We are living through a jubilee of internet forgiveness. After many years of being what it is and doing what it does, the Web seems unexpectedly prepared to forgive its debts, free its captives, and start afresh with the mocked and exiled of yesteryear. And, like the biblically mandated jubilees of yore, we are making something of a celebration of it.
Lisa McElroy, a law professor at Drexel University, made news online in late April when she accidentally sent her class email list a link to a porn video. Gawker picked up the story, with this weighty item: “Professor Accidentally Sent ‘Interesting’ Anal Bead Porn to Her Students.” Unlike some of her colleagues in Internet blundering, McElroy escaped the media and social network scrutiny unscathed: She kept her job and, within a month, published an op-ed in The Washington Post detailing her time in the Twitter maw. ESPN reporter Britt McHenry didn’t suffer unduly, either, after being caught on camera insulting a towing company employee. Even Monica Lewinsky has emerged into the public view (yet again). She seems confident and calm, transformed into something like the patron saint of the publicly shamed. Her recent TED Talk, in which she referred to herself as “Patient Zero of losing a personal reputation on a global scale almost instantaneously,” met with widespread approval, and she has been the subject of a series of approving articles, in Salon, Forbes, The New Yorker, and the mother of all validating content, Upworthy.
Were it not for all the blatantly self-congratulatory posturing about how forgiving we all must become—“When the Cyberbully Is You,” The New York Times, April 29—it would hardly feel like the Internet at all. Yet, as with most displays of public forgiveness, the pardons contain a whiff of fear: There but for the grace of God go I. But punishment is fickle—it strikes or spares unpredictably—and so, too, is forgiveness. Women reap scantier benefits in the way of public forbearance than their similarly derided male counterparts. And some women, it seems, never get in on the jubilee at all.
If you had heard of Suey Park in early 2014, it was likely because she was a Twitter brawler, someone ingrained in the hurly-burly of social media and rewarded for it with followers—23,000, a fair number for a 23-year-old living in Chicago. (Suey is not Park’s real first name, but a sardonic play on “chop suey” and Asian American stereotypes.) Mostly she tweeted about race and gender, and none too gently. “Women of color aren’t ignorant. From our subordinated position we can just more clearly see your white gaze and bullshit,” went one representative example. “Please work on your twisted views of anti-racism. You may have taken a social justice course, but I’ve had years of white bullshit 101,” went another. She was young, savvy, and had a knack for creating hashtags that trended, most notably #NotYourAsianSidekick, a play on how Asian characters in popular culture are depicted as ancillary, if at all.
Then last year in March, Park produced her most significant, and—in terms of debt accrual on the great Internet shame-ledger—her most notorious hashtag. It was meant to push back against another tweet, this one from The Colbert Report Twitter account, which read: “I am willing to show #Asian community I care by introducing the Ching-Chong Ding-Dong Foundation for Sensitivity to Orientals or Whatever.” This was a sarcastic rejoinder to the creation of a charitable foundation by the Washington Redskins NFL franchise, designed to draw attention away from its objectionable team name. A few hours later, she unleashed a Twitter outrage cycle by replying:
Alas, the Internet has not forgiven Suey Park. A quick online search finds that the #CancelColbert hashtag still riles a certain kind of online misanthrope, even today. It has been cited as evidence of the censoriousness of “social justice warriors” (a pejorative term that nods to the superficiality of online social activism); as proof, in the words of one @sherlocklestat, that “feminism poisons EVERYTHING”; and as substantiation, according to another Twitter malcontent, of Park’s alleged racism against white people (“Count # times @suey_park says ‘white liberals’ in this video & ask who has an agenda and who is racist”). In the hive mind that is the Internet, sentimentality and cruelty are twin aspects of the same brand of self-indulgence, and whether you wind up on the receiving end of moist-eyed mercy or an endless stream of 140-character bile is mostly a matter of chance.
Every church sanctuary in the United States smells the same, and the Presbyterian church outside Chicago where Suey Park goes to pray is no different. It’s a mixture of stale cologne and perfume, comfortably lived-in upholstery, polished wood, settled dust. Park seems at home here. She greets a receptionist and waves to a handful of lingering youths, and they all smile in return. She leads me on a brief tour, trying not to disturb a man and woman praying together quietly in a pew near the altar.
Faith has always been a part of Park’s life, though her Christian background isn’t usually associated with her persona. “Christianity is part of who I am,” she told me. “I don’t need to announce it.” She’s dressed this morning in a burgundy suede skirt and sparkly bronze boots, a touch of edge offset by her soft, neutral makeup and glossy bob. She’s almost always smiling; her eyes are dark and quick and bright, and sometimes I catch her glancing at me sidelong as if I make her nervous. “I like this church a lot,” she said, noting that it wasn’t because of the denominational dogma—“I’m culturally Presbyterian”—but because it’s large enough that she can blend in and “just be a part of things.” She also appreciates that the congregants are open to the idea of Christian anti-oppression politics, unlike other more ostentatiously liberal churches, where, as she put it, “justice is just another brand.” (In August last year, she started the #NotMyChristianLeader hashtag to critique Christian figures whose ministry is too exclusive for her tastes—Christian feminists, for example, who don’t consider the interests or needs of women of color.)
Park was born in Detroit; her parents emigrated there from South Korea in the late ’80s, after her father was accepted into an MBA program at Wayne State University on scholarship. “They didn’t have a ton of money,” she said. “Some friends in grad school—three white people—took my parents in and let them live without paying rent.” They moved to Chicago when Park was five.
Park was an excellent student in high school. She likes to describe herself as “a scholarship girl,” a nod to the “scholarship boy” of Chicano intellectual Richard Rodriguez’s 1982 autobiography Hunger of Memory, a child of immigrants who must “move between environments, his home and the classroom, which are at cultural extremes, opposed.” The further the scholarship boy moves into academia, the greater the distance between himself and his family and cultural origins: The ivory tower is very white, and such a long way up.
Park’s folks were bootstraps-pulling conservatives, and for a while she bought into the right-wing narrative. “My dad was relatively close to the Tea Party. They watched Glenn Beck. I supported John McCain in my first year,” she said. “There’s pressure on immigrants that pushes them into believing in meritocracy. You have to believe in that.” But as Park progressed through the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, her views on American society changed; after having first joined Christian organizations upon her arrival, she was drawn to justice-oriented student groups. Soon she was participating in protests against the shooting of a black teenager by campus police and the unofficial use of a Native American mascot by the university. (The mascot, a caricature of a Native American chief, had been banned years earlier, but was still informally in use.) It was, by Park’s account, a lonely period in her life, with few university students or staff members willing to support her interest in protesting racism or sexism outside the limited purview of campus multicultural groups. Eventually, Park soured on college activism. It began to feel tokenizing: She had no interest in being anyone’s Asian sidekick.
After college, Park enrolled in an ethnic studies graduate program at Colorado State University, but then dropped out and quickly became a seasoned hand at spotting and protesting incidents of injustice online and off. In school, she had begun giving volunteer workshops and talks about race and gender activism at local colleges. She turned her amateur speaking engagements into a job by accepting paid requests from universities like UCLA and Purdue. All the while, her Twitter presence grew, and she knew enough to expect that people would get upset with her for questioning a paragon of liberal tolerance like Stephen Colbert, but she didn’t care. “It’s a crisis for people,” she observed, “because it’s messing with their self-image of goodness.”
Less than 24 hours after Park’s first #CancelColbert tweet, at 6:55 p.m. on March 27, 2014, it was the top trending hashtag in the United States for nearly five hours, according to iTrended.com. Park kept adding to the social media momentum: “#CancelColbert because white liberals are just as complicit in making Asian Americans into punchlines and we aren’t amused.”
The ruckus caught the attention of the media. Morning news shows covered #CancelColbert. Publications from The Nation to The Wall Street Journal ran online pieces mulling its meaning, what it signified about race and comedy, and what Americans should make of Suey Park. “#CancelColbert may have been silly and dumb and wrong in spirit,” Jay Caspian Kang wrote in an online post for The New Yorker, “but it’s worth asking if those of us who find it distasteful know as much about the intentions of the hashtag activists as we think we do.” HuffPost Live host Josh Zepps interviewed Park and assured her that “no one’s minimizing your right to have an opinion,” and then added: “It’s just a stupid opinion.” Even Colbert got involved, devoting a seven-minute segment to the hashtag, saying, “This was close: We almost lost me.” Google currently returns 12,700 results for Park’s name in conjunction with #CancelColbert; it also produces 119,000 results for her name and the word “disgusting.”
On March 31, 2014, Stephen Colbert addressed the #CancelColbert hashtag on his show.
Petitions about Park began to appear on Change.org, including one that demanded she be removed “as an Asian American representative.” On Reddit, users skewered her as “totally fucking racist,” “a piece of shit,” and fantasized about her being stabbed and beaten. On 4chan and its offshoots, people attempted to figure out where she lived and worked. She grew concerned enough about her safety that she began canceling speaking appearances. “I lost my income. I wasn’t safe,” Park said. “It was scary. Really scary.”
“People were sending her death threats on her cell phone, people were taking pictures of her,” recalled Andrea Smith, a University of California-Riverside professor and acquaintance of Park’s. “I switched to burner phones. I guess they were using my phone to track me,” Park told me. “Once I rode the subway for hours and hours, just hoping there wouldn’t be reception.”
When a group of online trolls found out where she was living, she cut her hair, left Chicago, and headed to New York City to stay with friends. But even there, the hashtag followed her. She went to a dance bar in Manhattan one night with Janani Balasubramanian, a writer and spoken word artist. At one point Park noticed a group of strangers taking pictures of her and went over to confront them. “They had photos of Suey and me and another friend who was with us from a café the day before. They had been stalking us up and down the city over multiple days,” Balasubramanian said. Park fled the club, but the strangers followed her. She glimpsed them rounding street corners, still tailing her, until she and her friends managed to lose them. “I kept seeing them following us. It was—surreal,” Park said, still troubled by the memory. She doesn’t know who they were, what they wanted, or what became of the photos they took.
Park insists that she never meant to actually cancel Colbert. Writing for Time.com the day after the tag went viral, Park and Eunsong Kim, another online activist, said that the intent was “to speak back to Colbert’s racism,” not to cause the end of the show. “I did the same thing Stephen Colbert did,” Park told me. “I used hyperbole to make a point. He used Orientalism, I used satire.”
Eventually, #CancelColbert earned the Taiwanese video treatment.
Park isn’t as abrasive on Twitter as she once was. (Nor is she as prolific: “I definitely tweet less now,” she said. “Back then, I tweeted, retweeted things hundreds of times a day. Now, maybe fifteen, twenty. Some days, I don’t tweet at all.”) A recent tweet—“I don’t know if I believe in romantic love anymore, or if it exists separately from violence. I do believe more than ever in friendship”—seems to come from a different person altogether. She grew uncomfortable when I asked why conflict on Twitter had once ensnared her to such an extent. “You don’t have a PR person telling you what to say. Sometimes I feel like a child celebrity, defined by some things said and done in immaturity forever.”
Park’s understanding of her Twitter presence carries a distinctly Christian note. “It’s a lot like purity politics in the church,” Park observed, referring to the tendency of Twitter groups to attack perceived wrongdoers. It is, she pointed out, a strategy that works for activists until it turns on them. “You do one wrong thing,” Park said, “and you’re tainted. You’re out forever.”
Christianity has always been a part of Park’s desire for justice. In 2013, she co-founded Killjoy Prophets, an ecumenical Christian organization aimed at raising the voices of women of color within the church. The idea of Killjoy is “to connect faith to larger organizing campaigns for racial and gender justice,” Park said, and to “refuse to be silent as we see people continually use ‘God’ as an excuse for U.S. nationalism.” As a ministry, Killjoy also aims to undo years of deeply inscribed racism and sexism in the structures of particular churches.
She attends church regularly, and keeps a finger on the pulse of Chicago’s faith-based activism. Frank Yamada, president of Chicago’s McCormick Theological Seminary, called Park a “post-evangelical evangelical with a very strong commitment to justice, but who is also claiming and reclaiming the discourses of post-colonial thought and feminist theology.” She is someone with all of the spirited zest of American evangelicalism, plus the added fire of an anti-colonial racial justice advocate. In short: a person with no clear home in the American evangelical tapestry.
Looking back on #CancelColbert, it’s hard to square the villain of so many tweets and think pieces with the open-minded activist with the Midwestern twang and soft pink nail polish I met in Chicago, the same one who said to me in a gently reassuring tone the first time we spoke: “I don’t hate white people. I know people say I do, but I don’t.” Park has, of course, had to contend with that accusation on more than one occasion. (Given the nature of her earlier tweets, it’s not exactly a surprise.)
Tracing Park’s life online, I occasionally got the feeling I was looking at a picture in a high school yearbook taken before its subject could pose. Growing up has never been easy. Nor has it ever been something that definitively stops. I am reminded of Yeats’s meditation on aging, “Among School Children”: “O chestnut-tree, great-rooted blossomer, / Are you the leaf, the blossom or the bole? / O body swayed to music, O brightening glance, / How can we know the dancer from the dance?” A person’s life is, of course, comprised of all its moments, and a person comprised of all his or her experiences taken together. But the Internet, with its instantaneous responses and global reach, tends to make the passage of phases harder than ever. Each of us, it increasingly seems, is one selfie-stick-snap or ill-considered tweet away from being permanently crystallized in a single moment of our immaturity, like insects preserved in amber.
The Internet is not a mindless shame-randomizer, but a multitude of different hordes, each with its own interests. If a person’s reputation is perpetually tied to one thought or remark, it is likely thanks to the efforts of a specific group of people who tweet, retweet, blog, reblog, tag, retag, and otherwise create the terms on which a person will be understood, whether or not he or she likes it, whether or not they have changed. It really is like high school forever: Try to think of something worse.
In Chicago, on the long walk to the café where Park works part time as a barista, we pondered the mysteries of the Internet, something millennials tend to do, knowing we are meant to be natural masters of all digital environs, but also that we are as baffled by them as anyone. Especially by all the meanness of it, the endless positional hustling, the two-minute hates.
I was reminded of that special set of online rights presently exclusive to Europeans and Argentinians: the right to be forgotten, or, as the French have it, le droit d’oubli, the right to oblivion. I asked Park if there were aspects of her Web presence she would prefer to disappear? Would she exercise the right to be forgotten?
“No,” she said, laughing a little. “I don’t want to lose all my digital history.”
What about a right to change? Would she want that?
I was hurrying to catch up to her as she answered me, the breeze lifting her hair back from her cheek as she smiled, looking ahead.
“I really like the sound of that.”