There are lines in the sand, and then there are lines that reach down to the earth’s core. Expressing a political opinion out of step with your family might get you some uncomfortable silences around the dinner table. But favorably referencing Hitler? That puts you on the far side of any possible line you can imagine.
Speaking approvingly of Hitler isn’t the same thing as, say, speaking approvingly of the Second Amendment or the right to legal abortion. It’s not just a different perspective. It borders on hate speech.
So why does DeSean Jackson, who did exactly that over the weekend, still have a job with the Philadelphia Eagles? Shouldn’t he be out on the streets holding the shreds of his two-more-years contract? Why aren’t people clamoring for his job the way they’ve clamored for so many others after unwise social media posts?
We’re in a cancel-happy culture right now. Some of this is a long-overdue and well-deserved reckoning for people who have skated for too long, avoiding due punishment for harassment and abuse. Far more troubling are the career-wrecking cancellations for just expressing thoughts — say, uninformed or unpopular takes on current social movements. Getting fired for tweeting is one of the dumbest possible ways to get yourself canned, and yet it happens all the time.
Me, I’m generally against anyone losing their job for posting something stupid on Twitter or Instagram. I tend to believe we’re more than just our social media personas. That said, there’s a reason Godwin’s Law exists, a reason why Hitler is the endpoint of every online spat: It doesn’t get any worse.
Which brings us back around to Jackson, who posted on Instagram a virulently anti-Semitic quote falsely attributed to Hitler, then doubled down after criticism and re-posted a portion of the same quote. He apologized, but he deserves no defense and isn’t going to get one here. He said what he said, and as of 6 p.m. ET on Tuesday, he was still employed.
It’s impossible to tell if Jackson’s actively anti-Semitic or if he was just thoughtlessly passing on anti-Semitic ideas. Either way, there’s no justification for what he wrote. None. If you’re going to fire somebody for their words, this is about as clear-cut a case as you’re going to get.
Playing the hypothetical “what-if” game — what if Jackson were white, what if he’d criticized Christianity rather than Judaism, et cetera — serves zero purpose except to spiral the continual game of “gotcha” that fuels social media in 2020. Social media sanctimony is easy — off with their heads! is the simplest of all solutions, right? — but listening, educating and understanding is much harder, and much more important.
The Eagles’ initial statement called Jackson’s posts “offensive, harmful and absolutely appalling,” which is correct. The team also called on Jackson to use his platform to promote “unity, quality and respect,” which is a nice idea. The Eagles also held open the possibility that further recrimination could be coming.
If Jackson keeps his job — that’s a very big if at this point — the only good that might come out of it would be the idea that we can judge people based on their character, intent and willingness to learn, rather than their social media posts. If we can back off the throttle, if we can ease back on the zero-to-redline outrage, we’ve got a lot better chance of reaching people than battering them over the head with pledges to end their careers over a tweet.
With-us-or-against-us is a hell of a rallying cry for a team and a fan base. It doesn’t work so well with the complexities of expression and belief. And calling for the job of everyone who cuts against the prevailing political sentiment robs a movement of its might when you come up against a case like this one, where — again — a guy favorably referenced Adolf Hitler.
“I post a lot of things that are sent to me,” Jackson wrote after the Eagles’ statement. “I do not have hatred towards anyone. I really didn’t realize what this passage was saying. Hitler has caused terrible pain to Jewish people like the pain African Americans have suffered. We should be together fighting anti-Semitism and racism. This was a mistake to post this and I truly apologize for posting it and sorry for any hurt I have caused.”
I’m inclined to believe him, or at least allow that he deserves an opportunity to show that he understands how badly he screwed up. The Philadelphia branch of the Anti-Defamation League, devoted to fighting anti-Semitism in any form, granted him a chance to prove his words aren’t just words:
ADL appreciates @DeSeanJackson10 apology for the #antisemitic posts on his Instagram and the @Eagles condemnation of them. It's our hope he uses this moment as a chance to work with the Jewish community and educate himself further on how dangerous and hurtful antisemitism is.— ADL Philadelphia (@ADLPhiladelphia) July 7, 2020
Maybe a September suspension to give him a bit of time to fight anti-Semitism and racism? The sooner we take the focus off words and put it on actions, the better.
Jay Busbee is a writer for Yahoo Sports. Follow him on Twitter at @jaybusbee or contact him with tips and story ideas at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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