On the Internet, the logic of road rage reigns supreme: Alone before your screen, without trusted friends and other social mediators to provide context or perspective, and with no relationship between yourself and the offender, vastly disproportionate responses to perceived slights begin to make sense. In daily life, you might respond to an obnoxious joke or snide remark with an eye-roll or a barb of your own, but online, the temptation to retaliate in much stronger terms looms.
Often — too often — it takes the form of campaigns to get people fired.
Last week, Vanity Fair released short video features of several of its staffers providing New Year's resolution ideas to various politicians, among them Hillary Clinton. Their suggestions for Clinton essentially amounted to don't run again. The tone of the video struck many, including our own Erik Wemple, as "snotty and condescending," and some felt the content of some suggestions (one writer quipped that Clinton should take up knitting, for instance) was sexist. Backlash came swiftly, Vanity Fair apologized, and an infuriated Twitter mob has been demanding that the editors and writers involved in the video be summarily fired ever since.
Firing the Vanity Fair staff responsible for the video wouldn't make the video go away, nor would it do anything for the candidate's low favorables. The urge to drive people who have said or done offensive things out of their jobs isn't about pragmatism; it's punitive, and remarkably unprincipled.
And it's common. When HuffPost reporter Ashley Feinberg tweeted a joke about Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) she herself later described as "glib and callous," there were similar calls for her firing on social media. Sometimes those kinds of campaigns are successful. Earlier this year, ultra right-wing Twitter personality Mike Cernovich dug up an old, off-color joke on writer Sam Seder's Twitter account, and used it to whip up an online frenzy that resulted in MSNBC terminating its relationship with Seder. The network ultimately reversed its decision, understanding that it had been misled by a right-wing smear. But demands to fire employees over mistakes or jokes or heedless remarks come from all over the political spectrum, as the Vanity Fair brouhaha indicates.
There are, no doubt, cases wherein employees ought to be fired pursuant to particular remarks — because of what their statements indicate about their fitness for their work. What sets those cases apart is that they're more than punitive; they provide a circumstance where letting an employee go has to do with protecting customers or business operations.
But there are good reasons to err on the side of caution, or to put it in stronger terms, not to tattle to people's employers, even when they make you extremely mad.
First, people who get fired after public outcry will have, well, Google problems. I know, I know: That's half the point, making sure everyone knows just how angry this person made others. But that kind of stigma can attach itself fairly permanently, making work hard to find in the future. If you have any kind of principled stance either for work (that is, that people ought to take care of themselves) or against poverty (that is, that a society as rich as ours should do everything it can to mitigate poverty), then intentionally inflicting unemployment on someone is very wrong.
Second, 49 percent of Americans receive their health coverage through their employers — and that includes spouses, children and other family members who rely on their policy bearer's insurance. It's possible, in some cases, to get on Medicaid when one's employee-sponsored health insurance goes away — but there are often gaps and difficulties in the process, and you never know what kind of treatment is being interrupted when health coverage abruptly disappears. Annoying online comments are bothersome, but I've never seen one that made me think, that guy's wife should have to pay for her chemo out of pocket.
Lastly, we live in an era wherein the social safety net is in serious danger: Republicans have vowed to attack health-care spending and other benefits in the new year, so it's not clear what of our meager supports for people who are out of work will remain for very long. That means that, for millions of Americans without, say, family money, their jobs are all that stand between them and real destitution.
On the road, when an anonymous jerk in another car some ways up the road cuts you off, all kinds of things suddenly seem reasonable: Maybe you tailgate them for a while, brake check them, swerve, shout obscenities, or worse. It's only when you survey the real, physical damage to your car or theirs or your body or theirs that you realize maybe an irritating driving maneuver wasn't worth getting this worked up after all. Online, you may never have to see the effects of your participation in a campaign against somebody else's job, but the next time you get upset online, keep this in mind: You're gonna be okay.