Blogs in the Time of Zika

With apologies to Gabo:
ggmPhoto credit: Amazon – Love in the Time of Cholera, Gabriel García Márquez

Call me un-American if you will, but I hate the Olympics. Also, with apologies to the rest of the world, I find soccer insufferably boring. My handful of Facebook friends must have been surprised when I took to social media to protest U.S. goalkeeper Hope Solo’s suspension and the termination of her contract. I even spiced things up with a nifty hashtag: #FreeHopeSolo.

After losing to them, she called the Swedish team “a bunch of cowards.


I always thought trash talk was part of athletics. I spent plenty of time on the blacktop when I was young and inexplicably enjoyed physical activity. No match of 21 ended without all participants’ mothers being insulted. We certainly don’t seem to care when male athletes do it. I thought I was astutely pointing out an instance of sexism, another blatant double standard of the genders.

Shortly after posting, I received a message from an irked friend–both female and feminist–who could not believe I’d come to the defense of such a degenerate creature. Didn’t I know her history? Well, no; not a fan of Olympics or soccer, remember?

It didn’t take much digging to unearth a myriad of other transgressions.

Fair enough. Domestic violence charges are pretty serious, as is riding shotgun while your intoxicated husband drives the team van. Bad mouthing commentators, even teammates? See above. Like some noxious country singer once crooned, “Guys do it all the time.” Besides, the press release clearly states said fatuous offense was, at the very least, the proverbial straw that broke the goalie’s back.

I stand by my claims. Sexist, period. I was also a little surprised that my own anodyne statement stirred such a reaction. I received a few likes as well as other gentle disagreements. No one took such offense, however, that they decided I should be publicly shamed for defending a trash-talking, foul-mouthed, apparently Ayn-Rand-loving loose cannon.

It was too pablum to go full-on righteous rage. Or was it merely one of those but-for-the-grace-of-god situations? It’s really hard to gauge what will set off a flurry of indignant keyboard warriors these days.

I’m careful with what I post online. As of late, I’ve been diligently trying to dial back my online presence. The reasons are numerous, but one is just that realization that one misstep, one incident where sarcasm is mistaken for sincerity, and anyone can be the next villain du jour. Personally, I prefer my drama onstage at the Ritz.

Allow me to finish before scrolling down to the comment section and typing “HOW DARE U MOCK MY RIGHT TO UNLEASH MY SOCIAL MEDIA BRIGADE ON EVERY1 WHO SAYS SOMETHING OFFENSIVE?!” I’m not. Neither am I downplaying the level of racism, sexism, homophobia, bigotry and intolerance on display across this series of tubes invented by Al Gore. It’s there, it’s real and it’s ugly. Sometimes public outcry goes beyond mere schadenfreude and makes headway to righting social ills. At the very least, it sparks a necessary conversation.

Speaking of Hope Solo, that “angel” I defended. Her online persona is often indefensible. I too was outraged when I discovered some of her pre-Olympic antics on social media.

zikaproofImage credit: Twitter @hopesolo, 21 July 2016

Perhaps she thought she was being funny captioning this photo “Not sharing!! Get your own! #zikaproof #RoadToRio.” She may be a goalie for the history books, but maybe she should leave the jokes to Amy Schumer. I’d tell her not to quit her day job, but, well …

Mocking a country in the grips of a public health crisis is just bad form. There’s plenty of think-piece fodder here. White privilege, 1st-world privilege, et al. All I know is I immediately recoiled upon seeing this image. I was less offended than the spectators in Rio, apparently, but offended nonetheless.

Crap. Pure as my motivations might have been, I suppose I could have picked a better spokesperson for my passionate, radical belief that women are people too.

Thankfully, there are others with less baggage.

But Solo isn’t the only one who has caused a kerfuffle over insensitive remarks on social media. One presidential nominee seems to do it weekly. Just last week, a defeated mayor in my state was rightfully shamed when she called her opponent a racial slur in a Facebook comment. (She claims her account was hacked.)

Undoubtedly, the net can bring out the absolute worst in humanity. The vile vitriol spread by many has cost people jobs and reputations, ruined lives. I’m not defending the offenders or saying the consequences are undeserved. Public shaming appears to be having the desired effect of moving us towards a more tolerant, equitable world. Or, the cynic in me thinks, at least driving it out of sight.

What I do fear is in our rush to express our moral indignancy at every perceived sleight, we may inadvertently punish the well-meaning or the uninformed. Sure a slight misstep should be a teachable moment. Oftentimes, a virtual pillory is a bridge too far.

Case in point: Justine Sacco.

Before boarding a plane to Cape Town, South Africa, in 2012, Sacco sent the ill-advised tweet: “Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding. I’m white!” Public health crisis, white privilege, 1st-world privilege, et al. It makes Solo’s statement seem downright friendly in comparison.

Twelve hours in the air, the Twittersphere exploding with righteous rage, various online media outlets picking up the story, #HasJustineLanded a trending topic, Sacco’s phone was tucked neatly away. She was clueless to the global maelstrom going on 30,000 feet below. Imagine how gobsmacked she was once she booted her cell phone while taxiing on the runway, how crestfallen she was the next day upon hearing she’d been fired from her job.

But she deserved it, right? Couldn’t have happened to a nicer racist? The tweet oozed of callous stereotyping. Only a bona fide, rebel-flag-waving, white-hood-wearing bigot would dare express such sentiments.

Unless she wasn’t any of those things.

Journalist Sam Biddle is credited with getting the “scoop.” He worked for a site owned by the media conglomerate Gawker, who shuttered its doors last week due to lawsuits bankrupting it for being–for lack of a better term–bullies. Nearly a year later, at her behest, Biddle met with the same woman he’d driven the internet to shame, giving her an outlet to tell her side of the story.

His article, “Justine Sacco Is Good at Her Job and How I Came to Peace with Her” is a great read and a fitting coda for Sacco’s whirlwind 15-minutes. After their brief discussion, Biddle comes away with clarification and context the world lacked six months prior.

“Her tweet was supposed to mimic–and mock–what an actual, racist ignorant person would say,” he writes. “Ergo, tweeting that thought would be an ironic statement, a joke, the opposite of what it seemed to say.”

Hard to pack all those subtleties into 140 characters. She felt convinced her paltry 200+ followers–mostly friends, colleagues and family–would get it. It’s not like she expected it to go global.

Had we merely misunderstood?

To be fair, Sacco could have been doing damage control. After all, she was employed at a PR firm. She’d had quite a while to polish and hone her defense. Like I said, I’m a cynic, but I want to think Biddle is no fool, that he couldn’t be played so easily. I’d like to give her the benefit of the doubt.

If nothing else, her harrowing experience could serve as a cautionary tale, a warning to we Gen-Xers and Millennials who came of age as we watched the behemoth that is the web grow and expand while we cluelessly navigated its expanse. Gen-Z, or whatever we’re going to wind up calling the current generation, can barely remember a time without social media. We old folks can sit them by the fireside and tell them the Fable of Justine, hopefully scaring them straight as well.

Social media is so ubiquitous that it’s hard to eschew altogether. Those who do must feel left out. Personally,  I’d like to think I’d never be daft enough to tweet something so foolish and shortsighted. I’m also aware that misinterpretations occur. I’d hate to be on the receiving end of that.

I consider myself a bit of a social justice warrior. I deliberately push my classes as well as my circles of friends and colleagues to talk about uncomfortable issues such as race, religion and income inequality. Being a white, heterosexual, cisgendered male, however, I’m also aware that no matter how pearly my intent, I too am capable of going thigh-deep in a pile of manure. I would never deliberately offend someone due to the differences that give us the rich quiltwork of a diverse society. Something tells me Justine Sacco might tell you the same thing.

These (admittedly paranoid) reasons are why I’ve stepped back my online footprint. I’m very careful about the brand of humor I use online. If I’m going to employ sarcasm as a tool, I try to make it painfully obvious. Satire is best avoided altogether.

It’s hard enough to calm my apoplectic students the day we discuss “A Modest Proposal.” I can’t imagine the Facebook headlines were it a contemporary piece. “Jonathan Swift’s Disgusting Suggestion to End Poverty in Ireland.” Oh, the clickbait.

Now here I am starting a blog, tapdancing my fat foot across the reaches of interwebs. I have strong reservations, yet I also see the opportunities. The only reason I dare currently engage in such a feat is to lead by example. One of my classes will be writing blogs along with composing academic essays. It’s a great way to learn about writing for different types of audiences, using different tones. I couldn’t very well ask them to do something I wouldn’t.

My advice to them as well as any other hapless soul who stumbles across these rantings of a madman and actually doesn’t “tl;dr” it is this: think carefully about your audience. On the web, your posts may not only be comprised of acquaintances, people who look and think just like you or even people who are of the same nationality. You know what you meant to say, but is it ambiguous? If so, how can you make it “biguous” instead?

While we’re at it, can we extend the same courtesy to those who are posting on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, and whatever the hell these young ‘uns are using? If your gut reaction is anger and outrage, could it be worth your while to pause and re-read, search for ways you possibly misunderstood? If you can’t find that, instead of commenting in all caps while you sling slobber across the keyboard and monitor, maybe ask for clarification first.

Maybe only when it becomes perfectly clear that the poster is an unrepentant bigot should we go the route of shaming him/her.

Sacco told the New York Times Magazine, “Living in America puts us in a bit of a bubble when it comes to what is going on in the third world. I was making fun of that bubble.” Yet her tone-deaf tweet came from her own personal bubble, just as all those who rushed to crucify her failed to let her intended sentiment penetrate theirs.

Then there’s Hope Solo. I don’t know if her bubble has burst or not. It probably doesn’t matter. Self-awareness still has to get through that mosquito netting.



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