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Free Speech, The Onion & the Facebook Reaction to a Vile Tweet on Quvenzhané Wallis

Last night, as the Academy Awards was wrapping, a message on Twitter quickly began to circulate as people were outraged that The Onion, a satirical newspaper, had called 9-year-old Oscar-nominee Quvenzhané Wallis a “cunt.” The message about the star of Beasts of the Southern Wild was outrageous, but more outrageous was the fact that hundreds of people reading the tweet seemed to like it or find it funny.

This is the tweet:

One can see that it has 515 retweets and 412 favorites. I reacted to this message and said, “I don’t know what’s worse.” That she had been called something offensive or that four hundred or so people on Twitter seemed to “like” the tweet from The Onion.

Immediately, it was impressed upon me that “favoriting” a tweet is bookmarking. It means the person wants to come back to it. I thought that conflicted with what Twitter says about “favoriting.” On its website, it describes “favoriting” as something people do when they “like” a tweet. Four hundred people did not “bookmark” this to come back to later and be outraged.

The Onion apologized, as I think they should have done, and said, “I offer my personal apology to Quvenzhané Wallis and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences for the tweet that was circulated last night during the Oscars. It was crude and offensive—not to mention inconsistent with The Onion’s commitment to parody and satire, however biting.”

That was my criteria for being struck by the message. It used one of George Carlin’s Seven Dirty Words but was not satirical at all. Also, it used a 9-year-old African-American girl as a subject, someone powerless and undeserving of even an attempt at this kind of humor.

Now, I am struck by the reactions on Facebook. Many believe it was wrong for The Onion to apologize because they had a free speech right to say what they did:

Ninety-nine people liked a comment that said, “Never apologize for a joke.” Except, one could argue it was not a joke but an insult to a child.

There are numerous comments in the more than two thousand comments posted on The Onion‘s Facebook Wall praising The Onion for the apology, but the comments are at least split fifty-fifty with many saying the “joke” was “funny” and the PC or language police have won another victory against speech.

It does not interest me to see the writer of the tweet disciplined or fired. This is clearly a mistake. The writer should continue to be able to write for The Onion. However, one does wonder what the person was thinking when they typed the message and hit “Tweet.”

It very well could have been a merely a lazy joke, but The Onion could do a service if it explained in some way to the public that the issue is not free speech. The issue is the difference between humor that is purely insulting and humor that has actual wit.

Brothers in a fraternity or players on a sports team might call others any number of words typically viewed my most American adults as offensive or vulgar. They might laugh and they certainly are entitled to engage in this humor if they choose. However, it is almost always going to be at the expense of a person.

It is like comedian Daniel Tosh making rape jokes. A rape joke about a woman who was raped is offensive because that person was raped and that is an incredibly traumatic experience to go through. It is not that anyone wants to take away a person’s right to freedom of speech. The fact is, if it is not taking aim at the oppressor or person responsible for the rape, it will always be considered out-of-bounds.

Finally, there is a debate going on about this tweet, which is troubling. I admit I am feeding into it by posting about the message and apology, but this seemed like an opportunity to briefly consider common perceptions of free speech in America.

It reveals something sick about society that The Onion cannot make a classy apology and people just accept that is the right move. Furthermore, the extent to which people go on about free speech rights in defense of the tweet is remarkable given the fact there are actual profound ways free speech rights are violated in the United States and there is almost never this kind of response. Only when it appears someone’s right to be “edgy” is being taken away do people, particularly white males, step up to argue people should not be engaging in free speech and denouncing the content of what was said.

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Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola is managing editor of Shadowproof Press. He also produces and co-hosts the weekly podcast, "Unauthorized Disclosure."