On Sunday night, NBC cut into the scheduled broadcast of the Patriots/49ers game to air President Obama's address at the memorial for victims of Friday's shooting in Newtown, Connecticut. Some folks planning on watching the Pats vs. Niners toe-to-toe had no interest in this, and took to Twitter - for a lot of people, just the contemporary equivalent of muttering to yourself - to express their displeasure. The fallout were a lot of tweets laden with nasty stuff like "the n-word"* and other spiked racial epithets.
Racism is dumb and terrible. (It's also, especially in this case, straight-up odd considering the high percentage of black Americans in pro football's rank-and-file.) What's also odd, and dumb (if maybe not altogether terrible) is the practice of rushing to publicly out the Twitter racism (or homophobia, or general insensitivity) in the media. See: Deadspin, which by 8:57 pm Sunday night had assembled dozens of racist and/or thoughtless tweets regarding Obama interrupting the football game.
It's an increasingly popular, effectively link-baity online trend. And a troubling one.
In recent months alone, coverage of everything from the U.S. federal election to the suicide of Canadian bullying victim Amanda Todd has been marked by reactions like this. Or reactions to reactions like this, rather. Sometimes, it's just a carpet-bombing of offending tweets, Tumbl'd or Storify'd or otherwise collected. In other cases (especially with Amanda Todd) it's longer pieces of narrative writing loaded with lurid detail, which end up deferring to some thin conclusion about how there are no easy answers, but how we must recontextualize/reorient/re-whatever our thinking on a given issue.
In both cases, the effect is similar, and twofold (or maybe threefold, depending on your cynicism). Step 1) Stockpile offensive, publicly-available material as a means of disgracing whoever said it; 2) Confirm the reader's own healthy biases that, yes, this stuff is offensive and disgraceful; and, maybe, 3) Watch the traffic roll in.
Even if bottom-line concerns of web impressions are removed from the equation, it's still an astonishingly obnoxious, myopic mode of aggregation journalism. Because while racism (or homophobia or misogyny, or any number of things) are, again, dumb and terrible, can anyone really feign shock about bigotry? Can we really be all that surprised at the alternatingly naively mindless and full-on extremist tendencies that reveal themselves when certain backwaters of public opinion are uncovered by the all-seeing Eye of Sauron of Twitter's search term algorithms? And more to the point: what's to be gained from wading through specific, typo-peppered tweets hewn up from the foundations of this kind of intolerance, beyond the doubly unnecessary confirmation that intolerance exists and that no, you're certainly not intolerant or anything?
There's a certain ickiness underlying all of this: a lurid, guilty, fascination with the rhetoric of prejudice. You're allowed to stride through and mock-marvel at this stuff because this isn't you, and even more so, because exposing yourself to this kind of stuff ratifies the idea that this isn't you. It's like watching a horror movie through a fleshy web of sweaty fingers, just to remind yourself that you don't like horror movies.
The access to certain opinions held by certain people that has been opened up by stuff like Twitter is fascinating, and has created certain fissures in orderly public response to certain issues. The "hacktivist" group Anonymous has done some pretty good work taking higher profile figures - like, most recently, moronic Westboro Baptist Church preacher's daughter Shirley Phelps - to task for their dangerous, or at least culturally ass-backwards, opinions. But there's a difference between someone like Shirley Phelps, who exerts a certain amount of public sway (however self-delusional), and some asshole in a Pats jersey with 26 Twitter followers calling Obama a "the n-word" or some dumb teenager calling their friend a "the f-word" because they were fifteen minutes late to soccer practice or whatever.
Does knee-jerkily running at them with barbed, 140-character-or-less verbal pitchforks seem any sort of responsible reply to toe-headed Twitter intolerance? Is it any less reactionary?
Without wading into the dim intellectual muck of how we should reorient our thinking around discourses of race, gender, sexuality, and the public rhetoric of intolerance, and how there are no easy, cut-and-dry correctives, here's a fairly easy, cut-and-dry corrective: stop Twitter shaming.
*N.B.: I hate saying/writing "the n-word," mostly because of that Louis C.K. bit about how saying/writing the words "the n-word" just forces the listener/reader to do the work of filling in the blank, effectively saddling them with the racist gesture of forming the word in their mind. Still, I am here categorically avoiding the word that "the n-word" obstructs precisely for the reasons outlined in this piece.