Lessons from the Sarah Jeong affair

Lessons from the Sarah Jeong affair August 22, 2018

As you may know by now Sarah Jeong is a controversial member of The New York Times (NYT) editorial board. She is controversial because of a series of her anti-white tweets that came out as the NYT hired her. The NYT hired her in spite of tweets which infuriated political conservatives. This story has made the rounds, and I do not want to repeat what others have said. But I think I can add some unique perspectives to this controversy.

It is pretty clear that the NYT would not have hired her if they found a series of anti-black tweets. The Sarah Jeong controversy indicates a good way to understand differences in how the left and the right envision issues of social justice. For the left, their perspective is that historical injustice has created such a degree of unfairness that it is not right to treat oppressed groups exactly the same as privileged groups. For the right, their perspective is that we have to ignore the past and treat everyone the same.

While some on the left defended Jeong while condemning the tweets, what seems to be more popular are leftists such as Zack Beauchamp and Libby Watson who argued that there was nothing wrong with the tweets. They argued that the privileged position of whites means that people of color are relatively free to insult them. Since people of color do not have the power that whites have, it is not the same as when whites insult people of color. They also contended that the previous harassment she had endured as an Asian-American woman and/or the tweets were merely satire.

While some on the right argue that Jeong should not be fired, there are voices such as Rich Lowry and Karl Notturno arguing that for the sake of fairness she should be fired. They point out that the NYT and other media outlets have fired non-leftists for their previous tweets or comments. They also contend that if we replace the word white with black, Jeong could not survive in her chosen profession.

So who is right and who is wrong? I think both sides are right and wrong. But more importantly, I think that both sides have missed the main point of what we need to do to deal with the problem of the historical effects of oppression. The solution to dealing with that historical oppression is not going to come from blindly empowering groups that have been oppressed or ignoring our history of oppression. I have written about this as it concerns racial issues in the past, but I think that other issues tied to social justice may benefit from my approach to social justice.

Let me simplify it this way. In a social justice issue you have a group that has been historically victimized and one that has been privileged. Ideally we are trying to create a society where none are victimized. We cannot merely allow those who have been victimized to do whatever they want. We may be sympathetic to them, but history is replete with examples of groups that were victims in one generation and oppressors in the next. Yet neither can we ignore the effect of historical oppression and simply impose a color blind reality that does not reflect our historical and current reality.

To move forward we are going to have to have an important conversation about what type of society we are going to have. It is a conversation that will be difficult and unfortunately not one we are engaging in today. To this end both the left and the right are wrong because they do not move us closer to that conversation. I want to use the Sarah Jeong episode to illustrate my argument.

What the Left gets Wrong

Those on the left who defend the comments of Jeong clearly argue that she should be treated differently than white men. They are correct in that her social situation is not the same as white men and that we should not expect the exact same requirements from her as we do from those white men. Her experience as an Asian-American woman can create a level of distrust that most white men will not experience. I think there is a level of grace we should extend to her and others from historically marginalized groups.

But what the Left gets wrong is its automatic defense of anything that speaks of anti-white sentiment. It is as if certain progressives believe that there is no limit to how abusive a person of color can be to a white individual. That attitude is quite dangerous. People who have been victimized do not become saints because of their victimization. In fact, sometimes because they have been victimized, they can become unnecessarily cruel to others. We all have heard of the man who abused women and was abused by his mother. He was truly a victim when he was a child, but that abuse empowered him to lash out against innocent women. The left’s propensity to provide cover for abusive behavior from groups that have been historically victimized should frighten us all.

We should be clear about the content of some of Jeong’s tweets. She tweeted about the joy of being cruel to old white men, that whites should become extinct and compared whites to dogs. A reasonable person does not respond to specific trolls with such dehumanizing comments about groups of individuals. It is wrong plain and simple. One can state such and still defend Jeong keeping her job.

Not only are such comments wrong, but they also coarsen our discourse and make it harder for us to find solutions that we can all accept. How do we expect whites to react to such comments? Do we really think that they will have some type of Kumbaya moment and realize their privileged position? Or is it most likely that those who already do not experience white guilt will merely harden their resistance to any suggestion by people of color since they will link those suggestions to anti-white bigotry? I think to ask these questions is to answer them.

I know that some progressives will say that we should not care what white people think. They are the oppressors right? We merely need to impose whatever “woke” solution of the day is out there as a matter of justice. Makes sense to me. Telling whites that their opinions do not matter has worked wonders in achieving an awareness of racial privilege. In fact, it has worked so well that we now have President Trump. Truly insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result.

What the Right gets Wrong.
But my critique of the left does not mean that I am in agreement with the right. Even those who argue that Jeong should keep her job tend to conflate the position of a person of color who comes from a historically disadvantaged position with the position of a majority group member. We simply cannot switch the words white and black and contend that we are seeing the same effect.

Perhaps I can illustrate this with the word “honky.” Basically honky is a term created by blacks to be derogatory towards whites. In some ways it was meant to be the equivalent of the n-word, only towards whites. But whereas I do not feel comfortable typing out the n word, the same is clearly not the case as it concerns honky. Why is that the case? It is because there is a long history of baggage and abuse tied to the n word that is missing when we talk about honky. Yes it is derogatory because it was meant to be derogatory. But it simply does not have the emotional impact of the n word due to the differing historical context from which the words have emerged. Exchanging white with black does not create an equivalent effect in our racial discourse any more than honky switching with the n word produces the same social impact.

We cannot assume that the same actions from people of color have the same meaning towards whites as they would have if whites did them towards people of color. This type of colorblind assertion is ahistorical in its approach. We have to go back to our victim analogy once again to see that when a person is victimized, then we do have to, for a time, treat them with kid gloves. Only by doing this can we help them work through their victimization.

I once worked in an office with a retired police chief. He told me that when he interviewed a rape victim, he was very careful to give her as much control as possible. She was someone who had just been in a situation where she had no control so he bent over backwards to allow her to feel control. I think his actions were appropriate Majority group members are going to have to realize that this is the sort of attitude that will be important in dealing with those who have suffered due to historical oppression.

While I am critical of the left for not holding people of color accountable to any reasonable degree, I am critical of the right for the insensitivity of telling a victim to “just get over it.” Likewise, just as on the left their approach has not fostered productive dialog, the right’s obsession to ignore our history produces an insensitivity to the concerns of people of color that makes productive conversation all but impossible. Thus we once again come back to my larger critique that both the left and right stifle, rather than further, important interracial communication.

Towards a better Approach?
While there are many potential criticisms of the approaches from the left and the right, I have focused in on the ways these approaches inhibit the needed interracial conversation we must have in this society if we are going to move from a victim-victimizer mentality to one where we heal our historical wounds. To do that we need to engage in a productive conversation that allows us to find solutions that are acceptable to both whites and non-whites. These solutions will not meet everyone’s needs but they will meet enough needs to allow us to live with those compromises.

We will only be able to live with those compromises if we have mutually discussed our problems together. Only if everyone has had a voice in creating the solutions will they be acceptable to multiple racial and interest groups. We will not be able to dictate some type of “woke” or “colorblind” solution to others. Only if those on all sides of these issues can reasonably feel like they have had a say in the discussion of a solution, will we be able to find solutions with a high degree of acceptance across racial groups.

In other places I have talked about the role of active listening as a solution to the tribalism we suffer from in the United States. I will not reiterate those arguments here, but clearly the approach of Jeong and her defenders as well as those seeking to get her fired do not indicate the traits of active listening. I suspect that if we had the sort of healthy communication we need that we would eventually create solutions that recognize that we cannot provide identical treatment for majority and minority group members but also protects against unfair retributions by minority group members. In other words, we can find solutions that no side gets everything, but we all get enough so that the solutions are sustainable.

So where I find Jeong’s comments most troublesome is the way they promote our social divide in an effort to provide some type of emotional relief for Jeong. If we want to move beyond the continual social conflict we have today then we must put aside our contempt for those with whom we disagree and instead listen to the concerns they have. All of our efforts should be towards establishing the type of communication that we need to repair our polarized society. Jeong’s failure to promote this effort is, in my opinion, her greatest failure in this whole episode.

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