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Social Media

Should Our Past Tweets Matter?

Like so many of us, Joy Reid's views on LGBTQ people has evolved. The real question: Why are so many women having their past social media scrutinized?

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Twelve years ago, I watched the movie adaptation of RENT in my dormitory lounge with my friends, and our resident director, who also served as the assistant pastor on campus. During a particularly poignant scene when Tom and Angel share a romantic kiss, one of my friends turned to the pastor and asked, “Is it alright if I’m uncomfortable with that?” The pastor nodded yes, and we went back to watching our movie.

People expressing casual homophobia like that was a regular occurrence at a private Christian college in the middle-aughts—and I’m sure it extended beyond religious-school campuses.

But at the time, I frequently incorporated these views into my blogging, citing long-disproved and transphobic or homophobic studies. I argued about how gay men are promiscuous and prone to AIDS, and talked about how bisexual women are just playing around to be sexy (which was also a sin).

Again, that was 12 years ago.

This past Saturday, my girlfriend and I walked around a public zoo, holding hands and exchanging brief kisses in the Japanese gardens. I’ve come a long way since the conservative homophobia of my youth—homophobia that was still by and large acceptable in many parts of the mainstream, despite the ongoing work that LGBTQ activists were doing to normalize acceptance and love. I am glad that my posts from back then are hard to find, and not under my own name.

MSNBC host Joy Reid has not been so lucky. In December, following Reid’s criticism of Bernie Sanders, a cohort of people on Twitter dug into her past, posting alleged screenshots of her old blog posts from the early to mid-aughts, rife with homophobic and transphobic commentary. Reid, upon reading the comments and not recognizing them as something she wrote, called in computer security experts to see if something could have been manipulated to cast her in such a light. In an apology on Saturday, she explained that while she did not recognize that person who wrote those posts, that, ultimately is a good thing: She is a different person from who she was 12 years ago, five years ago, and even one year ago.

It remains undetermined whether Reid’s posts were manipulated or hacked. To be honest, “I was hacked” is a bit of a cop-out, even as she says she believed she did not write those words. Alongside the blog posts, however, were several transphobic tweets she did write, and commentary that reflected an unacceptable homophobia and transphobia.

But I don’t care if she wrote these things because the real question we need to be asking is: Why are we even talking about it?

The current ways in which we handle social media and progressive activism within those spaces have flattened both our humanity and our sense of people’s ability to change. Rather than looking at a person’s current opinions, current views, and current activism, we dredge up a long list of past problematic comments, assemble a long, indelible record of how they’ve failed to live up to being the Perfect Progressive, and hold it over their head indefinitely. And all too often, this scrutiny tactic is aimed at women. Because of the seven months she spent working as a foreclosure attorney, reproductive-rights lawyer Imani Gandy gets harassed every few months by leftists repeatedly—they love to dredge it up. Hosts of the leftist podcast, Chapo Trap House, have a long history of going after women. Felix Biederman, one of the four hosts, has mocked rape survivors for being fat and told a mother her week-old infant shouldn’t exist.

Women in the media already face a sexist institution to get their careers where they are. Even now, simply being willing to call themselves Democrats or Hillary supporters means facing the ongoing scrutiny of Glenn Greenwald and his horde of angry-white-boy followers. There is a particular loud faction of the left—dubbed “The Dirtbag Left” or the “Alt Left” by the hosts of Chapo Trap House and taken up by many on the left—that insists any past indiscretion is reason enough to not trust them now—and the loudest of them are white men: Glenn Greenwald, Biederman, and Matt Bruenig.

Joy Reid has now entered the realm of being dubbed “problematic,” alongside such pop culture and feminist heroes as Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie who misspoke about transgender people and or Ani DiFranco, who chose a former slave plantation for a songwriting retreat. Unfortunately “problematic,” is a label from which there is little escape. Despite an apology and the work she’s doing now, Reid will always be judged by a group of people who will always look at her work askance, remembering the time, back in 2006, when she was homophobic.

But just as the Dirtbag Left declared that Hillary’s support for the LGBTQ community was only playing politics and not a genuine change, it seems Reid must be beholden to who she was a dozen years ago, rather than who she is now. Indeed, the furor over Reid’s past actions has been enough that PFLAG actually rescinded an allyship award she was slated to receive—an award, presumably, based on current actions, not past blog posts.

And yet, the Dirtbag Left argues that the Joy Reid who was slated to receive an allyship award and the Joy Reid who called Ann Coulter a man are one and the same. The Hillary Clinton who helped with the passage of the Defense of Marriage Act and the Hillary Clinton who campaigned for the rights of the queer community in 2016 must be one and the same. There is no capacity for change in the eyes of the Dirtbag Left. You are who you are, and each statement, past or present, is merely more evidence that you are hiding a dirty, dirty secret of racism, homophobia, and bad politics.

The Dirtbag Left preys on the fear that our heroes could be terrible people. They take advantage of the idea that we want to ensure people are not being abused, and plug it into the outrage machine, churning up to a frothy leftist anger about any past imperfections. But words are different than actions.

We’ve forgotten that most people possess a near-miraculous capacity to learn and evolve into better people. After all, this is a driving progressive principle: that people can and will change their minds and hearts, that seeing other people as humans who can make mistakes and that those mistakes are not the end-all, be-all of a person’s humanity.

But we haven’t been acting on our principles. Instead, we hold a person to things they said years ago, as though they are incapable of change or grace or empathy. We’ve flattened the timelines of people’s lives, failing to look at the advocacy they are doing in the here and now that refutes their past missteps.

Many of us have undergone some kind of transformation to get to the politics we now possess. Middle America is chock full of people who grew up in conservative households who now profess liberal, even leftist politics. The world as a whole has changed and progressed toward equality and justice largely because of the ability of individuals to change and progress and evolve on issues. And in evaluating that change, we must believe in who they show themselves to be now. We’ve been there. And so with each person who gets dragged for something they said prior to a socio-political evolution, many of us have to wonder, who next will be called out for being “problematic”?

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