Every Thursday in LOL Interwebz, Luke T. Harrington explores the quirks and foibles of Internet culture from a Gospel perspective.

We’ve all been there.

You’re walking along, thinking witty thoughts to yourself (as we witty folk are wont to do), and suddenly a genius bit of wordplay pops into your head. “That is the most genius bit of wordplay ever conceived by the human mind!” you think to yourself, humbled to realize how brilliant you are. “I believe I shall post it on the Twitterverse!”True justice is a dead-end for our species.

So you reach for your phone and type it out, and then, just before you hit “Post,” you stand back to admire your handiwork—only to realize that CRAP, THAT TWEET IS THE MOST UNBELIEVABLY RACIST THOUGHT THAT ANY RACIST HAS EVER HAD EVER, AND ALSO MAYBE I’M SECRETLY HITLER.

Like I said: we’ve all been there.

Wait, you haven’t been there? Just me, then? Really? Wow.

Huh.

Well, at least I can rest assured that one other person has had the same experience, only she actually hit the “Post” button. I’m talking, of course, about Justine Sacco, who just inspired an in-depth article by Jon Ronson in The New York Times Magazine. Her story is old news, but I think it bears repeating. Skip ahead if you know it.

In late 2013, Sacco, who was PR director for the Internet company IAC (owner of many sites we’d all be deeply embarrassed to have in our portfolios, including Ask.com and The Daily Beast), was about to get on a plane from London to Cape Town. She tweeted out the joke, “Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding. I’m white!”

For my money, the tweet was pretty obviously mocking white privilege, as opposed to reveling in it, but the Internet didn’t take it that way, because the Internet is fueled by pure, unfiltered rage. Sacco had only 170 followers, but somehow an editor at Gawker noticed the post and broadcast it to the world, which immediately blew up with a storm of indignation (typical angry/clueless tweet: “How did @JustineSacco get a PR job?! Her level of racist ignorance belongs on Fox News. #AIDS can affect anyone!”), of which Sacco remained happily oblivious, being stuck in the air without cell phone service for 11 hours straight.

She stepped off the plane that evening only to find she was the number-one trending topic on Twitter, suddenly unemployed, and all but disowned by her family (who, ironically, had dedicated their lives to fighting apartheid for generations). Ronson’s article ends on a down note, with Sacco once again in a job, but desperate to avoid the spotlight and possibly suffering from PTSD.

In the article, Ronson interviews a handful of other victims of the online shame machine as well, but his point is a pretty straightforward one: something along the lines of GUYS, STAHP. He’s quick to implement himself as well:

In the early days of Twitter, I was a keen shamer. . . . It felt as if hierarchies were being dismantled, as if justice were being democratized. As time passed, though, I watched these shame campaigns multiply, to the point that they targeted not just powerful institutions and public figures but really anyone perceived to have done something offensive. I also began to marvel at the disconnect between the severity of the crime and the gleeful savagery of the punishment.

We’ve met the Thought Police, and they are us.

The thing people love about Twitter is also what makes it terrifying: we can log on any time we want and immediately know what’s on the mind of any given person. It’s how we learned that Billy Corgan is a crazy conspiracy theorist and that David Lynch is just a doddering old man who likes to build furniture, and it’s the closest we’ve ever been to having a window into other people’s brains.

And, of course, there’s the rub: our brains are terrible, horrifying places.

“Out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks,” and “None is righteous; no, not one.” If all of us keep posting all of our thoughts to social media, it’s only a matter of time before each of us gets publicly castigated or worse. And with people of all ideological stripes equally capable of ignominious hatred (Ronson relates the story of a female computer programmer who used the Internet hate-machine to get a vaguely sexist male colleague fired, only to have it turn on her and leave her jobless and terrified for her life as well), any one of your thoughts could easily flip the trigger. It’s just a question of which one will do the job.

Going outside pantsless could ruin your life as well, but Internet mob justice effectively puts us all in spring-loaded pants.

Metaphorically, I mean. Literal spring-loaded pants are, sadly, too awesome for this world.

But the point remains: justice, and especially mob justice, leaves none of us standing.

In the fourth chapter of Genesis, God finds Himself in the unfortunate position of having to judge the first murder in the history of ever. Cain, a.k.a. “Captain Murderface,” whines:

I shall be a fugitive and a wanderer on the earth, and whoever finds me will kill me.

And, well, whoever managed to find him and kill him would be pretty much justified in doing so. The guy literally invented murder. Heck, God could easily execute him Himself—the case against Cain is open-and-shut, and God’s anti-murder position is hardly a secret. But instead:

Then the Lord put a mark on Cain so that no one who found him would kill him.

The Bible gives us no clear motivation for this moment of grace, but I wonder if God simply knows that a world driven by pure justice is a world where we’d all end up dead.

God later experiments with mass execution several chapters later, but in the end He tells Noah:

I will never again curse the ground because of man, for the intention of man’s heart is evil from his youth.

There’s an apparent non sequitur there—humankind is evil; therefore God won’t destroy us?—but again, I think it comes back to the realization that true justice is a dead-end for our species; the stubborn fact that all of us need infinite grace just to get through our day. If even our Twitter feeds can’t withstand public scrutiny, how could every intention of our hearts even hope to withstand divine scrutiny?

But God is love and love keeps no record of wrongs.

I recently heard an interview with Lutheran pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber in which she shared her personal understanding of the Cross: “That’s God saying, ‘I would rather die than be in the sin-accounting business that you’ve put me in,'” she said—reflecting on a God who would rather exact justice on Himself than allow even the inventor of murder to taste it.

We’ve all seen the evil in the world, and we’ve all cried out for blood, and God has responded by giving us His own.

Only fools would cry out for more.


8 Comments

  1. Just an idea, one I’m trying to take hold of myself. For many, many years people (other than authors and journalists) communicated their thoughts to people close enough to see their facial expressions and hear their tone of voice and to hear what came before and after a questionable comment and be able to scowl and offer a correction and hear them express regret and then forget it. I remember it, nowadays with nostalgia. The idea that problems like the one related in this article could be avoided by foregoing the use of Twitter and Facebook and such to express one’s views typically brings looks of incredulity (it’s really hard for 20-somethings and younger to imagine a world without social media), but it can be done. Really. Living where one is: an old-fashioned idea that deserves revival.

  2. people literally die daily of both AIDS and racist violence, but it’s the blood of our *tweets* crying out from the ground? who will have compassion on the poor PR pro (besides every bastion of power and whiteness) who can’t possibly be expected to know or do better?? give me a break. her family did not disown her, by the way. they just didn’t think her racist joke was funny, which is exactly consistent with their anti-apartheid work–or the worship of a God who sides with the margins.

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