The “Radicalization” of Sarah Jeong
You’ve heard by now that The New York Times hired Sarah Jeong to be lead technology writer for its editorial board. You’ve also heard that Jeong has a tendency toward declarative statements about “white people,” and that these statements are uncharitable and unkind approximately 100% of the time.
Jeong is a prolific writer. As currently comprised, you could wallpaper a walk-up in Brooklyn Heights with her epic saga of the feckless and revolting “white people,” which spans hundreds of tweets and appears to have been written continuously from 2013 through this year. A freelance journalist claims he spent six hours compiling this thread of just some of them. (At one point, believing his work complete, the archivist discovers he misplaced an entire page.) Perhaps, like the Mayan Codices and poems of Sappho, entire volumes of Sarah Jeong’s White People Chronicles are lost to antiquity.
Online outrage followed the discovery of Jeong’s tweets, which included calls for her to be fired because we live in a deterministic universe subservient to the laws of physics and that is what those laws decree. A writer at Vox called the kerfluffle “a major bullying tactic of the alt-right,” despite social media mobs having a distinctly bi-partisan history. The term “furor” is used most often, strangely enough.
In response, the Times released a quixotic statement in support of Jeong, followed by an article characterizing the issue as an “outcry over old tweets.” This is true in the entirely ridiculous sense that every tweet is “old” from the moment it’s sent, but doesn’t quite capture the fact that Jeong has been taking “white people” to the woodshed on a regular basis since 2013, not merely in 2013. (If Jeong had only attacked white people in 2013, who knows? Maybe white people had a bad year.)
Most importantly, the Times lays out its absolution narrative by describing Jeong’s tweets as “imitating the rhetoric” of people online who were harassing her first. The loops, arches, and whorls of HR almost obscure the text. Wouldn’t it make more sense if this arose out of a handful of direct confrontations between Jeong and someone or some group of people who claimed to or at least appeared to be white? How can the Times’ explanation possibly map onto hundreds of tweets on dozens of different subjects over several years? People sent Jeong bigoted messages about her race and gender, so Jeong fired back with bigoted messages about their race (but only if they were white), then kept firing back and to the side and in every other direction hundreds of additional times for years afterward. That’s the explanation?
There’s a word for the process of becoming angry at individuals from a particular demographic, sublimating that anger over years and years into seething hatred for anyone else belonging to that category, and adopting extreme positions on political or social issues as a result. That word is radicalization. The Times’ story—and Jeong’s, it appears—is that Jeong was radicalized by twitter harassment.
But radicalization isn’t a play on words or a language game. When we say someone has been radicalized, we’re talking about their beliefs, not their tone of voice or their hair color or whether they fight a bit dirtier online than they used to.
The New York Times explains that Jeong’s rhetoric was radicalized but her beliefs were not. Why should anyone believe that? (Hell, why should the Times believe that? Did anyone at the paper—a lawyer, perhaps—consider for even a moment that this unbounded set of several hundred hateful tweets might not fully circumscribe the multiverse of potential problems here?)
Most sessions of the Twitter Racism Tribunal are about teasing out someone’s inappropriate beliefs from their more moderate statements. Identifying code words and dog-whistles. Cross-referencing problematic friends and acquaintances. Compiling enough scraps of circumstantial evidence to convincingly improvise a stranger’s innermost thoughts.
The Times flips all this on its head: hundreds of plainly bigoted statements made over half a decade are actually only one regrettable decision to talk like the ur-bigots. (A transgression so small even an apology is unnecessary. Apologize for what?) It’s not that the Times thinks Jeong’s beliefs are beyond reproach: The Times thinks Jeong’s beliefs are irrelevant.
The online far right, true believers and trolls alike, has proven adept at repurposing the left’s ill-conceived terms, claims, and defenses and smearing them across social media’s bathroom walls. By providing a hackneyed, post hoc explanation of Jeong’s tweets, the Times may well keep her on staff, but in doing so it has blessed an infinitely versatile “radicalization of rhetoric” argument that the far right will be more than happy to add to its arsenal and employ more creatively than the left ever dreamed.
No matter that if you replaced “white” with “black” in any of Jeong’s tweets, she would not now work at The New York Times. This is true, yet unilluminating. And most would agree that Jeong’s statements about “white people” are not as harmful as if they were about a different race. But if you replaced “white” with “black” in all of Jeong’s tweets, she would be banned from Twitter, listed by so-called hate-watch non-profits, and employable only by tabloid smear rags. The far right dines out on these perceived asymmetries, and—this may be news to the left—online harassment doesn’t only flow downhill from Kekistan.
Disparaging others on the basis of race is a foolish act emblematic of a lazy mind and flawed thinking; venting that disparagement publicly reflects poor judgment and unprofessionalism. Neither the inscrutable contents of Sarah Jeong’s heart nor the difference between true belief and mere rhetoric changes that. (Imagine the candidates who were rejected for the position!)
I’m excited to read what Sarah Jeong writes for the Times. To land a cushy position in a prestigious media outlet despite a self-published bestiary of anti-white bigotry must be the mark of a rare talent indeed.
Or maybe “despite” isn’t the right word.