02/26/2013 08:48 am ET Updated Apr 28, 2013

The Power of a Tweet, the Power of Reaction: Words Matter

My, it's been a wild ride on social media since the Oscars. Lots of the usual activity before and during, but it was after that things got really feral. It started with the predictable twit-fest either applauding or eviscerating host Seth MacFarlane, but ratcheted to the stratosphere when some idiot behind the keyboard at The Onion decided it was hilarious to tweet-slime 9-year-old Quvenzhané Wallis with a word typically reserved for redneck, trailer park, in the ladies' room cat fights. It starts with a "c," ends with a "t," and rhymes with hunt. Yeah. That word.

By now you know the plot points; if not, I wrote about it here and it's worth a visit just to look at the comments. I'll get to those in a minute.

Anyway, social media blew up like a warehouse in a Sylvester Stallone movie and from there it was on. You had those who were understandably disgusted, some who put a racial spin on it (hmmm... but they had a point about no one daring to do that to Suri Cruise); still others started hollering about boycotts, unfollowing on Twitter and Facebook, filing complaints with the FCC, all of it. I thought, go for it. If we could incite boycotts after Rush Limbaugh called Sandra Fluke, a grown woman, a "slut," surely calling a 9-year-old girl a c**t merits at least a comparable level of outrage.

Wisely, and unlike the remorseless Mr. Limbaugh, The Onion, after certainly waiting too long to respond (about 12 hours), issued an apology. It was addressed from their CEO, Steve Hannah, and appeared not only authentic, but sincere in its chagrin:

Feb. 25, 2013

Dear Readers,

On behalf of The Onion, I offer my personal apology to Quvenzhané Wallis and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences for the tweet that was circulated last night during the Oscars. It was crude and offensive--not to mention inconsistent with The Onion's commitment to parody and satire, however biting.

No person should be subjected to such a senseless, humorless comment masquerading as satire.

The tweet was taken down within an hour of publication. We have instituted new and tighter Twitter procedures to ensure that this kind of mistake does not occur again.

In addition, we are taking immediate steps to discipline those individuals responsible.

Miss Wallis, you are young and talented and deserve better. All of us at The Onion are deeply sorry.


Steve Hannah
The Onion

Mr. Hannah must have read my aforementioned article because, I swear, he did exactly what I suggested: an apology to his readers, to Miss Wallis, and to the public at large (though my prescription was likely the same as 5 million or so others!). It was necessary, appropriate and, apparently, very unusual (former Onion writer, Baratunde Thurston, made the point), and even if it was at the behest of a savvy PR person who browbeat him with the very real statistics of Rush Limbaugh's sponsors fleeing like rats on a sinking ship, it was what was needed. Good for Mr. Hannah.

But what was really interesting was the debate that swirled from beginning to middle to post-apology (I won't call it "end" because it's still being talked about!). Like so much of online discourse, from comments to Twitter and Facebook, sharp polarities cracked the surface quickly, illuminating our cultural clash on such things as decorum, manners, discretion, judgment, class, wit, wisdom, irreverence, satire, and so on. Battles sparked between some who thought the tweet was outrageous while others were less piqued. Then the ones who were less outraged -- and, in some cases, thought the tweet funny -- became driven to not only defend The Onion and the general thesis of satire and parody (which this tweet surely was not), but to turn tables to attack, sometimes quite viciously, those who were offended by it. As if being offended by a high profile news and satire site calling an Oscar-nominated 9-year-old girl a c**t was absurd.

Daring to write a piece about it got me attacked for being "a lousy writer," the reverse of Fox News (I guess for promoting a liberal agenda in much of my writing?); being "stupid," having no sense of humor, taking things out of context, being overly sensitive, blowing things out of proportion, not getting the joke, and, yes, being a c**t. God, some people just LOVE that word!

People started posting about starving children, slaughtered children, drone attacks, etc., with sneering admonitions that this is the stuff to be mad about, not The Onion's tweet. Commenters got ugly; I mean, really ugly. Just go to the feed under The Onion apology on Facebook to be regaled with all manner of Neanderthal, ignorant, sexist, arrogant, snarky, bottom-feeding chatter.

Which brings us back to the title of this piece. Words matter. A tweet, a response, what we say to a child, to each other. Those who don't want to be held to any standard, who don't want to accept that a cohesive society evolves towards certain standards of decorum to allow the general population to exist in emotional comfort, chafe. But those on the margins can exercise their right to either never say a swear word, on one hand, or vomit out every manner of sleazy prattle on the other... all while the rest of us live in the middle holding a fine balance. That's why we learn -- through trial, error and good parenting -- to develop filters and impulse control. We learn which situations demand the middle, which can tolerate a bit of bawdy, and which require a zip of the pie-hole. It's not hard, it's not even oppressive in most cases, because intelligent, wise, and consciously evolved people know when what is appropriate.

Which, of course, means they are the exact kind of people online trolls and bottom feeders salivate over. I don't know whether we've bred a generation of young males weaned on Rush Limbaugh, Ditto-heads all, who love to huff and puff and bloviate just like their jabbering Jabba, but whatever the reason, we're now culturally inundated and they're like a pack of hyenas going for the throat. You gotta be brave out there in Internet-land; if your skin is thin, you'll bleed out before the smart ones can rescue you.

So as I wrap up my personal dialogue on this unfortunate media event, I want to offer a few quick pointers:

1. Don't let anyone -- in comments, Twitter, Facebook threads, etc. -- shame you into thinking your anger and outrage are "over the top," or stupid. That's passive-aggressive and utterly presumptuous, and they need to shut up.
2. Don't let anyone run false equivocations on you; you can be outraged about lesser things without losing your ability to be outraged about bigger ones. Baseless argument.
3. Don't bother to debate trolls, snark-feeders and bullies. They live off debate, like vampires off blood. Don't give 'em any.
4. Don't let anyone tell you to ignore something because "acknowledging it gives it power." NOT acknowledging child-sliming, sexism, intolerance, hate-speak, ugliness, denigration, etc., is what gives power to ignorance (just read a few history books). Instead, shine a light on it like a cockroach; send it scurrying by speaking up, pointing it out, illuminating it for what it is. Believe me, it's very unlikely The Onion would have ever apologized if as many "outraged" people hadn't raised a racket.
5. Don't let anyone tell you you're "a pussy" for setting a bar, holding to a standard, asserting your sense of what's appropriate and what isn't. They'll try. That's when you ignore them.

Basically: trust your instincts. Remember what Justice Potter Stewart said about obscenity and just replace it with whatever word applies -- intolerance, sexism... a slime-tweet:

"I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced within that shorthand description; and perhaps I could never succeed in intelligibly doing so. But I know it when I see it..."

You do too.


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