February 25, 2013

(Lucas Jackson/Reuters) How can I prevent this from coming up in your Google alerts?

Everything is broken: The Onion has apologized for something.

They tweeted “Everyone else seems afraid to say it, but that [nine-year-old Best Actress nominee] Quvenzhane Wallis is kind of a [expletive], right” before deleting the tweet an hour later. On Monday they apologized. 

At the very least, I think we’ve finally figured out where the line is!

If this was all a brilliant scheme to make their offensive tweet to the attention of many more people than might otherwise have seen it or given it thought, it has been very successful.

I am stuck in the uncomfortable counter-factual position where I wish they had not tweeted it in the first place but it’s unfortunate that the Onion has had to apologize for anything. It’s a no-win.

“It was crude and offensive—not to mention inconsistent with The Onion’s commitment to parody and satire, however biting,” the apology from CEO Steve Hannah noted. “No person should be subjected to such a senseless, humorless comment masquerading as satire. The tweet was taken down within an hour of publication. We have instituted new and tighter Twitter procedures to ensure that this kind of mistake does not occur again.”

It’s tough enough to be the Onion these days. Real life has the filthy habit of anticipating the Onion at every turn, forcing its writers to fall back on this sort of material in order to avoid accusations of cribbing from actual events.

My First Law of Talking states that anyone, given a microphone and sufficient time, will make a career-ending gaffe. But I always thought the Onion was exempt. They never withdraw anything. If they start apologizing, they’ll be stuck apologizing for months and months and months to everyone from God on down.

But on the other hand, that’s because The Onion is expected to know just how far to go without going too far. The Onion is usually pretty good at sorting out the difference between Things That Are Just Offensive To Be Offensive and Things That Are Offensive To Serve Some Larger Satirical Purpose. This was so offensive in so few words, with so little opportunity to make clear what it was aiming at, that it fell pretty soundly into the first category. I can see why they pulled it.

Still, there’s a limit? There is a line past which the Onion will not go? I suppose this is worth knowing, but it’s like learning that Santa does exist after Santa horribly insults a nine-year-old. It inspires mixed emotions. Before, we only suspected that there were lurking standards of taste and decency in there. We could guess at their existence, but we had no definite proof. In a way, this was better. In theory, the Onion could say anything, because we knew it was joking — well, except for those people on LiterallyUnbelievable. It would never be held accountable, because it was never in earnest.

This is not going to be a case of creeping standards of taste and decency, is it? All the people saying “I don’t care if it’s satire, NOBODY should be treated that way” worry me, just a little. Say something that everyone finds frankly beyond the pale, shame on you. Apologize, and the chipping can start. What about ten year-olds? What about eleven year-olds? It’s always good to have a buffer of tolerated bad satire, however abhorrent. It makes the world safe for good satire, from the Onion or wherever else it comes from.

The world is crazy enough. Having to take the Onion seriously, even for the length of an apology, is too much. So I wish they hadn’t tweeted it. If William Shatner really has control of that time machine, this is the only part of the evening he should go and fix.

Alexandra Petri writes the ComPost blog, offering a lighter take on the news and opinions of the day.