Twitter and the Many Facets of Vileness


An ever-lengthening list of faculty have come under fire for tweets and other social-media posts that they have made. But anyone who actually looks regularly at Twitter feeds must know three things: first, the medium itself stokes extremes of expression;  second, almost nothing that a faculty member has ever tweeted comes close to the outer boundaries of what has become not just possible but commonplace on Twitter; and third, the responses to something that is deemed offensive are almost always as offensive, if not more offensive, than what they are condemning.

This week, these realities were brought home to me in two instances.

Former White House Communications Director Anthony Scaramucci has started a media site called the Scaramucci Post. Intended as a news feed, the site carries the tagline: “Everything in moderation, including moderation.” It’s so perfectly and ridiculously appropriate that it beggars further comment.

In its first week online, the site included a sort of trivia question. Visitors were asked to estimate the number of European Jews murdered in the Holocaust. The multiple-choice options were less than one million, between 1 and 2 million, between 2 and 3 million, and more than 5 million. The poll was removed from the site after 90 minutes, with the explanation that Scaramucci himself had not posted it or authorized it. But in that hour and a half, almost 5,000 people had answered it. The one saving grace to this sorry little episode is that 69% of the visitors to Scaramucci’s site chose the correct answer—though 20% did choose the lowest answer, confirming the worst stereotypes about the types of ignorant and reprehensible people likely to be attracted to just about any Trump-related site.

But after reading the Twitter response to this episode, I could not help but wonder whether no one now considers the source of anything controversial and whether there is now too little distinction between a very ill-considered post related to the Holocaust and the actual Holocaust—or things currently occurring that ought to be regarded with genuine moral outrage.

As if to demonstrate that Twitter is not a complete wasteland of reflexive, vile opinions, one person tweeted the obvious: “The Shoah is not for Twitter polls, @Scaramucci and @ScaramucciPost, do not make light of that evil and loss.”

And there were also some responders who seemed humorously to consider the source: “I was under the impression Scaramucci creating his own media outlet was going to be an amusingly dumb thing, so this is an abrupt dark turn” and “Anytime you worry that you really fucked up your life, remember you aren’t Anthony Scaramucci, who somehow keeps managing to find new ways.”

But most of the rest seemed to me overly determined to make this into a major issue. Most of them are unprintably and self-indulgently profane, but this milder one is illustrative of a point that needs to be made: “Everyone who did the ‘ha ha it’s all a big joke’ welcome back Scaramucci into fancy elite society has to answer for this.” Although the mainstreaming of previously disdained and even proscribed speech and behavior has become a profound issue over the last several years, and although there are all sorts of ways in which people have become unwittingly complicit in this coarsening of our politics and society, one can list literally thousands of things that are more worth of concern than this post to Anthony Scaramucci’s new web site. Moreover, who exactly has to answer for Scaramucci’s celebrity and exactly how do they have to answer for it? The tweeter seems to dismiss all social gradations between social intimacy and public scorning. And if someone readily accepted the responsibility for making them answer for it, would we trust such a person with such a responsibility?

My second example of Twitter gone wild is related to Harvey Weinstein’s sudden and long overdue public vilification as a sexual predator. James Corden was hosting the amfAR Gala and made three jokes about Weinstein. One of the most controversial was also the most tortured syntactically: Corden described the room in which the event was being held as “so beautiful, Harvey Weinstein has already asked tonight up to his hotel to give him a message.”

Topical jokes are always very hazardous. For me, the baseline illustration is Gilbert Gottfried’s saying at a Friar’s Club Roast held shortly after the 9-11 attacks that he could not get a direct flight to L.A.—the best that he could do was a flight with a brief stopover at the Empire State Building.

One can argue that some topics should be off-limits for a while. Johnny Carson used to make a running joke about this conundrum every time he referenced the Lincoln assassination in his monologue. And one can even argue, as Anthony Bourdain did in a series of tweets, that there is a difference between laughter that is scornful of the target of the joke and laughter that minimizes the seriousness of the topic that the joke treats.

But among the many very vicious responses to Corden’s three jokes, Bourdain’s really stand out:

“James Corden gonna have trouble booking ‘talent’ at a methadone clinic after this. #TurdDumpling”

“James Corden reveals snickering Hollywood in all its grotesquerie. It’s not about masturbation, asshole. It’s about rape.”

“Thing about @JKCorden : when he was sweatily dribbling out rape jokes, NOONE stood up and said, ‘fuck you, Pop’n’Fresh!’”

“Mr. Corden is free to tell whatever jokes he likes. As he should be. I’m free to suggest he’s a porcine, pandering tool .#lowhangingfruit.”

In response to the general outrage about the jokes, Corden issued the obligatory apology. And although one can point to the predictable arc to this whole story and the need to shake people out of their complacency about events that should provoke more enduring outrage, I would argue that, in the current environment, Bourdain’s exuberant name-calling may actually obscure, rather than highlight, the point he is making. In effect, Bourdain has arguably reduced the impact his own outrage by directing it into a series of fat jokes.

When I served as an officer of a regional professional organization, I was once standing with the four other officers for a group photo, and one of my closest colleagues at my own institution suddenly seemed very amused as he walked by our group. I later asked him what had amused him, and he said, “I could not help but think that, in that group, you actually looked kind of trim and well-groomed and professional.”

More often than not, context is everything. We worry that the points that we are trying to make will get lost in the noise if they aren’t amped up beyond all of the other amped up voices competing for attention. It is possible, however, that a more subdued and reasonable comment may stand out so singularly that it will get noticed.

But, of course, this supposition presupposes that anyone on Twitter actually wants something thoughtful, which may be like wondering whether, in a few years, anyone will have any idea of—or any interest in–who Anthony Scaramucci is.


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3 thoughts on “Twitter and the Many Facets of Vileness

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