June 17, 2022

Picture a huge, poisonous fruit falling to the ground, its skin splitting open, the rancid pulp pouring out. Picture the ants discovering the mess, swarming over it, drunk on the abundance in front of them — and far too preoccupied with their feasting to ever look up at the tree it fell from.

It’s an apt metaphor for what happens during one of the public meltdowns that double as free entertainment for the extremely online. The splatter of drama, the rush to consume, the way we pick over every last sordid detail of the controversy until there’s no meat left. What we miss is that the details hardly matter, as individually fascinating as they may be; indeed, a large part of this problem is that we only ever talk about it in terms of its most recent iteration. We obsess over the individual characters — the Bean Dad, the Racist Cheerleader, the Guy Who Didn’t Cum On His Cat (the internet remains unpersuaded) — yet fail to grasp that they’re all starring in the same self-perpetuating tragedy.

Granted, some characters make this drama more riveting than others, and last week’s iteration was a peak example of the form. Washington Post reporter Felicia Sonmez waged a six-day war of attrition over a colleague’s retweet of an off-colour joke.

The offensiveness (or entertainment value) of the joke itself is a matter of taste. What quickly became clear, however, is that the joke was not the point. The problem was what it represented: the mere tip of an imagined vast, sexist iceberg lurking below the surface. Some claimed that it signalled the hidden sexism of the reporter, Dave Weigel, who retweeted it; others, including Sonmez, insisted that it was symbolic of a deep-seated culture of misogyny in the Washington Post itself. This type of projection is intrinsic to such online controversies: nobody ever makes a one-off mistake, everything is part of pattern. (When John Roderick, now better known as Bean Dad, tried to create a teachable moment by getting his daughter to work out the machinations of a can opener without help, internet scolds were so incensed that they reported him to Child Protective Services.)

We watched the action like a TV show: the callout, the apology, the suspension of the colleague (for a full month without pay) when the apology was deemed insufficient, the escalating demands from Sonmez (who not only supported Weigel’s suspension, but wanted everyone who publicly criticised her public criticism to be professionally sanctioned as well). All this, combined with a series of leaks from inside the increasingly-exasperated Washington Post leadership apparatus, built to a climax as hotly-debated as the series finale of LOST. How could they possibly fire her? How could they possibly not?

The immolation of Sonmez’s career seemed simultaneously inevitable and impossible, right up until the moment when it happened. And when it did, we swarmed. We feasted. And then, within days, we moved on — our appetite for drama sated, but the point thoroughly missed.

Every one of these meltdowns, from the dad with the can opener to the reporter with an ax to grind, owes its existence to an ongoing erosion of interpersonal trust. Consider how suspicious one has to be, how consumed by paranoid cynicism, to see a veteran reporter retweet an off-colour joke and declare it not an isolated error in judgment, but a definitive glimpse of the darkness that lurks inside his heart.

Never mind that the man in question has worked with and mentored women who loudly attest to his decency. Never mind the countless positive interactions amassed over the course of a 20-year career. The mask has slipped, the jig is up, the retweet is not just a retweet but a revelation. What kind of person finds a joke like that funny? A woman-disrespecter, that’s who! And having telegraphed his true disposition toward his female colleagues, surely the person in question is unfit to remain employed.

It is not hard to identify the flaws, and the threat, of a workplace policy founded on the notion that one’s employers should be meting out punishments, firings and fines, over matters of taste. The comedy you laugh at, the music you listen to, the art you hang on your walls at home: any of these things might grate against the sensibilities of a coworker, especially one who is in the habit of opportunistic offence-taking.

Such a rule would allow unparalleled interference by bosses into our private lives — policing not just the things we say outside of work, but the things we enjoy. It is hard to say where it would end. “You retweeted an offensive joke” becomes, “You were overheard telling an offensive joke to your friends at a bar,” becomes, perhaps, “You were captured by one of our corporate surveillance drones exiting a Ricky Gervais show, and our facial expression-analysing algorithm confirms the presence of mirth.” The boundaries between our work lives and our private lives have never been more permeable, and it has become increasingly easy for employers to track our movements — and hold us accountable for them — outside the office. And in a moment where brands are expected to have identities and values the same way people do, it’s all too easy for corporations to lay claim to their employees’ expression and activities as company property. You are never not at work; you are never not representing the brand.

It has also never been easier — as the Washington Post saga makes painfully clear — for office politics to become fodder for public consumption, as disgruntled employees seek to litigate their grievances in front of a bigger, more sympathetic audience. As much as employers might be interfering in the private lives of their employees, we the public also know much too much about workplace conflicts that are none of our business. Josh Barro, in his Very Serious newsletter, put it best: “If you think your coworker sucks, you don’t tweet about it. That’s unprofessional. If you disagree with management’s personnel decisions, you don’t decry them to the public. That’s insubordinate. Organizations full of people who are publicly at each other’s throats can’t be effective. Your workplace is not Fleetwood Mac.”

But the greatest cost is to our humanity, our interpersonal relationships. To walk around in a state of constant suspicion about the character of every person we encounter: it wears on us. It isolates us. And left unchecked, it brings us to a point where the only thing we share with our fellow humans is the conviction that everyone around us is only pretending to be good, and that the only way to truly know someone is to watch, and wait, iPhone camera in hand, for the tiniest crack to open up in their false veneer of decency.

We’ve been here before, of course. In moments of diminished trust, we turn on each other, becoming obsessed with ferreting out the subversives in our midst. Anyone could be a witch, or a communist, or a homosexual; everyone must be closely watched; and no misstep is too small to be worthy of indictment. The notion of an honest mistake ceases to exist entirely. Consider the case of the meteorologist who made an unfortunate spoonerism while trying to read the name of a park named after Martin Luther King, Jr., or the sports reporter who stuttered with similar results while speaking about Kobe Bryant’s death — and the enormous number of people who insisted that this was no accident, but incontrovertible evidence that these reporters must use racial slurs in private, all the time. A slip of the tongue? Ha! The only thing that slipped was the mask you’re wearing. That sound could only come out of your mouth if that word, in all its hateful and hideous glory, was already in your head.

Perhaps this is the natural outgrowth of a culture in which art and politics and opinions are increasingly seen as indistinguishable from one’s essential self. Matters of taste, or personality, now get swept up under the banner of capital-I-identity; you don’t just laugh at the sexist joke, you are the sexist joke. Even the silliest iterations of this phenomenon, like the obsession of certain young people with niche sexual and gender identities demarcated by bespoke pronouns and colourful flags, speak to a broader cultural impulse to make sense of things — and of other people — by slapping labels on them. Meanwhile, the idea that a person might contain self-contradictory multitudes, or that his taste in comedy, art, cuisine or decor says very little (if anything) about his character, cannot be borne in our present environment. The inscrutable nature of other people’s hearts is not an enticing mystery, but a source of horror: they could be hiding anything in there. The problem with this, of course, is not just that too many good people are saddled with permanent reputations for badness as a result of something as silly as a tweet, but that the cheapening of “badness” as a concept makes the perpetrators of actual evil much harder to identify.

There’s a paradox here: that in a moment where social media gives us unprecedented access to other people’s thoughts, we have become consumed by fear of all the things they might be thinking but not expressing. There’s a pervasive sense, perhaps owing to the inherent performativity of the medium, that signs of virtue cannot be trusted, but hints of vice should be treated with deadly seriousness, investigated, and prosecuted where possible. In the age of oversharing, it is the things we supposedly do not mean to reveal that are the most revealing.

And so we must be vigilant, ever watchful for the possibility (nay, the likelihood) that the mild-mannered coworker is actually a secret white supremacist, that the friendly kindergarten teacher with pastel pigtails is child-recruiting groomer, that your spouse is a clandestine enjoyer of weird pornography, or worse, problematic jokes. The circumstances, the politics, the main players may change, but the heart of every cancellation lies the same terrifying conviction: that other people are unknowable, and dangerous, and cannot be trusted.

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