Should A 5-Year-Old Problematic Tweet Get You Fired?

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rekha sharma and ankhi das in the foreground, with a jailed tweet on a phone in the background against a backdrop of newspapers
6 min read

For the first time, internet history stretches back far enough for records to be created. And the problematic words and thoughts of the past have raised a strange new ethical question: can you be represented by problematic things you said a long time ago?

Rekha Sharma, the chairperson of the National Women’s Commissions, found herself in hot water recently when it came out that she had made bigoted, sexist tweets some years ago. 

#SackRekhaSharma has been trending ever since, and a plea in the Bombay High Court seeks her removal from her position. The call for Sharma’s boycott is not so different from similar demands finding mics across the world. Since June, the call to get ‘Karens’ fired has been making the rounds on American twitter. 

Ankhi Das, Facebook India’s public policy head, has also recently stepped down after being accused of political bias. Although she has put it out that she has quit to pursue public service, it is clear that the move has to do with her having allegedly ignored the platform’s hate speech policies in favour of the ruling BJP party.

Let’s backtrack a bit though, and confess: Facebook’s archive feature is one that usually amounts to botheration. 

Whether it’s reviving atrociously written status updates or photographic evidence of the follies of youth; the recollection of pre-pubescent self or drunken early 20s is bound to elicit a shudder or two.

But Facebook memories can also allow something more troubling to float back up to the surface from the near and distant past — it can remind you of how you used to think of others.

The cringing at the self has been a long-standing tradition of growing up, but watching your understanding of other people, other communities and other identities play out so viscerally can be… tough. Both for you, and for others.

And with the casual manner in which internet sleuths dig up old tweets, likes and comments for their ‘XYZ is cancelled parties’, it can enter a moral grey area that is hard to make black or white of.

In this article, I want to explore the ethical question of whether having the wrong idea many, many years ago is grounds for having your life upended in the present.

Back When I Could Be Canceled

In 2013, I was many things. 18 years old. Brash, underconfident, trying to fit in. A fledgling ally to the LGBTQIA+ community. And also the kind of person who was using the word ‘gay’ in a derogatory way.

A kind college friend pointed it out, in the nicest and gentlest way possible. And honestly, the moment she explained why, I just dropped it from my vocabulary.

It was that simple. And honestly, it’s been 7 years since then, and I have never, ever used the word ‘gay’ like that again. In fact, I wouldn’t be caught dead using it. And it’s the same with any other slur, or socio-cultural concept. If I find out it is wrong, I will make the effort to change my thinking. 

So, chancellor canceler of the people’s board of internet justice, should I be fired for something I did, but claim I do not do any longer, 7 years on?

Back When I Used To Cancel

Despite having had a kind person gently nudge me into changing my thought process, I have not been so kind to others who have done the same thing I did.

I have previously written about how I used to be a toxic person, and how I changed that. You can read about that here.

But to sum it up: I was the kind of person who would lean heavily on cancel culture, rendering it interchangeable with my ideas of justice. The right thing for me was to pillory the individual who was ignorant, and that would apparently help us as a society. Right? Wrong! 

Which is why, in this article, I will start discussions around the following:

  1. Why is our idea of justice retributive?
  2. Can canceling help the larger movement for justice?
  3. Are companies liable for the problematic things their employees say?

Why Is Our Idea Of Justice Retributive?

In her videos Canceling and Justice (Part 1), YouTuber and socio-political commentator Natalie Wynn (aka Contrapoints) discusses everything I want to say in vivid detail with better examples.

The first video, I will discuss later on. But in the second, Wynn explores ideas of retributive justice, and how we use it as a singular form of justice as our ethical foundation. 

Via InsideHook

As soon as old problematic social media posts show up, there is almost always a call for the person involved to get fired. And I am not entirely given to the whole ‘let the authorities handle it’ thing either, don’t worry.

But holding someone accountable is very different from destroying their source of livelihood. As Wynn shows, through the example of the Reddit board Justice Served, people find a dark sort of satisfaction in running people into the ground; no matter where they stand on the political spectrum.

Those who lean right will happily watch videos of ‘snowflake liberals’ getting ‘owned’, or snigger behind their palms as one more feminist discussing video games gets doxed. Those who lean left will write tweet after tweet about how they hope this racist ‘rots’ in jail, or that misogynist ‘suffers’ for the rest of their life. 

And despite the desire to change the status quo, even the left wingers won’t say: “This person has said/done something terrible, I hope we can find a way to educate them about the way they think so that they change their mindset and not repeat those things.”

(Continue reading below.)

And I mean it when I say this soft approach matters when it comes to microaggressions and casual problematic stuff. 

It obviously doesn’t work in the face of fascism or hyper misogyny or anything else in that realm, but you ought to consider not turning a microaggression into a warzone. Especially, most especially, if the tweet is 10 years old, and the person has worked actively to change themselves.

Could we, I don’t know, make an attempt at turning justice into something less objectively hateful and more subjectively a tool of change?

What If Justice Was Pluralistic?

The rush that comes from getting to cancel out the bad has started to look like yet another power trip, instead of a step in the journey of holding people accountable for their actions.

a search bar saying 'socrates, what is justice?"

Instead of considering how small actions fit into larger systemic injustices, and working to change those small actions for the better, we start eliminating people from the action altogether.

I am not advocating marginalised people expend their emotional and mental labour to educate others. But those who are privileged allies are not doing emotional labour when they do the work of changing minds. If you are a privileged ally, why are you racing to cancel people?

Someone who is directly impacted by an action has every right to rage and resist, but someone who is simply watching from the sidelines is just a sadist for cheering as yet another racist-sexist-casteist-homophobe-transphobe swings from the gallows.

And here’s the kicker: holding one person with privilege but no power, over the fire for saying something problematic  just makes others of their kind hide themselves better.

Can Canceling Help The Larger Movement For Justice?

To ‘cancel’ isn’t just to put a strikethrough against the name of a person. It’s putting a strike through their personhood. The difference between this person did something bad and this person is bad, is monumental.

There is indeed a huge difference between Ankhi Das stepping down for possibly impacting the politics of a nation, and hounding a company until they fire a low-level employee for a troubling Facebook post. Ankhi is being held accountable; that low-level employee is being canceled. 

Rekha Sharma too plays an important role in the political landscape, unlike someone who has gone viral for having a video recorded of them doing something foolishly bigoted. Calls for accountability are different in each case.

Baying for one individual’s blood cannot be compared to citizens asking a politically-affiliated person to step down from their role out of respect for the office.

Wynn picks apart the narrative of canceling in her video of the same name, wondering at how a movement created by black women to call out rich, powerful sexual predators like Bill Cosby and R. Kelly has metamorphosed into one where everyone can drag anyone to the guillotine.

tweet getting guillotined

The contrast is sharp: the tools used to hold those with overarching power accountable are now being used on the common individual

Driving someone’s life into the ground for an old Instagram caption is unlikely to allow them to either show that they have changed, or convince them to change now. But if the person is willing to, or has already apologised, owned up, and openly changed themselves… is it fair to still keep bringing up the past? 

(Continue reading below.)

Case Study: Justine Sacco Was Fired For A Tweet

In 2013, the same year I was 18 and ignorant, Justine Sacco was fired from her job as a communications director of the internet giant InterActive Corp, the force behind such websites as Dictionary.com and Match.com. 

Her crime? A racist tweet. Frankly, the tweet is bad. Here, see for yourself:

justine sacco's racist tweet

Sacco posted the tweet before boarding an 11-hour-long flight from the USA to South Africa. By the time she arrived at her destination, her tweet was viral, #HasJustineLandedYet was trending, and major media platforms had picked up the story.

She deleted her account soon after landing, but the damage was done. Once on the internet, forever on the internet. The irony of a PR professional making such a foolish gaffe was not lost of anyone.

InterActive Corp went into damage control mode, letting her go for making”hateful statements”. But it is their closing remark that stands out to me: “[We hope that] … the forgiving human spirit, will not result in the wholesale condemnation of an individual who we have otherwise known to be a decent person at core.”

They had no reason to make that statement, yet they did.

Are Companies Liable For The Problematic Things Their Employees Say?

Now onto the more difficult part of this conversation.

When it comes to employment and canceling, frankly I am one leg in the boat and one leg out. Should someone who tweeted rubbish about muslims yesterday get fired? I don’t know. 

My heart says yes, but in my mind, I keep wondering: how will getting them fired endear muslims to them? How many others will feel radicalised watching another person lose their living over this?

The part of me that says yes in the above case is the same part that will have me believe that I have done my part by advocating that the person get fired. 

And that’s the problem, because my part is a lot bigger and more complex than just one tweet or petition to a company screaming ‘FIRE THEM!’ As an ally, my job isn’t to ‘destroy’ others. It is to educate them.

I will admit that it would be a company’s call to hold on to an employee who refuses to change their bigoted ways, despite effort. However, I would find it difficult to support a company who puts one employee and their bigotry above a history of discrimination.

What Do The Labour Laws In India Say?

According to an article in the magazine of the Global Payroll Management Institute: 

“India’s labor laws cite the following reasons that justify termination for cause — willful insubordination or disobedience; theft, fraud, or dishonesty; willful damage to or loss of employer’s goods; partaking of bribes or any illegal gratification; absence without leave for more than 10 days; habitual late attendance; disorderly behavior during working hours; or habitual negligence of work.”

Although there is no specific correlation between social media posting and the termination of employment, I have highlighted three aspects which I believe can be expanded upon to concern the topic at hand.

If we count bigotry is willful insubordination, then it is possible for companies to use it to fire employees. Or if an employee makes problematic posts on social media during company time, it could (this is a huge stretch) be considered cause of termination.

Similarly, if an employee with a public profile (say, an Instagram famous content creator) makes problematic statements which harm the platform’s income, it may constitute cause for firing them.

What Should Companies Actually Do?

It’s all well to have a strong labour law, but the consequences of exercising one’s free speech in a hateful way should, in my opinion, be enforced rehabilitative measures.

people stand in the workplace in the distance, with questioning labels saying 'racist?', 'misogynist?', 'homophobe?' next to each of them

Why? Because firing an employee is very simple for most companies. And firing employees who have been dragged on social media, and sometimes even in the news, is a PR exercise at best.

It makes sense to hold companies accountable for how their work culture enables sensitisation and tolerance. Indeed, it should be part of corporate social responsibility.

Are they creating a space where people can unlearn their problematic behaviours? Will employees from marginalised communities feel safe in their workplace? How will the company ensure either, and more?

These are the questions companies ought to be asking themselves. Immediately. 

It would be much better for employees who are allies to actively demonstrate their willingness to participate in continual diversity education.

A company should obviously have a no-discrimination rule within its ranks, and more importanly enforce it. Employees who are allies can also work to enforce non-discrimination on a one-on-one basis by offering resources and having conversations with their colleagues.

Allies can also initiate conversations with HR and upper management to work on making their workplaces more sensitive.

Final Thoughts On One-Size-Fits-All Justice

In Jain epistemology, there is a concept known as Anekāntavāda. It emphasises pluralism, or the multiplicity of viewpoints. In it, no single point of view is the absolute truth.

Pluralism has taught me that those who speak from ignorance are not all willfully ignorant. Some of them have never been questioned, and some of them have never questioned what they have been taught.

And both circumstances can be remedied. Case in point, in college, a lot of men I was becoming friends with would throw the word ‘rape’ around very causally. In everyday situations, during sports matches, and sometimes, in anger .

Initially, I would just get mad at them and behave sharply. I too was young and impatient, after all. And then one day, in an uncommon moment of patience, I asked one of those men: “Would you use that word so thoughtlessly if someone you cared for had been sexually assaulted?”

“I don’t know anyone who has been,” he said, carelessly.

“Why would they tell you, even if they had, if you have such a casual approach to the language that causes them pain and grief?’” I responded. (Paraphrasing what I said, I obviously was not so succinct!)

He, and others, were left silenced. And they never used the word casually again. Plurality can build empathy, and empathy can build change.

These men don’t deserve to be fired, they just need to have the depth of sexual violence put into context. It happens. You have to put in that effort sometimes. 

I am also well aware that this incident is singular, and won’t always happen. But as an ally to survivors of sexual violence, I had to try. As an ally to any community that is marginalised, that is traumatised, you must attempt growth culture too.

rega jha's post about cancel culture vs. growth culture

At the end of the day, justice doesn’t have to be legal. It doesn’t have to be retributive. Justice can be restorative. It can also be rehabilitative. It can be a tool in our arsenal as we try to change the world, not cancel it out.

Canceling takes one angry mob. Justice, from where I stand, takes so much more.

You’re invited! Join the Kool Kanya women-only career community where you can network, ask questions, share your opinions, collaborate on projects, and discover new opportunities. Join now.

Priyanka is a poet, a feminist, and an Ophelia conspiracy theorist. She can often be found yelling "Pray you, mark!" at rooms full of condescending men in positions of power. She believes that there is a tremendous dearth of tenderness in this world, and that we need to shift perspectives from acute compassion to chronic empathy. Trust her, she's learned that the hard way. She spends her life drinking coffee, playing with eyeshadow, and ricocheting between bawler and baller.

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