The problem with heroes is that the more you know about a person, the more real they become—the more flawed they become, and the less heroic they begin to seem. Neil Armstrong famously shunned the spotlight after being the first human being to set foot on a world other than our own, an accomplishment that is so overwhelmingly incredible that it would be nearly impossible to articulate just what it could mean for humanity in the centuries to come. Although many attribute that to Armstrong’s humble character, I’ve heard more than once that it was also because Armstrong was aware that he could never live up to the larger-than-life spectacle his accomplishment demanded. He was a regular guy with an immense respect for the work that went into his Navy and NASA missions, both from an engineering and a piloting standpoint. But that was the problem: He was a regular guy, with flaws, blemishes, and even things he probably wasn’t proud of. The more time he spent in front of the camera, the better the chance that America would spot his mortality, and judge him harshly for it.
In the age of cell phone cameras and social media connecting us all to one another from anywhere on the globe, mistakes have become pretty tough to hide, and even tougher to rebound from. Justine Sacco’s entire life came to a screeching halt a few years ago when she posted an insensitive and foolish Tweet to her small group of 170 followers. As she boarded a plane from London to Cape Town, South Africa, she posted 12 words that would change the course of her entire adult life:
“Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding. I’m white!”
I’m not defending it. It was a hurtful joke, it was racially insensitive, and it demonstrated a serious lack of critical thinking from the PR professional. However, as her 11-hour flight kept her away from connectivity, Gawker writer Sam Biddle came across the Tweet and re-Tweeted (re-posted) it to his 15,000 followers—calling Sacco out for her casual racism. The Tweet soon became the number one trending topic in the world, with thousands of people weighing in on what a despicable person she was.
By the time Sacco landed, tens of thousands of Tweets had been exchanged about the monster that made that joke, her job was gone, and her family in Cape Town—who were African National Congress supporters, the party of Nelson Mandela—met her with a simple statement (according to Sacco): “This is not what our family stands for. And now, by association, you’ve almost tarnished the family.”
“Unfortunately, I am not a character on ‘South Park’ or a comedian, so I had no business commenting on the epidemic in such a politically incorrect manner on a public platform,” she wrote to the New York Times. “To put it simply, I wasn’t trying to raise awareness of AIDS or piss off the world or ruin my life. Living in America puts us in a bit of a bubble when it comes to what is going on in the Third World. I was making fun of that bubble.”
Sacco had to leave South Africa because hotel employees threatened to strike if she were allowed to book a room, so she returned to what little life she had left in the United States to find herself, a PR lady that didn’t have enough clout to break 200 followers on Twitter the day before, front page news.
Now, I’m not suggesting that Sacco’s joke didn’t warrant a backlash. Heck, I would even go so far as to say that it’s not inappropriate for such a remark to cost a person tasked with public relations their job, but at some point, we lost the distinction between righteous cause and social crusade, right around the time we stopped caring about what Sacco meant, and started patting ourselves on the back for getting her fired and for continuing to keep her out of work through online campaigns to boycott any organization foolish enough to bring her on in any capacity. Because of a woman’s dumb joke to her Twitter following that, it’s worth noting, was a tenth the size of mine (a bearded nobody in Georgia), she can’t even secure a steady paycheck anymore.
Now, just imagine what happens when someone with some notoriety makes a mistake of similar scope. In today’s world, it would be trending news on Facebook and Twitter instantly, with updates about it and the fallout thereafter being broadcast from every 24-hour news channel on the spectrum.
The thing is, everybody makes a stupid joke at some point. Often, it isn’t about race, or gender, or sexual identity, or religion, or any of the other hot-button topics no one is allowed to discuss unless they’re carrying a picket sign in front of a Donald Trump rally, but it happens. In my more bully-like days in high school, I certainly cracked a few jokes I’m downright ashamed of now. I was an idiot then, and though I may still be an idiot now, I had to do some growing up to realize that my words can hurt people. Although I may not have thought about how all homosexuals would feel if they knew that I used the term “gay” as an insult for my friends, I can see the world from a wider scope now and appreciate that, although I didn’t mean to offend the LGBTQ community, my words were legitimately offensive.
I didn’t hate gay people, I was just a dummy that thought the word “gay” was funny.
If Twitter had existed while I was in high school, that ignorance could have ruined my life before it had a chance to begin. But that’s an important distinction to make: It was ignorance, not hatred or ill intent, that prompted my foolish jokes.
Ignorance isn’t a bad thing. In fact, it’s one of the best problems a society can contend with. Although we tend to think of the word “ignorant” as an insult, it really speaks to a lack of education on a certain subject. Just as I am currently ignorant of the finer points of the U.S. tax code, I was ignorant in my younger years of how I participated in a culture that made other Americans feel “less than” heterosexual white guys like me. Ignorance is a great because it has an easy solution. To cure a man of his ignorance, you need only to teach him.
When people like Justine Sacco demonstrate an ignorant point of view, it has become the motus operandi of internet vigilantes to attack them, make an example out of them, and ensure the world sees how swiftly we can dispense internet justice. It makes us all feel good to jump on a bandwagon and raise our swords in support of this week’s internet crusade, whether it’s about a dead lion, an also-dead gorilla, an audio clip of a celebrity talking crap in the ’80s, or what have you. It’s in our nature to want to band together and gain that sense of accomplishment we high-five over when we learn that our latest target’s life has been ruined…never stopping to think that we did nothing to improve the world, or to stop others from making the same mistakes. All we did was hurt one person and revel in their pain together, strangers with nothing in common but hatred.
Is that really any better than making a bad joke?
So as every one of Donald Trump’s potential appointees have their dirty laundry aired on CNN, and as people (rightly) point out that Meryl Streep may hate the new president, but is happy to support a child molester that remains in hiding, think hard about what you’ve done or said that could have ruined your career…or life. Trump and Streep have more in common than either would like to admit, as one rich old white person used her significant media leverage to express her views and another rich old white person used his to do the same, they both represent our culture’s drive to vilify rather than engage, to light torches and gather pitchforks rather than attempt to find a common, human footing from which to move forward together.
We live in an age where everything you do or say using an electronic device can be cataloged, recorded, backed up, stolen, and set loose on the public in an effort to aid or harm you, and the answer can’t be to simply stop making mistakes or to stop being ignorant of the things we don’t yet know about. At some point, we’re going to need to turn the corner as a society, and begin accepting that we all have said something stupid, hurt someone’s feelings, or even held a firmly seeded belief that we eventually came to find wasn’t right. We can’t build a society based on “one strike and you’re out.” We need to learn to talk to one another, find the common threads that bind us, and respect that we don’t all have to think the same way about the same things to be accepted in a 21st century American society.
Until we do, we’ll see the imaginary lines that divide us continue to define us, as our beloved United States fails to live up to its very name. United we stand. Divided we fall.
Image courtesy of 20th Century Fox