Today's day in Twitter started off nonsensically enough.
The latest fashionable thing, apparently, is to throw a party when someone is taken down a peg, so the twitterverse—not hung over enough from the #KimExposedTaylorParty—took the liberty of hosting a #JustinDeactivatedParty after Justin Bieber deleted his Instagram account, the result of too much shade directed at his maybe-girlfriend Sofia Richie, coupled with the fallout from him trading jabs and cheating accusations with ex Selena Gomez.
Gomez owned up to her end, captioning a Snapchat pic of nothing [literally, just a black screen], "What I said was selfish and pointless." Presumably she meant the part where she dredged up the past, because we see no reason why she had to apologize for suggesting that Bieber not tangle with his fans, whom he threatened with Instagram exile in response to their Richie comments.
(Can we all agree that true fans don't smear their faves' significant others? Publicly, in writing, at least?)
But the tables turn on Twitter with whiplash speed like that all the time. One day's Internet darling is the next day's celeb being set out to drift on an ice floe.
The animosity that seemingly came out of nowhere in response to the Taylor Swift-Calvin Harris, and then Taylor Swift-Kimye, hullabaloo truly opened our eyes to how the virtual peanut gallery is loyal to quite literally no one.
Even the Olympics, the grandest show of togetherness the world can manage these days, had a social media pariah in gymnast Gabby Douglas, whose facial expressions and body language just weren't up to snuff in the eyes of Internet trolls—as well as plenty of legit people who totally missed the mark on this one—who questioned her patriotism and, in more disturbing tweets, the nature of her upbringing.
The silver lining is that this sort of nastiness does have a habit of rallying the generous, the open-minded and the sane to the defense of a person who didn't do anything wrong. Not that Bieber and Douglas' situations are remotely similar, but they're both examples of how the court of Twitter opinion never passes up an opportunity to try and convict.
Which brings our attention to this, on a much more serious note:
Ellen DeGeneres posted this tweet yesterday: "This is how I'm running errands from now on. #Rio2016." Along with the caption was a Photoshopped pic of DeGeneres, in athletic wear, riding piggyback on Usain Bolt, who on Sunday had just won his third straight Olympic gold medal in the men's 100 meters, once again securing his title as the fastest man in the world.
It's still up on her account, an indicator that the Ellen host stands by her seemingly LOL-worthy photo. Today, however, DeGeneres also tweeted: "I'm highly aware of the racism that exists in our country. It is the farthest thing from who I am."
She wrote that in response to comments on the meme such as "Dear @TheEllenShow: Whatever intern thought this tweet was a good idea should be fired. Immediately." "@TheEllenShow despite its intentions this pic has ugly connotations comin from a rich white lady." "@TheEllenShow You thought it'd be funny to post a pic of yourself riding on the back of a Black man? Nope. Delete this racist garbage." "@TheEllenShow @usainbolt So riding on his back like a mule, a horse as some form of property is fun to you... Ok."
Those comments in turn prompted others who replied with the likes of: "@handymayhem @TheEllenShow @usainbolt Some people don't understand comedy. This will undoubtedly be called racist by social justice morons." "@MikeAllen_47 @HumbleTeej @TheEllenShow damn you sensitive, it's only racist if you see it that way." And then a lengthy exchange after someone who appeared to be a white woman wrote, "honestly this is offensive."
"@TrilogyEBK @JazzleDazzler @TheEllenShow white people get offended for black people way too much on here," replied one guy. Added another, "@JazzleDazzler @jacklovesderay @TrilogyEBK @TheEllenShow as if people of color aren't capable of a) handling a joke or...b) capable of defending themselves and responding on their own...Congrats on embracing the 'white man's burden' and taking offense for them."
All right. (Let's put aside for a moment that Bolt, who's been a guest on Ellen before, retweeted the photo and it has 28,000 retweets and 68,000 likes (the majority of them, we can only pray, from people who appreciated the humor and not by tickled racists).
So what we have here are many people who, if not exactly calling Ellen racist (though some did that, too), thought the depiction of her on Bolt's back was racist, as if she were treating this black man like an animal.
Then there are the commenters who slammed those commenters for being oversensitive. And then there was the guy who got the joke but slammed the "social justice morons" who would call it racist. And then there was the exchange in which someone was advised to stay in her lane.
Patrick Smith/Getty Images
While not everyone was angered in the same way, there was plenty of anger—from those who saw that photo and saw something hurtful in it and from those who just couldn't wait to roll their eyes at those who called foul.
For all intents and purposes—and intent and purpose do matter—this picture isn't racist.
The joke is rather transparent. He's the fastest guy in the world, she'll get from here to there faster riding his coattails than she would by any other mode of transport. Riding piggyback is a pretty universal thing. It also helps that the person telling the joke is Ellen DeGeneres, a comedian who's also an advocate for social justice issues and one of the most-watched daytime talk show hosts in America.
Of course, intent and purpose aside, jokes, memes, etc. have certainly been known to go awry, with whoever did the telling or the posting having missed what could offend.
After seeing her clarification before I saw the photo, I scrolled down, steeling myself for the worst. For a slight that maybe wasn't obvious, but could be there, to be seen by others who know far better about certain issues than myself. But it just wasn't there—unless you were determined to find something negative.
The issue that critics have with the picture stems from a disturbing historical trope, a horrific trope, but the trope isn't actually present here. It's been inserted into the conversation. The fact that Ellen didn't mean anything by this post and nothing is actually occurring in that picture should matter. Finding it funny or at least not being particularly offended by it is not, in this case, a result of lowered standards, or the expectation that there's racism and stereotypes lurking in all comedy, or the sad acceptance that everyone's a little bit racist, as Avenue Q reminded us.
If given the chance, we could all read something into everything. Everything could be picked apart. Have you ever been having a bad day and some guy saying hello makes you want to punch him in the face? Everything, when given the chance, could be concealing an unsavory historical connotation, an offensive undertone, a hidden meaning. About race, about religion, about gender, class, violence, sexuality, politics, sexual politics. You name it. The list of what each individual human has been affected by in life and what sways their emotions is infinite.
Oh, and plenty of at-large forces really are, in fact, trying to stoke all those very real fires.
Meanwhile, Twitter and like-minded sites have been doing their best to give us an opportunity to make big deals out of everything. Just because something doesn't trend doesn't mean it isn't being picked apart—even if just by one person—in some corner of the Internet. And that's why it's so important to not make everything a battle, to pick fights that don't have to be there. We can't give up on having feelings and opinions and visceral reactions to whatever we want, but not every single thing that upsets us is indeed representative of what's wrong with the world.
There are plenty of reasons to get mad every day. That doesn't mean we need to pounce on all of them.