In case you haven’t heard, Justine Sacco, an executive at an American internet corporation, recently tweeted from an airplane “Going to Africa. Hope I don't get AIDS. Just kidding. I'm white!” Justine, (who was born in South Africa) received a barrage of angry tweets, and the controversy has gone viral. TV pundits are shocked not only by Ms. Sacco’s racist sentiments, but by the online reaction, which ranged from ‘Total looser!’ to much more virulent, apparently unquotable, responses.
I find Sacco’s tweet ideas not only racist, but homophobic as well -- especially in the context of her apology: ‘There is an AIDS crisis taking place in…(South Africa)…that we read about in America, but do not live with or face on a continuous basis.” Ahh. It seems that -- like so many people -- Justine Sacco has difficulty feeling empathy for the sorrows of others – especially those whose race or sexuality is different than hers. Well, I don’t know how to tell you this, Justine, but in the USA where you now live the AIDS crisis is not something that gay people have merely ‘read about.” No. It is a terrible personal tragedy that has ripped our lives apart.
That said, I must applaud Justine Sacco for bursting the nauseating bubble of comforting hypocrisy that typifies our recent love affair with political correctness. As we all know, two forms of utterance are dictated by western culture’s relatively new conception of a diverse society: the public and the private. It is universally accepted that all forms of public speech – i.e. books, newspaper and magazine articles, speeches, and interviews – ban the n-word when referring to African Americans, the f-word when referring to gay men, and the c-word when referring to women. Most of us abide by this rule most of the time, and congratulate each other ceaselessly for our civility, tolerance and open-mindedness.
But private speech is another matter. When we are having a drink with a friend or whispering sweet nothings in the ever-ubiquitous post-coital ear – anything goes! It’s our private time, after all. How many of us have ever leaned over to a pal ‘sotto voce’ confiding – ‘I know I shouldn’t say this, but –‘ or -- ‘Shh… I hope know one’s listening…’ or the ever popular: ‘I know I say that, but what I really think is – .‘
Civil society is as fragile as the civil laws that provide its coherence. It’s one thing to legislate against hate speech, and quite another to wrench hate forever from the human heart.
So thank God for the internet.
For though we may think we know the difference between public utterance and private speech, internet chit-chat has made it increasingly difficult to separate the two.
Up until recently the worldwide web seemed like the wild west of ideology, where anything ‘went’ -- and anonymous scatalogical rants ruled. But now Google and Apple have decided that some books should not be available (it’s called censorship!), And Facebook categorically assures us that some of our interchanges are protected and others (how’s that again?) are not. At the same time we grow increasingly paranoid of government and corporate attempts to use computers to gather our personal information.
In other words, we’re not entirely sure if the internet a public space or a private one.
So classy, politically correct publicists like Justine Sacco can be caught with their panties down and their hate quite visible for all to see.
Of course it’s not easy to eradicate racism, sexism and homophobia -- especially in an increasingly fundamentalist world (witness the recent ‘Duck Dynasty’ controversy).
On the other hand, the only we can deal with hate is not by pretending that it’s over, but by bringing the hate centre stage and discussing it, admonishing the sin (not the sinner): i.e. the hypocrisy that lies at the very core of western culture.
So thank you, Justine Sacco. You remind us yet again that each and every one of us --when it comes dealing with our own, personal ingrown hate and prejudice, --is wholly, completely -- nay utterly -- FULL OF CRAP.
You may quote me.