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Posted at 06:44 PM ET, 04/26/2012

Joel Ward, Monica Crowley and the Twitter cafeteria problem

It’s getting harder to be a casual bigot.

Once, you could be a racist, homophobic, sexist jerk in the privacy of your own home.

“Keep off his lawn,” your neighbors would whisper to their children, but they couldn’t stop you from talking.

You could go out bowling and use horrible, offensive words to refer to the people two lanes over who were managing solid strikes. You could yell rude, obscene things at the television when your favorite team lost. The awful words would echo in your apartment. But no one else would hear. In later years, maybe your children wouldn’t invite their fiancees to meet you, and you would sink into a lonely existence of penning irate letters to newspapers, but no one could stop you. It was your right. No one had to hear from you.

But now that we conduct all of our private conversations in public, it’s not so easy. Suddenly, remarks that used to scandalize your couch but otherwise affect no one are matters of public record.

It’s the Twitter cafeteria problem.

Twitter is a unique amplifier and silencer. It’s the giant cafeteria where everyone is talking only to their friends — until that awful moment when the whole room goes quiet.

We carry on so many of our relationships online that we forget that there is a public record of every chat with our friends, every bad joke, every good joke, every photo, every — well, everything. We conveniently forget this because the idea that we are conducting our most intimate interactions and making all of our corny jokes in view of the whole global town is absolutely paralyzing. But then something happens, and we remember.

Wednesday night and Thursday, we saw prime examples of it.

After Game 7 between the Bruins and Capitals, irate people took to Twitter to express — in horrible terms — their dissatisfaction that a black player had made the game-winning goal.

It became a national story. Many of those who tweeted horrible obscenities deleted their accounts.

And take another variant of the cafeteria problem: Fox commentator Monica Crowley’s remark about Sandra Fluke’s engagement. Crowley had the misfortune to think that responding to the news by asking “To a man?” was a joke.

Given that Fluke is an outspoken proponent of contraception, this doesn’t even make sense.

They’re both sides of the same coin. You’re preaching to your personal choir — until, suddenly, you aren’t.

One of the cardinal rules of joke-telling is to know your audience. Jokes that go over spectacularly at the Greater Peoria Association of People Who Giggle Noisily Any Time You Use the word ‘Stippling’ do less well at Caroline’s.

Crowley was accused of being homophobic and unfunny, unfunnily homophobic, homophobically unfunny, and the more she tweeted the worse it got.

“I love exposing the Left’s total lack of a sense of humor,” she tweeted shortly afterward.

Then someone suggested she was insinuating something, and she responded, “ ‘Insinuating’ nothing. Straightforward question. No answer yet.”

It’s a unique position to be able to say that what you tweeted was a great joke exposing the Left’s lack of humor and simultaneously a straightforward question that made no insinuations. But leave it to a cable commentator. Suddenly, #CrowleyJokes was the top trending topic, as everyone gathered around to poke fun.

But all this unnerves me a little.

Some people are jerks and idiots and fools and trolls. Some make unfunny jokes that are vaguely sexist or homophobic or racist. And for years, we knew this, and we responded by disinviting them from our cookouts and weddings.

But we couldn’t control what you said in private. Now you can — private is public.

Ninety-nine times out of 100, when you talk on Twitter or Facebook, you are preaching to your personal choir, the dozen or 200 people who Know You and Get You and will laugh at whatever you have collectively defined as humor. But it’s the hundredth time that’s the problem.

There are terrible people out there, no doubt, who would not hesitate to call Capitals player Joel Ward abominable things publicly, in front of the whole nation, if given the opportunity. But many people who have since shut down their accounts out of mortification or terror wouldn’t have. They just didn’t realize the cafeteria was about to go silent.

Maybe this is good. Maybe it will make us more civil. The fact that there are some words you shouldn’t say on the Internet might make us stop saying them at all.

But more likely is what happened to Crowley. She has a large enough following that you’d think she’d know better. Now we know that the people who follow her are the kind of people who think that insinuating — er, not insinuating, straightforwardly asking — that someone is gay is a High and Glorious Form of humor. I am not sure whether we are better off for this knowledge.

And Crowley didn’t seem to see it as a gaffe. She gleefully tweeted the responses to her comment, at least two of which were, predictably, irate and poorly expressed.

I’m going to call this the Crowley corollary to the Petri Law of Talking, which is that there is no remark so asinine that someone will not make a still stupider reply to it that can, if retweeted, garner you sympathy. “At least your unfunny joke didn’t include any rude language,” people say, tsk-ing.

It gets worse instead of better. We grow uncivil in the service of civility.

Call someone something bad, and someone else will call you something worse. Unless there is no worse word, in which case the entire commentariat will gather to shame you.

No one is listening until Everyone is.

The cafeteria goes silent, and you’re ashamed.

By  |  06:44 PM ET, 04/26/2012

 
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