THE BLOG

Ethan Czahor's Tweets: Why Media Should Stop Saying 'Offensive' or 'Controversial' to Describe Sexism

02/11/2015 04:17 pm ET | Updated Apr 13, 2015

In what may well be the shortest-lived career as a political technology officer, Jeb Bush's newly appointed Chief Technology Officer, Ethan Czahor, resigned yesterday after he was called out in media for deleting a series of "offensive" tweets.

The Washington Post's headline was, "Jeb Bush's chief technology officer resigns after racially insensitive comments."

Czahor, one of the co-founders of Hipster.com, admitted to what the Bush camp described as "regrettable and insensitive comments," such as suggesting that "black parents need to get their sh@# together." He also, in backhanded fashion, expressed his relief that Martin Luther King Jr. didn't wear "pants sagged to his ankles," or speak in "jibberish." These tweets were written several years ago, but, as Post writer, Phillip Rucker explained, Czahor, "could not survive the racially insensitive comments that surfaced on Tuesday."

Czahor could, however, have survived the sexist ones. The first media reports of his tweets were about his opinions regarding gender and sexuality. Buzzfeed's Andrew Kaczynski  cataloged a whole series of tweets prior to their deletion. Among them:

  • "New study confirms old belief: College female art majors are sluts, science majors are also sluts, but uglier..."
  • "Most people don't know that "Halloween" is German for "night when girls with low self-esteem dress like sluts."
  • And, "I know Lindsay Lohan's supposed to die soon, but I'd sure like to sleep with her before she does."

For good measure, there were also disparaging, homophobic ones. Racist commentary was also brought to light. It's a bundled service.

It's also pretty much par for the course in our culture to hear sentiments like these, see and hear similar words and know that most people will either laugh or ignore boys being boys.  That's what the Bush team did.  I have no idea why the Post headline writer eliminated sexisms or homophobia, but that's what happened, probably because that was the focus on the piece. Words like "slut," "bitch," "whore," "slag," "pussy," are used by men and women alike, so who cares or really understands why context and intent matter? That this is acceptable doesn't make it not sexist, however.

Bush defended Czahor during the immediate social media coverage and the fact that Czahor deleted the "offensive" tweets was sufficient. "Ethan is a great talent in the tech world," the Post reported a spokesperson explaining.

That reference to the tech world is particularly rich in this context, the industry being notorious for what was recently described in a Newsweek article last week as "savagely misogynistic." Being a "great talent" in tech these days substantively means that if you are not actively confronting the industry's default exclusion of women and minorities, often evidenced in ugly incidents of denigration and objectification, you are actually a positive vector for it by default.

"We are very excited to have him on board the Right to Rise PAC," concluded the spokesperson. That was before, apparently, the racism became too apparent and difficult to excuse.

In 2012 when Scott Brown supporters at a Boston Bar did "war whoops," ABC News reported the story, "Scott Brown Staffers Do 'Tomahawk Chop' at Rally," and more than 200,000 viewed the video.  Last year, there was a similar episode during a University of New Hampshire homecoming tailgate party. This time, however, it was sexism. As Laura Clawson explained in a Daily Kos article Brown supporters yelled "Cunt," referring to either or both Jeanne Shaheen and Elizabeth Warren. Brown, the father of two daughters, smiled, shook hands and patted backs while the men around him, as seen and heard on this video, yelled "Fuck Jeanne Shaneen" and "Fuck Elizabeth Warren," expressions that take on a different tone and meaning when accompanied by "Fuck her right in the pussy."  (This video was viewed by fewer than 30,000 people, by comparison.) Calling women gendered, or frequently racialized, gendered slurs in these ways or suggesting that they be sexually assaulted to shut them up and dominate them politically -- hilarious, right? -- is sexist.

There are guidelines for gender-neutral media coverage that suggest framing and language alternatives to sexist media coverage, but this problem is different. This problem is one of not seeing, recognizing or acknowledging that there is sexism in acts such as these. Editors and writers are not alone, however. Research shows that sexism, pervasive in our daily lives and interactions, is invisible to most people, men and women both. Notably, studies show sexism is particularly true for privileged people. It should come as no surprise that entitled men are more likely to hold hostile views about women and that entitled women view other women as weak, vulnerable and "sensitive." What may be surprising is how highly correlated these beliefs are with tolerance for violence against women.

It's easier, simpler, less cognitively disjunctive to minimize, trivialize and erase words like "slut" or jokes about "F**king Elizabeth Warren." It's definitely easier, simpler and less cognitively disjunctive to wave off boys behaving badly and give them a "second chance" rather than consider the connection between "fuck her in the pussy," or "before she's dead," and the possibility of systemic fraternal exclusion of women from power. I know -- children's rhymes, sticks and stones and all that.

Today, several online media with a leftward bent are using headlines that reference racism and sexism, such as "Jeb Bush PAC Resigns After Reports on Sexist, Racist Remarks." However, many more, particularly "neutral" mainstream ones, are using words like "Insensitive Online Comments," "...Controversial Tweets," "Inflammatory Comments." More still employ the insufficient "offensive." My favorite? Bloomberg's Ethan Czahor, Jeb Bush's Fired CTO, is Guilty of Being a Young Conservative. Poor guy. Next up? Countless blog posts explaining that he's being oppressed and censored instead of facing the consequences of exercising his unchallenged right to freedom of expression.

Speech like this has many consequences that "moderate," "neutral," watered-down descriptions like "offensive" don't capture. "Offensive" particularly suggests that an oversensitive person's feelings are hurt and that it's a matter of individual subjectivity. That perspective usefully ignores that some people's subjectivity is what is commonly assumed to be unbiased "objectivity," and also washes away easily demonstrated systemic problems, but whatever, we don't like those. In any case, hurt feelings are the very least and least likely problem. When you are the target of these words, in these ways, you know exactly what the speaker seeks to do. Personally, as someone who regularly is on the receiving end of terms like these for simply expressing my opinion as female, my response is exasperation and irritation. Exasperation with boring, unimaginative and transparent sexism, and irritation with media's shallow perpetuation of the problem.

These words and expressions are meant, explicitly or implicitly, to remind people of their historically subjugated place, dehumanize and objectify us and tap into a cultural prioritization of men's speech, authority and dominance. As a society, we'd be better off if we stopped minimizing or ignore those things. Sexist "jokes" -- often incorporating rape or its suggestion, are well-understood aspects of social harm prejudice theory. Witless, denigrating humour in an academic setting undermines women's ability to compete, something particularly notable given college humour and the 4-year-old, recently retrending #ItAintRape hashtag.  In a professional political setting, sexist words and media reduce voter confidence in women as viable leaders.

Just because people, particularly in this instance, self-serving conservative Republican men in party leadership, fail to acknowledge sexism and gender discrimination that is as clear as the noses on their faces, doesn't mean media should too. It's actually a fourth estate responsibility to educate people, using words like "sexism" and explaining what it means, so that they can make informed decisions, truth, democracy and all that....

"The weird, new political and online moment that devoured Ethan Czahor," for saying "gross, bro-y things," (as another Washington Post article put it today) is a moment where the recognition that "gross, bro-y things" are less culturally tolerable in a diverse, pluralistic society. This moment isn't actually one moment at all, emblematic of literally thousands upon thousands of others we are subjected to every day. That once in a while frustration hits critical mass should surprise exactly no one who. If you care to put yourself in the shoes of an American girl, you'd realize this. I recently watched a 12-year old girl offer eight male classmates "slutty brownies" a few weeks ago, because she'd made them at home and brought them to a game. Everyone laughed and ate them until one of the boys asked, "Did your sister teach you to make these?" Then he pivoted and yelled, "Is she a SLUT, lol." After which the girl simply stopped talking while the boys kept going, unbothered and confident that they were, none of them, subject to what they meant. If we'd rather not see men like Czahor penalized for what are thought of as "youthful mistakes," then we should teach them what sexism really is how to avoid mistakes like these in the first place.