The #Karen meme has taken on new frenzy in recent weeks, with virtue enforcers roving the streets, real and virtual, intent on catching and publicly humiliating supposed race offenders. A concept that developed in part out of grievance with overbearing busybodies and social policing has devolved into an obsession with shaming, a contest whose winners are measured in likes, follows, and retweets.
Lost in the #Karen stories is the reemergence of a much older, and more problematic, species of scold: the witch-hunter. We might call this character #Liz, in honor of Elizabeth Hubbard, a key figure in the Salem witch trials, whose impassioned accusations led to many a hanging.
Allow me to share a recent experience, with some details modified for anonymity. A friend—call him John—saw a social media post from an old coworker—call her Liz. In her post, Liz calls out her parents’ and grandparents’ generation, and by inference, her own parents and grandparents, for supporting Donald Trump. She condemns them as racists and bigots, among other things.
John decided that it was worthwhile to add his moderating views to other likeminded responses—that news media on all sides are at times subject to biased reporting, that the stated ideology underpinning #BlackLivesMatter should be critically examined, that people should not be fired for expressing opinions, and so on. Subsequently, Liz posted a widely distributed message on a separate feed, one that linked to the accounts of many of her former coworkers. In that message, she shares her concern about the racist and bigoted rhetoric she was hearing from some of these old colleagues. She does not identify which ones. She doesn’t have to; the weapon does its work, regardless.
John, ever the civil soul, was shocked. But John is no pushover, so when he asks Liz whether she had just publicly called him a racist, Liz backpedals and denies it. Bullies don’t perform well when the objects of their bullying push back.
Has Liz been navigating a social media sea of racist rhetoric? Highly doubtful, at least from the perspective of those who value facts over feeling, reason over passion, and evidence over conjecture. Not so for those who accept the notion of white fragility, which sees implicit biases defining every white person’s thoughts and actions. If you’re white, you can’t escape the judgment. Your experiences mean nothing. Your opinions mean nothing. You are defined by your race. Accusations are generalized and self-evident, enabling rampant ad hominem attacks. Examples are piling up; it should worry all of us.
This game has three players. Player 1 is Liz, brandishing her weapon with righteous indignation and commitment to the cause. Player 2 is the victim, left devastated and often resorting to feeble apologies and clarifications in the vain effort to prove a negative. And Player 3 is everyone else—the audience watching this latest exhibition, either joining in the ritual gutting or sitting idly by, quietly shocked but unwilling or unable to stand up in defense. The perpetrators of this practice know that, in the absence of concerted pushback, they have nearly nothing to lose, thanks to the backing afforded them by the woke mob.
What sort of person goes on social media to declare that her parents and grandparents are racists and bigots? One needs to be a special breed of woke fanatic to believe this is good and right.
We are taught at a young age that we should call out unjust behavior, but to do so in a constructive manner. We are all, at one time or another, guilty of doing wrong. What we should all hope is that there is someone nearby with the dignity and honor to pull us aside and explain to us why we’re wrong—without seeking to destroy us. For Liz, however, the goal is not righting a wrong but earning adulation from the likeminded. She has no need of honor, courage, or commitment to truth. She requires only a platform. The trending mob will do the rest.
To the Liz militia out there: the times we are living in favor you. But things change. Salem’s chapter ended, as did most others of its kind. Perhaps things will get worse before they get better, but this too shall pass. Until it does, know that for every person who beatifies you with likes and retweets—or whatever passes for “community” these days—many more do not approve. Most acknowledge the enormous progress our society has made against bigotry, and most, likewise, acknowledge that some work remains to be done. And most will stay quiet—but it is they, not you, who are the majority.
Here’s hoping that that majority stays intact when the United States emerges from this—whatever this is.