It is better to keep your mouth closed and let people think you are a fool than to open it and remove all doubt. – Mark Twain
This week has been a lovely one for disastrous mistakes in the field of public relations. First there was Phil Robertson, whose fame I will never understand, and his oft-mentioned remarks featured in GQ regarding sin and orientation, as well as his oft-forgotten ones regarding race. Now there’s Justine Sacco and her “Going to africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding. I’m white!” tweet. When will people learn that sometimes you should just keep your mouth shut?
I was appalled by Phil Robertson’s comments earlier this week, and by the outpouring of support that they received. Seeing people say that the bigoted remarks that he made were somehow okay because he was Christian or because he has a First Amendment right to make bigoted remarks was even worse. Yes, he had the right to say what he did about homosexuality and pre-Civil Rights Movement blacks. A&E also had the right to can his racist, homophobic ass for saying them. But as for them being okay because of his religion? No. Religion doesn’t excuse a person for their bad behavior. “Oh, but we’re all sinners.” Yeah, that might be the case, but that doesn’t mean that you compare a gay relationship to bestiality or that male-female sex has more to offer someone than male-male sex. (He didn’t make a comment on lesbian sex.) It also doesn’t make it cool to say that blacks were happier before desegregation happened. The people he worked with may have been happy, or they may not have wanted to complain to him because they were afraid that he would get some of his redneck friends together and lynch them for complaining. People who are oppressed by society might sing their society’s praises in public, but it’s kind of like when a battered spouse sings the praises of their abuser, it’s done more out of fear than out of love.
Of course, he wasn’t the only person to make a blunder this week. In some ways, I think that Justine Sacco’s was worse. Here you have someone who is supposed to be proficient in the “art” of PR making a racist tweet. Robertson could argue that he didn’t understand that people might actually read his comments, but Sacco doesn’t have that excuse. She should have known better. And it wasn’t the first time that she made a bigoted or insensitive remark. It seems like it’s kind of her thing. Some people have said that if she were Sarah Silverman then people wouldn’t have gotten as offended. Well, there’s a big difference between working in PR and being a comedienne. If she wanted to do stand-up, then she should have pursued that career. Since she wanted to work in a field that focuses on public perception and how to spin a person’s bad behavior, she knew better. She knew that it didn’t take much for someone’s stupidity to go viral, yet she did it anyway.
And because of the reaction people had to her tweet, John Nolte of Breitbart had to start complaining that it might be a conspiracy by liberals to take her down. Um, no. I retweeted what she said and I don’t remember being told by another liberal, “Hey, we want to slam this one person for saying something shitty. Maybe we can get her fired. You in?” No. I just remember reading her comments, being offended, and retweeting. I checked in on the story throughout the day because, quite frankly, it was interesting to see someone in her position do something so stupid. Nolte, of course, doesn’t see it that way. In his view, liberals went after Robertson for his remarks because we hate God, Christianity, etc. Basically, he used the old Breitbart “party line” when discussing that case of comments that pissed the world off. And when the people of Twitter went after Sacco, what did he think? “Sacco is a young, professional, New York woman. Chances are about 99.9% that she’s a BuzzFeed-loving, Obama-voting, MSNBC addict. Which leads to the most important question…Why Sacco?” This had me wondering who exactly we’re supposed to hold accountable for saying ignorant stuff. If we can’t go after the right because their comments are somehow based on their religious beliefs and we can’t go after the left because we’re supposed to have some kind of solidarity thing going on, then who gets held accountable? And if we hold no one accountable, then how do we progress? Oh, there’s my answer. Nolte writes for Breitbart and they don’t like progress.
Well, that’s too bad.
Whether you’re a public figure or a private individual, when you say stuff on the internet that promotes ignorance, intolerance, racism, homophobia, classism, sexism, ableism, etc. and you get called out for it, then isn’t that kind of fair? And when you’re a public figure whose comments might cause a backlash for the company that you’re associated with, then isn’t it fair for you to face some sort of repercussion for that? Whether you’re given a slap on the wrist or fined or suspended or fired outright, isn’t it up to your employer how to react to your comments? If what you say potentially impacts your company’s stock price, then what is your boss supposed to do?
Yes, sometimes the Internet takes things a bit too far, but I don’t think this is an example of that happening. This is an example of a person who did something she shouldn’t have done and getting caught. And whether you’re on some reality show and you make a remark based in your religion, or you’re a PR person and you make a tasteless joke, sometimes you have to face some pretty hefty consequences for your bad behavior. Maybe I’m naive, but I’m hoping that eventually ignorant people will learn not to share these remarks. (Honestly, I wish that they would stop being ignorant, but that is a lot less realistic.) Maybe then we won’t have these scandals.