Everyone Sounds a Bit Like an Asshole on Twitter
At first I was excited by the announcement that Trevor Noah would be hosting the Daily Show. I’m a sucker for a sexy accent, and he’s cute. Plus, he comes across as smart and funny when I’ve heard him perform.
And then came the immediate backlash as people dissected his Twitter account, rounding up all of his anti-Semitic*, homophobic, misogynist tweets while gleefully spitting on Comedy Central’s decision. Of course, now those tweets will be in the back of my head every time I watch him tackle the news.
It’s why I don’t think comedians — or really anyone — should spend too much time on Twitter. It’s a poor medium for expressing yourself. Most of the time, 140 characters isn’t enough characters if you’re trying to say something meaningful or helpful, but it is enough characters to get you into a lot of trouble.
We don’t speak aloud in quips or off-the-cuff non sequiturs, because we know that if we did, we’d spend a lot of time backtracking to explain ourselves. But that’s exactly what we do on Twitter: we throw up 140 characters and then step away to do something else. Compounding the problem is that social media moves so quickly that people end up saying hurtful things in the rush to be the first, the funniest, or the most clever.
Twitter shines as a way of disseminating information, such as getting out links to longer articles that discuss something in-depth or giving first-hand accounts as an incident unfolds. Fact-based Twitter works quite well. Commentary-heavy, opinion-based Twitter… not so much.
And yet, the rush to condemn people for their tweets scares me. It scares me that every time a person enters the spotlight, the first thing the collective crowd does is race out to find a reason to tear them down, and the first place they now look is their social media accounts. What makes a person dive back many years through a Twitterstream unless they’re looking for something terrible to hold against the person?
And we’re not talking about a world leader (though, yes, all presidential hopefuls will have their social media past trotted out on display). We’re talking about a guy who is going to joke about the news.
Do I think people should be held responsible for what they say? Yes. But we’re also judging people on something that was said off-hand, without deep thought, and in some cases, many years ago.
I am more saddened by someone like Lena Dunham who takes a long time to write a thoughtless piece. And the editor at the New Yorker who edited said thoughtless piece. And the publisher at the New Yorker who decided to run said thoughtless piece. There was a lot of time for someone to say along the way, “This is actually quite hurtful” and not have those words published.
Should that article be judged with the same scale that we judge a hurtful tweet?
Listen, do Trevor Noah’s tweets upset me? Yes. But I also know that they were sent into the Twitterverse with nary a second thought and probably forgotten by Noah until they were dredged up by critics. Were they funny? No.
But if I spent enough time on anyone’s Twitter account, I could find something thoughtless or cruel. That goes for mine as well. As it goes in many cases, it’s the response of the person after they are told their words are hurtful that matters more. I’m disappointed that his response wasn’t, “I’m sorry,” projecting outward to people offended, but instead he focused the moment inward on himself:
To reduce my views to a handful of jokes that didn’t land is not a true reflection of my character, nor my evolution as a comedian.
— Trevor Noah (@Trevornoah) March 31, 2015
Hey, Noah, that’s what we get to say. Not you. You should just learn from the mistake, apologize, and then not repeat it again. Let everyone else point out the danger in holding a person to a single statement instead of looking at their words as a whole.
We should agonize over what we put online, especially when we’re making a joke out of context. Comedy works better when it’s more than 140 characters because the jokes are framed inside longer stories. Not so much when we reduce comedy to a few words. But while we’re being circumspect over what we post, we also need to take a step back and condemn individual tweets and images without condemning the whole person or their whole career.
Because it’s a scary world when 140 characters can undo years of work or a reputation that took a lifetime to build.
* Yes, I’m aware that his argument is that he has a Jewish grandparent, therefore he can make Jewish jokes. And Dunham’s argument is that she has a Jewish parent, therefore she can make Jewish jokes. But here’s the thing; there are Jewish jokes that are funny, and there are Jewish jokes that are anti-Semitic — even when told by a Jew. So… yeah… that argument doesn’t hold because it both cases, the words were tasteless and cruel.