The New York Times Shouldn't Fire Sarah Jeong for Racist Tweets About White People

Call out hypocrisy, but don't join the lynch mob.


Screenshot via Youtube

Another day, another attempt to get somebody fired over offensive tweets. This time the target is Sarah Jeong, a journalist who recently joined the editorial board of The New York Times.

Jeong, an expert on tech policy and internet culture, is the author of The Internet of Garbage, a book about online harassment. Yet Jeong, who was born in South Korea, has a habit of tweeting disparaging things about white people. "Dumbass fucking white people marking up the internet with their opinions like dogs pissing on fire hydrants," she wrote in November 2014. "#CancelWhitePeople," she hashtagged around the same time. "It's kind of sick how much joy I get out of being cruel to old white men," she tweeted a couple months earlier.

I strenuously objected to Disney's firing of Guardians of the Galaxy director James Gunn over his offensive tweets about pedophilia. Gunn was obviously joking; he was trying to provoke or amuse, not communicating something he actually believed. Similarly, Jeong claims her statements were satire. She was responding to harassing tweets she had received by mimicking their tone and structure and substituting "white people" for whatever slur the trolls had directed at her. This was not an especially wise course of action, and it's one she regrets.

The New York Times addressed the controversy in a statement on Thursday:

That ought to be enough. A culture in which people are allowed to seek forgiveness, grow, and go on with their lives without losing their jobs is vastly preferable to one in which armies of trolls are constantly hunting for that one career-ending tweet, statement, or association.

One wonders, however, why Jeong is allowed to come out of this unscathed when the same dispensation was not granted to Quinn Norton, who was asked to join the New York Times editorial board as a tech specialist last February and fired immediately after her ill-advised tweets were publicized. Norton had used an anti-black slur and an anti-gay slur (she claimed she belongs to the LGBT community, so this was in-group usage), and she was friends with the alt-right hacker weev (she claimed she did not share his pro-Nazi views and hoped she could persuade him to abandon them). When these facts came to light, The New York Times and Norton went their separate ways.

Part of the problem here is that people with a special expertise in technology policy are likely to have spent a lot of time on social media, and the more time one spends on social media, the greater the opportunity to say something career-ending. Again, I don't think anyone is solely defined by their worst moment or stupidest opinion, and both Jeong and Norton probably have much of value to contribute. The same goes for Kevin Williamson (speedily dumped by The Atlantic for some offensive comments about women who have abortions) and Ben Shapiro (rejected as a plausible candidate for "reasonable conservative that liberals should pay attention to," in part because of some gross and juvenile statements he made, some of which he has renounced).

I'm tempted to think there's a pretty fundamental reason that Jeong weathered the storm, while Norton and Williamson drowned at sea. Norton and Williamson committed thought crimes against intersectional progressivism. But "white people" are not an exploited category, according to the kind of thinking popular on college campuses these days, and many leftists therefore do not think it is wrong to malign them. Calling out this hypocrisy is a worthwhile exercise; supporting the lynch mob against Jeong is not.

One could certainly make the argument that woke anti-whiteness is an important strand of leftist thought that deserves representation at The New York Times. Bad opinions, after all, should be grappled with and argued against. Unfortunately, Jeong's job at the Times will consist of researching and writing the paper's unsigned editorials. That means we won't see her byline, and it will be harder to directly contend with the views she holds. Instead, they will be subtly influencing the paper in ways that are difficult to parse. But that's an argument for getting rid of unsigned editorials, not an argument for getting rid of Jeong.