I am not, as you’re aware if you’re reading this, a fan of the perpetual outrage cycle over verbal gaffes and imperfect vocabulary which has replaced politics for the contemporary American left. Because I think that human beings make mistakes; because I think that in any offense, you have to take into account intent to harm; because I think making your political movement seem like a terrifying, unforgiving place is political suicide; because I think that adult life is more honest and more fun and, yes, more progressive when people aren’t afraid to say things that may prove controversial or offensive; because a backlash the type of which we’ve never seen before is building; and, most of all, because I think that the endless attention and energy sopped up by these wearying, pointless, unfocused rages could be spent better on literally any other kind of political action.
So my instinct is to just let go of Trevor Noah’s lame jokes about fat women, Jewish women, violence against women, women who are sex workers, and assorted other targets of third grade comedy. I don’t watch the Daily Show anyway and I’d much rather live in a world where people can get past those mistakes. I don’t even much care about the ample hypocrisy in some people defending him who, for example, scalded Patton Oswalt for using the term “transgendered” instead of “transgender” in the process of defending trans rights. I’m more worried about the Sloane Stephens effect than anything else, actually, the way in which elevating people as symbols of diversity creates impossible expectations that make them look like failures no matter what. Jessica Williams knew that, though very few people seemed interested in listening to what she actually had to say rather than treating her as a symbol of one type or another. Anyway: I would prefer that people like Trevor Noah get more chances rather than fewer, in large measure because I don’t know what ruining his career would actually do for any of the left’s constituencies anyway.
But at the risk of sounding like someone who’s trolling to discover the greater outrage, I’ll tell you that I’m not at all convinced that he would be getting another chance if he were a woman. And I think it would be very useful to grapple with the fact that the Twitter storm, represented by many to be emblematic of a new era of feminist engagement, seems mostly to pull women into the maelstrom.
It’s not just that the most infamous target of a Twitter storm, Justine Sacco, was a woman. It’s not just the way that women like Michelle Goldberg and Laura Kipins, who are critical of this type of engagement, become some of the most viciously attacked. It’s also the way in which these Twitter storms create the perfect conditions for accelerants, men who treat feminist outrage as just another opportunity to discipline women and let them have it for having imperfect politics. And it’s also the way in which the women who start out as enthusiastic participants in this kind of vicious political culture inevitably get sucked into the maw themselves, leaving them exhausted and spent. Women like Suey Park have found themselves, after once being the most passionate proponents of this type of engagement, burnt out and scarred. I will not link to tweets here, as I know many involved find that illegitimate, but right now it would be effortless for me to find threads detailing vicious infighting between women who have made hashtag activism national news. Even they, in the long run, cannot live this way. So women are ultimately punished, one way or another.
You will forgive me for harping on the Jacobinghazi affair, but it really is the perfect example. (This Storify is a comprehensive guide to that fiasco.) Under the guise of protecting a woman from violence — “the violence,” that is, of linking to a public tweet — several women were subject to a campaign of lies and threats and character assassination. For making a point about how the left can’t afford to abandon the work of empiricism, or give in to the empty, fake political critique of complaining about “bros,” Amber Frost was abused for weeks. For defending her publication and her writer, Megan Kilpatrick was maligned as a rape apologist and had her own history with sexual violence broadcast across the internet. For writing a thoughtful piece on the way that women are punished for stepping out of line with a certain narrow vision of what good feminism requires, Elizabeth Stoker Bruenig was lied about constantly and accused of not just misogyny but, bizarrely, racism, despite literally no one being able to point to any connection to race politics at all. And all along the way, there were men, white men, who considered themselves allies attacking these women. It’s like I said at the time: there is something so profoundly contemporary, and so impossibly bleak, about dudes named Rusty flogging women for their political impertinence in the name of feminism. Only the hallucinogenic effects of social media culture could make it possible.
As someone who criticizes online outrage politics and Twitter storms regularly, I am used to the complaint that I am a man lecturing women about how to behave, that I shouldn’t tell feminists how to do feminism. But outside of all political theory, I cannot help but observe that these outrage cycles hurt women most of all. And the exceptions, apologetics, and qualifications seem to apply to men far more often than to women.
I cannot sit here and tell you that I know that, were Trevor Noah a woman, he would be getting less of a pass than he’s getting in some circles. I doubt that a woman would ever have advanced to the position he has if she was so professionally cavalier, particularly when it came to terrible, hacky jokes like “Adele is fat/it ain’t over til the fat lady sings/this is gold!” But sure: maybe if Jessica Williams had been hired and they had found the identical tweets, maybe she would have been fine. Maybe. And maybe Sacco getting fired and Sam Biddle keeping his job is a coincidence. And maybe my ability to publicly point out the plain fact that Sarah Kendzior is a habitual liar, while Elizabeth Nolan Brown was put through the Twitter shame cycle for doing the same, is just one of those things. Maybe. Maybe the nascent campaign against Trevor Noah and his shitty jokes got cut off by think pieces and a counter narrative so quickly because we’ve reached a new, more forgiving social media age. Maybe.
But I am left to point out that whatever the reasons, Twitter storms have a funny tendency to leave the reputations and well being of women strewn throughout their wreckage.