The disturbing public excoriation on Twitter that upended the life of 30-year-old PR exec Justine Sacco on Friday, December 20, 2013—after she sent an ill-conceived tweet that read, “Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding. I’m white!”—was one of the greatest spectacles of mob violence in social media to date.
I couldn’t resist joining in.
When I got wind of the brouhaha going on via a blog post on BoingBoing.com at about 7 pm that night, I booked over to the #HasJustineLandedYet Twitter feed and had myself a good time watching the blood orgy on my phone.
There was a juicy charge to the situation: the victim had no clue she was being attacked by Twitter users worldwide. She sent the tweet a little after 10 am EST while in London, then boarded an 11-hour flight to Cape Town, South Africa. She reportedly flew first class on British Airways, enjoying amenities1 that sum to a veritable inflight anus licking but evidently don’t include that newfangled trifle called WiFi.
As I ate nachos and drank Coronas alone in a mediocre Mexican restaurant in Greenwich Village, I thumbed in these clever tweets to give my evening some free amusement:
It’s like 2 million people are waiting for her with the lights off
to see her expression as the earth explodes.
What’s the German word for the sick anticipation of waiting
for an imminent catastrophe to hit an unexpecting person?
When she gets to Africa it’ll be like the Beatles landing at
JFK, except for the wishing she was dead part.
Type type, munch munch. Small satisfied smile, somewhere between Grinch and Mona Lisa. You don’t get to watch a public torturing too often these days. It masturbated the dopamine puds in my rat brain. And I was safe in the crowd, knowing that I wasn’t anywhere near her worst tormenter. Hell, I wasn’t even insulting her. I was commenting on the situation. Some people were wishing AIDS, rape, death and worse on Sacco. Even circulating photos of her family.
But my tweets were toothpicks on her funeral pyre. I certainly wasn’t one of the few bastions of digital humanity calling for people to knock it the fuck off. Like this fellow:
Josh Greenman @joshgreenman
Hey, if you’re mocking Justine Sacco relentlessly, please stop,
look in the mirror, and give to an anti-AIDS charity.
When I started seeing these tweets, shining like burnished tin in shit, my contrarian mode immediately engaged and, not ironically in the least, found their sentiment worth aping.
There ought to be some difference in the vitriol over a stupid
joke gone bad (likely this situation) vs. deliberate hate talk.
I hope every person who sends out a self-righteous
unnecessary-to-say “words have consequences” tweet
I sent a couple more tweets like these two. It wasn’t nearly as fun. More effort, less hedonistic payoff. Like my dopamine jerk-off session had run out of lube. Instead of being in non-thinking harmony with the masses, I was running outside of the group and being antagonistic to it.
This requires intentional cognition and the nakedness is animalistically unpleasant. You’re no longer a herring in the school. You’re in open water, begging to be snapped up by something toothy or abandoned in a cloud of excrement. Your ganglia tell you that you’re asking for death or isolation and wonder if you might care to explain why.
While I’m sure I’ve been part of more subtle mob attacks over the years—you can easily do this when you think you’re being high-minded—it’s been decades since I recognized it immediately and felt shame afterward.
The last time was in December 1989, during a fraternity pledge season. I had pledged2 the semester before, so it was the first time I could dish out some of the theatrical whup-ass that had been dished to me six months before. Rookie brothers are especially vulnerable to being asses during pledge season, it is generally known, and it doesn’t help when you’re a wee bit less mature than the average bear.
Shortly before midnight, the pledges lined up soldier-style on a bridge on the outskirts of campus. The militaristic nature of fraternity initiations has always struck me as interesting. We were in college. When men want to mix subjugation and camaraderie, marching happens.
We were in the black cold with one distant streetlight. The fraternity brothers filtered slowly through the line like water through tree roots. Like the others, I soon began hollering at a postulant (what my fraternity called pledges) for not knowing someone’s “information,” which meant he had not memorized a home address.
My stint of method acting fed on itself as I played the exasperated, end-of-his-rope guardian of the organization’s competency standards. My eyes bugged and my throat tendons bow-stringed as I berated some dude who was three months my elder, though neither of us was 20. My acting job was greased by the fact that I held a mild dislike for this guy, mostly because I felt he held the same for me. Cigar smoke and insults whirled around me. At one point, I got particularly dramatic and pulled out a thatch of my hair to punctuate some question with some act of mock violence. It ripped out audibly, at least to my ears. Like Moe tearing a handful of mattress stuffing from Larry’s head in a Three Stooges short.
After the burn from yelling left my throat—that burn and adrenaline must have distracted me from the pain on my head—I immediately regretted what I had done. Not all my idiotic put-on yelling; ripping out my hair. I was thinning and badly needed the few dozen strands from my front tuft that I now clutched in my hand. Realizing that I’d just accelerated my balding by nine years made me scream in impotent rage at all the pledges, now marching off to their activity.
I felt a hand hit my shoulder. I turned, still needing to yell, furious and verklempt, holding my hair. Do you believe what he did?! I said to a friendly face.
An alumnus of one year blinked a few times, greeted me and said my name. There was an awkward pause while he waited for me to switch off the act. He greeted me more pointedly. I shook his hand and felt angrily, stupidly balder.
Later that night, I sat at my desk and examined a hideous hole in my character. It showed a core ugliness, far more defining than any above-the-dregs qualities I thought I might possess.
“You must never be in the position to rule over other people,” my mind said gravely. (I remember my mind speaking gravely.) “You will hurt them. You are sadistic.”
My flickering self-respect tried to argue this down. Ever since I was the first team pick for a trivia contest in second grade, I had nurtured the notion that what Mr. Rogers told every kid was at least equally true in my case, even if it manifested itself by collecting wheat pennies instead of climbing that motherfucking rope in the gym.
Yet here I was, several pegs below common.
The new revelation was like a crack in a mirror that cut through my face and it couldn’t be unseen. I felt separated into two opposing forces: I was the worthless Nazi grunt beating a Jew while laughing demonically and I was some moralist a half-century away knowing such a thing was vile and must be destroyed before it can rear its head.3 The duality wasn’t reconcilable. You can’t be both. But I had just shown myself that I was. I was scum.
If a nineteen-year-old brain that couldn’t remember the exact route to the mall could contemplate the nature of evil, that’s what it was doing. Though it was more like piecing together a preschool puzzle, the kind with six huge pieces, than Hannah Arendt deconstructing Eichmann.
I kneaded the possibility that the majority of the world’s jack-booted thugs aren’t any different than me. They aren’t monsters. Many probably aren’t even inwardly convinced of a cause, despite whatever bullshit they spew. They’re just weak-willed yokels trying to fit in. Maybe just a little more vulnerable to group momentum than the average person, and prone to emotion-fueled naivety that diminishes their IQ by 20 points in pivotal moments that they later regret.
I was hollow. My gut seemed to dematerialize along with my spine. I felt like a pus-filled wart on a shark’s ass.
Self-esteem was running low that night in 1989.
Like most visits of depression or euphoria, it didn’t last long. Perhaps I realized I wasn’t going to kill myself so I had no existential choice except to rub one out to a Playboy, since my roommate was at his girlfriend’s dorm, and then go to bed.
I don’t recall the moment of illumination in the coming years when I gained the inkling that wanting to be anything more than a wart, in the grand scheme, was the drive to be human. It was simultaneously natural, egotistical and (unless you’re Jesus, Gandhi or Sinatra) mostly futile. I’m also not sure when I realized that you have at least a little choice about which shark’s ass you infect. Some have feeding patterns that are less galling than others.
Five years after college, I mulled over these platitudes in a Mead notebook. I recorded my suspicions that it wasn’t inherent good or evil that made a person a saint or brute, it was the capacity for empathy. Some people have a lot; others, almost none. We all know someone who yelps in pain when seeing strangers get their fingers slammed in a door, literally or figuratively, and we all know someone else who watches like a reptile and looks for exposed bone. People fall all along that spectrum. If they didn’t, that donation can in front of the register at the Wawa would either fill up in an hour or never at all.
Empathy is not my strongest characteristic.
I drop in my coins, but mainly because I don’t want them littering my pocket and I somehow manage to retain the quarters. Occasionally I have maudlin fits of self-loathing in which I’ll consider the absurd bounties in my life against the crumbs more innocent and deserving people have been given, and I’ll make some grandiose charitable gesture to quiet the cancerous feeling. Those fits have been getting more frequent. I’m not sure if that’s good or bad. Diligently reporting each act of self-flagellation to my accountant probably doesn’t signal that my humanity is evolving for the better.
If there’s been growth in my empathy, it’s been budged forward a centimeter here and there by experience. I’ve gotten my fingers slammed in more doors over the years. Heavy ones. A few hydraulic presses. If this wasn’t a metaphor I’d be eating my beef stew in the facedown position now. So when I see a digit amputation in my circle, I no longer have the luxury of reacting with detached bemusement, clueless of how the strange creature in front of me is suffering. Some sensory memory butts in and reminds me of the time I fed the wood chipper in that particular way.
It’s a self-centered means of backing into an artifice of empathy, since ignoring their bloody mash-up would diminish mine. But it’s better than nothing.
I didn’t give a goddamn about Justine Sacco. While I was the target of group ridicule as a kid, like many children, I didn’t extend the cold, isolated dread that washes over such a child to Sacco’s predicament. I’ve never been reputationally disemboweled by a headless pitchfork mob on social media. That peculiar hole in my empathy resume, amid canyons, made it easy to find this ugly affair interesting and amusing at the outset.
Sacco also made a good target. She’s white, blonde, young and at least comfortably in the upper middle class. She also worked at a prominent media company that runs brands people have heard of (like OKCupid and The Daily Beast), and was a high-level PR flack, for Chrissakes. While her tweet was likely a failed attempt at snarky humor4, perhaps to zing white privilege or the myopic press coverage of the AIDS crisis in Africa, its harshness wasn’t an aberration. Her online attackers found several prior tweets that painted her as smarmy. These weren’t the missives of a salt-of-the-earth type.
Of all the people who might rise above the squelch on my broken empathy meter, it wouldn’t be her. Moralistically, in compassion for another human being, maybe it should have been. But in looking for answers on my failing, I’m left staring at the same dun canvas and the only non-answer that gets anywhere close: I just ain’t that good of a person.
In 1989, I didn’t care enough about that guy to avoid using him to give some of my adolescent pettiness and repressed scorns a little air. He wasn’t a sympathetic character in my view, so I never felt bad for him. I felt bad for me. I felt pathetic. I felt sadistic. I had wronged something very large, very important, and it wasn’t him.
I don’t feel bad for Sacco. Her comeuppance was overly severe, but her repeated attempts to get a shock reaction from her Twitter followers through mildly offensive or nasty remarks gave her an almost perfect fitness to be an example for other Twitter provocateurs who want to hold corporate jobs.5 She didn’t deserve a global lynching, but she’d long been asking for a semi-public ass beating. Having contempt for the witless rabble that stormed at her, myself included, does nothing to generate feelings of sympathy for her. These are two different things.
Targets of mob attacks usually have the last laugh, anyway. Being worthy of attack sets them apart from their worthless-cog tormentors. As long as Sacco doesn’t put a bullet in her head, the darkest crevice she settles into during her fall, financially and socially, will still be far above the greatest heights most of her Twitter detractors will ever enjoy in life. They know it. Lobbing a rock at someone during a group assault eventually brings a twisted melancholia. It reminds you that you’re probably not worth that stone.
1According to the British Airways website, flying first class on this route costs about nine grand.
2I hated this verb back then and hate it now. I would rather say “joined,” but it’s not like you waited in line and received a bundled uniform. It was a bit more involved. Naturally I’ve been sworn to secrecy on any details, other than what I’ve divulged here. In one episode of The Andy Griffith Show, in which a seven-ish Opie got himself in trouble with a few kids in a “secret society” meeting, Barney Fife refused to tell Andy a tidbit about his own boyhood secret society. It was a throwaway joke, but it was good enough for me.
3Everything goes back to the Nazis. If you grew up with a bookish interest in history and a typical male interest in extremes, there is no trail of thought or metaphorical comparison that does not go back, in some way, to Nazi Germany. Like the History Channel, I outwardly weep for its existence in a stentorian voice while I inwardly, shamefully thank God for the copious sustenance of fodder it will always yield as it is churned and churned again for endless purposes. “I hate you Hitler, thank you” hides in the stomach of many of us who love black-and-white movies but weren’t alive when they were made.
4If you ever find yourself on the bloodied end of a nasty Twitter beat-down, you can bet that your offending tweet will be a failed attempt at humor. Murderous Twitter swarms target power and arrogance. Attempting humor is a form of arrogance. Nothing makes a troll push up his Coke-bottles faster than seeing a “look how funny and smart I am” tweet from a person who probably pulls in a decent salary and occasionally gets laid.
5Sacco’s older tweets show that she seemed to fancy herself as a straight-talking off-stage comedian who had the latitude to broadcast eye-poking, just-short-of-outrageous tweets solely intended to draw attention through shock value. One example was, “I had a sex dream about an autistic kid last night.”
You can’t throw this kind of cringe bait up on Twitter and expect to swim in the world of biweekly paychecks and offices and people with titles. You have to choose. You can’t be Sarah Silverman part-time. Gilbert Gottfried tried to keep a pinky toe in the corporate machine while still being his uncensored self and it predictably got him canned from his gig as the voice of the Aflac duck. The suits care only about money. The minute your presence threatens to chase away dollars, you’re a tick on a testicle. Achieving your riddance becomes top priority and nobody expects the extraction to be pleasant.
If you’re a freelance writer and rarely use Twitter, however, by all means, continue typing whatever crap you want on the Internet.