The other day, Ellie Kemper, the award-winning star of "The Office" and "Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt," became the latest target of an internet mobbing over a bogus accusation of bigotry. A casual Twitter comment snowballed into claims that the actress was once elected beauty queen at a social event with Ku Klux Klan ties. After a day of online furor and "KKK princess" gibes, the story was debunked; yet Kemper still ended up apologizing for her "privilege." The season of the witch-hunt continues apace.
The Kemper brouhaha shows how scarily easy it is to start a smear. This one started with a Twitter user’s offhand reference to the Veiled Prophet Ball, a St. Louis, Missouri event, linking it to the Ku Klux Klan and noting that Kemper was once its "Queen of Love and Beauty." Soon, the outrage cycle was off and running, and Kemper was being bashed as a racist.
Several articles that examined the controversy noted that, while the ball was rooted in elitist traditions and was held by a once all-white community organization, it had nothing to do with the KKK. Moreover, by the time Kemper participated in 1999, at the age of 19, it had been racially integrated for 20 years.
After several days, Kemper posted a statement on Instagram acknowledging the "racist, sexist, and elitist past" of the organization that held the ball, blaming herself for failing to learn about this history, saying, "Ignorance is no excuse." Stating her strong support for racial equality as well as for the values of "kindness, integrity, and inclusiveness," Kemper asserted that since the criticism toward her came from people who embrace those values, she had to see it "in a positive light." She also acknowledged being a privileged beneficiary of an unjust system and apologized to those she had disappointed.
But some of us are disappointed in the apology, whether it’s a sincere expression of Kemper’s feelings or a reputation-saving move.
Yes, taking responsibility for one’s mistakes is a good thing. But to suggest that a teenager should be blamed for not researching the history of a mainstream debutante ball is to perpetuate a disturbingly judgmental culture. What’s more, Kemper lets people off the hook for circulating an absurdly exaggerated version of her faux pas without bothering to learn the facts (talk about ignorance!). There is very little "integrity" or "kindness" in the actions of the online mob.
Such "offense archaeology" — digging up newly controversial comments or actions from the past — has become depressingly common. A few months ago, "Bachelor" contestant Rachael Kirkconnell was trashed online after photos surfaced showing her at a "plantation-themed’ college party in 2018 — the "plantation theme" being Southern period ball gowns. Amid the outcry, "Bachelor" host Chris Harrison was pressured into indefinite leave for suggesting Kirkconnell deserved some "grace."
In an era of rapidly changing cultural norms, this is an alarming trend. How long before people with mainstream liberal views start getting "canceled" or browbeaten into abject apologies for, say, being involved with the Salvation Army, which has a "problematic" history with regard to gay and transgender issues?
Kemper concluded her Instagram apology by promising to work for "the better society I think we’re capable of becoming." That’s a worthy goal, and moving forward from racial, religious and gender-based prejudice is certainly part of that process. But we don’t get to a better society by smearing and shaming people for trivial, long-ago transgressions against society’s evolving rules.
Cathy Young is a contributing editor at Reason magazine.