While scanning Facebook the other night, I took special notice of a post celebrating the departure of Kathlyn Ehl from the campaign staff of Washington state gubernatorial candidate Rob McKenna.
Ehl recently came under fire for authoring two offensive tweets that denigrated Asians and elderly people. The Stranger broke the story on Monday, The Seattle Times called for Ehl to be fired on Tuesday, and Ehl resigned on Wednesday.
I was especially disappointed and disgusted by Ehl’s tweet, “shut up and speak english #asians.” It unfortunately reminded me of the “Asians in the Library” rant that UCLA student Alexandra Wallace posted on YouTube last year.
I am a second-generation Filipino American who was born and raised in Washington state. It hurts when I’m reminded that many of my fellow Americans will always view me as a foreigner. It also makes me angry to know that recent and not-so-recent Asian immigrants have to deal with this kind of bigotry and ignorance. As a communications professional, I find it appalling that Ehl apparently thought nothing of posting such a comment on Twitter, an international, public platform.
However, while many of my friends—especially those who are Asian American like me—cheered and applauded when they heard that Ehl resigned, to me it felt like a hollow victory.
So we publicly shamed and cowed a junior staffer of the McKenna campaign. So what? Is this something that we really want to celebrate? I don’t see how the Ehl Twitter controversy advanced the conversation about racism in America or raised awareness about the needs of people who are elderly and disabled. Twitter and other social media outlets make it very easy to send out hateful, hurtful and bigoted messages. Combating those messages and eradicating prejudice, fear and hate speech is not as easy. Perhaps this is one of the major challenges facing ethicists in the 21st century: letting the genie of casual and careless hatred out of the bottle is too easy. Getting that genie back in the bottle isn’t.
These opportunities might be a blessing in disguise–now we have a series of tweets to point to and use as an example of how we continually need to be vigilant and aware of what lies all to close to the surface.
Maybe Ehl truly is—as many suggest—a racist, ageist idiot. She is also young – a 2012 graduate of the University of Washington in fact. While I don’t think her tweets are simply a youthful indiscretion as many are claiming, she has ample time to change her heart and mind.
Ehl quit the McKenna campaign on July 18, which also happens to be the birthday of South African statesman Nelson Mandela.
Mandela is renowned for his incredible commitment to forgiveness and reconciliation. He said, “You will achieve more in this world through acts of mercy than you will through acts of retribution.”
Social media makes it easy to shame and censure without suggesting solutions. How can we use it to promote forgiveness, empowerment and positive response? Maybe we could reclaim the #asians hashtag that Ehl used, organize a flash mob of people talking in multiple Asian languages to underscore the importance of speaking up, or have bloggers take a walk with older adults and talk about mobility issues.
It’s not enough to point out racism and ageism. You have to do something about it and you have to actually deal with the people who are being racist and ageist.
Intolerance won’t end unless people who commit hateful acts stop doing them, not because of fear or public reprisal, but because they know and believe that these actions are hurtful and wrong.
This post was produced in partnership with UW Election Eye 2012.