What Did Our Outrage at Justine Sacco Actually Accomplish?

It’s hard to write about the Justine Sacco saga without sounding somehow self-righteous and high-handed — which is appropriate, perhaps, given that that was the prevailing mood on Friday, a day on which no one was particularly keen to do anything at work and everyone was delighted to have a good old-fashioned Twitter storm to distract them. Sacco’s bewilderingly ill-advised tweet about AIDS was, in a quintessentially 21st-century way, the big story of the weekend — no mean feat, considering the last three days have seen the ongoing saga of Vladimir Putin’s compulsory “amnesty,” the specter of civil war in South Sudan, an ongoing purge in North Korea, and the arrival of the deadline to sign up for Obamacare. But shit, that stuff is difficult. It’s much easier just to pile on some random on the Internet.

Look, I’m not in any way defending Sacco. Even if I were inclined to do so — and I’m not — it’s not for me to do, because I don’t know her any more than you do. As Index on Censorship’s Padraig Reidy points out here, “The problem Justine Sacco has … is that you and I really have no idea who she is, apart from the woman who makes bad jokes on Twitter.” You have to be very careful what you say on the Internet, and especially on Twitter, because it’s going to be taken with zero context — and if you’re in PR and don’t understand that… well, you’ve got problems. And more to the point, context or not, Sacco’s tweet was indefensible, and it was inevitable that she got the arse from her job, a) for apparently being generally terrible and b) for being hilariously incompetent at PR, which is supposed to be her line of work.

That said, there was something somewhat unedifying about the spectacle of the entire Internet going after her. I’m not suggesting that the anger her tweet roused wasn’t merited — if you say dumb shit in a public forum, you have to expect to deal with public opinion. I’m not even referring to the sort of mob mentality that characterized the response to her tweet (which The Wrap’s Sharon Waxman, with nearly Sacco-esque cluelessness, referred to yesterday as a “lynch mob”). This being the Internet, some of the responses to Sacco’s joke were way out of line, but generally, if you’re going to make a joke that manages to combine racism, ignorance, and insensitivity in the space of 12 words, well, you have to expect disaster.

Still, some commentators have rushed to Sacco’s defense, or at least questioned the way events panned out, penning thinkpieces calling the whole affair “trial by social media” and “cyberbullying,” and the occasional writer has even pined for the good old days when you could get away with this shit. Let’s be clear: in the good old days, this stuff was said in private at dinner parties by people who’d deny in public that they could possibly hold any sort of prejudices against the help. If we live in a world where it’s a lot more difficult to get away with being an ignorant fool than it used to be, then good.

No, the thing that bothers me here is the idea that taking up your virtual pitchfork and calling for Justine Sacco to get dragged into the Internet town square constitutes doing something positive and meaningful. It’s all very well to feel that you’re fighting the good fight against racism and ignorance by marshaling your righteous outrage in 140 characters or less, but really, the end result here is that… one fundamentally insignificant PR type at a company that owns a bunch of silly Internet brands has lost her job.

In this respect, Waxman had a point when she observed that “the mob… just likes to point and jeer and wallow in the fact that someone else gets to be the object of ridicule.” This is true, because there’s a very strong awareness, I think, that with one ill-advised tweet, it could be you. Sure, you’re probably never going to tweet anything as awful as what Sacco said — at least, I hope you aren’t — but who hasn’t said something on Twitter that they’ve looked back on later and thought, “Ugh, maybe that wasn’t such a great idea”? And who didn’t breathe at least a little internal sigh of relief that it wasn’t their tweet that Gawker picked up on a slow news day?

It’s this, perhaps, that lies at least partly behind what South African writer Tauriq Moosa calls the Internet’s “default to hate” in an excellent essay about the Sacco incident. People love to elevate themselves by comparison to others — it’s why the general public laps up gossip about celebrities, why we revel in scandal and sanctimony. It’s why people are generally so judgmental — and why a lot of the response to the Sacco affair wasn’t: “Hey, she’s terrible.” It was “Hey, I’m better than her.”

And now everyone is about to go on vacation, and in a couple of days the whole thing will be forgotten. AIDS will still be an ongoing disaster in sub-Saharan Africa. Racist, stupid people will still be racist and stupid. What’s changed? What did it all mean? Nothing for anyone except Justine Sacco, really. And even for her, all that’s most likely changed is that a) she’s looking for work and b) she won’t be back on Twitter in a hurry. As Moosa observes, “Very little that’s unique is gained by leaping on the moral bandwagon against her here… your voice probably won’t be the one that finally ‘makes’ her change her mind [if] she is a fully-fledged racist.”

When I started this piece, I googled “Justine Sacco” and got 230 million results. Two hundred and thirty million. And now that I’m finishing it an hour or so later, I googled her again to quickly check on that figure… to find that it’s risen to 249 million. Imagine what 249 million people looks like. And then imagine that every one of those people who took the five seconds to tweet something “witty” about Sacco also took five more seconds to, say, donate $5 to an AIDS charity. Then we might have actually achieved something.