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OpinionColumnistsCathy Young

Hate speech is not a cultural norm

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‘Oh man it’s kind of cruel how much joy I get out of being cruel to old white men.” That’s one of the many racially charged tweets that have gotten their author, Sarah Jeong, a tech writer and an incoming member of The New York Times editorial board, embroiled in a raging controversy over the last few days. The Jeong controversy raises many contentious issues, including how much people should be penalized for their Twitter trail. But at the center of the debate is a question whose relevance goes beyond Jeong and her career: Should hateful speech about white people be considered racist and stigmatized just as we stigmatize hate against other groups?

When screenshots of Jeong’s tweets, mainly from 2013 to 2015, began to circulate on conservative Twitter, many saw them as clear evidence of racism — or, as New York magazine columnist Andrew Sullivan wrote, “vicious hatred of an entire group of people based only on their skin color.” Jeong has explained them as a bad attempt to mock racist trolls who were targeting her as an Asian-American woman by responding in their own style — an explanation the Times has accepted for now, though there seems to be no evidence that the tweets were in response to trolls.

Meanwhile, many of Jeong’s supporters, such as New Republic writer Jeet Heer, argue that her tweets were satirizing anti-minority racism on the right. Some of the controversial tweets do seem to parody (caricatured) conservative views. Thus, one Jeong tweet Sullivan cited as especially hateful — “Are white people genetically disposed to burn faster in the sun, thus logically being only fit to live underground like groveling goblins” — was followed by “let’s debate” and was apparently a reference to Sullivan’s own suggestion that we should openly debate whether racial gaps in achievement are partly due to genetic differences in intelligence.

But many other Jeong tweets, such as an obscenity-laced comment about “white people marking up the internet with their opinions like dogs on fire hydrants,” don’t fit the “parody” mode. What they represent, as both Jeong’s defenders and detractors have noted, is a style popular among progressive activists and writers in recent years: performative white-bashing. Jabs at white people are seen as witty or righteously angry attacks on white supremacy.

It’s very likely Jeong’s tweets were, in fact, performative rather than an expression of actual hatred of white people or white men. But that doesn’t make them any less ugly — just as an alt-right troll’s racist or sexist tweets aren’t any less bigoted because he sees himself as fighting “political correctness” rather than being racist or sexist.

Is vitriol toward white people just as repugnant as bigotry toward blacks, Asians or Jews? One can certainly argue that the history of oppression and discrimination toward minority groups that were once openly treated as inferior or pernicious makes a difference. But white-bashing rhetoric, however ironically intended, still dehumanizes and demonizes an entire group. It doesn’t have to be “just as bad” as racism against minorities; it’s enough to recognize that it’s bad and morally wrong.

Such rhetoric can justify actual mistreatment of white people. In one of her tweets, Jeong dismissed the ordeal of public relations executive Justine Sacco, who was hounded out of her job and had to go into hiding for a while after her tweet mocking white privilege was misunderstood as racist. It is also very likely to provoke backlash, boost the right and even provide an excuse for alt-right racism.

The stigma against racial insults is a hard-won cultural norm. Let’s not erode it by adding an “except for white people” clause.

Cathy Young is a contributing editor to Reason magazine.