Sorry, Not Sorry, Sorry for Not Being Sorry, Sorry…
Just how should apologies function online exactly?
We’ve nailed the anger part. We’re very good at that. If the creators of Twitter could go back and do it all again, I imagine they’d switch out the logo of a cute little bird, mid-warble, for a panicked buffalo in a body of blood-red water thrashing with piranhas. It’s not the platform where fluffy, sparrow-like users “tweet” little whimsical snippets: “tweeting”, birdies, and “join the conversation” have about as much to do with this anger portal as the phrase “Who fancies doing a SuDoku together?” has with World War II.
Twitter, and other platforms, have done a great job at allowing us to point out injustice and wrongdoing. And how could entrusting morality to 330 million total strangers possibly be a bad thing?
Well, for one: punishment. We haven’t figured that out yet. Social media completely lacks the capacity to determine a sentence and decide when someone has done their time. That’s quite a fatal flaw, because these outpourings of outrage don’t remain online: they have real-world consequences, so getting (justifiably) angry about something, demanding action, getting it, and then dusting our hands off and moving onto the next target is grossly irresponsible. You might as well have a hospital where patients are diagnosed via the medium of shouting and are then just sort of expected to bugger off.
I suspect one reason we don’t want to state a sentence, other than it being a logistical nightmare to get everyone to agree on one, is because that then implies a fallen public figure can redeem themselves, relieving us of the opportunity to enjoy our jolly Struggle Session.
Twitter also seems ill-designed for accepting apologies. A repentance recognition mechanism isn’t intrinsic to social media users for an obvious reason: they aren’t actually interested in repentance in the first place. That would mean having to cease being angry, and, in hindsight, most social media platforms have quite clearly been designed to make the act of being angry a dopamine-laced past time. If you weren’t angry, you’d have nothing to broadcast — a reason why so many people’s “personal brands” (yuck!) have all homogenised into tedious, nearly identical forms of “angry online person”.
A need to be angry is why we’ve almost run out of contemporary things to be outraged by and are increasingly looking to the past to find old things to be shocked by. Old books, tweets, movies. When those run out, quantum physicists will get asked if there’s a possibility there are more offensive things as yet undiscovered in parallel universes. Schrödinger’s Cat could be saying something bigoted inside that box, so we may as well yell at the box just in case.
Offence is monetisable, at least in the sense that it can generate social capital online in the form of popularity, followers, and relevance. In this sense, a lot of activity on social media is just digital disaster capitalism. This isn’t to diminish the anger of those who have every right to be offended, but just to guard us against those who have nothing to be offended by and seek it out anyway. Like this example from last year:
Yes, this Marvel trailer is sexist because a woman has fewer words than a man. Never mind the fact that the main character (especially a new one) remaining mysterious while someone else does the talking is how ALL TRAILERS HAVE FUNCTIONED FOR ALL TIME. In the trailer for Dr Strange, Tilda Swinton has far more words than Benedict Cumberbatch. Casino Royale’s trailer has Judi Dench practically monologuing while Daniel Craig comes across as a psychopathic mime artist. Bloody matriarchy. But, bah, bugger it. Don’t let facts get in the way of a good bit of moral grandstanding. “Come on everyone: let’s chuck Marvel in the stocks and hurl rotten vegetables. It’s sexist or something, I dunno!”
Unfortunately, Twitter has evolved into a place where being sorry actually gets in the way of the platform’s accidental core purpose: people being mad at things.
And so back to punishment. It’s a crucial missing aspect of social media’s current function. Yes, let’s outcast Louis CK, that’s fine and fair. No disagreement there. But for how long? Did anyone have a discussion about that? What would he have to do to be allowed to return to stage as his former self: go to therapy, issue a second apology, and not perform for… what: 2 years? Would that be ok in our eyes? And when I say “our eyes”, whose eyes is that? Who does CK have to satisfy in order to be “allowed” to return to stage?
Where the punishment is more social than criminal, these are important questions to answer, otherwise social media is wielding its power irresponsibly.
I’m not barracking for CK here, I’m just pointing out that the variables are really complex. How bad is what he did? Is there a scale? Who does he need to show repentance to: a specific group (women?)? Or everyone on twitter until everyone is satisfied? If 50% of people accept an apology, is that enough, or does he need to give another, better one? How soon is too soon for him to return to stage, and if he doesn’t know what that “too soon” is, does he have to issue another apology for returning to stage prematurely (according to some arbitrary length of time that someone unnamed on Twitter has decided without mentioning) as that’s also insensitive, or is it not something we can get angry about because we never told him how long in the first place? Is that on us?
If we have no answers to these questions, then tearing someone down is wreckless. And no, the sarcastic “Oh , poor Louis, he’s the real victim here” argument doesn’t make this a point not worth considering. We can recognise that the real victims are obviously the women he jerked off in front of while still being able to begin to recognise a broad, systemic problem with social media. We’re allowed to do that. Let’s chew gum and walk at the same time here, please.
More recently, with Kevin Hart, Ellen seemed to accept his apology but then much of the (black) queer community suggests she’s not in a position to. He did “sincerely apologise”, but because it followed his other videos where he said he wasn’t going to address it, it rightly came across as potentially insincere. So what is a good apology and who does he need to apologise to (not Ellen, apparently)? Does an attempt at an apology that’s not quite right make thing worse, or should that still count as undoing some of the damage but just not as much? Who’s assessing all this?
Again, these are questions that Twitter as a platform doesn’t seem well-equipped to handle, and it never will be, in the same way that some broccoli will never make a good divorce lawyer.
Online progressives demand real-world impacts: we expect our anger online to generate results. That’s fine. Not without problems (misinformation, presumption of guilt before innocence, vested interest in sustaining the problem rather than allowing it to be addressed, inability to nominate a spokesperson) but fine.
If we’re demanding justice we also have to be responsible in dishing it out. With great power, etc etc .We’re not just expressing feelings any more. We’re impacting real people’s lives. Yes, they might deserve it, but if social media is deciding who must be punished, it must also accept the burden of setting out the punishment and the what path for atonement looks like. We can’t just get mad, demand someone suffer, then go “Oh it’s not my responsibility to care about their future now. They’re not the real victim. I’m moving on to something else.”
Again, my more cynical side believes “responsible” Twitter won’t (or can’t) happen, as measured reactions and calm deliberation would destroy the platform. It would be like Instagram banning selfies. Nevertheless, for these more social punishments, Twitter has to take on the task of collectively agreeing on a punishment, and allowing for the possibility that it can be satisfied by that punishment and any accompanying prostration. If it can’t do that, then its anger, justified though it may be, ceases to become useful and instead becomes dangerous and should just be ignored.