If you had to guess how Slate reacted to the Sarah Jeong story, you’d probably assume they backed Jeong and denied there was anything wrong with her “white people” tweets. And you’d be right because that’s exactly the sort of piece Slate published last week. Here’s a sample: “The alt-right is on the hunt for journalists’ heads, and their latest tactic, it appears, is to take tweets out of context and weaponize them against liberal writers.”
But Tuesday Slate published another take which is a lot more thoughtful. Author Yascha Mounk frames his argument from the point of view that opinions for and against Jeong were always somewhat pre-determined, with the right attacking her and the left defending her. But he adds that some of those defenses, including the one published at Slate, overlook some genuine problems with what Jeong was saying:
While I do not think that Jeong should be fired for her tweets, I am depressed by the extent to which they are now being celebrated. This is true both because the content of her tweets is, from a liberal perspective, much worse than her defenders want to admit and because the kind of rhetoric in which she engaged is detrimental to the prospect of building a just society.
The core of the Times’ defense of Jeong is that she “responded to … harassment by imitating the rhetoric of her harassers.” In the most obvious reading of the statement, this is simply untrue. If Jeong had been imitating the rhetoric of her harassers, we would expect most instances of it to come in direct response to trolls. But in reality, she took aim at “white people” in standalone tweets on a wide range of subjects, from food to television.
The only tenable interpretation of the Times’ statement is therefore much broader: Because Jeong has frequently encountered abuse from white social media users—something that is, sadly, beyond doubt—she imitated their style and rhetoric when tweeting about white people in general, even when unprompted by any specific incident of harassment. The question then becomes whether this justifies the kind of rhetoric in which Jeong engaged.
Notice that Mounk is taking it almost for granted that Jeong isn’t really biased against white people as a group, just responding to harassment as the NY Times claimed in its statemet. I actually think that’s too generous as there is some evidence from other things Jeong has written and said that she really believes white men are problematic. In any case, even under a favorable light, can Jeong’s tweets be defended? Mounk says the answer is no.
Writing in Vox, Zack Beauchamp argued that it would be a mistake to think that Jeong is prejudiced against all white people: “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.”
Even if the use of this verbal register—let’s call it the “defensive inversion of bigotry”—is meant to be subversive in the way Beauchamp suggests, it inevitably mirrors other undesirable aspects of the speech on which it is modelled. As a result, we ourselves will start to engage in speech that is stupid, hateful, or both. One characteristic aspect of discriminatory speech is to hold all people who belong to a particular group responsible for the behavior of some of its members. Another characteristic aspect is to advocate cruelty against a whole group of people. If we start to imitate the harassers, we will quickly fall into the same trap: We will talk as though it’s fine to treat all members of a group poorly because some of them have acted badly, or even rejoice at the prospect of making “old white men,” in general, suffer. And it should be obvious that, in doing so, even ironically, we will violate two of the most fundamental principles to which liberals subscribe: that individuals should not encounter prejudiced treatment due to the group to which they happen to belong and that we should try to alleviate and oppose rather than to inflict and celebrate harm and cruelty.
Simply put, the left’s winking, ironic “inversion of bigotry” looks a lot like regular old racism. It’s still treating people as uniform members of a group rather than individuals. Oh, but doesn’t the fact that it was all done with a wink and a nod make it okay? After all, Jeong was only joking, right?
For the same reason, it’s not very convincing to point out that defensive inversions of bigotry are often meant to be humorous. While humor was clearly the intent of some—though certainly not all—of Jeong’s tweets, this line of argument conveniently elides what is supposed to make these jokes funny in the first place. If Jeong had tweeted that she gets a lot of joy out of being cruel to little babies, the comedy would have turned on the implicit absurdity, since we presume that nobody has a reason to wish them ill. But as everybody understands, that emphatically was not the nature of the jokes she did make: the reason why it was supposed to be funny when she tweeted that she gets a lot of joy out of being cruel to old white men is that her implied audience does in fact think that they kinda have it coming. So, yes, many of Jeong’s worst tweets were supposed to be funny, but what was supposed to make them funny was the fantasy of inflicting indiscriminate cruelty on a whole group of people—something to which, as liberals and leftists, we have good reason to object.
I’d just add to this that a lot of racism against black Americans or Asians has also been expressed over the decades in the form of racial “jokes.” None of those jokes were meant to be taken literally either but the idea was to reinforce stereotypes about group behavior. So saying ‘her white people tweets were meant in jest’ is hardly proof that they weren’t racist. It’s actually just one more way in which they are indistinguishable from other forms of racism.
And as Mounk points out, the audience for this material took it the same way a racist audience for a racial joke would, i.e. by laughing along with her at the butt of the joke, in this case white people. What’s most worrisome about all of this is how few people on the left see it as a problem.