The New York Times Opinion section had recently come under fire. It started a few months after the Trump Inauguration, when the Times hired Bret Stephens, a conservative Never-Trumper and former Wall Street Journal writer who used his first column to explain his doubts about the veracity of climate change. In his year at the Times, Stephens has largely failed to endear himself to the paper's mostly liberal readers: While some readers may agree with his call to repeal the Second Amendment after the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, many raged at his recent defenses of Woody Allen as well as his criticism of campus activism and #MeToo. So many readers threatened to cancel their subscriptions over Stephens's hiring that publisher Arthur O. Sulzberger personally appealed to readers to reconsider. He also defended Stephens, arguing that the need to break through echo chambers and listen to perspectives that might make us uncomfortable is vital to a functioning society.
“Our editorial page editor, James Bennet, and I believe that this kind of debate, by challenging our assumptions and forcing us to think harder about our positions, sharpens all our work and benefits our readers," Sulzberger wrote to subscribers. “This does not mean that The Times will publish any commentary. Some points of view are not welcome, including those promoting prejudice or denying basic truths about our world. But it does mean that, in the coming years, we aim to further enrich the quality of our debate with other honest and intelligent voices, including some currently underrepresented in our pages. If you continue to read The Times, you will encounter such voices—not just as contributors, but as new staff columnists.”
One of those new staff columnists was Bari Weiss, another Wall Street Journal alum. Weiss, who told me she considers herself a "classic liberal," has frequently and erroneously been called a conservative (or even a neocon) in the press. Soon after her hiring, Weiss made a name for herself at the paper with a column called "Aziz Ansari Is Guilty. Of Not Being a Mind Reader." In it, she argued that "Grace," a young woman who accused comedian Aziz Ansari of sexual assault after a date gone wrong, should have left Ansari's house if she felt uncomfortable. "There is a useful term for what this woman experienced on her night with Mr. Ansari," Weiss wrote. "It’s called 'bad sex.'” This did not sit well with many readers, as well as with some Twitter feminists.
Shortly after that column, Weiss found herself at the bottom of a social media dogpile. After Olympic figure skater and California native Mirai Nagasu landed a triple axel during the Pyeongchang Games, Weiss tweeted out what she thought was an innocuous compliment: A video of Nagasu's Olympic feat, with the text: "Immigrants: They get the job done," which was a reference to the Broadway musical Hamilton. Twitter went nuts over it. Weiss was quickly and loudly accused of being anti-immigrant. Some saw her tweet as a symptom of immigrants—and their children—being considered perpetual foreigners in the U.S., no matter how long they've lived here. She deleted the tweet but refused to apologize for it, and, in a later tweet, hyperbolically said the backlash against her was a sign of "civilization's end." A long stream of think pieces soon followed. Some pundits dragged Weiss; others defended her, and the Huffington Post published internal Slack chats from Weiss's colleagues at the Times that showed that it wasn't just the Internet that was mad; it was her coworkers, too. One Times staffer compared her tweet to Japanese internment.
Bret Stephens and Bari Weiss may currently be public enemies No. 1 and 2 at the Times Opinion page, but they were briefly overshadowed this month when the paper announced the addition of Quinn Norton, a tech journalist, to its editorial board. Norton, who has been covering technology for two decades, spent much of her career reporting on and involved with clandestine communities like Anonymous, and as well as the Occupy movement and some hacker groups.
"We find ourselves at a moment of profound uncertainty about the role of technology in our lives, the influence of the tech companies and the correct direction of public policy to address all this change," the announcement read. "We’re excited to have Quinn to help our readers understand what’s possible and what’s sensible, and where we’re all headed."
Six hours later, Norton, who had yet to publish a word under the Times masthead, was out.
In the hours after the announcement, Twitter users dug up old tweets by Norton, including some that used the term "fag" (Quinn identifies as queer) and one particularly damning retweet that used the n-word (Norton calls it "a nine-year-old retweet in support of Obama"). This, in addition to Norton's public friendship with Andrew Auernheimer (known online as "weev"), who runs the neo-Nazi site the Daily Stormer, was enough for the Times to sever their ties.
“Despite our review of Quinn Norton’s work and our conversations with her previous employers, this was new information to us," said James Bennet, the editorial page editor of the Times, in a statement. "Based on it, we’ve decided to go our separate ways." Twitter, in this case, had won.
On Tuesdsay, Norton addressed the controversy herself in an article called "The New York Times Fired My Doppelgänger" published in the Atlantic. She writes:
I’ve studied online communities since 1995. I know how many underlying technologies work, and how they might relate to their historical antecedents. I have spent time with individuals in various groups—including hanging out in their spaces, witnessing their operations—and written about it. I have worked with Anonymous and other internet communities that dwell far from the Overton window, which describes what sort of public discourse is tolerable. I identify politically as an anarchist pacifist. ...
I was called a Nazi because of my friendship with the infamous neo-Nazi known on the internet as weev—his given name is Andrew Auernheimer; he helps run the anti-Semitic website the Daily Stormer. In my pacifism, I can’t reject a friendship, even when a friend has taken such a horrifying path. I am not the judge of who is capable of improving as a person. This philosophy also requires me to confront him about his terrible beliefs and their terrible consequences. I have been doing this since before his brief time as a cause célèbre in 2012—I believe it’d be hypocritical for me to turn away from this obligation. weev is just one of many terrible people I’ve cared for in my life. I don’t support what my terrible friend believes or does. But I strongly advocate for people with a good sense of themselves and their values to engage with their terrible friends, coworkers, and relatives, to lovingly confront them for as long as it takes, and it would be wrong to not do so myself. I had what I now see as the advantage of coming from a family of terrible people. This taught me that not everyone worthy of love is worthy of emulation. It also taught me that being given terrible ideas is not a destiny, and that intervention can change lives.
Not everyone believes loving engagement is the best way to fight evil beliefs, but it has a good track record. Not everyone is in a position to engage safely with racists, sexists, anti-Semites, and homophobes, but for those who are, it’s a powerful tool. Engagement is not the one true answer to the societal problems destabilizing America today, but there is no one true answer. The way forward is as multifarious and diverse as America is, and a method of nonviolent confrontation and accountability, arising from my pacifism, is what I can bring to helping my society.
It didn't take long for the blacklash to begin anew, much of it currently unrolling on Twitter. Most of the criticism of Norton's piece seems to be her defense of her friendship with Auernheimer, whom she calls her "terrible friend." At the risk of being thrown on the burn pile myself, I think her statement is worth examining. Norton doesn't agree with Auernheimer, nor does anything in her history suggest that she is secretly a Nazi herself. And while Norton's refusal to disavow her friendship may be social and career suicide, especially right now, when the President of the United States has a long and well-documented history of racism, Norton is hardly the first person to attempt to leverage friendship into social change.
Take Daryl Davis. Davis, a black musician, is frequently credited with prompting 200 KKK members to leave the white supremacist group. He didn't do it through threats or cajoling or even through demanding they listen to evidence that their beliefs were just wrong; he did it through friendship.
Davis first became acquainted with members of the KKK through music. "The fact that a Klansman and black person could sit down at the same table and enjoy the same music, that was a seed planted," he said in an interview with NPR last year. "So what do you do when you plant a seed? You nourish it. ... I decided to go around the country and sit down with Klan leaders and Klan members to find out: How can you hate me when you don't even know me?"
For 30 years, Davis has been spending time with Klan members, asking that simple question. And through patience, listening, and, yes, friendship, he's collected dozens of KKK robes that former members have given him. His closet, he says, is now full of them.
Quinn Norton, to be sure, is not Daryl Davis. There's no reason to think that Auernheimer, who still works for the Daily Stormer, is less of a Nazi today than he was when they met. But the idea that friendship can change beliefs shouldn't be this controversial, because it can actually work. Forming relationships with extremists is the basis for Life After Hate, for example, a Chicago-based organization in which former members of hate groups help current members get out. As Life After Hate co-founder Christian Picciolini told the Southern Poverty Law Center, "It’s about changing their perspective just a little bit. Because often when you change their perspective just a little bit, it allows them to see the cracks in the foundation of the ideology that they believe in. I don’t force it. I let them come to the conclusion on their own. At least that’s the goal."
Relationships were integral to the gay marriage debate, too: Attitudes about same sex relationships shifted exponentially in the past couple of decades, and not just because Ellen came out. Rather, as regular folks came out to their friends, families, colleagues, neighbors, pastors, etc., people who once thought of gay folks as perverts and deviants actually changed their minds. And they did it because of relationships.
Firing Quinn Norton before she started was certainly a safe move on the part of the Times, but was it correct? Personally, I'm not sure Twitter mobs, as justified as they think they are, should be the arbiter of acceptable thought. And if we assume, like many of Norton's critics have, that some people are incapable of redemption—be it Andrew Auernheimer or Quinn Norton herself—then the world is a much darker place than I thought.