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The Reaction to Jemele Hill’s Choice of Words Shows How Controversy Escalates

The outcome may have been different if Hill called Donald Trump a racist instead of a white supremacist.

You know Jemele Hill as the anchor of ESPN’s evening SportsCenter, a.k.a The Six. I know her as my friend for 18 years, going back to our days as college beat writers for the Detroit Free Press. I suspect that if I write nice things about my friend today, a lot of people will be angry—that if I tell you Jemele is fundamentally decent, frequently hilarious, terminally down-to-earth and always a good time, that some people will get so pissed off they will stop reading. So instead, I’ll just tell you a quick story.

We were out drinking on the road one night, many years ago, two young sportswriters who had no idea how much their industry would change. I have wanted to be a sports columnist since I was a teenager, and when the Free Press gave me a chance to write columns every week or two, I jumped at it. Jemele was more reluctant. So at this bar one night, Jemele asked me:

“Mike, do you like writing columns?”

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Jemele had plenty of intelligent opinions, and a worldview and life experience that made her different from most sports commentators. But she also liked getting along with people, and a bunch of fans had just ripped her over a column she had recently written. She could not quite understand why a person would choose to bring that kind of ire upon herself on a regular basis. I have spent a lot of time in the last few days wondering how the hell we got here.

You have probably heard by now: this week, Jemele tweeted that President Donald Trump is a white supremacist. It brought a ton of blowback, an apology to her employer, and a call by Trump’s press secretary for her to be fired.

Maybe this is just me, but I draw a distinction between racist and white supremacist. White supremacy is commonly associated with (or even conflated with) white separatism, the concept that races should not associate with each other because whites will somehow be contaminated. I can think of a lot of people that I would consider racists, but I would hesitate to call them white supremacists.

Some would argue that the rungs on this linguistic ladder are too close to each other for the difference to matter. Others would argue that Donald Trump does not deserve the benefit of the distinction. I understand that.

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But I think the distinction does matter. Think this through with me. If Jemele Hill had called the President of the United States a racist, we would not be talking so much about her this week. I say this because last year New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof wrote a column examining the question “Is Donald Trump a Racist?” and concluded that he was. Kristof is a liberal, but he is also a two-time Pulitzer Prize winner and nobody’s idea of a hot-take artist. You do not generally apologize to your employer for agreeing with Nicholas Kristof.

The distinction between racist and white supremacist also matters because we don’t make distinctions like this often enough, especially when we talk about politics. We escalate at every turn. Political arguments have become an all-or-nothing street race; nobody says, “Hey, let’s slow down here and make sure nobody gets hurt.” We all want to win too much.

This became a major problem in the 1990s, and it has gotten progressively worse. Bill Clinton was not just wrong to have sex with an intern and deny it; he needed to be impeached. George W. Bush did not just misjudge the difficulty of winning the Iraq War; he was a criminal who needed to be impeached. The louder the arguing gets, the less rational the argument becomes. Tribalism dominates our political process, and political parties are now like college football teams: our side versus theirs. We are at the point where many people will believe anything from their own side, whether or not it’s true. We just want ammunition for the argument. Donald Trump did not create this phenomenon, but he sure capitalized on it.

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I did not see a lot of liberals argue that Trump is a racist but Jemele should not have called him a white supremacist. I also did not see conservatives argue that she was wrong to call him a white supremacist but they understand why she is angry.

And I do not see people who believe, as I do, that Trump winks at white supremacists because he is desperate for love from anybody who supports him, and while it is despicable, it is not quite the same as him being a white supremacist.

Why don’t more people say this? I guess it’s possible that I’m the only one who feels this way. But I think it’s more about the environment. Twitter attention is the drug of choice for many journalists, and the quickest way to get it is to enflame. It doesn’t even matter whom you enflame, or who—the beauty of enflaming is that you can do it to both sides at once. If you express your outrage over a story about Hillary Clinton, for example, you will enflame those who love her and those who hate her. People will either share your outrage or be outraged by it.

Like most popular drugs, Twitter attention is easy to obtain, highly addictive, and ultimately destructive. It corrupts the addicts and taints those who enable them.

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To be clear, here: I have not talked to Jemele this week (we are only in touch sporadically these days) but I highly doubt she was trying to enflame. Her tweets were replies to individuals, for one. And for as long as I have known her, she has come by her opinions honestly. But, like the rest of us, she is operating in a world where online political combat is alluring, and always just a click away. The reaction to her tweet was all about enflaming people, and the bizarre appeal of being enflamed yourself.

It was inevitable that the fire would eventually reach the White House, and also inevitable that the official response from Sarah Huckabee Sanders was that Hill should be fired.

What did you think Sanders would say?

Well, maybe a short suspension would be appropriate here, but we’ll leave that up to ESPN.

This was just another typical news story in America in 2017. It started with anger and ended with even more anger. Arguments keep escalating. No opinion is too extreme if it comes from somebody on your team. Barack Obama was not born here. Donald Trump is the same as Vladimir Putin. Colin Kaepernick hates America. Everybody who voted for Trump is a white supremacist.

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On we go. But where do we think we’re going?

For whatever it’s worth: I don’t think most people who voted for Donald Trump are white supremacists, or that their primary motivation was racism; I think people will overlook almost anything to support their team, and many of them are so fired up that they are not even conscious of everything they overlook. I think Jemele Hill is an outstanding person who is rightfully furious at what is happening in our country, and as an African American who rose from the inner city to a prominent position, she feels an obligation to speak out. I do not agree with her choice of words, but I understand the genesis behind them. I think if most Trump voters sat on the barstool next to hers, they would think she was fundamentally decent, frequently hilarious, terminally down-to-earth and always a good time. I just can’t figure out how to fit all of this in a tweet.