The depressing rise of public shaming by the opportunistly outraged.
Social Justice outrage is always seen as righteous, rather than self-righteous – the voices of the oppressed being amplified against the oppressor, standing up for those who are discriminated against or held back. ‘Truth to Power’ is the constant rallying call.
Yet there’s a cognitive dissonance at work here. The most vocal champions of Social Justice, the fighters against privilege and the champions of intersectional awareness – the people who believe themselves to be punching up – are more often or not the most powerful, and their social crusades often seem to be little more than bullying. There is nothing that these people – blue-ticked wealthy celebrities, newspaper columnists and authors, tenured academics and such – like more than to destroy someone’s life, to punish people for having strayed from the path of virtuous political correctness. They dehumanise and destroy, feeling entirely justified in using their positions of cultural power and privilege to utterly destroy someone who has no power. The sheer delight that you see when someone sets their sheep-like followers onto someone, the joy that is taken in completely wrecking another person’s life on a whim, or because that person might have said or done (or worn) something that they disapprove of is genuinely repulsive. It’s the worst sort of bullying – the sort where the bully believes that they are working for the greater good. It’s the behaviour of psychopaths, dictators and megalomaniacs, and it happens all the damn time now.
Once upon a time, The Washington Post genuinely spoke truth to power. It’s thorough and relentless exposé of the watergate scandal remains a benchmark in journalism, a detailed, forensic uncovering of a grand conspiracy that brought down a President. But that was a long time ago. This week, the Post spent nearly 3000 words to expose the fact that someone you have never heard of wore blackface at a fancy dress party two years ago. Thanks to the Post‘s fearless reporting of this, that someone has lost her job, and two other people who you have never heard of have upped their profiles in the social justice world.
The story begins, as these things often do, with someone being both less witty than they think they are and less au fait with current PC no-nos as they perhaps ought to be. In this case, it was Sue Schafer, a 54-year-old white woman who was unfortunate enough to know Washington Post cartoonist Tom Tole well enough to be invited to his Halloween party in 2018. To quote the Post, Tole’s parties attract “an eclectic mix — journalists and political types from Washington’s power elite, but also artists and musicians, everyone from retirees to college kids, jammed into small rooms and sprawled across the backyard, dancing and gossiping, checking out the crowd to see who has the most inventive and outrageous costumes.”
Not too outrageous though, as Schafer would discover when she attended the event in blackface. Now, I know what you might be thinking at this point, so we should rapidly point out that Schafer wasn’t trying to be wildly racist. In fact, if anything, it seems that she was trying to be quite the opposite. The rest of her outfit consisted of a conservative business suit and a name-bade that said “Hello, My Name is Megyn Kelly.” Shortly before the part, NBC News host Kelly had sparked outrage by saying on air that she didn’t understand the fuss about blackface. And so it seems that Shafer was trying to make a Woke political point in her own misguided way – ‘look, here I am as the newsreader who thinks wearing blackface at a Halloween party is acceptable’. Mocking Kelly’s lack of awareness, in other words. But in doing so, Schafer just exposed her own lack of awareness.
Her parody was a nuanced point that would only work if you could be sure that the rest of the party guests were people who would understand what you were saying and not the sort of people who would then twist it anyway. By most accounts from those who remember the incident at all, Schafer’s costume was met with – at the very least – raised eyebrows that only slightly lowered when she explained what she was doing (and a rule of thumb is that if you have to explain your satirical costume, it probably hasn’t worked). One party guest told her that the costume was inappropriate and that she should clean off her face immediately, something that apparently moved Schafer to tears as she suddenly realised that no one was about to applaud her witty takedown of a cluelessly racist TV presenter. And two millennials who were in attendance took things further. Lexie Gruber (a 27-year-old management consultant “of Puerto Rican descent”, to quote the Post) and Lyric Prince, a 36-year-old African-American and “a science writer, art critic and artist”, confronted Shafer head-on. While Gruber says she spoke “calmly and politely”, other guests recall her yelling. Well, parties are noisy, I guess. In any case, by all accounts, Schafer left the party shortly afterwards, humiliated and cast out by the other guests, which seems a suitable punishment for what was, at the very least, a disastrous error of judgement. Schafer – a liberal whose Facebook page is apparently awash with anti-Trump, pro-gun control, pro-immigration, pro-gay rights and anti-racism statements – was no doubt mortified to have become the very thing she hates, at least in the eyes of others. She called Toles the next day to apologise for ruining his party, full of remorse for her costume and for the effect that it had. A reasonable person might think that the apology and humiliation were enough of a punishment.
But we don’t live in reasonable times, and when social justice and ruthless ambition collide, people are going to be caught in the crossfire. Last week, Gruber felt “compelled” to email Toles demanding the name of the offending guest, and was then further compelled to email the story to the Washington Post, which decided that a faux pas by a nobody at a party was hugely newsworthy.
“I understand that you are not responsible for the behavior of your guests”, she told Toles, “but at the party, a woman was in Blackface. She harassed me and my friend — the only two women of color — and it was clear she made her ‘costume’ with racist intent.”
Well, ‘harassment’ is clearly open to question – she offended them, certainly, but ‘harassment’ implies a deliberate behaviour that obviously wasn’t there. And if anything is clear, it was that the costume was not made with racist intent – quite the opposite, in fact. But Schafer needed to be made a public example of – as did Toles, who has had to apologise for what someone at his party did, even though she had been made to leave once it became clear that she was upsetting people. Apologies and personal humiliation are never enough though, and when the mob get their teeth into someone, they don’t stop shaking until the victim is destroyed.
When Schafer informed her employer that the Washington Post was about to run this story, she was fired. I wonder who might employ her now, given that she has been exposed as a racist in one of America’s most respected newspapers? Her life has been systematically destroyed over a bad decision about a fancy dress outfit at a private event. Gruber, on the other hand, has upped her profile and boosted her Social Justice points considerably, so that’s okay.
If bad decisions, ill-considered words, angry rants and instantly regretted verbal abuse are to define us forever – however much they clearly don’t represent us as individuals – then what sort of society are we building? People should be allowed to make mistakes, and to apologise for those mistakes. They should be allowed to not be fully up to date with the constantly shifting sands of cultural etiquette. We should look at the broader behaviour a person, rather than forensically honing in on their one mistake and picking over their words for signs of wrongthink. Good intentions remain good intentions, even if clumsily executed, and if people apologise for their mistakes, surely that should be enough – do we really need to destroy them as well?
One day, Gruber and the Washington Post‘s self-righteous journalists might find that something they too have said or done without thinking comes back to bite them in the ass – because if two things are very clear, it’s that the social justice movement constantly finds new taboos and loves nothing more than turning on its own, especially if they have a high profile. Once you go down that road, you better be damn sure that you have never said or done anything that will ever be seen as ‘hateful’ – even if it is perfectly fine now – because you’ll be chewed up and spat out with relish by the people who want to take your place. Perhaps we should all be a little more tolerant, and a little more forgiving of others. To err is human, after all.