November 2, 2018

The Curious Case of Sarah Jeong

The sense of offense is finely calibrated. It can detect an insult in a nanosecond and score it as a vile disparagement or a brilliant riposte, as contemptible or courageous, as harmful or enlightening, as doleful or droll, as wretched or risible, all according to the recipient’s sense of identity, community, and ideology. Such is the curious case of Sarah Jeong, which I promised a while back to investigate more fully, now that the dust has settled and the offense mongers have moved on to other prey.

In early August, The New York Times announced that it was appointing Jeong to its editorial board to write on technology issues. Almost immediately she was assailed in conservative media outlets for a rash (or perhaps more accurately, a mudslide) of anti-white tweets. Her fierce antagonists pointed to the supposed hypocrisy of the Times (and more generally, liberals) in hiring a racist, since the Times and other media outlets had previously fired or refused to hire presumed racists or sexists with conservative credentials. Though not endorsing her tweets, the Times stuck by her.

That’s the story in its broadest outlines. Have you already taken sides? Do you know from the sketchy details just above whether someone is at fault or has engaged in crippling inconsistencies? If so, read on. If not, read on too. The details make it interesting—and difficult.

The surfaced tweets are choice aspersions. It’s no wonder they raised howls and sustained a vigorous debate about reverse racism and the perils of faux outrage.

Among the most often cited of her tweets are these: “oh man it’s kind of sick how much joy I get out of being cruel to old white men”; “#cancelwhitepeople”; “white men are bullshit”; “are white people genetically disposed to burn faster in the sun, thus logically being only fit to live underground like groveling goblins.” And so on. If you substituted the name of any other group for “white” and “men” (say, for example, “blacks,” “women,” “Asians,” “Jews,” or “Hispanics”) it seems intuitively obvious that everyone would agree the Jeong tweets would be offensive on at least one of many possible grounds. Ought the Times have hired her? After all, it reversed a hiring decision a half year earlier when it discovered that its then choice for lead technology opinion writer, Quinn Norton, had previously tweeted racial and anti-gay slurs.

There are four main lines of argument (I’m not going to be exhaustive): (1) guilty with an explanation—the tweets are offensive but they come with extenuating circumstances; (2) not guilty—because the tweets were taken out of context, they aren’t actually offensive, (3) whether or not they offend, the outrage over the tweets was a smokescreen; the protestors had an ulterior purpose, and (4) whatever they were, the tweets do not constitute justification for refusing to hire.

Guilty with an Explanation

1. Older insulters, who have been around the block, should know better. But Jeong is young, a neophyte, unseasoned. This argument is unpersuasive. She’s 30. This is not her first job writing for the public. To boot, she often writes about just the sort of cultural and interpersonal clashes that made her alert to the pitfalls of the denigration in which she engaged. She is the author, in 2015, of The Internet of Garbage, about online harassment. The Times didn’t hire her for her inexperience but for her acute style and caustic sense.

2. She has different sensibilities, having been born in South Korea. She didn’t really understand what she was saying or the effect her words would have on readers. No dice. She came to the United States when she was three, and has obviously been in the higher reaches of the culture for much of her life. She’s a graduate of the University of California, Berkeley, and Harvard Law School. She was editor of the Harvard Journal of Law & Gender.

3. She’s not in the public eye, unlike, say, Roseanne Barr, so who cares? This argument doesn’t wash either. She has been in at least (a penumbra of) the public eye for some time, with a large following on Twitter and on The Verge, an online publication where she had been writing before departing for the Times. A racist writer may perhaps opine fairly on techniques of playing bridge or of raising sturdy cucumbers, but it’s beyond pretense that a mind occluded with prejudice could fairly wade through the universe of technology.

4. The tweets were responses to being harassed herself. That she was bombarded with hate mail seems clear. “Her journalism and the fact that she is a young Asian woman have made her a subject of frequent online harassment,” the Times said in a statement. “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.” But as Andrew Sullivan responded in Intelligencer, a New York Magazine blog: “Let me explain why I think this is the purest of bullshit. If you want to respond to trolls by trolling them, you respond to them directly. You don’t post slurs about an entire race of people (the overwhelming majority of whom are not trolls) on an open-forum website like Twitter.”

5. She’s sorry and apologizes. The Times reported that “Ms. Jeong said in a statement on Twitter . . . that she regretted the tweets, which were ‘intended as satire,’ and that the ‘comments were not aimed at a general audience.’ Ms. Jeong said she understood ‘how hurtful these posts are out of context.’” No doubt Roseanne Barr regrets her tweets, and Megyn Kelly her on-air comments.

Not Guilty

1. Jeong didn’t literally mean what she said. She wasn’t really calling for white genocide when she hashtagged “cancel white people.” As Vox writer Zack Beauchamp put it: “A lot of people on the internet today [are] confusing the expressive way antiracists and minorities talk about ‘white people’ with actual race-based hatred, for some unfathomable reason.” Unfathomable? If it walks like a duck . . . it may not be a duck but it is surely not unfathomable to think so. Beauchamp, persevering, went on to explain:

To anyone who’s even passingly familiar with the way the social justice left talks, this is just clearly untrue. “White people” is a shorthand in these communities, one that’s used to capture the way that many whites still act in clueless and/or racist ways. It’s typically used satirically and hyperbolically to emphasize how white people continue to benefit (even unknowingly) from their skin color, or to point out the ways in which a power structure that favors white people continues to exist.

Beauchamp also pointed to Twitter’s 280-character limitation to show why “white people” is a useful shorthand for the nasty folks Jeong was really responding to.

But it matters what shorthand you pick. That you find it useful to apply a broad rather than a narrow label does not ameliorate the sting felt by those to whom the general label applies, and of all people those on the left should know this. Liberals were once called “communists” because they advocated social safety nets, it presumably being a shorter term than, for example, “liberals who support equality and welfare policies for Americans that people in the Soviet Union claim to be offering to the Russian people, even though of course these same American liberals do not support Soviet domination of the world or perhaps even anything else about that country.”

2. Unlike Roseanne Barr, Jeong didn’t single out a particular person. But it is a hallmark of offensive commentary that any one person can be offended though the barb is applied not directly to her but to a group to which she belongs.

3. The tweets weren’t racist; they were merely jokes about white people. Jeff John Roberts, writing in Fortune, summed it up in pointing to “an observation by Public Knowledge lawyer John Bergmayer, who personally knows Jeong, that her tweets amount to irony or barbed humor, not racism. ‘In the context of her social circle (which includes me), they are clearly understood as hyperbolic jokes, similar to various “ban men” tweets.’” Jeong didn’t articulate this point (perhaps because it wasn’t true), but I think that was what Roseanne Barr thought her own defense was (if she had any thoughts at all).

4. White-bashing has utility, serving the significant purpose of status climbing. The effect on whites is purely a side effect. Writing in The Atlantic, Reihan Salam put it this way:

In some instances, white-bashing can actually serve as a means of ascent, especially for Asian Americans. Embracing the culture of upper-white self-flagellation can spur avowedly enlightened whites to eagerly cheer on their Asian American comrades who show (abstract, faceless, numberless) lower-white people what for. And, simultaneously, it allows Asian Americans who use the discourse to position themselves as ethnic outsiders, including those who are comfortably enmeshed in elite circles.

The problem is that this logic also applies in reverse. Denigrating minority groups, many of these same white-bashers will point out, has historically served the purpose of creating and enhancing “white privilege.” That race bashing is useful in enhancing your own position doesn’t make it the less offensive.

5. The tweets weren’t offensive, because they were aimed at the majority, not a minority: there is no such thing as “anti-white racism.This argument is foreshadowed in several of the arguments just noted. This is a one-way ratchet theory of offense: only the powerless can take offense; only the powerful can give it. But it’s not much of an insight to realize that using a slur and engaging in other forms of disparagement are themselves a means of wielding power.

Outrage as Smokescreen

One of the major arguments for dismissing the complaints against Jeong was that the outrage was phony: those who excoriated her—indeed, subjecting her, The Verge said,“to an unrelenting stream of abuse from strangers on the Internet”—do not at the same time call for the defenestration of right-wing race-baiters. As The Verge noted:

Online trolls and harassers want us, the Times, and other newsrooms to waste our time by debating their malicious agenda. They take tweets and other statements out of context because they want to disrupt us and harm individual reporters. The strategy is to divide and conquer by forcing newsrooms to disavow their colleagues one at a time. This is not a good-faith conversation; it’s intimidation.

The smokescreen argument is not just that of her colleagues. Nolan L. Cabrera, associate professor in the Center for the Study of Higher Education at the University of Arizona, whose book White Guys on Campus will be published by Rutgers University Press in two weeks, was quoted in The Washington Post on the same point:

Part of the reason it was so easy for the outrage to be manufactured in the first place was it was completely decontextualized and ahistorified. Then it was easy to drum up anger and say it looks like she hates white people. That only makes sense if you are willfully ignorant of 400 to 500 years’ history and contemporary social context and also the context from which the tweets were sent.

That may be. Let’s even concede it is. But everyone ought to know, especially a savvy journalist, that nuance withers in the heat of a tweet. Five hundred years of history is easily blotted out in the bright glare of inflammatory phrases. Complaining afterward about criticism by monumentally hypocritical outrage junkies is the wrong way to deal with what sparks the outrage—though it does illustrate yet one more time that the offensive comment is almost always taken to be worse than the underlying evil that prompted it (like the ugly abuse to which Jeong was subjected). Still, the right way to deal with the outrage is to admit fault when fault there is and move on. Which is sort of what happened, though not entirely forthrightly, through a lukewarm apology.

The smokescreen argument suffers from an inconvenient hole at its core: the outrage wasn’t entirely phony. As some of the calmer voices on the right said, Jeong’s vitriol cannot be wholly dismissed by the excuse of “counter-trolling.” When the fuss erupted in early August, David French wrote in National Review that “it’s one thing to argue that Jeong should be given a chance to prove herself at the Times, and another entirely to justify the content of the tweets themselves. . . . To indulge at all the notion that injustice, even systematic injustice, can excuse or legitimize hatred against a class or group of Americans is to open Pandora’s Box.”

Others pointed to a number of Jeong tweets that lambasted grounded and diligent journalists who turned up facts that were inconsistent with Jeong’s apparent world view about rape culture and related themes, suggesting that on at least some issues her interest, at least at the time of the tweets, lay in ideology rather than facts. (That said, it does seem ironic, if not comical, that outrage against Jeong was directed at the Times for hiring someone who at least rhetorically did not always respect facts. When was the last time the apoplectic among them vented against systematic fact mangling commentators on the right?)

My verdict is that Jeong’s tweets were racist and their danger lies precisely in their racism. Racist tweets—attacks on the basis of race, any race—help normalize racist discourse generally. It may be perfectly understandable that those who are verbally attacked will respond by hurling cleverer verbal counterattacks, but doing so will inevitably justify to the original perpetrator that it was proper to engage in this kind of warfare.

We need to overcome our almost overpowering urge to view everything through the lens of incoherent political labeling and the grievances of monolithic identities. If someone calls you a fat slob, you might instinctively lambaste him for being an “anal emaciate” but you ought to check the impulse. You can’t be against name calling and then call names. We don’t, and ought not, respond to arsonists by burning down their homes. Or as Richard Nixon, that paragon of virtue (see how easy it is to disregard one’s own advice?), said in his famous parting line: ‘Always remember, others may hate you, but those who hate you don’t win unless you hate them, and then you destroy yourself.” As Nixon did, and as Jeong came close to doing.

A Justified Hire

She escaped Nixon’s fate, and Roseanne’s, and Megyn Kelly’s, for one good reason: the Times refused to derail a promising career on the strength of a string of tweets resurrected from years gone by. In its statement, the Times pointed to another difference distinguishing Jeong’s case from Norton’s: it knew beforehand about her tweets but not those of Norton (the previous hire who lasted only a few hours). That’s not very convincing. The better explanation is that the Times, like many other organizations navigating through culturally roiling waters, is learning how to cope with a writer’s mistakes of the past.

Evidently, Jeong’s anti-white racism oeuvre sputtered out some time ago. (I cannot say that with any sure knowledge of the fact, but only from what appears to be acknowledged by others.) You can call her previous tweets youthful follies. Better perhaps to acknowledge them as follies from the youth of Twitter and our woeful cluelessness in those days that blithering idiocies, which would once have dissipated into the air when spoken to a friend, were destined to be preserved in the preternaturally open circuits of the Internet. All too many people have experienced online regret, suffering to their sorrow the once unforeseen consequences of hasty verbal indiscretions.

Even some conservatives agreed that the Times was right to stick with her. David French said: “The Times is standing by its hire. Good. It’s time to end termination-by-Twitter and debate bad ideas head-on.”

In a cogent column a few days after the Jeong uproar began, Times columnist Bret Stephens wrote of his earlier defense of a National Review writer who was hired and then quickly fired by The Atlantic when a nasty tweet and podcast surfaced about women who have abortions. Said Stephens: “Your critics show bad faith when they treat an angry tweet or a flippant turn of phrase as proof of moral incorrigibility. Let he who is without a bad tweet, a crap sentence or even a deplorable opinion cast the first stone.” His main point, he said, is that “we should be judged on the totality of our work, and that we are more than just a collage of quotes from our social-media history or some foolish utterances from the near or distant past.”

The important point is that they are in the past. If Jeong’s racist tweets were to continue, then I grant the hypocrisy and would join the clamor that she be dismissed. But heaven help us if we are forever shunned because we were caught once playing in the mud. Repentance and growth are human qualities we must foster and further: not only need we offer apologies but we must accept them when they appear to be sincere. Otherwise, we will all remain prisoners of our worst moments and earnest salvation will be beyond those who could be its brightest preachers.