Our vulgar, new digital world

March 16, 2011

Michael Ignatieff’s “cotton-pickin’ minute” comment from last week never quite drew the outrage his political opponents hoped it would.

The Conservatives said it was a racist slur; the Liberals it came from Bugs Bunny. And we all laughed at how our politicians love to become theatrically offended to gain political points.

But a column about the issue by the National Post’s Kelly McParland unintentionally draws attention to how complicated the issue of offence really is today.

Replying to McParland’s piece, one anonymous commenter zeroed in on the fact the Conservative senator making the complaint against Ignatieff was black, and therefore not worthy of his post.

He wrote, for all the newspaper’s online readers to see, that “I think that we can safely assume that the fact that this man is “black” is very much the reason that he is in the Senate over other persons of equivalent ability and experience.”

It’s exactly the kind of bigoted comment that would never get anywhere near the letters to the editor page, but are posted daily in the anonymous comment fields of media outlets everywhere.

Never have we lived in such a hyper-sensitive time. But we’ve also never lived in a more off-the-cuff time, thanks to anonymous comment fields and social media such as Twitter.

Which complicates things quite a bit. We’ve never been more easily offended as a society, and it’s never been easier to offend.

Just ask the ad agency that lost the lucrative Chrysler account last week when one of their staffers tweeted “I find it ironic that Detroit is known as the Motor City and yet no one here knows how to f—g drive,” which appeared on the company’s Twitter account.

The staffer was, of course, immediately fired and Chrysler dropped the agency like an underperforming Dodge dealership.

On Tuesday, insurance giant Aflac fired Gilbert Gottfried, the American comedian who is the voice of the insurer’s famous quacking duck in all those silly commercials. Gottfried, who had been the voice of the duck since 2000, lost the job after tweeting a string of jokes about the earthquake and tsunami in Japan, basically mocking the disaster.

“I just split up with my girlfriend, but like the Japanese say, ‘They’ll be another one floating by any minute now,’ ” he tweeted Saturday.

Aflac, which does 75 per cent of its business in Japan, was not laughing.

Neither was New York University, which pulled Nir Rosen’s fellowship after the journalist tweeted gleefully about the sexual assault of TV reporter Lara Logan in Egypt last month.

“Lara Logan had to outdo Anderson,” Rosen tweeted, referring to the CNN correspondent, who was stripped of her clothes and beaten by a mob while covering the revolt.

Rosen said it would be funny if Anderson Cooper had also been sexually assaulted.

“Yes, yes it’s wrong what happened to her. Of course. I don’t support that. But it would have been funny if it happened to Anderson, too.”

On and on the list goes of people who have lost jobs, been forced to apologize and been dragged out into the virtual street for publishing stupid, offensive, spur of the moment things that they should have kept to themselves.

For newspapers and other media outlets, it’s still not clear how they should censor this vulgar, new digital world.

Leon Wieseltier, an editor at The New Republic, recently told the New York TimesMaureen Doyd that when he started his online book review he refused to allow comments. He didn’t want to give a forum to high-tech sociopaths, he said.

“I’m not interested in having the sewer appear on my site,” he told Dowd. “Why would I engage with people digitally whom I would never engage with actually? Why does the technology exonerate the kind of foul expression that you would not tolerate anywhere else?”

Good question.


Guelph Mercury, March 16, 2011

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