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Don’t Call a Harassed Writer a Neo-Nazi

Sarah Jeong's tweets pale before the astonishing insensitivity of her critics.

Members of the National Socialist Movement stand before burning swastikas in April 2018 in Georgia. (Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

Tech journalist Sarah Jeong, recently hired to the editorial board of The New York Times, became the target of venom and outrage Wednesday and Thursday after conservative outlets found and published collections of her old tweets, which contained complaints about white people. “Are white people genetically predisposed to burn faster in the sun, thus logically being only fit to live underground like groveling goblins?” read one tweet, published in a National Review article.

As of Thursday, Fox News, The New York Post, and The Daily Caller had all run stories that referred to Jeong’s tweets as “racist” either in headlines or in the body of an article. On Twitter, a number of right-wing writers took up the claim. Andrew Sullivan, writer at large for New York Magazine, shared a retweet of the post that started the furor, published at far-right pro-Trump website Gateway Pundit. At the American Conservative, Rod Dreher called Jeong a “honky-hater.” The Week’s Damon Linker called Jeong “a racist. A flagrant one--one whose views are indistinguishable at the level of principle from Richard Spencer’s. She just hates different groups.” Incredibly, Linker was not the only writer to invoke Spencer—a prominent white supremacist whose Third Reich salutes and imitations of Nuremberg rallies have made it clear he is in fact a neo-Nazi. “Richard Spencer is more subtle than this woman,” tweeted Geoffrey Ingersoll of The Daily Caller.

On Wednesday afternoon, the Times published a tepid defense of Jeong, saying she would keep her job. Jeong’s work, race and gender “made her a subject of frequent online harassment,” the Times wrote. “For a period of time she responded to that harassment by imitating the rhetoric of her harassers. She sees now that this approach only served to further the vitriol that we too often see on social media. She regrets it, and the Times does not condone it.”

For those intimately familiar with the sort of harassment women, non-binary people, and people of color face online, these episodes can be maddening to watch play out. Though defending Jeong, the Times did not explain why Jeong’s tweets were different, for example, from those of Quinn Norton, who lost her own new gig at Times in February over her friendship with a white supremacist, in addition to tweets containing racist and homophobic slurs. And as these controversies proliferate—another took place at The Atlantic in April, involving conservative writer Kevin D. Williamson—failing to advance a clear vision of what is and is not acceptable in public discourse only plays into conservative narratives about leftist hypocrisy, leaving many minorities as vulnerable as ever. 

To cite one example: At New York Magazine, Sullivan argued on Friday that “today’s political left” believes Jeong “definitionally cannot be racist, because she’s both a woman and a racial minority.” Instead, he declared, leftists believe “racism has nothing to do with a person’s willingness to pre-judge people by the color of their skin.”  But Sullivan’s straw man misses the entire point of the leftist argument: Racism is about prejudice, but it is also about power imbalance (a definition Sullivan himself rejects). Jeong might have imitated the tone of her harassers, but she did not imitate the substance of their vitriol, and that distinction is key. Jeong’s harassers subjected her to racist, misogynist hate speech; they punched down. Not only did Jeong punch up, she did so as a reaction to sustained abuse.

No reasonable person would entertain a comparison between a woman of color, who occasionally loses her temper at her trollers, and a neo-Nazi. That’s not because women of color are inherently sacred, as Andrew Sullivan’s caricature of leftist thought posits, but because they belong to a class subject to centuries of institutional violence and social marginalization. Jeong’s tweets are distinct from those of Quinn Norton, who lost her own new gig at the Times for tweeting homophobia and befriending the white supremacist hacker Andrew Alan Escher Auernheimer, known as “weev.” Jeong’s sentiments are similarly distinct from comments made by Kevin D. Williamson, who lost a job at The Atlantic for repeatedly suggesting that women who have abortions be hanged and comparing a black teen to a “primate” and “three-fifths-scale Snoop Dogg.” Abortion providers and patients are targets of real violence in the U.S.; abortion rights are really under threat, from individuals who believe much as Williamson does. White supremacists have murdered people. The Three-Fifths Compromise legally enshrined counting slaves as a fraction of a human. Jeong, meanwhile, cracked some jokes about a racial demographic that dominates her industry, the industry she covers, and the country she inhabits. Distinguishing between those situations isn’t an eccentricity exclusive to a mythical self-serving left: It’s the moral distinction behind an entire genre of literature. The word societies for centuries have used for punching up is satire. The word we generally use for punching down is bigotry.

Without telepathy, it’s impossible to know whether Jeong’s critics understand the gulf that separates her from writers like Norton and Williamson. But whether they understand it or not, the rhetoric they’ve deployed against her aligns all too well with the harassment that has driven her to vent in the first place.

I am far more aggressive on Twitter than I am in my offline life, where I rarely translate internal outrage to external reaction. I have over 36,000 Twitter followers—Jeong has over 69,000—and reading my mentions sometimes feels like holding out an arm for Cerberus to chew. In an average month, Twitter users call me everything from a hack to a whore. If I’m lucky, the comments are random. If I’m unlucky, the comments are part of a wave of similar comments, and that wave can last for days. Surrounded by misogynist abuse intended to silence, I often feel like I have no choice but to shout—much as it seems Jeong did. It’s fair to argue whether venting is the wisest or most effective response, but it’s certainly an understandable one. It may not stop the bigotry, but nothing else does, either.

Human beings write those tweets. They log off and walk in the world beside me. Their opinions do not exist only on the Internet, suspended in amber. Opinions are animating forces. They inform law and policy, and influence interpersonal violence. When a person hates you, when they think you should be punished for what you are or what you believe, manners won’t protect you. You can’t compromise with people who think you shouldn’t be—and who demographically hold the wealth and political clout necessary to codify such beliefs.

The morning after a gunman killed five journalists in Maryland, I walked into a police station to report an emailed threat. It wasn’t graphic, as threats go, just pointed. Whoever wrote it wanted to put me in my place, and that place is silence. For me and for so many other writers who are women or non-binary or people of color, threats exist on the same continuum as harassment and bad-faith interpretations of a person’s statements and work: Whether or not this was their conscious goal, the conservative attacks on Jeong work toward the same end as the troll harassment she lashed out against—to force our departure from the public sphere.

Right-wing writers, even ones who have lost jobs over printed bigotry, do not face anything like the same obstacles. Williamson still places regular bylines, even if they are not at The Atlantic. Damon Linker will probably face no repercussions for comparing Jeong to a neo-Nazi. The American Conservative still employs Dreher, who praised Hungary’s anti-Semitic prime minister with an unequivocal defense of blood-and-soil nationalism hours before calling Jeong a “honky-hater.”

The lines that separate Jeong from a writer like Williamson map onto differences in power, and these are distinctions her critics choose to ignore, comparing a joke at power’s expense to a political philosophy directly responsible for violence, intimidation, and death. The effect of this false equivalence is to shift the so-called Overton window of acceptable political discourse rightward: if you want The New York Times to employ Jeong, these critics insist, the price is to accept open advocacy of white nationalism, hangings for abortion, and more. And by stripping racism of any meaning associated with structural injustice, they absolve themselves of any possible complicity in systemic oppression.

Jeong’s jokes are an affront to many. But they are jokes, launched against a sea of abuse from people who look a lot like those who think she deserves to be fired.