Evil on the Internet
A guide for responding to bad tweets
Every so often the internet breaks out in a cry for cancellation that is worth examining.
There are a few things to address in that opener. First, the internet has daily cries for cancellation, but rarely are they worth even a moment of consideration. Second, cancellation is a word whose meaning has been extended to all manner of circumstances that do not rise to an actual cancellation. Such overuse can dilute the meaning and individuals can be “canceled” while at the same time their book climbs to the rank of a best seller. Finally, the internet is a big space and the people crying for cancellation make up a vanishingly small percentage of its users. Calling attention to these small groups can often lend power that otherwise would not manifest.
All that being said, some cancellation efforts do pique my interest on occasion, and I think it is helpful to think through the best response for when we encounter bad things on the internet. Specifically, bad tweets.
The tweet in question comes from Illya Shapiro, a newly hired executive director and senior lecturer at Georgetown Law, who wrote the following regarding President Biden’s decision to fill the upcoming Supreme Court vacancy with a black woman.
Now this is a bad and clumsily worded tweet. One that Shapiro promptly deleted and apologized for.
Prior to the deletion though, a few things happened. First, a colleague at Georgetown asked Shapiro for clarification on his tweet, pointing out specific segments within the tweet that were particularly questionable. Shapiro responded by apologizing for the inartful tweet, claiming that he meant no offense and that he deleted the tweet. Shapiro could have offered further clarification on the intent of the tweet in this exchange, but that’s a separate point.
Second, Mark Joseph Stern, a staff writer at Slate brought Shapiro’s tweet to Georgetown’s attention. Stern referred to the tweet as demonstrating “overt and nauseating racism” and claimed Shapiro has shown a pattern of racism during his career. Stern further shared a quote from an article where Shapiro claimed that Justice Sotomayor would not have been on the shortlist of considered judges if she were not Hispanic. These tweets gained traction and a movement for Shapiro to be fired began to build. To Stern’s credit, he later tweeted that he did not intend for Shapiro to be fired, or, as he put it, become a martyr. Including Georgetown on the tweet and stating disappointment that they would hire a racist made it all the more likely that Shapiro would be fired, but still, this was not Stern’s stated intent.
These are two very different responses.
The first assumed that the best course of action was a dialogue. This approach extends grace to the person in question and can possibly clarify potential misunderstandings. Reading Shapiro’s tweet, it is certainly understandable that one might believe that he thinks all black women would be “lesser.” This would be vile, racist, and worthy of immense criticism. Another reading of the situation is that Shapiro is talking about affirmative action and a concern about prioritizing race and gender over merit. In this reading, Shapiro’s intent may have been to say that in narrowing the pool of potential applicants to simply black women, you are potentially going to end up with a lesser qualified judge.
In this case, the tweet is clumsily worded and certainly debatable. Is it necessarily racist or even sexist? Well, no, not really.
In this reading, Shapiro is merely stating that if you narrow the scope of your search by race and sex you are potentially weeding out candidates that are more qualified. He also identified who he thought to be objectively the most qualified and therefore the selection of any other candidate would necessarily be lesser. You could argue that all of the candidates at this level have reached the threshold necessary to be deemed qualified and they would therefore be subject to additional criteria. You could argue that diversity is an important factor in such considerations and has merit in and of itself. However, if Shapiro’s intent was to point out that we should be looking for the best judge regardless of race or gender, then this tweet is simply poorly written and not necessarily racist. A quick conversation could clear everything up, and we could move on to more productive discussions.
The second approach was to assume the worst possible intent in Shapiro’s tweet and raise awareness of the interpreted wrong doing. Again, the tweet is worded badly, and a straight reading of the tweet, without consideration of the grander argument Shapiro is making, could demonstrate prejudice. Shapiro even says that, under the latest intersectional hierarchy, “we’ll get lesser black woman.” However, in assuming the intent and seeking to raise awareness of the identified profound evil, this approach is absolutely void of humility, generosity, and grace. Calling out the racism without consideration of any point demonstrates that you believe there to be no other interpretation of the author’s intent and that the very worst reading is in reality what is meant. Doing so promotes a toxic environment that celebrates assuming the worst in people. It creates a mob and can have a severe impact on an individual life.
So if you see a bad tweet on the internet. Humble yourself and assume that you may not fully understand the author’s motivations or intent. Reread the statement and try to find the most generous interpretation. Finally, if the author apologizes and deletes the statement, be willing to extend grace. This is how I would want to be treated if I ever find myself on the wrong end of such a controversy. I should therefore try to treat others accordingly.
If you’ve approached a tweet out of humility and generosity and you still feel like the tweet is bad. Follow the example of Shapiro’s Georgetown colleague and start a dialogue. If the message and intent are as evil as initially assumed, and the author shows no remorse, then maybe consider further action.