The Outrage Machine: “If you publicly accuse someone of racism, sexism or other similar wrongs, you are effectively calling for that person to be fired”

From a Washington Post column by Megan McArdle headlined “What the outrage machine costs us all”:

At this late date, it seems almost unnecessary to point out that if you publicly accuse someone of racism, sexism or other similar wrongs, you are effectively calling for that person to be fired, or at the very least, to suffer some kind of workplace discipline. Yet apparently someone needs to restate the obvious.

Last week, Slate journalist Mark Joseph Stern called the Internet’s attention to an offensively worded tweet from incoming Georgetown Law administrator Ilya Shapiro. President Biden had announced that he would keep a campaign promise and appoint a Black woman to the Supreme Court; Shapiro lamented that this meant Sri Srinivasan, chief judge of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, whom Shapiro considers best qualified for the job, would be passed over in favor of a “lesser black woman.” Stern denounced Shapiro’s tweet, calling him a “troll” whose “overt and nauseating racism” made Stern “ashamed of my alma mater” (Georgetown Law, which was tagged in Stern’s tweet).

Almost immediately, Shapiro apologized for what he termed his “inartful” wording and deleted the tweet. Nonetheless, it was obvious to everyone that Shapiro’s job was on the line. Except, apparently, to Stern, who insists that he never intended to get Shapiro fired.

I raise this because it’s part of an odd pattern that has become alarmingly frequent in recent years: Someone gets called out, the Internet piles on, the offender’s employer comes under pressure — and then, as defenestration looms, key participants say, oh no, they weren’t calling for anyone to be fired. Occasionally, that’s even how the shamestorm is launched: I don’t want to get anyone fired, but

What does it say about our culture that people who don’t want anyone fired keep participating in mass frenzies that will possibly — even probably — end with someone losing their job? And why do the firings keep happening if no one wants them to?

One possibility is that the firings keep surprising us. But no, this seems impossible after so many examples. More likely, many personally think firing is too extreme, while nonetheless feeling impelled toward the inevitable outcome. Initiators want to call out bigotry, those who pile on must comment on the issue of the day, and employers cannot face days and weeks of scandal.

But then why don’t those people speak out against the firings earlier and more often? More typically, the incendiary denunciations are voiced early, while the quiet reservations about academic freedom or workers’ rights come late — after the juggernaut has already gathered too much momentum to be stopped. At best, this indicates that people are thoughtlessly contributing to an outcome they don’t desire. At worst, it suggests their protestations aren’t entirely sincere.

A cynic might note that the great innovation of our crowdsourced cultural revolution is the near-perfect deniability it offers: Anyone who knows what buttons to push can convene a peer-to-peer prosecution that will inevitably call for the career death penalty, while never having to suggest it themselves. Because everyone is a little bit responsible, no one has to take responsibility. And ultimately, this explains both the firings that no one really wants and the ones that are quite intentional — as well as the gruesome effect that both kinds have on our political debates.

Enthusiasts for these mass shamings talk about holding people accountable for the intangible harms their words cause. Yet they fail to take responsibility for the very tangible harms they inflict when they launch the first fiery salvo, or furiously click “retweet.” Sometimes they are obviously intentionally hiding behind the mob, but just as often, I suspect, the mob’s responsibility-diffusing machine makes the moral satisfaction of a righteous condemnation feel completely separate from the moral harm of an undeserved firing — even though in aggregate they are clearly causally linked.

Nor do they feel responsible for what this has done to the discourse. Mob action doesn’t just shut down debate by putting people in fear for their jobs; it substitutes for it, because it feels so much safer and easier to join a mob of retweeters than to voice an independent opinion.

Underneath Shapiro’s appalling word choice lay a vital moral and political question: Is it legitimate to rectify past discrimination with current discrimination? I’d argue that it is, not because today’s White males deserve to suffer for the sins of their forebears, but because demographic representation enhances democratic legitimacy.

However, Shapiro disagrees with me. So do most Americans, including a majority of non-White Americans. The subject is ripe for a public debate that we didn’t have. Instead, we discussed whether Shapiro’s choice of words made him a racist. As we have done so many times before, we turned one of the most sensitive, complex and important issues of our day into a binary referendum on one person: Ilya Shapiro, racist or not?

So perhaps before we weigh in on the day’s two-minute hate, we should be asking ourselves whether the offense is really grave enough to be worth the likely consequences — to the target, and to civic deliberation. Otherwise, we become collectively responsible for the inevitably miserable results: the problems we never get anywhere closer to solving, and the employers who keep voting for the easy way out.

Megan McArdle is a Washington Post columnist and the author of “The Up Side of Down: Why Failing Well Is the Key to Success.”

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