The consequences of groupthink

In the New York Times last week, writer Jon Ronson chronicled the swift demise of a woman named Justine Sacco at the hands of a ruthless Twitter mob. With each successive tableau, Sacco makes her way gradually from antagonist to victim, her situation reaching a nadir, perhaps, when she is disowned by her South African family — self-styled progressives (ANC supporters, which I suppose is a primary benchmark for that designation) who simply could not countenance her tactlessness.

Her tweet? “Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding. I’m white!”

Hardly invidious in the scheme of things, yet disagreeable enough, apparently, to galvanize legions of Twitter police, unswerving in their devotion to political correctness, to tear her down. Ill-advised, to be sure, but as far as self-incriminatory statements go, about as innocuous as they come. It could easily have been construed as parodying white privilege.

It is not lost on Ronson that Sacco, before being sacked, was the director of corporate communications at IAC, but irony is never his point. What Ronson does so well is elucidate the dark, mobbish underbelly of this sort of activism, which, he argues, “wasn’t really about [Sacco] at all,” but rather “our desire for approval.”

So it was with Keith Olbermann and future baseball Hall-of-Famer Chipper Jones, the latter of whom, not two weeks ago, tweeted that the Sandy Hook shootings were a hoax.

At first glance, I am inclined — we all are — to side with Olbermann, whose magnanimous appeal to Jones to lend his fame and fortune to the cause resonates profoundly in this era of hate-mongering and faceless recrimination. Yet I have reservations, and they are, I think, rooted in my suspicion that his apology was insincere and therefore meaningless.

Even if it was not insincere, however, even if Olbermann was right and I am wrong, Jones’ readmission was always predicated on the transaction of apology for forgiveness made between the two parties (i.e. Jones and everyone else). He has a colorful history of offensive tweets, not one of which should disqualify him from the same respect the rest of us are accorded by virtue of our humanity. By respect, of course, I do not mean tacit support; we interact every day with people with whom we disagree, sometimes fiercely, whom we nevertheless do not assault. And while there are and must be consequences to speaking one’s mind, Sacco-esque lambasting, liable to devolve into death threats and the like, should not be fair game.

Which is why I think Olbermann’s request is ultimately misguided, though certainly well-intentioned. His presumes a situation in dire need of rectification when in fact it is merely offense, albeit galling, that Jones has inflicted, a byproduct of his insane ramblings — nothing more. It is both horrific and irresponsible that Jones would employ his soapbox to such devastating effect, but we cannot hold him accountable beyond voicing our own opinions. Imploring him not only to about-face, but also to go the extra mile, is dishonest, truly a means of elevating ourselves.

Chipper Jones is far more privileged and secure than Justine Sacco was, is, or ever will be. He is exactly the same person he was prior to the incident. Unlike Sacco, he had fans, innumerable after an exceptional career, to rally around him and proclaim his innocence. He apologized, maybe sincerely, and went on his merry way.

Although Jones will not suffer, we must still heed Ronson’s warning, for our moralizing is not really about them, but about ourselves.