WASHINGTON – On Tuesday, Dr. Phil, drawling psychologist to the masses, posted a tweet that some interpreted as, at best, tone-deaf and, at worst, a tacit encouragement for date rape. “If a girl is drunk, is it okay to have sex with her?” someone from his account tweeted at 5:49 p.m. “Reply yes or no to @drphil #teensaccused.”
“If Dr. Phil is drunk, is it okay for him to tweet?” responded one follower. Another wondered, “If a person is a mysognyist [sic], is it okay to just refer to him as ‘Dr. Phil’ from now on?” Within a few hours, Oprah Winfrey’s former acolyte became thoroughly detested online. Then he compounded the situation by committing what has become an unpardonable sin in the public venues through which we conduct discourse: He deleted the tweet.
On his timeline, the comment no longer appears, but other Twitter users made sure it wasn’t gone. “Hey, @DrPhil, if someone deletes his tweet, is it okay to post a screen shot of it?” queried a user who attached a cached image. Others were more direct: “@DrPhil is a bloody coward and has since deleted the tweet.”
While some users applauded the attempt to remove what they saw as garbage, the prevailing notion was this: Dr. Phil McGraw had created the garbage, therefore he should have to sit with the garbage, a scarlet garbage letter affixed to his chipper, family-expert profile. The deletion became, for some, nearly as objectionable as the original missive.
For half a decade, we have issued online playbooks to teenagers, warning them against posting tipsy photos on Facebook or texting compromising images by cellphone. It is common knowledge that nothing really disappears online. Enemies might cut, paste and screen-grab your worst mistakes into infamy.
What is interesting is the way that this warning — nothing disappears online — seems to have become law. This is an era of no take-backs, and those who attempt them are viewed as either idiots who don’t understand the system or weasels who are trying to game it. It can’t be gamed: Websites collect celebrities’ deleted tweets the way they once collected side-boob shots. The designer Kenneth Cole was harangued in 2011 for tweeting that Egyptian uprisings might be due to hordes of people trying to score items from his new collection, and then he was castigated for removing the tweet.
“Deleting a tweet is not an apology,” said Steven Petrow, who writes a digital etiquette column for Parade magazine. “And if that’s the thing you’re attempting to do, you need to make an apology.” That, he speculates, is what makes people so angry about deleted tweets. It is not atoning; it is removing.
Twitter, unfortunately, is a very difficult medium for the redemption narrative. It doesn’t lend itself well to these stages. Each set of 140 characters or less is taken as a discrete occurrence, divorced of larger context. The comedian Patton Oswalt recently conducted an experiment in how little people seek context on Twitter, posting a series of two-part tweets that were innocuous if read together but diabolical if read independently, as many people did.
If there is a larger context in the Dr. Phil debacle, it is this: His entire Twitter feed — chin-up aphorisms and pop psychology — is dedicated to pairing intimate questions with hashtags and encouraging debate among his followers. Another recent tweets said, “If you knew you’d never be caught, would you cheat on your partner? Tweet your answer to @drphil with hashtag #cheaters.”
In this context, Dr. Phil’s “drunk sex” tweet might still have been read as problematic. It targeted intoxicated women instead of intoxicated people, and it presented the situation as if either choice might be correct (Why, yes, it is okay to have sex with a drunk girl!) in a post-Steubenville era when people should be better informed about the rules of consent.
But, in this context, a reader probably also would have realized that the tweet was meant to be a discussion topic rather than a personal musing. That is how Dr. Phil’s team is explaining it.
“This tweet was intended to evoke discussion leading into a very serious show topic based upon a recent news story,” a spokesperson said in statement. “Dr. Phil deleted it the second he saw it. It was clearly ill-advised. We sincerely apologize that it suggested anything other than what was intended, data gathering. As you can imagine, Dr. Phil is very upset that this happened.”
The apology was not, however, posted on his Twitter feed.
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