A slur on Clubhouse

Will we look this time?

We all know the story by now.

Last weekend, Taylor Lorenz, a New York Times tech reporter, was listening to a conversation on Clubhouse, a popular new app for tech celebrities to have conference calls with one another in front of a live audience. (For full disclosure, I’ve never been able to use the app, which is only available on iOS. If losing half of my text messages to iMessage’s infinity loop isn’t enough to compel me to stop using an Android, an app that’s premier content is a live broadcast a16z’s content marketing standup won’t make me an iPhone user either.)

During last week’s discussion, Lorenz, who’s been a vocal critic of what she sees as an emerging culture of harassment on the app, tweeted an accusation that venture capitalist Marc Andreessen used the “r-word” in reference to the Gamestop drama on Reddit. Lorenz had misheard—the speaker was Ben Horowitiz, Andreessen Horowitz’s other eponymous founder.

People rushed to correct the record, to accuse Lorenz of lying to advance some personal vendetta against the tech elite, and to use the moment to push their own agendas about ongoing soap opera between tech and the media. All the usual players recycled their usual lines. Glenn Greenwald repackaged an old rant calling the New York Times a tattletale hall monitor into a new rant calling the New York Times a tattletale hall monitor. Bari Weiss shared Glenn Greenwald’s article, and then retweeted her own Twitter “exposé” of the Times’ culture—in which she was, fittingly, accused of mischaracterizing conversations to fit her own narrative. The Daily Caller intimated that Lorenz’s tweet was part of an organized purge unfolding at Times. Olivia Nuzzi subtweeted some stuff about civility. 

The predictable melodrama gave the whole affair the feel of a WWE wrestling match: Everyone threw their punches, dropped their signature moves to the delight of their fans, and nobody got hurt. Our champions picked up some likes and followers, and all of us in the audience had something to keep us entertained until this week’s Monday Night Raw.

Throughout the dust up, an Eminen lyric kept running through my head: “Your reply got the crowd yelling, “Woo! / so before you die let’s see who can out-petty who.

The line is from Eminem’s diss track “Killshot,” which is a response to Machine Gun Kelly’s diss track “Rap Devil,” which itself is a response to Eminem’s diss of MGK on “Not Alike.” Though I have no idea how Eminem and MKG actually feel about one another, it’s hard not to read the line as acknowledging the feud is an exaggerated charade, designed to make a mountain of publicity out of a molehill of a disagreement. (Eminem promises exactly this to MKG in “Killshot,” saying “you're a fuckin' mole hill / Now I'ma make a mountain out of you.”) And a mountain they make: “Killshot” and “Rap Devil” both have over 300 million views on YouTube. 

The incessant drama on Clubhouse has worked equally as well. The app now has over 6 million users, is valued at over $1 billion dollars, and tech personalities are racking up followers.

In this most recent scuffle, Lorenz took the show a bit too far. But it would be far from the first time someone’s overstepped, and if anything, drawing a bit of real blood whips up each side’s fans even more. If engineer-turned-Twitter-shock-jock Slava Akhmechet can routinely say and delete misogynist nonsense and still be followed by people like Paul Graham, it’s probably safe to say that Lorenz won’t lose many fans either. Rather than getting riled up by any of this, maybe we should choose our teams and enjoy the show.

But, maybe not.

Maybe that easy cynicism is exactly the problem. Maybe both sides aren’t embellishing their rage. Maybe Lorenz’s tweet wasn’t a pantomimed punch that accidentally landed, but was a real outburst, born of furious despair. Maybe it was a reminder that, in this apparent theater, one side isn’t always acting.

Eminem’s lyric wasn't the only quote I couldn’t shake as I was watching everything unfold last week. The other line came from Jia Tolentino, and another story about an overreaching reporter.

In 2014, the Rolling Stone published “A Rape on Campus,” a long story alleging that a freshman at the University of Virginia, identified only as Jackie, had been brutally raped at a frat house. The story, written by seasoned journalist Sabrina Erdely, was presented as the very violent and graphic tip of an iceberg of sexual violence on college campuses. 

As Tolentino documents in her book Trick Mirror, the story blew up—twice. Within hours of its publication, it exploded virally, becoming, according to Tolentino, the most-read non-celebrity story in Rolling Stone’s history. But nearly as quickly, people started picking apart the story’s details. It began to unravel, and within weeks, it imploded. Jackie’s allegation, though possibly rooted in an actual assault, had been grossly exaggerated. Though Erdely noticed discrepancies in her narrative, she pushed ahead anyway, apparently swayed by her sympathy for the Jackie, her recognition that trauma makes memories inexact, and her desire to expose the rot in a system that routinely fails to protect sexual assault victims. Rolling Stone issued a full retraction.

The backlash was far-reaching, directed not only at Erdely, Jackie, and the Rolling Stone, but also at anyone trying to raise awareness about sexual assault. To those who want to pretend these issues don’t exist, the article proved to be the perfect way to tar real victims as lying opportunists

Trying to make sense of it, and of her own anger at both Erdely and Jackie, Tolentino comes to this conclusion: “I hate the dirty river I’m standing in, not the journalist and the college student who capsized in it.” 

Tolentino then quotes Elizabeth Schambelan writing on the same subject in n+1:

This is the story I’ve come up with, about the story Jackie told: she did it out of rage. She had no idea she was enraged, but she was. Something had happened, and she wanted to tell other people, so that they would know what happened and know how she felt. But when she tried to tell it — maybe to somebody else, maybe to herself — the story had no power. It didn’t sound, in the telling, anything like what it felt like in the living. It sounded ordinary, mundane, eminently forgettable, like a million things that had happened to a million other women — but that wasn’t what it felt like to her. What it felt like was lurid and strange and violent and violating. I have no idea what it was, whether a crime was involved. There’s a perfectly legal thing called hogging, where guys deliberately seek out sex partners they find unattractive so they can laugh about it later with their friends. Maybe it was something like that, or maybe it was much milder, an expression of contempt that was avuncular, unthinking, something that transformed her into a thing without even meaning to. Whatever it was, this proximate cause, she didn’t know what to do about it...

I want to condemn it, and I do condemn it, but I also think I can guess what she was saying, or would have said, which can’t be said reasonably. It must be said melodramatically. Something like: Look at this. Don’t you fucking dare not look. I’m going to make you look. I’m going to make you know. You’re going to know what we’ve decided is worth sacrificing, what price we’ve decided we’re willing to pay to maintain this league of men, and this time, you’re going to remember.

Jackie was broken by a system that refused to listen to her. She was broken by the men who told her that her pain, pain they both caused and could never feel, wasn’t important. Her lie wasn’t revenge or false narrative; it was desperate, dying rage.

Just as it’s easy for us to see Jackie as being solely responsible for the story she made up, it’s easy for us to chastise Lorenz, and Lorenz alone, for her false accusation. But we can’t dismiss it as an unhinged tantrum or a calculated hit job of a politically motivated reporter. We know what women put up with on social media, especially those who work in technology. Lorenz herself has been trying to get people to pay attention since at least 2018. And overwhelmingly, she, like so many other victims of online harassment, has been accused of being an immature hysteric, a woman who didn’t see what she saw, a woman who didn’t feel what she felt. Overwhelmingly, she’s been told that nobody is going to look.

We should read Lorenz’s tweet in that context—and those who criticize Lorenz and the cancel culture that they claim she represents are nothing if not advocates of context. Wrong as it was, Lorenz’s misplaced accusation doesn’t diminish the harassment she has to routinely deal with, nor does it make the bullies who harass her innocent. And those who downplay that harassment shouldn’t act so sanctimonious—or so innocent—when, after years of using inside voices, harassment victims’ patience turns to rage. If you’re going to question Lorenz’s motivation for tweeting the fiction that she did, you should also question your own motivation for ignoring the truth she’s been trying to tell you for so long.