Grab Jon Ronson”s article, ‘How One Stupid Tweet Blew Up Justine Sacco’s Life,’ in today’s New York Times Magazine. It’s a master stroke in demonstrating the role of public shame in the modern age.
The article deftly tells the story of how a thirtysomehting, white, South African female media relations executive in New York has been pilloried for over a year for an unfortunate casual tweet she sent. The tweet read, ‘Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding. I’m white!’.
On reading the tweet for the first time, I felt a guttural revulsion at the apparent callousness. South Africa hasn’t changed as much as many would like to suggest was my immediate response.
Ronson goes on to chronicle the social ostracization, successive job losses, and family reproach that Ms. Sacco suffered as a result of her tweet.
The abuse she received on Twitter was unequivocal in its characterization of Sacco as unfit for her profession and for life in 2015. One man in particular, Sam Biddle, editor of a technology industry blog, was especially virulent and took special glee in spreading his indignation about Justine Sacco – unable to avoid the failings of a media relations executive in such a glaringly inappropriate way. Biddle later repented after meeting Sacco and hearing what her life has been like since the tweet.
To his credit, Ronson went straight to the source by interviewing Ms. Sacco and added much needed context. First, there was her assertion that she didn’t realize her text was public; she thought it was only going to her followers, primarily friends and family.
Secondly, Ronson provided a sketch of Sacco’s family background. Apparently, Justine hails from a long line of African National Congress members, central in the fight against apartheid during South Africa’s darkest days.
Finally comes the assertion that the text was meant as an ironic commentary on the blind view of Africa and its problem with AIDS that many hold globally. I guess the idea confronted is the stereotype that Africa is comprised solely of millions of HIV-infected blacks who are near-homeless, uneducated, and global public enemy number one when it comes to HIV/AIDS eradication.
As the article progresses, enough details are provided to paint Justine Sacco as intelligent, competent, and respected by those who knew her before the tweeting disaster. So, the critical question remains. If she is so intelligent, why risk everything so unnecessarily?
My first response is that it’s pretty clear from reading the article that she had no idea that what she did would be problematic. She was misguided about who would read the text, and if she is to be taken at her word, the way the text would be interpreted.
In essence, her defense is that she would expect her readership to be as gifted with ironic sleight of hand as she is. Perhaps, Sacco is overestimating her followers, as well as herself.
For you see, if Ms. Sacco had read her Freud she’d be aware that our unguarded communications often share a bit of ourselves that we are unaware of or that we unconsciously work to keep secret. We’ve all been caught red-faced by casual slips of the tongue. So, jocose utterances of racial difference and HIV/AIDS sufferers must always be viewed with suspicion.
But, I do feel for Justine as the nearly unanimous condemnation received must be viewed as suspiciously as her tweet. It’s so very easy to scapegoat and to vilify on social media. In doing so, we project our own failings onto the unfortunate party of the moment with an efficiency grounded in unaccountability since we’ll never have to face our accuser, get the full story and receive her rage.
Justine Sacco was foolish to post something so open to misinterpretation on a public social media forum. But, the punishment she received seems largely disproportionate to the magnitude of her offense.
Few amongst us have avoided taking risks online in a way that would be unacceptable if fully exposed to the cold eye of public scrutiny. Consider the totality of your experience on email, messaging services, websites and social media.
The online sex addict is by definition no exception. The exploration of fantasy online is legitimate for most people. For the average person, exploration of fantasy in this way is liberating. The phrase, ‘meaning through transgression’ comes to mind.
For the online sex addict, however, transgression’s meaning leads to a level of internalized guilt that serves as a ready fuel source that feeds the addictive process leading to greater and greater risk taking. The fear of discovery is traumatic enough.
Actual discovery often leads to a depressive decompression that may drive one into treatment but that also solidifies an often lifelong position as social outcast, failure, and liar. Prophecy has been self-fulfilled, yet again.
Porn and sex addicts are responsible for their objectifying behaviour in pursuit of sexual release. But, non-addicts are equally responsible for their objectifying projections onto those less fortunate.
The discoverer of racial offense or sexual impropriety, be it a partner, employer, friend, stranger or community-at-large, gets to carry a lighter load when he conveniently projects his own negative feelings onto a scapegoat. It’s a clever trick.
In theory, we owe these objects of our projections a debt of gratitude. In practice, we rob their coffers of self-worth and leave them with a damaged self-identity that makes it very difficult for them to reconnect with us and to return our projections.
I’ll say it for those of us unwilling to do so. Thank you Justine Sacco. Thank you online sex addicts. Job well done.