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Andrew Leonard: Twitter brings out PC armies

Updated: April 2, 2013 6:25AM

Put aside, for a second, whether Oscars host Seth MacFarlane’s comedy routine last Sunday night revealed him as a sexist boor or just really unfunny. A more interesting question might be whether Twitter has evolved into a comic’s worst nightmare.

Funny or not, you will get called out on Twitter whenever you step over what anybody considers a politically incorrect line. That’s a tough crowd. Maybe too tough.

A case in point: With the Twitter masses already on edge after several hours of jokes about eating disorders, domestic abuse and boobs, MacFarlane angered an entirely new swath of Oscar-watchers when he said, “Well, we have finally reached the point in the ceremony where either Javier Bardem, Penelope Cruz or Salma Hayek comes onstage and we have no idea what they’re saying — but we don’t care because they’re so attractive.”

My objection to this joke was that it was lame. But a cross-section of Hispanics I follow on Twitter immediately labeled the “joke” borderline racist, and an angry mob well-primed to seize upon further outrages speedily retweeted their comments.

While the Hayek comments were still reverberating, Damien Cave, a reporter based in Mexico for the New York Times, observed in a tweet that “every joke that’s not PC causes an uproar. Funny or not, the humor policing is pretty intense tonight.”

My hackles rise whenever the words “political correctness” enter the discourse. It usually happens when legitimate complaints are being downplayed by whoever is getting critiqued for being racist or sexist or anti-Semitic or homophobic or whatever.

But Cave is on to something. The humor police were intense on Twitter Sunday night. In fact, they’re intense every night.

There are no free passes on Twitter. Every stumble, every perceived outrage, every moment of weakness or arrogance gets instant crowd-mob treatment. There’s never been a better megaphone for broadcasting mass sanctimony. Lashing out is just so easy.

At times during the Oscars, I got the feeling that all over the world, people were sitting at the edge of their couches, smartphones in hand, just waiting for MacFarlane to feed their rage so they could tweet about it. And as the evening went on, that dynamic fed on itself. I’m not saying MacFarlane didn’t deserve it: quite the opposite, he did everything but beg for it. But there was a madness-of-crowds aspect to the whole experience that made me glad I wasn’t in a place where I could get physically trampled.

Twitter gives equal access to every previously marginalized voice. That’s not a bad thing, of course. And it’s a lot of fun when we see things we like. But the very nature of Twitter rewards shoot-first-ask-questions-later instant reactions that fail to take account of, or purposefully ignore, any ameliorating context or nuance. Twitter opens the floodgates to release our collective, unfiltered id. Again, that’s a tough crowd.

But this thing where we watch an event in real time and share a conversation about it via social media is still new enough that we might not have realized some of its negative consequences. In our pre-Twitter past, we might have simply turned off the TV or switched channels once MacFarlane started singing his dumb song about boobs. But now we stay watching to share our hate! We seem to be more willing to rubberneck at car crashes when we are all doing it together. And it’s not just comics who are having a bad day who get the social media pillorying pile-on. We do it during presidential debates and while watching Super Bowl commercials and “Downton Abbey.”

Remember what your grandmother told you: “If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all”?

Those rules don’t apply to Twitter.

Andrew Leonard writes for Salon, where this was posted.

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