Let me start by making something clear: I don’t think Phil Robertson is the problem. I don’t think Justine Sacco is the problem. Neither deserves to be torn apart for the downright dumb things they said this week. Nothing should condone violence. Anyone threatening Ms. Sacco for her racist remark is just as wrong as she was when she hit “Tweet.” Although she now finds herself without a job, that simply sweeps the issue under the rug. The internet feels like they won. And while someone who probably should not have been in a high ranking position at a huge company like IAC (About.com, Dictionary.com, Match.com, CollegeHumor, Vimeo, and many more websites you’ve heard of) lost her job, did she—or anyone, for that matter—actually learn anything?
Some of the reactions to the inappropriate tweet were no better. You don’t make a point by attacking the attacker. Even the #HasJustineLandedYet hashtag, the top trending topic on Twitter for some time, was more scary than amusing. It felt like the entire internet was waiting—watching—for someone to step through the gate at Terminal B to throw a surprise party.
But what’s lost in the reactions since is how her comments make people feel—and how it shapes the attitudes of others. I think that’s why many jump to mob up at something like this, because so rarely do people feel like they have a majority voice. A chance to make a statement.
We focus on her losing her job or the angry tweets sent back at her and miss the real problem. Ms. Sacco was, presumably, in a position of some power at IAC. She worked in PR and was prominently listed on the company’s contact page. The issue isn’t simply what she said—it’s that she thinks that way at all. And it’s that many people run to her defense.
Phil Robertson caught heat this week after making some pretty awful comments in a GQ article. He equated being gay to beastiality. He equated black people to white trash, and claimed to know that black people were happier in the “pre-entitlement” era. So I guess, by some extension, he may have even just equated Civil Rights to a sense of entitlement.
He’s allowed to have an opinion. What I find troubling is that he feels it is appropriate to publicly put down people he doesn’t understand. What I find troubling—again—is that many people run to his defense.
A Phil Robertson support page on Facebook has over 1.7 million likes. 1.7 million! He’s become a figurative martyr since A&E suspended him from the hit show Duck Dynasty indefinitely. It’s not a free speech issue. He’s not being put in jail for his comments. His employer, who pays him handsomely, feels his comments were unbecoming of someone who represents their network. They are entirely within their right to suspend or fire him.
What needs discussion in light of Ms. Sacco and Mr. Robertson’s comments is why people think it’s ok to communicate this way. And we need to discuss, and truly understand, why people get offended at these comments. It’s learning why “be kind” is something you do—not just something you say.
I have to interview with people like Ms. Sacco if I want a job in communication or marketing. I have to interview with people like Mr. Robertson if I want to pitch my company’s services as a freelancer. And while it’d be just as wrong of me to generalize every white person in a managerial position at every company, hearing comments like this are harder and harder to digest when I get rejection letter after rejection letter. It’s seeing people like Pax Dickinson, formerly of Business Insider, tweeting comments that I won’t even quote here. It’s Justine Sacco at IAC. It’s Phil Robertson at Duck Commander. All people that feel it’s important to point out that they’re “different” than me.
I have applied to at least one company falling under their reign. Maybe I didn’t get the job because they don’t like the way I look? Probably not, but how am I supposed to feel when I see similar comments over and over again? How am I supposed to feel when I see company websites featuring pictures of their employees and not a single one is black? How am I supposed to feel when I see casual racism, or sexism, or homophobia and people see nothing wrong with it? Do you think at least 1 of those 1.7 million “likes” are people in a hiring position at a company? Probably.
It’s not about ignoring color, or gender, or sexuality. I know many gay people who are all extremely proud of being gay, as they should be, and pretending like that doesn’t exist is just as unfair. But hiring a “token minority” does what, exactly? It doesn’t fix the problem from either end of the equation. The minority person knows they’re the token hire, and everyone else that works there (likely a majority of white males) knows exactly why that black woman got the job. If anything, half-baked plans only fuel the fire in the opposite direction.
There needs to be a discussion of why these comments aren’t ok. It’s not about trampling on someone’s opinion, or right to free speech, or bad joke. It’s about understanding that when you surround yourself only with people who look, and talk, and act like you—you can’t pretend to know how someone else feels. You just can’t. You can’t claim that black people were happier in pre-Civil Rights America. You can’t slam an entire continent and walk away from it without responsibility.
Ms. Sacco can delete her Twitter account (and she has) and while she’s currently without a job, I doubt it will be a permanent situation. If over 1.7 million people support Phil Robertson, I’m sure she’ll find at least one who supports her.
But the rest of us can’t change our skin color or sexual orientation. And that’s why comments like this are not ok.