By now, there’s a good chance you’ve heard about Justine Sacco, the South-African-born PR person who made a joke about AIDS before getting on an international flight and landed to find that she had lost a job and gained thousands of death threats. Unlike Duck Dynasty‘s Phil Robertson, another person who shot off his mouth in public and has been economically sanctioned as a result, Ms. Sacco hasn’t found too much support from any corner — but the two cases are more alike than one might think, and they are both disturbing glimpses into the surprisingly intolerant world of the future.
We’ll start with Ms. Sacco. Prior to boarding her flight back to her homeland of South Africa, she tweeted:
Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding. I’m white!
Oof, am I right? Isn’t that wow, just wow? Kind of makes you want to Tweet something angry in response, doesn’t it? (Italicized portions of this paragraph are meant to be read ironically; as an adult American man who does not aspire to onesie-wearing pansy-ass-ed-ness, I don’t use those phrases.) But before you do, consider the following facts:
- Justine Sacco is from Africa, and you’re not. What percentage of the Twitter lynch mob has ever set foot on African soil? What percentage of them are at all well-informed about major health issues in Africa? What percentage of them could identify major African countries on a map? You know the answer to that, right? And her critics’ joint and several ignorance of the reality of Africa is relevant, because:
- Statistically, she has a point. Let’s assume, for a moment, that Africa is Exactly Like The United States. (After all, most people have no idea what the fuck is going on in Africa. Most Americans think Winnie Mandela was a nice old lady and that the slave trade was invented by Robert E. Lee.) If you look at the CDC rates quoted at the top of this article, were Miss Sacco an American white woman she would have a base risk rate of HIV infection that is less one-fiftieth that of African-American men. However, Africa is not just like America. AVERT estimates that white South Africans are 0.3% HIV positive, while black South Africans are 13.8% positive. That’s a rate of forty-six to one. Different! (Slightly.)
How often have you heard comedians on television riff on the idea that “there are no black serial killers”? It’s not true; in fact, that statistics show that African-Americans are statistically individually more likely to become serial killers. (Full disclosure: the definition of “serial killer” is flexible and your mileage may vary.) But it’s a joke that we’re comfortable with as a society, even though it’s not based in fact. Justine Sacco’s joke, on the other hand, has solid grounding in fact. She’s far less likely to contract AIDS in America or Africa than members of other ethnic groups would be.
So. Was she fired because her joke was too true to be acceptable? The media consensus is that she was fired for making a “racist Tweet”. But isn’t the truth a defense against accusations of racism, the same way it is against slander? If Miss Sacco is six feet tall (which she could be, I have no idea) and she Tweeted “Looking forward to having an unobstructed view at concerts in Japan”, would she have been fired? I imagine that she could have been, particularly if her employer depended on the goodwill of the Japanese public. The truth, in truth, is not a defense against accusations of racism. It is beyond question that some percentage of my readers will read this column and never come back because even quoting race-based HIV/AIDS statistics from independent agencies can be interpreted as a racist act if those statistics are unpleasant to consider.
But what really grinds my gears about the Sacco thing, to (not) coin a phrase, is the same thing that annoys me about the Phil Robertson “racism” controversy. In both cases, you have people being held in judgment by a group that, as a whole, is ill-informed. Whether you like Phil Robertson or not, you have to admit that he probably knows more about being poor in the Jim Crow South than you do; no matter how you feel about Justine Sacco, it’s likely that she knows more about living in Africa than you do.
I never, with my eyes, saw the mistreatment of any black person… Not once. Where we lived was all farmers. The blacks worked for the farmers. I hoed cotton with them. I’m with the blacks, because we’re white trash. We’re going across the field…. They’re singing and happy.
There are only two logical responses to that statement by Phil Robertson:
1. He’s lying, and his assertions are racist.
2. He’s telling the truth, and his assertions are not racist.
The media seems to have come up with a third response:
3. He’s telling the truth, and his assertions are racist.
Which makes me think of this:
You are here because you have failed in humility, in self-discipline. You would not make the act of submission which is the price of sanity. You preferred to be a lunatic, a minority of one. Only the disciplined mind can see reality, Winston. You believe that reality is something objective, external, existing in its own right. You also believe that the nature of reality is self-evident. When you delude yourself into thinking that you see something, you assume that everyone else sees the same thing as you. But I tell you, Winston, that reality is not external. Reality exists in the human mind, and nowhere else. Not in the individual mind, which can make mistakes, and in any case soon perishes: only in the mind of the Party, which is collective and immortal. Whatever the Party holds to be the truth, is truth. It is impossible to see reality except by looking through the eyes of the Party. That is the fact that you have got to relearn, Winston. It needs an act of self-destruction, an effort of the will. You must humble yourself before you can become sane.
Phil Robertson’s recollections of his youth are worse than lies; they are dangerous, because they challenge the orthodoxy of the Party. By the same token, Justine Sacco’s joke is dangerous, because it unearths a fact — HIV infections for individuals of Black African descent are monstrously higher on both sides of the Atlantic — that is counterproductive. “The Party” is not the Democratic Party here. It’s the ideologically unified, corporately funded, media-derived tyranny of the Single Acceptable Opinion that has rotted the superstructure out from under the intellectual edifice of Western thought.
If you ask the typical vaguely-leftist consumer, that woman in your building who gets her opinions from what Ryan Holiday calls “insulin” news like “The Daily Show” and Upworthy and other despicable cloacae of that nature, you’ll probably be told that the Single Acceptable Opinion is built on science. But as TLP notes:
The New York Times loves science, LOVES it, especially the kind with no numbers and frequent appeals to authority, especially ESPECIALLY if those authorities are from the cast of Freakonomics. Here are the seven most important sciences according to the NYT:
2. Political science
4. Climate science
5. Science fiction
Isn’t that the truth. Real science often fails to support the Single Acceptable Opinion on things. Real history is sticky and messy and rarely admits of a Single Acceptable Opinion. Real science tells you that Justine Sacco isn’t going to get AIDS. Real history tells you that Phil Robertson is probably telling the truth, even if that truth wasn’t valid ten miles in any direction from where he was. Real science tells you that standing water will be the deadliest killer your child will face until he is into his teens. There’s a word for stuff like this now: “hatefacts”, defined as “[E]mpirically established or at least highly credible truths that instigate outrage independent of whether true or false. The fact is “wrong” because it is deemed offensive, not because it is factually false.”
This is such an Orwellian phenomenon that it borders on self-parody. The Party says that every African American was miserable at all times until (insert civil rights achievement here) happened and then they were happier, so it’s true. First-hand accounts from the era in question are false. The Party says that all races, sexes, and sexual preferences are at equal risk of HIV, so it’s true, regardless of what science says. Any statements to the contrary will be punished by an immediate loss of job, social status, retirement benefits, public safety, you name it.
People made fun of Sarah Palin when she called the Phil Robertson teacup-tempest a “First Amendment issue”, and rightly so. Neither Mr. Robertson nor Ms. Sacco have been persecuted by the government for their statements, and that’s a good thing regardless of your opinion on the people and statements in question. But the unfortunate fact is that the Party’s Single Acceptable Opinion has a massive chilling effect on public speech and behavior. If you offend the Party, you will be punished, usually with the loss of your job. An unpopular opinion can leave you unable to feed your children. It can leave you unemployable for life. The Founding Fathers sure never considered the fact that Gawker would bully colleges into denying scholarships for “racist teens”. Nor did they consider that people might be rendered unemployable for life because of the Internet’s inability to forget anything from misdemeanor convictions to inappropriate e-mails. With a single act of thoughtcrime you can ruin your life forever and everybody knows it now. Who needs to politically persecute unpopular speech when the “free market” will do it for you?
If there is hope, it lies in the proles. Or, actually, the rock stars. When John Mayer said actual sexist and at least quasi-racist things in his Playboy interview, and the usual suspects rose up to attack him, he mostly ignored them and continued to do the things that his fans wanted: tour, write music, offend people, make weird faces. He didn’t lose his record contract, nor did he see any financial repercussion. Three years after the interview, front section seats for his concerts sell out at $250 a pop. So there are still a few people who can buck the system and survive.
As long as you’re a rock star, you’re fine.
If you aren’t, then you had better start watching what you say.