Trevor Noah and the Never-Ending Cycle of Twitter Shame

In the Digital Era, a mistake is never just a mistake.

The thing about people is that they’re fallible; they do bad things, both intentionally and unintentionally. As we were all taught as children, people make mistakes.

The Internet, as we know, is less forgiving. And it makes discerning the offender’s intent a bit more of a dubious undertaking. Who knows if anyone’s lapse of judgement is really that or indicative of something more sinister in their character. Mistakes? Well, they become more than that. They become moments, and then they live beyond.

The latest example of this phenomenon, of course, is Trevor Noah, the comedian tapped by Comedy Central to replace long-standing host Jon Stewart on The Daily Show.

The announcement went out, and the process began: A Buzzfeed reporter rifled through Noah’s tweets, course du jour for intel on an emerging person of interest. As reported by several news outlets, Noah’s older tweets included several (really, awfully bad) jokes about overweight women, Jewish people, and more. Since then there have been numerous articles written condemning him and questioning whether he even has the comedic chops for the gig.

Comedy Central has stood by its man, and Noah has since offered the following via his Twitter account, “To reduce my views to a handful of jokes that didn’t land is not a true reflection of my character, nor my evolution as a comedian.”

Evolution is a central part of individual human development and most of people are fortunate to have it happen out of the scope of the private eye — no spotlight on our youthful indiscretions, lapses of personal judgment, and times when they are just plain crummy.

If the chorus of comments sections and tweeters are the jurors, then the ever-watchful eye of the cached search results, screengrabs and cellphone camera video technology are the courts. Hit-driven reports in this 24-hour news cycle are the prosecutors, making their case. So writes Jon Ronson in The New York Times in the piece, “How One Stupid Tweet Blew Up Justine Sacco’s Life”:

“In the early days of Twitter, I was a keen shamer. When newspaper columnists made racist or homophobic statements, I joined the pile-on. Sometimes I led it […] In those early days, the collective fury felt righteous, powerful and effective. It felt as if hierarchies were being dismantled, as if justice were being democratized.”

The dark side of that righteous democratization? Well, much as any person loves a redemption story, audiences love the drama of a fall from grace even more. Perhaps there’s something vindicating about reading about these news stories and feeling like we’d be “smart” enough not to do the same things. Or at least not be caught doing them. But it’s a dangerous cultural framework.

And it appears that it’s our new normal, though the practice itself maybe isn’t so new. The Internet has become the new venue for witch hunting, where the public watches people burn to prove their worthiness as members of our society. It’s the new Coliseum where the public waits to see if a Gladiator can emerge victorious from the very elaborate obstacles of public acceptance, public shaming, judgment and critique (however fair or nuanced it may be).

Sometimes they win. Sometimes they lose. But much like Salem’s stakes, the Internet engulfs a person’s life and reputation in the flames fanned by public opinion.

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