Here’s a bigger internet brushfire than whether hackers are keeping Bristol Palin on Dancing With the Stars. Responding to a poster named Tre criticizing the new reality TV show Sarah Palin’s Alaska, Bristol’s 16-year-old sister Willow called him “gay” and a “faggot” on her Facebook page. The offending posts were quickly deleted, but somebody got a screen capture and sent it to TMZ, which broke the story and has the whole ugly blow-by-blow. Now, inevitably, Willow’s virulence has gone viral. The gay conservative group GOProud is defending Willow, but most other outlets are understandably disgusted. On this National Unfriend Day, Willow probably lost a few friends.
Willow Palin’s words are schoolyard stuff, but that doesn’t make it okay. She’s not homophobic, she’s just stupid in the way that 16-year-olds can sometimes be. I personally shudder to think what kind of idiocy I would have put up if Facebook had been around when I was that age. Then again, I probably wouldn’t have used the word “gay” as a generic term of abuse or “faggot” as a more specific slur. It’s sad that none of the other posters in this brouhaha thought to call Willow on her language. (Even ignoring that, the other posters still didn’t exactly cover themselves in glory.)
I recommend you read the exchange as closely as I did, because appalling behavior is so engrossing. Clearly most of the people here know each other from going to school with each other in Alaska, which explains the personal tone of much of the invective. After Tre describes the show as “failing soo hard right now” [sic], Bristol accuses him of stirring up trouble, then Willow follows up and, apropos of nothing, accuses another poster named Matt of being fat. (I’m assuming this continues a conversation from somewhere else.) Matt scores a point by pointing out how thin-skinned the Palins seem to be about criticism, then indulges his own unattractive side by calling Bristol fat and referencing the porn film that featured their mom as a character. That’s when Willow says “your so gay” [sic]. It’s unclear whether she’s talking to Tre or Matt. She also says, “My sister had a kid and she’s still hot.” Then she calls Tre a “faggot.” Matt sinks further into the muck with the fat jokes. Tre clarifies that he wasn’t attacking the Palins personally, merely saying that their TV show was not entertaining. Willow is having none of this, feeling that the family honor is at stake here. She accuses Tre of embarrassing himself (more on this later). Another poster named Imran jumps in and tries to make peace. Willow calls him a “dumb ass.” Another poster named Johnathan says the program makes Alaskans look bad. Willow calls him a “low life loser.” Johnathan and Imran trade slags, and Tre accuses Bristol of being a spoiled rich kid. Another poster named Garret counsels everyone to grow up. (Sound advice, but given that these are teenagers and college kids here, I’m not sure how well that’ll take.) Johnathan then trades insults with another poster named Dani, while new posters named Tracy, Josephine, and Raven show up to make fun of the whole argument. Just as Imran is making another plea for peace, Willow breaks out this gem: “Sorry that all you guys are jealous of my families success and you guys aren’t goin to go anywhere with your lives.” [sic] Imran’s response is hilarious: “kinda wanted to be a politician. But after all this I just don’t know.”
I wonder if any of these kids saw The Social Network, particularly the part where Mark Zuckerberg’s fictional ex-girlfriend tells him, “The internet’s not written in pencil, Mark. It’s written in ink.” The fact that these posts got out even though they were deleted proves that nothing ever truly goes away online. This is especially true if you’re famous, even if you’re only famous for being the teenage daughter of a losing vice-presidential candidate. Now the Palin girls’ petty spitefulness is on display for the world to see. It’s sadly ironic that after being accused of being a spoiled rich girl, Willow’s “all you guys are jealous” outburst is exactly the sort of thing a spoiled rich girl would say. As Slate says, this whole exchange is way more revealing than Sarah Palin’s Alaska.
It’s even more ironic that she expresses concern for Tre embarrassing himself on Facebook when she comes out of this looking far worse. The gay slurs made me (and no doubt others as well) think of the cyber-bullying case at Rutgers. Dharun Ravi’s actions may or may not have led to Tyler Clementi’s suicide, but surely they messed up Ravi’s own life. In trying to embarrass a gay classmate, Ravi never saw how his own scummy behavior might be perceived. How does he set foot on any college campus now? No one’s accusing the Palin girls of driving someone to suicide, but clearly they’re in a place where mild criticism of their mom’s TV show equals a personal attack on their family. I’m tempted to think this might be a tech thing, but it seems to be more of a blind spot in human nature. How many of us truly see ourselves the way others see us?
I guess the lesson here is: Don’t be a cyber-bully. Not only is it mean, it’ll probably blow up in your face. Then again, Willow Palin has an opportunity right now to give a bigger lesson. (As our president might say, this is a teachable moment.) She can stand up, apologize, and say that people shouldn’t use gay slurs the way she did, because it’s not cool. An announcement like that would do much good, help defuse Democratic talk that the Republican Party is a nest of knuckle-dragging homophobes, and allow her to salvage some graciousness from this whole debacle. That’s one way forward. The other way is to bunker down, blame the media for the controversy, and admit nothing. Which road will she take?