a similar percentage of black, Hispanic and Asian racists as there are white racists. When you teach a country that only white people can be racist you create the opening for Jeong’s Tweets. She saw nothing wrong with condemning white men in her public Tweets. Would she have sent the same Tweets about black or Hispanic men? I doubt it. Why? Because she would have seen that as unacceptable. Why? Because we police racism directed at black, Hispanic and Asian people and do nothing about the racism directed at white people. Doubt me? Go search the phrase white men right now on Twitter and look at what is being said without any fear of retribution.
You don’t cure racism with racism and you don’t cure sexism with sexism.
Why do I believe we need a robust public marketplace of ideas when it comes to speech? Because I believe when you artificially stifle debate in this country you push it underground. I believe liberals created Donald Trump’s presidency by so aggressively policing the concept of acceptable and unacceptable opinion, permissive and impermissive commentary. The way to win first amendment battles is not by telling someone they can’t say something and labeling their opinion racist or sexist, it’s to actually engage with the argument itself instead of attacking the arguer.
If you believe gay marriage should be legal, argue your side, don’t label the other side’s opinion as unacceptable and the speaker as racist, sexist or filled with backwoods religion. There’s a big difference between “I disagree with your opinion because…” and “I disagree with you and your opinion is unacceptable.” It’s amazing how often the Democratic party, which I used to work for in elections, now argues in favor of tolerance and inclusion in everything but speech.
Hell, I’m banned from CNN right now for saying I like the first amendment and boobs and many liberals agree with that. Hugh Hefner, a patron saint of both the first amendment and boobs and traditional liberal thought, is rolling over in his grave.
We’re at an important moment in our culture and I think you can draw a clear connection between policing old Tweets and identity politics. Both are obsessed with the idea of what’s acceptable or not and both create different standards of acceptability based on race and gender, two things that none of us control at birth. But you have to be careful when you define acceptable speech because creativity is about, very often, pushing the bounds of acceptable speech. That’s why the first amendment has traditionally been the province of minority political viewpoints. Democrats, who used to protect expansive first amendment rights, now argue in favor of their limitation because they’ve adopted a nanny state idea of modern political thought, the idea that women and minorities have to be protected from ideas that might trigger or upset their feelings.
I think that’s bullshit too.
And I think it’s connected to speech policing like this. That’s why I’m not a fan of going back through someone’s Twitter history and grabbing Tweets you don’t like from a decade ago to get them fired — or publicly shamed — today. That’s whether it’s a famous movie director who used to be regular guy or an athlete who is totally anonymous as a teenager and then becomes famous as an adult.
That’s particularly the case when an athlete is under 18 years old. As a society we’ve decided that adolescents, as a general rule, get their pre-adulthood crimes wiped clean when they reach 18. Why do we do that? Because we believe children and minors shouldn’t be held to the criminal standard of adults when they are still under 18. (Clearly we can make exceptions when a minor does something particularly egregious, but the general rule is crimes by those under 18 are handled by the juvenile justice system).
If that’s the case with actual crimes of violence, how in the world is our standard not the same when it comes to a teenager Tweeting out rap lyrics or making inappropriate comments? It seems like the media should decide that these aren’t stories worth covering. (How about everyone also agree that Tweeting rap lyrics you love, even if they include racial slurs, isn’t racism either. Context matters. There’s a difference between screaming that a black person is a nigger like former wide receiver Riley Cooper did at a concert and quoting Meek Mill in a rap lyric featuring the word nigga like Villanova point guard Donte Divincenzo did when he was 15 years old. These aren’t the same things. Treating them as as the same thing isn’t adult behavior, it’s child-like absurdity premised on the idea that our society isn’t smart enough to understand context).
In the case of Guardians of the Galaxy director James Gunn, yes, he was much older when he sent those Tweets, but I still think there ought to be a statute of limitations on outrage. Can you really go back in time, publicize Tweets no one had seen before, and then express retroactive outrage that they exist?
I think the entire concept of these being stories, whether the target is liberal or conservative, is absurd. I’m pretty much opposed to outrage, pitchfork and mob behavior online in general, but at the very least shouldn’t we demand that response be predicated on current behavior?
When you seek out Tweets no one knows exist and express outrage a decade after they were sent, isn’t the person seeking out the Tweets the person actually creating the outrage? I understand the concept of going after someone who is conservative because of what was done to a liberal or someone going after a liberal because of what was done as a conservative, that’s part of tribal politics, but that doesn’t make it right. My general position is that no one should be fired for decade old Tweets or columns or articles because ultimately an eye for an eye leaves everyone blind.
If you don’t like something, don’t read, watch or listen to it. I’m troubled by the new trend of demanding that a company or advertiser not be affiliated with an individual because of a joke or comment some members of an online mob decide they don’t like. People aren’t perfect.
Yes, sometimes that might even mean you have to overlook speech that makes you uncomfortable even if it’s uttered in the present day. Roseanne Barr is far from perfect, but is stripping her show from the air and costing hundreds of people their jobs because she sent a stupid and racist insult to Valerie Jarrett — although, interestingly, Roseanne claims she didn’t know Jarrett was part black, which also points out our absurd rules when it comes to modern speech — really the best way to combat racism? I’ve always been of the belief that actions should be our focus in American society; increasingly it seems to me that most of the time our American media, myself included, spend our time debating words over actions.
Certainly I think about this in my own life too. For instance, I say millions of words a year on live radio. I’ve been doing that for a decade now. Has every sentence I’ve ever uttered been Shakespearean? Has every argument or opinion been perfectly crafted? Of course not. But I would hope people judge me on the balance of my commentary, not the one paragraph or sentence that someone decides to be offended by when it’s taken entirely out of context.
Yet, and this is what I find troubling in cases like these, your own audience isn’t the one judging you. They don’t contextualize your comment among everything else you’ve ever said, the angry mob just goes straight for the worst possible reading of that commentary and they don’t contextualize it in any way.
The goal is simple, you said x and therefore you aren’t allowed to do y.
Who gains from this? No one. Any victory is transitory and there’s always going to be another victim next up for public shaming in the social media town square.
Worst, our national commentary and debate is stifled and restricted because many people who might otherwise engage in a debate are worried that if they open their mouths someone is going to do a deep dive over everything they’ve ever said or written and find them wanting too.
I don’t pretend to know what Gunn (or Jeong for that matter) believes or thinks outside of a few of their Tweets, but I do know Gunn made two really good movies. I’d rather him make a third really good movie than get fired for something “inappropriate” he Tweeted a decade ago. That’s because I’d rather judge Gunn and Jeong at their best work than their worst words. Furthermore, I embrace creative freedom. And sometimes creative freedom is messy. Maybe in testing the bounds of acceptable comedic speech in his early social media life Gunn was better able to channel his voice to the masses in his older age. Maybe the same can be true of Jeong too.
I would certainly hope that I’m better at what I do now, at the age of 39, than I was when was I was 17 or 25 or 31. And I hope I’m better at 59 and 69 than I am at 39.
Wouldn’t you all hope the same?
Certainly, I think it’s a much better argument than the one the New York Times made. Why can’t a company just come out and say, “We don’t agree with everything that every employee of ours has ever said or will say in the future, but we think they are talented, getting better at their craft every day, and we think that they make us better as a company.”
Why can’t a smart company, and an even smarter country, apply this same standard to everyone, regardless of their race, religion, politics, or sex?
And I want those standards to be incredibly expansive, not incredibly restrictive.
The county would be much better off if we all spent less time being offended by our words and much more time focusing on our own actions instead.
Ultimately, I don’t want anyone regardless of their race, gender, religion, politics or sex fired for their past or even present opinions, Tweets, or jokes, but I also don’t want a company to tell me that our standards for speech are different based on those factors either.
I just want standards and precedents to be applied fairly and evenly regardless of who is involved in the stories. Right now that isn’t happening and I believe our country is the worse for it.
Indeed, I think it’s the underlying foundation of much of our modern conflict.
So I’ve got a truly radical idea: how about we start treating all speech, regardless of who says it, to the exact same standards?
I promise to do that here. Can you guys promise to do the same? If so, we can build on that. Whether it’s James Gunn, Roseanne, a baseball player, or Sarah Jeong at the New York Times, how about we just treat everyone the same?