The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

In defense of Trevor Noah’s stupid, tasteless tweets

"Daily Show" correspondent and South African comedian Trevor Noah will replace Jon Stewart as the Comedy Central show's host. Here's a look at some highlights from his stand-up career and "Daily Show" appearances. (Video: Jorge Ribas/The Washington Post)

We’ve seen this cycle play out so many times now that it almost seems too run-of-the-mill to mention.

Step 1: An individual’s level of prominence suddenly increases exponentially.

Step 2: Internet spends hundreds of collective hours combing through his/her hundreds of social media posts.

Step 3: Internet inevitably finds one or two or five things that shouldn’t have been tweeted, selfied or Facebooked, sending Internet into a vortex of vindictiveness and outrage.

The latest subject (victim?) of this Internet outrage spiral is South African comedian Trevor Noah, who — as Comedy Central announced yesterday — will soon succeed Jon Stewart as host of “The Daily Show.”

[Why Comedy Central thought Trevor Noah was perfect for ‘The Daily Show’]

Noah has tweeted a grand total of 8,904 times since joining Twitter in June 2009; if you do the math on that, it means the comedian has been sending roughly four tweets per day since he was just a hair over 25 years old. Six of those 8,904 tweets — in other words, .067 percent of Noah’s total Twitter output — were offensive. Terribly offensive. I mean, let’s not gloss over this: They were terrible, stupid, ignorant, unfunny jokes about things like overweight women and Jews.

Regardless of whether you think these sorts of stereotypes and cheap shots are theoretically acceptable in comedy — let’s not forget that, even as the Noah controversy unfolded, Comedy Central was airing a fantastically nasty and racially tinged Justin Bieber roast — they’re not even good or clever or nuanced cheap shots. They are bad, stupid jokes. They have no redeeming quality.

And yet: six tweets, out of almost 9,000?! That’s not exactly a representative sample.

“We’re trying to define each other by the worst tweet we ever wrote,” Jon Ronson, the author of a new book on online shaming, recently told NPR’s Steve Inskeep. “We’re trying to see people’s tweets as like a kind of clue to their inherent evil, even though we know that’s not how human beings actually are.”

Because human beings are, in reality, flawed: prone to errors in judgment or youthful indiscretions or drunk texts/tweets/status updates they really never should have sent. A lot of people have made bad jokes in their 20s. The only difference now is that those jokes are memorialized forever on the Internet — and readily ripped out of their chronological context, and away from their intended audience, as contemporary proof of their sender’s bias or stupidity or ill intent.

Just last month, 31-year-old Jeb Bush aide Ethan Czahor faced a firestorm of criticism over jokes he made on Twitter, at age 25, about “sluts,” gay men at his gym and drunk-driving. At first, he deleted the old tweets — but within days, he resigned.

Last year, online vigilantes went after a lower-hanging target: a recent high school grad, Breanna, who took a smiling selfie at Auschwitz. (Missing from the loud and vicious debate that ensued: the fact that the photo was taken on the anniversary of Breanna’s father’s death, who had studied the history of the Holocaust with her.)

[The other side of the infamous ‘Auschwitz selfie’]

Ronson’s new book — whose mere existence is probably proof that the online shaming movement has gone way too far — documents many of its other, more dramatic casualties: like Lindsey Stone, who took a tasteless picture at Arlington Cemetery and later lost her job; or Justine Sacco, whose “one stupid tweet” enraged the online masses and eventually gave her depression, insomnia and PTSD.

The tweet, which involved AIDS and Africa, was intended to be a commentary on privilege — not an actual example of it. But Twitter, even when it recognizes those types of distinctions, is not keen on making them. After all, there’s no social capital to be won by defending an apparently racist or anti-Semitic tweet. But everybody wants to call out that misstep publicly, where the whole world can see how progressive and upstanding and right they are. It’s as much a performance of righteousness as comedy can, arguably, be a performance of (and thus an indictment on) racism or misogyny or other social ills.

“It wasn’t trolls who destroyed her,” Ronson said of Justine Sacco. “It was good people like us. It was nice people, empathetic people trying to do good … they’re more frightening, actually, than trolls.”

Incidentally, if the “normal people” currently piling on to Noah’s shamers had looked at his other 8,898 tweets, they may have formed a different impression of him: He’s concerned about apartheid and social justice and subverting prejudice and past wrongs through jokes. He’s tweeted, frequently and thoughtfully, about privilege and power and how comedy fits into the two.

“Some people like comedy until you make them think,” he tweeted in October 2012. “You laugh at Zuma jokes but can’t laugh at apartheid jokes? … How do you learn without remembering?”

Now there’s a different tweet pinned to the top of his Twitter feed: “Often, people who can do don’t because they’re afraid of what people [who] can’t do will say about them doing.”

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