Last spring, when I was considering coming to work for The Washington Post, I sat down with one of the paper’s senior editors for an important conversation. “Before I can accept your offer,” I said, “I need to lay out every truly egregious thing I’ve ever written. I want to make sure that you’re not surprised when the mob starts demanding you fire me.”
The various writings I laid out were old, some of them stretching back to my early blogging days in 2002. All of them have been richly regretted, and apologized for, in the intervening years. But I knew that if I went to work for The Post, they would once again be thrown at me, and I wanted to make sure my prospective employer knew what it was getting into.
These sorts of conversations are becoming necessary as social media develops into a sort of freelance surveillance state. Ostensibly, the mob is shocked to find that some public figure has said something regrettable. In truth, their ire long preceded the discovery of the offense, and they are overjoyed to have found a weapon that might destroy their hated enemy.
Movie writer and director James Gunn is the latest victim of this tactic. He was fired July 20 from the “Guardians of the Galaxy” franchise after alt-right provocateur Mike Cernovich uncovered years-old tweets from Gunn joking about rape and pedophilia. The Gunn revelations are being cast in some quarters as revenge for his approving comments two months ago about ABC’s firing of Roseanne Barr, a Trump supporter, for her online transgressions. In the wilds of social media, left-wing partisans are undoubtedly doing some finger-stretching exercises as they rev up their keyboards to avenge Gunn.
Before Twitter is hopelessly fouled by all the rotting corpses of once-glittering careers, maybe everyone on the platform who has ever tweeted something they regret should confess now and get it out of the way. And then see whether we can’t agree on some sort of statute of limitations for offensive Internettery.
Among other reasons, statutes of limitations exist to fulfill the deep human need for predictability — to let us get on with life instead of constantly looking over our shoulder to see if our past is catching up with us. And in the increasingly partisan world of social media, that need is becoming particularly acute.
We’re in a liminal moment between old and new social norms, and with the cultural landscape so unstable, positions that used to be easily defensible often turn into unexpected death traps. Much of this represents progress, of course. But there are good reasons that decent societies ban ex post facto laws; for those same reasons, culture warriors should offer amnesty to anyone who is guilty of saying things that were not beyond the pale at the time they said them.
But because technology is evolving nearly as fast as the cultural landscape, we should also offer grace even to utterances that were outrageous at the time. Emergent communications technologies are often first used informally, by early adopters who treat them as a sort of extended private space. In that space, they talk as they would among friends, not for public consumption.
Naturally, people should not say horrible things to their friends, but, naturally, people do — mostly as jokes, occasionally as thought experiments they later think the better of.
“People who drive the speed limit in the left-hand lane,” a solemnly drunken banker once told me, “should be shot.” Obviously, he was not serious. As a deadpan joke in a cozy bar, it was moderately funny; as a newspaper op-ed it would be sociopathic. Most of us understand the difference. But we should show some mercy to those early adopters who didn’t realize that blogs or social media would end up being more like a newspaper than a bar stool.
We don’t have a statute of limitations for murder, of course, and I’m not advocating a blanket amnesty for heinous offenses. Someone who spent a decade advocating, say, white supremacy should have to display sincere repentance and a history of good works before being excused. But people who merely made dumb jokes should be offered the chance to apologize, and to start with a clean slate, rather than seeing their lives wrecked over ephemeral missteps. Few of us are the sort of relentless prig who has never made an off-color suggestion even in jest. Which means that few of us can survive in a world that refuses to let the dead past stay buried.
Megan McArdle is a columnist with The Washington Post.