Don’t Fire People for Dumb Tweets

On Wednesday, Will Wilkinson, a New York Times contributor and vice president at the center-right think tank the Niskanen Center made a joke on Twitter. “If Biden really wanted unity,” he tweeted, “he’d lynch Mike Pence.”

The joke has been called “bad” and “offensive” an innumerable number of times since. Wilkinson’s jape may have been in poor taste, but it did, in fact, work as a joke. You see, on January 6, people loyal to the president stormed the Capitol while chanting “Hang Mike Pence.” Less than two weeks later, a number of Republican lawmakers—many of whom pushed lies about election fraud that inspired that very insurrection—were lamenting Joe Biden and his party’s failure to unify the country. By their logic, the fastest path to Biden coming together with Trump’s base would be to fulfill one of the stated goals of the very mob that Trump and these GOP lawmakers incited: the lynching of Mike Pence.

Wilkinson’s joke, which some comedy experts might refer to as “a thinker,” highlighted that dissonance. Naturally, there are lighter and less fraught ways to make the same point—who knows, maybe, “If Biden really wanted unity, folks, he should resign and give the presidency to Donald Trump,” might have been another laugh riot of a line. But while the invocation of lynching is politically incorrect, there can be no doubt that Wilkinson was joking. There is no honest way of concluding that he was advocating violence on Twitter. (Parsing a joke’s funniness is guaranteed to ensure the joke will never be funny again, but because of the bad-faith nature of these particular accusations, this dreadful task must be undertaken.)

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