Tuned In

Gilbert Gottfried and the Rise of Self-Twimmolation

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If you take a guy known for making outrageous jokes—like his notorious remarks at the Friars Club three weeks after 9/11—and hire him as the voice of your adorable duck mascot, you’re taking a risk. Particularly if you’re an insurance company, and you do business that may directly involve enormous tragedies. Aflac discovered that this week, when Gilbert Gottfried, the voice of its duck, tweeted a series of insensitive jokes on Twitter about the tragedy in Japan—where Aflac does 75 percent of its business. Gottfried apologized, but he is no longer Aflac’s spokesduck.

Is Gottfried a monster? It’s complicated; there’s a whole long essay about humor and catharsis (see that 9/11 routine, which other comics described as being as ultimately moving as it was offensive) and how comedians probe our dark places. This is not that essay. And if you take an advertising job, you can’t complain about losing it for creating a p.r. headache.

But Gottfried is the latest example of a firing over a quick, ill-advised tweet: what, for a lack of a better word, I will call twimmolation.

The great temptation of Twitter is to make everyone a comic, or an open-mic contestant anyway—or, at least, to write immediately, off the cuff and (in 140 characters) without much nuance. It may be a medium suited to (and dangerous for) comedians, but it’s not just comedians who have self-twimmolated lately. Nir Rosen, an academic, journalist and past TIME contributor, lost his job at NYU when he made light of Lara Logan’s sexual assault in Egypt. CNN’s Octavia Nasr last year was ousted after two decades for a tweet admiring of a deceased Hezbollah leader. A Chrysler PR employee got canned for a quick tweet—on the company account—disparaging the driving skills of Detroiters.

The problem here is that on Twitter it’s easy to get in deep trouble for stepping just this side across the line of practices that make you popular on Twitter—and that you’re rewarded for, up until the second that you’re not. Authors are urged by their publishers to interact, get in the mix and display a provocative voice. Journalists are encouraged to use social media and display “authenticity”—just don’t make it too authentic. Companies cultivate human, irreverent Twitter voices (that Chrysler employee worked specifically in the company’s social-media department).

What I have to wonder is, in the long run, will Twitter claim more and more careers early—or will it ultimately change our standards for what we consider firing offenses? Should we just accept that in the future, to over-paraphrase Warhol, we will all get ourselves fired in 140 characters? Or will the ease and accessibility of social media—and some tipping point of twimmolations—make people realize that everyone screws up, and increase our tolerance for the occasional idiotic, even beastly remark?

Of course, there’s a difference between stupid and monstrous—though not an objective one—and you could easily say that people should have the simple common sense to know the difference. I can’t judge that high-handedly, though, if only because something in the back of my mind fears that it is only a matter of time before I tweet something incredibly stupid, if not career-ending. I’ve never tweeted anything that bad—I think—but being a human with a sense of humor (who swears like a sailor in private), I’ve certainly thought of things, and said things privately, that would probably twimmolate me on Twitter.

I’d like to think I have common sense. But do I have common sense every moment of my life? Does anyone?

So yes, I’m offended by Gottfried’s jokes, but I’m loath to judge him entirely for them. There but for the grace of an internal censor—and a rich contract with an advertiser—go plenty of the rest of us.