In a time before social media, if, in your life, you did something you weren’t proud of. Say perhaps over several years. Maybe you were a bully in school, maybe you made some bad mistakes in how you treated women or men and you came to realize at some point how wrong your behavior was. You might simply just move forward, never making those same mistakes again, perhaps even making sure you advocated to others the harms of certain behaviors because you once practiced them yourself.
What do we think about such a person? Is it enough to say lesson learned, they are now a force for good in the world and sharing their wisdom with others in hopes that patterns aren’t repeated?
We live now in a time where getting away from your past is not as easy as it once was. What if you had changed, became even enlightened, but somebody from your past decides that you are a charlatan because of a behavior you once espoused. What if you were an outspoken feminist, but suddenly someone mentioned that back in school you weren’t the feminist you are now, and that you are a fraud. You may have moved on, but the harm that you caused someone has left them hurt for years, and a number of other people are hurting to, because of who your past self was?
It feels like this call out culture we have on social media can be a vicious force. Socially isolating people from communities they are making positive impacts in, and in some cases losing credibility for their entire life as a result of it. And yet I also can’t help but feel some sympathy for victims of someone’s behavior. Seeing that they are becoming loved and admired for views they now espouse, but never having made amends to the people they hurt in their past. Thirty years ago this was hardly an issue, but now it is so easy to find people from your past and hold them accountable no matter how much they may have changed? Should the fact they have changed be enough to sate us, or should we bring them down as hard and fast as possible?
Maybe as we become enlightened as to the error of our ways, we should always be trying to make amends before we embark on a new crusade to enlighten others. Maybe that’s the better path if we want to make a more meaningful crusade for a better world? Maybe just trying to bury the past in the past is just being cowardly without facing up to it first and making amends with those we’ve hurt. Perhaps people shouldn’t be just allowed to move on without any consequences. Or this just us interested in hurting back instead of moving forward? Is it realistic to expect true apologies from those who have hurt us, or do we just have to find a way to move forward to and let be, what is?
Burbank, CA – Thanks to a cadre of people on Twitter Monday, racist Ellen Degeneres was thwarted from spreading her divisive, white privilege message to the world when she tweeted herself riding on the back of world’s fastest man Usain Bolt. People who had gone nearly minutes without being outraged by something quickly piled a dung heap of shame on the unsuspecting Degeneres forcing her to cry and immediately become a better person.
Professional shamer Lindsay Telson told reporters in an interview Wednesday that she was glad she could be one the first to strike shame into the heart of the unsuspecting comedienne. “Some people might have looked at the picture and taken time to consider what it was really trying to say, but I’ve become really good at spotting racism having used Twitter for many years now.” When asked whether she was still going to continue to fight, a weary but resolute Telson responded “Racism requires all the vigilance that social media can muster. That’s why I follow so many entertainers and people of import not only on Twitter, but Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat. People look up to them, and if I can be the first to call them out on their racism I know that such attitudes will soon disappear. Fighting complex and long time problems like racism 140 characters at a time is such a satisfying feeling. Also,” added Telson, “you get more people favoriting your tweets and more followers. So you can fight racism together.”
Long time shamer Randy Loeffler, who also helped shame Ellen, said shaming is a lot more in depth. “You see,” said a thoughtful Loeffler, “good shaming isn’t just about being first it’s about the level of outrage you display or how piercing your comment is to the person you are trying to shame. That’s really how you get people to favorite your tweet and follow you. I’m not saying being quick doesn’t matter, but I feel shaming is more nuanced.” Reporters took the opportunity to further question the experienced shamer to understand the shaming community better, “I’m not really fond of the term shamer. I mean it’s true, but I think of myself as more of the social police. We’re a community you know. In fact in my area we started a Facebook group called Outrage Outreach. Not a great name, but the person who thought of it was shamed appropriately. It’s nice to get a chance to get together in real life with fellow shamers. We don’t get to talk much to each other, but every once in a while we’re sitting at the table looking at our phones, somebody will call out something shameworthy that a celebrity has posted and we’ll all get on it. It’s a lot of fun, being outraged together and in person.”
But shamer Destiny Carter painted a more complex and discordant view of the shaming community. “First,” said a serious Carter, “shaming can be exhausting. You might start with shaming a celebrity, but then some people will support that celebrity’s racist tweet, and then you have to start shaming the supporters too then they shame you back. And it’s like there’s this bond you know because you clearly both like shaming, but you’re at odds.” Carter then became pensive before adding, “Personally I have found it hard to find good friends among my fellow shamers. One time I went out with one of them on a date. We didn’t talk much, but we I liked the fact that we were getting really outraged, so we had sex. But when actually talking after sex, while our phones recharged, it turned out that we felt very vulnerable and uncomfortable getting to know each other as people. The outrage that brought us together was gone. So I tweeted him the next day that I had fun, but that I didn’t think we should go out anymore. He got upset and tried to fat shame me because of his concerns to stop obesity and this forced me to shame him back to stop misogyny. I am sure he’s a better person now as a result of it. I don’t know…I had to block him when he started to slut shame me.”
To get a better perspective on shaming on social media, this reporter talked to Dr. Leonard Orville at Cornell University who said that social media has really led to a lot of healing in the U.S. today. “I don’t want to be too bold in my prediction, but I think that if we are able to maintain this level of shaming, by the year 2025 problems like racism will be a thing of the past. So many celebrities, athletes, politicians, and just regular everyday people are being shamed into a more egalitarian mindset and society is being mended at an alarming rate as a result. Hold on…is that a dreamcatcher on your tie? That’s cultural appropriation. Let me get my phone to take a picture.”
As I have immersed myself more into the world of social media, commenting on articles, the blogosphere there’s a very real attraction to it for me. I like putting ideas out there, I like being social, meeting people I never would have met. Overall I’m very positive about the way we communicate. Douglas Adams in a wonderful speech he gave (transcript here) talked about how humanity has made enormous leaps via, what he calls, the four ages of sand. Sand being made of silicon he outlines the 4 ages as:
1) Using silicon to make glass for the telescope
2) Using silicon to make glass for the microscope
These two allowed us to see the macro and micro universe around us.
3) The silicon chip. Computers with their ability to do many calculations quickly allowed us to model the process of how things work.
4) Silicon for fiber optics in the communication age.
Although of course at the time of the speech we didn’t use satellite as much as we do today, but there are still a lot of computer chips involved in those! The point is that Douglas Adams saw the power of being able to communicate with people remotely as a powerful tool.
Yet when we look at this great age where the world is being connected we tend to get overwhelmed by stories of social media addiction, the loss of time spent in the physical world, face to face communication, and some often harmful interaction.
It is this last one that is on my mind right now. I watched the interview recently with Jon Ronson on The Daily Show and he has a new book where he talks about internet shaming. One of the people he focuses on in his book is Justine Sacco. You may remember her, she was the one who made a joke tweet on her way to South Africa from Heathrow and from only having 170 followers to a landslide of people waiting to lambaste her at the end of her flight. His book looks at the history of shaming and what it means in todays day and age. He wrote a good piece in the New York Times if you don’t want to read the book. It’s a great article, long, but most definitely worth a read.
After years of using digital media for communication there are many challenges to overcome. I think that ultimately when you write things that people are going to read, you have to be a great writer. Without our physical gestures and voice intonation it’s easy for meaning to get lost. It’s easy for a joke to sound serious. It’s easy for well meaning advice or information to sound condescending. It’s easy for sincerity to be taken as sarcasm. But I was thinking that good writers are not so unambiguous and we pick up things like sarcasm and sincerity better. Maybe when we communicate through writing we need to think about how we say it more deeply before we do so. I think part of the illusion lies in the fact that we think we are actually having a conversation and try to type out things like we are, but in fact communicating through writing is not very much like a face to face conversation at all. Justine Sacco’s life was destroyed for making a joke to her few twitter followers, poking fun at white privilege and walked out of a plane into an absolute hellscape of a virtual mob who wanted her to hang. Someone on twitter was even there to take her picture as she walked off the plane.
This story also reminded me of recent events concerning the pizzeria owners who said they wouldn’t cater a gay wedding. A friend of mine linked me an article about how we really don’t benefit from publicly shaming those owners regardless of how discriminatory and prejudiced their views might be. Seeing that those bigots had over $800,000 raised in their name infuriated me and I could feel the anger rise in me and wanted to join the mob of people shaming the for their views. Luckily it occurred to me that being upset and shaming bigots doesn’t really change anything and that it would be better to put goodness into the world instead and decided to set up a fundraising account for an LGBT youth group in Indiana that does a lot of good work in schools and for young members of the LGBT community.
It’s amazing how easily we can succumb to being part of “the mob” through digital media. I’ve been caught up in it and I am sure many who read this have as well. When you reflect on it, it’s an empty feeling though. You get to feel bold for being part of
a righteous fight, and yet remain anonymous in that sea of virtual people calling out for someone’s blood. This is the other facet of the age of the internet is that posting comments behind the veil of a computer screen, or smart phone screen is that we feel protected and thus we say and do things we wouldn’t normally do. Everybody is familiar with “trolls” and the divisiveness they cause with their comments. In the end best advice really is “don’t feed the trolls”, but someone always does and arguments ensue. I know for me the internet allows me to be bolder than I am perhaps in real life and while sometimes I think it helps me gain some additional confidence in myself, more often I just use the internet as a shield to give compliments and say things I am too shy to say in person. Too often I also find myself assuming a more negative intention in the comments of others because the internet is full of people saying things that I don’t think they would say to your face. It’s kind of like how drinking affects people. Some people become open and honest in a kind way, others become belligerent and mean. For me I feel that it’s something I have improved on and need to keep improving to be the man on the internet that I am in real life.
I am not down on the communication age, I just feel like we’ve invented an important bit of technology that we haven’t figured
out how to use to the best of its ability yet. I think that there are a lot of important ways that the internet can be used that our too valuable to ignore. We can learn about issues all over the world that can foster our love of humanity and can help us see that we do truly live in a global community. Social media was used to organize a revolution in Egypt to overthrow a terrible dictator (sorry Egypt it hasn’t gotten much better), when in the past there would have been no easy way to send the message to everybody simply through a land line. Social media has been used to bring things to the light that would have caused more harm. A video of cop shooting a man in the back, racist chants from a sorority in Oklahoma, a video of a NFL football player knocking out his wife (not really about exposing the football player, but how it helped exposed how the NFL organization tried to cover up evidence they had about the incident) are examples of how the sharing of certain information has value. But I think we owe it to ourselves to try and take ourselves away from the mob mentality. What if Justine Sacco had made her joke to your face. Even if you weren’t clear that it was a joke would have you ran down the halls calling her a racist? You probably would have just removed yourself from her social circle, but you could have also taken her aside and turned it into a teachable moment about why her joke might not be found as funny, or asked follow up questions to understand her intention. Shaming is a terrible thing and how many of us have made jokes or comments we regret? How many times have we been wrong in our attitude or thinking and needed a chance to learn from our mistakes to come out better on the other side? Doesn’t everybody deserve that chance? Is it necessary to traumatize somebody for a few thoughtless words? Let’s instead try turn negatives into positives. Let’s try to teach instead of shame. Let’s try to understand instead of judge. I am no saint in this area, but I’m going to keep trying, because the benefits of this communication age I think are enormous. It is our disconnection from each other that leads to fear and mistrust I believe, and we can know and understand so many more people and issues today than we could 30 years ago and I truly believe that the power of the internet can lead to a new golden age for humanity.