In March, a liberal furor erupted when The Atlantic magazine briefly hired Kevin Williamson, a conservative writer with the National Review.
Several years earlier, Williamson had written a short tweet in which he seemed to suggest that women who obtain abortions should be hanged. Though he insists this is far from his real view, his fate was sealed when it turned out he had said something similar in a podcast. He was fired almost immediately.
I defended Williamson at the time, but not on account of any potential misinterpretation of his abortion views. My main point was 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.
“Your critics show bad faith when they treat an angry tweet or a flippant turn of phrase as proof of moral incorrigibility,” I wrote. “Let he who is without a bad tweet, a crap sentence or even a deplorable opinion cast the first stone.”
Not surprisingly, some on the left pilloried me for that argument. So allow me to apply precisely the same logic in defense of my soon-to-be colleague at The New York Times, Korean-American technology writer Sarah Jeong, who is joining the editorial board with her own extensive history of unfortunate tweets.
Among these: “White men are bull—”; “#CancelWhitePeople”; “oh man it’s kind of sick how much joy I get out of being cruel to old white men” and “f— white women lol.” She has also bashed police, called for censoring a fellow journalist and believed the 2014 University of Virginia rape hoax, in the course of which she lashed out at “white men” and “white college boys.”
We should call many of these tweets for what they are: racist. I’ve seen some acrobatic efforts to explain why Jeong’s tweets should be treated as “quasi-satirical,” hyperbolical and a function of “social context.” But the criteria for racism is either objective or it’s meaningless: If liberals get to decide for themselves who is or isn’t a racist according to their political lights, conservatives will be within their rights to ignore them.
Also worth noting is the leftist double standard when it comes to social-media transgressions. In February, my centrist colleague Bari Weiss celebrated U.S. figure skater Mirai Nagasu’s historic triple axel by tweeting a line from the musical “Hamilton”: “Immigrants: They get the job done.” Left-wing social media went berserk about this alleged “othering” of Nagasu, who was born in California to immigrant parents.
By contrast, the left has been nothing if not aggressive in its defense of Jeong. That’s the right thing to do, but it’s also rank hypocrisy coming from many of the same people who loudly demanded the ouster of Williamson, Weiss or, well, me. The tests for who gets to work at publications like The Times or The Atlantic ought to revolve around considerations of liveliness, integrity, maturity and talent. When ideology becomes the litmus test, we’re on the road to Pravda.
My own misgivings about Jeong’s tweets have less to do with their substance than with their often snarky tone, occasional meanness and sheer number: 103,000 over about nine years, averaging about 31 tweets a day. (Donald Trump averages only 11.)
But that’s the way we live now – unfiltered – and many of us, including me, have been late to appreciate Twitter’s narcotic power to bring out the worst in ourselves. Undigested thoughts. Angry retorts. Jokes that don’t land. Points made in haste. All the mental burps and inner screams that wisely used to be left unspoken – or, if spoken, little heard and seldom recorded.
That’s a reason to treat social media approximately the way we do opioids: with utmost caution. But it’s also a reason to temper our judgments about people based on the things they say on social media. The person you are drunk or stoned is not the person you are – at least not the whole person. Neither is the person you are the one who’s on Twitter.
I’ve spent the last few days reading some of Jeong’s longer-form journalism. It’s consistently smart and interesting and as distant from some of her more notorious social-media output as a brain is from a bottom. But you’ll struggle to find her articles on an internet search because her serious work is overwhelmed by the controversy her tweets have generated.
Is it ultimately her fault for writing those ugly tweets? Yes. Does it represent the core truth of who she is? I doubt it. Anyone who has been the victim of the social-media furies knows just how distorting and dishonest those furies can be.
I’m routinely described on social media as an Arab-hating, climate-denying, pedophile apologist. It’s enough for me that my family, friends and employer know I’m none of those things. God save us all when those pillars crumble in the face of our new culture of denunciation.
So welcome, Sarah. I look forward to reading you with interest irrespective of agreement. I trust you’ll extend the same good faith to all of your new colleagues. Only through such faith do people, institutions and nations thrive.
Brett Stephens is a columnist for The New York Times. © 2018 New York Times News Service