My response to Kathy Griffin’s recent tasteless, terrible, offensive photo of President Trump was immediate and visceral. The comedian, who was seen holding a prop of Trump’s bloody head, deserved to be called out in only the strongest of terms, and I was glad to see people from all political sides quickly taking to social media to join that call.
Like clockwork, Griffin issued an apology, and like clockwork, I clicked on the video expecting to roll my eyes at a celebrity clearly carrying out her agent’s wishes.
But I was taken back by what I saw — a genuine apology. “I crossed the line.” “I went way too far.” “The image is too disturbing.” “I ask your forgiveness.” “I beg for your forgiveness.”
Of course, it’s impossible to know Griffin’s intentions. But I feel compelled to give her the benefit of the doubt because of the gravity of the words she used. She owned up to her lapse in judgment and didn’t try to justify — even slightly — the mistake.
Some people, like me, said she deserved forgiveness. Others called for the Secret Service to launch an investigation. Plenty of people took a position somewhere in between: She shouldn’t go to jail, but she shouldn’t be allowed to be on television ever again. (Griffin, who co-hosted a New Year’s Eve show with CNN’s Anderson Cooper, has been fired by the network.)
When it comes to attempts at humor, Griffin’s photo might be in a class of its own, but the swift backlash to it was pretty standard social media stuff. Every day we rake people over the coals for misspeaking or making a joke that doesn’t land or using a word we’ve recently decided is gauche. I imagine a good 20 percent of Twitter traffic to be a variation on “Look at this terrible thing this person once did!” Some media outlets even seem to have whole teams of writers devoted to the beat. “Remember when she said this? Remember when he did that? Maybe he’s tweeting this now, but let’s not forget what he tweeted back in 2009!”
But what if we did just … forget the terrible thing? What would happen?
Granted, it’s important to hold power to account, and a good deal of that involves pointing out when powerful figures are lacking the consistency they claim to possess. But when we consider the rabid glee with which we take to social media to point out people’s mistakes, it’s probably wise to take a moment to reflect on the kinds of Internet dwellers we’re becoming.
No doubt a large part of it has to do with the infinite memory of the Internet. We don’t forget things in the 21st century because our technologies don’t allow us to. But this might not be good for humans. In “Delete: The Virtue of Forgetting in the Digital Age,” Viktor Mayer-Schonberger argues that forgetfulness is an important attribute for humans to cultivate because it allows us to “act in time, cognizant of, but not shackled by the past.” When we forget, we “live and act firmly in the present.”
It’s worth pointing out that we do choose to forget sometimes — when it’s in our best interests to do so. I often find myself scrolling through Facebook’s memory feature, and sometimes I’ll come across a post I wrote that I no longer agree with, so I delete it. Or, if I agree with the point, maybe I don’t think I worded myself as properly as I should have, so I delete it. Some of my posts — especially those from my younger days — embarrass me, so I delete them. And I’m sure I’m not the only one who does this. We all have regrets, and when we’re given the opportunity to blot them out from public memory, we jump on it.
Shouldn’t that make us want to deal with other people on social media more gently? Griffin can’t be the first person to make an irresponsible joke about the president’s death on Twitter — she’s just one who got caught. To be fair, Griffin took heat because she’s a prominent person, but when we recall that we’ve shamed plenty of non-celebrities on social media — recall, for example, Justine Sacco, a woman whose off-color AIDS joke cost her her job — it seems pretty clear that the instinct to devour someone on Twitter has to do with more than simply her level of fame.
C.S. Lewis once pointed out our memory double standard in an essay on forgiveness. When it comes to our own mistakes, he said, we accept our excuses far too easily. When it comes to the mistakes of others, we don’t accept them nearly as quickly or fully as we should. Of course, Lewis was a Christian, and this essay speaks to fellow Christians. As he notes, forgiveness is a nonnegotiable command for those who follow Jesus; in fact, their own forgiveness is offered to them only on the condition that they forgive other people. But Christians don’t own a monopoly on forgiveness, a universal principle that humans have long idealized.
For Lewis, forgiveness requires us to take care to notice “everything which may show that the other man was not so much to blame as we thought.” (For example, in Griffin’s case, the context to understand includes: She’s a comedian; she tries desperately to shock people; she hosted Joan Rivers’s Roast.) In other words, let’s bring back the benefit of the doubt, and let’s bring it back in the one place that profits from its absence: social media.
But meeting this challenge will require us to settle for a lot less “Remember this?!” outrage porn. In fact, we should create a new version of the “Remember this?!” game: Every time we feel inclined to shame or destroy another human by publicly airing her mistakes, we should remember how secretly terrible we’ve been — that time during a game of Cards Against Humanity, that time when that driver cut us off, that time we tried out that Black/White/Asian joke after class and no one got it, that time we bragged about how shooting people dead in the middle of Fifth Avenue wouldn’t lose us voters. …
Digital technologies are shaping and changing our vocabularies, and this is no less true for the word “forgiveness.” How should we see forgiveness on social media, where much of our lives are increasingly lived? I don’t think it should mean that our public mistakes shouldn’t carry public consequences. (For the record, CNN was probably right to punish Griffin.) But we need a broader conversation about how we define digital forgiveness, since it will come to define the techno-sapiens we become in the next era.
In an age where we are all one tweet away from destroying our careers or ruining our reputations, we should embark on social media shaming with great fear and trembling.
There but for the grace of God tweet I.
Brandon Ambrosino is a writer living in Delaware.