“When we deployed shame, we were utilizing an immensely powerful tool. It was coercive, borderless, and increasing in speed and influence. Hierarchies were being leveled out. The silenced were getting a voice. It was like the democratization of justice.”-Ronson, p. 10
When someone does or says something truly ugly, the impulse is so strong to join the barrage of Tweets and commentary on everything wrong with them and what they’ve done. Even if I don’t have my own commentary to offer, I still get the urge to click that Retweet button, just to plant my flag in the dirt, letting all of you out there know that I am on the correct side. It feels like justice. Like we’re collectively saying “no!” to people who engage in unacceptable behaviors. We’re making our voices heard, declaring that we won’t stand for it! And we don’t even have to organize or step outside of our homes and into the streets to do it, not like the old days. We don’t even have to worry about that pesky “empathy” that could arise at the image of a person locked into the stocks in the town square like the really old days.
“Naming and shaming” and “cancel culture” is pervasive online, and we have seen that this can have dramatic real-world effects. One of many incidents I personally recall witnessing on my Twitter feed as it occurred in real-time happened several months after the Boston Marathon bombing in 2013. That Halloween, a young woman in Michigan chose a costume that she thought was funny for her workplace party. She dressed up like a marathon runner, painted her face, arms, and legs with sooty-looking wounds, fake blood running down; she went as a bombing victim. She Tweeted a picture of herself in the costume, hand on cocked hip, the mandatory girl-pose, smiling brightly. Captioned with, “And the most offensive costume at work goes to…#toosoon?” To make a…well, it wasn’t a long story..to make a short story shorter, the Tweet blew up, and people were pissed. We New Englanders are not known for long fuses to begin with, and had recently been collectively traumatized by images of blown-off limbs and violent police shootouts in the middle of residential neighborhoods.
“you are an absolutely disgusting human being.“
“Wow. If she has kids, would she put them in bloodied Sandy Hook shirts?“
“Is that chick with the marathon bombing halloween costume dead yet? have we killed her yet? If we haven’t, then what are we waiting for?”
“You should be ashamed, my mother lost both her legs and I almost died in the marathon. You need a filter.“
“[not sharing the name] is the bitch from MI who wore the marathon bombing costume. Make sure she fries, ignorant clam.”Zarrell, 2013
It didn’t take very long for her to be doxxed; she had shared a picture of her driver’s license on social media at some point, so that was easy pickings. She had some nudes somewhere online too, so of course those were Tweeted out. Her address, her parents’ address, and phone numbers were all shared. Like everyone who gets doxxed, they were barraged with anonymous death and rape threats. The woman would ultimately be fired from her job.
Are these effects deserved? Who decides whether they are or not? If we want to talk about offensive Halloween costumes, HuffPost noted other marathon victim costumes having been spotted, as well as George Zimmerman/ Trayvon Martin ones. To my knowledge, not all of them were doxxed. So who gets to choose?
In Jon Ronson’s So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, he details several stories of individuals whose lives were irrevocably altered due to public attention on some misdeed. He talks about Jonah Lehrer, a brilliant science writer who I fondly remember as a contributor to one of my favorite podcasts, Radiolab. In a nutshell, Jonah had been caught misquoting something, which led to closer scrutiny of his other work, which led to the discovery of more unethical journalistic practices (p. 38-39). (As an aspiring author, this story makes me quite nervous) He lost work, of course, but he also was thoroughly dragged online.
“Internet message boards were replete with comments like ‘The twerp is such a huge over-achiever that there’s something delightful about seeing him humbled’ (The Guardian) and ‘Save the royalties from your book, blockhead, ’cause you’re gonna need the money’ (The New York Times) and ‘It must be strange to be so full of lies’ (Tablet)“Ronson, p. 38
You really should read Ronson’s book, because he relates this story (and all stories, really) better than I ever could. But Jonah eventually decided to make a public apology, at a Knight Foundation (they support burgeoning journalists) event. As he made his speech, a large screen behind him showed a live feed of Tweets. Can you guess what happened? I cringe imagining how this must have felt (yes, there was a screen in front of Jonah as well, and he could see the Tweets). Tweets about how boring his speech is. Tweets about how he’s deflecting, how his apology sucks, even one calling him a “friggin sociopath” (p. 46).
Ronson also talks about publicist Justine Sacco, who Tweeted this joke:
“Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just Kidding. I’m white!”
(Ronson, p. 68)
She became the target of the Twitter mob; she was even trending worldwide for a time (p. 69). She lost her job, and, for a while, her sense of safety – as we know from the previous example, rape and death threats are common, especially for women who find themselves in the crosshairs, regardless of the reason for it. And, in her case, it appears that it wasn’t even so much outrage over her joke, but the joke being misunderstood…taken literally.
“It seemed obvious that her Tweet, whilst not a great joke, wasn’t racist, but a reflexive comment on white privilege – on our tendency to naively imagine ourselves immune from life’s horrors. Wasn’t it?“Ronson, p. 73
Essentially, this woman’s life was substantially altered for the worse because sarcasm does not translate well via text transmission. So, it seems that poor phrasing could be all the grounds necessary for millions of people to decide that a person is trash.
Here’s a weird one; a very controversial double-whammy. Adria Richards, who was a developer evangelist at a tech company called SendGrid (Zandt, 2013), was at a tech conference, sitting in the audience. Behind her, three guys were basically giggling and making dirty jokes using tech terms “dongles” and “forking.” Adria felt that this was disrespectful, so she snapped a picture of them, Tweeting it out with a little comment about it. One of the guys got fired. At this, a lot of people were mad – the guys were just kidding around with each other, and she got him fired? From her point of view, she felt that it was promoting a male-driven, “bro” culture to allow the sex jokes; that was her rationale. Being a woman of color in tech is to be vastly outnumbered by men; I can see where she’s coming from, not wanting to find herself in a “frat party” vibe at a professional conference…(And, by the way – the guy apologized, even after he was fired.) The infamous 4chan caught wind of this, and things really went south for Adria from there.
“A father of three is out of a job because a silly joke he was telling a friend was overheard by someone with more power than sense. Let’s crucify this c*nt.”
“Cut out her uterus with an xacto knife“
“On Facebook, someone wrote, ‘I hope I can find Adria, kidnap her, put a torture bag over her head, and shoot a .22 subsonic round right into her fucking skull. Fuck that bitch make her pay make her obey.‘”Ronson, p. 120
There were “deepfakes” porn videos made with her face superimposed on the actress’ bodies. She was sent a photo “…of a beheaded woman with tape over her mouth” (Ronson, p. 120). When 4chan people crashed her employer’s website, she, too, was fired.
Monica Lewinsky knows a thing or two about what it’s like to be raked over the coals by millions of strangers. Talk about a power differential – a 20 something year old intern, being propositioned by the leader of the free world? But I don’t think people cared to discuss that at the time.
“Not a day goes by that I’m not reminded of my mistake. And I regret that mistake deeply…I was ‘patient zero’ of losing a personal reputation on a global scale almost instantaneously…I was branded as a tramp. Tart. Slut. Whore. Bimbo. And, of course, ‘that woman.’ I was seen by many, but actually known by few…The public humiliation was excruciating. Life was almost unbearable…A marketplace has emerged where public humiliation is a commodity, and shame is an industry. How is the money made? Clicks. The more shame, the more clicks. The more clicks, the more advertising dollars.”Monica Lewinsky, TED Talk
So, am I saying it is okay to be racist or make tasteless jokes? Is it okay to have affairs with married men? Plagiarize and charge money for the books? Some who are publicly shamed have done things much more serious than the above examples – What about public officials or prominent figures who have rape allegations brought against them? Why shouldn’t we “cancel” them? Or other criminals? Shouldn’t they be held accountable? “Outed” as the “trash” they are?
First of all, I really think we could benefit from letting go of a false dichotomy – that we are either overlooking wrongdoing, or we approve of public shaming and “cancel culture.” What we should be aiming for is nuance. With nuance comes true accountability for those who have done wrong, whether that wrong is serious or minor. I want us all to use critical thinking on a daily basis, rather than accepting out of hand that whoever gets “cancelled” must “deserve” it. It matters. Because we are creating a society in which it is very, very difficult to grow and change. Principles of restorative and transformative justice are applicable here, whether we are talking about criminals, or jerks, or just plain old mistake-makers.
“The Centre for Justice and Reconciliation defines restorative justice as ‘a theory of justice that emphasizes repairing the harm caused by criminal behavior.’ …While reconciliation is promoted, it’s understood that it is the aim, as opposed to an expected outcome. Transformative justice, while bearing a strong similarity in intention with restorative justice, includes a component of examining how social structures and circumstances contribute to harmful behaviors. The impact of harm on the community and not just the individual is addressed in both approaches, but the transformative approach places more equal weight, perhaps, on the individual and the community’s long-term healing by focusing on questions and resolutions that promote an understanding of how social systems contributed to the problem.“Ortiz, 2018
Think about the word “cancel.” We’re not demanding anything from wrongdoers; no amends, no growth or change. We’re not even really telling them why they are wrong. We’ve decided that they are worthless and ought to be discarded, “cancelled.” When it comes to public shaming, what it really comes down to is punishment. No pragmatism, repair of harm, accountability, or even true social justice. The “justice” it brings about is superficial, playing into a retributive approach that has exacerbated existing social problems and caused new ones (hi there, mass incarceration). The sole purpose is to hurt, not to fix anything. If anything, people who are “punished” tend to feel they don’t have to feel remorse or understanding – if anything, they feel persecuted, or at the very least, that we’re now “even.” I did something to you, you did something back to me. Why care about understanding what’s wrong with what I’ve done?
Wendy C. Ortiz spoke about her experience of being in a sexual relationship with a 28 year old teacher when she was just 13 (I don’t label her “victim” or “survivor” here because she has explicitly said that she does not like to be labeled as such, and I am certainly not going to impose that on her).
“Calling out abuse can be a powerful act for an individual, but without support beyond this act, it’s difficult to locate a place of power or ‘justice.’ The shunning, isolation, and in many cases, incarceration of people who fall into the ‘perpetrator’ category does not solve the problem of sexual violence, and often overlooks, if it does not outright ignore, the fact that the person’s behavior is possibly, even likely, part of a familial or generational cycle. Opportunities for healing on an individual level, let alone a community level, are lost.“Ortiz, 2018
If we really care about social justice, in my view, we ought to focus on restoration rather than public cyber-lashings. On empowering those who have been wronged, and demanding accountability for those who have inflicted it. Accountability is not the same thing as punishment. Accountability is an ongoing process that seeks to repair harm that has been done (Libert et al., 2006). Here, Ortiz is talking specifically about crime, but I think the logic applies to wrongdoing in general:
“If we are only willing to call out abusers to scapegoat and isolate them, what progress have we made toward healing for the survivor, and even the abuser? If we press charges and enter the criminal justice system to seek justice and an abuser is incarcerated, how does this address the harm done on a human-to-human level?”Ortiz, 2018
Here’s an example of someone who changed as a result of dialogue: Megan Phelps-Roper. She grew up in the Westboro Baptist Church, infamous for picketing the funerals of gay people and fallen soldiers with signs that say, “God Hates F**s” or “Thank God for Dead Soldiers.” For her entire life, she’d been taught that everyone outside of her church was doomed to hell, and that they had been appointed by God himself to remind us of that. For her whole life until leaving, she participated in activities that caused a great deal of pain, oftentimes for people who were already grieving the loss of a loved one. The patience and communication that she received from people online helped her see reality, ultimately turning away from the poisonous ideology. Alarmingly, she recognizes the pitfalls of the church she escaped from in the discourse of today.
“I can’t help but see in our public discourse so many of the same destructive impulses that ruled my former church…We write off half the country as out of touch liberal elites, or racist misogynist bullies. No nuance, no complexity, no humanity. Even when someone does call for empathy and understanding for the other side, the conversation nearly always devolves into a debate about who deserves more empathy. And just as I learned to do, we routinely refuse to acknowledge the flaws in our positions, or the merits in our opponents’. Compromise is anathema. We even target people on our own side when they dare to question the party line.”Megan Phelps-Roper, TED Talk
In my view, public shaming will never bring us justice. No matter how much we all enjoy that little rush we get from Tweeting our outrage. It’s a way of approaching conflict that will sustain and reinforce the social problems we are trying to fight against. Do we really think that we can socially boycott human beings out of existence? Even if we could, do we really think that is moral and just? As for me, I’m doing my best to leave doors open, giving people room to learn and change. I don’t always succeed, but I’ll always try. Even when it’s hard.
Resources for learning more about restorative or transformative justice:
- PBS News Hour
- Law Enforcement Bulletin
- Charter for Compassion
- Zehr Institute for Restorative Justice
- Cal Casa
- Prison Studies Project
I Grew Up in the Westboro Baptist Church. Here’s Why I Left: Megan Phelps-Roper (2017) TED. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bVV2Zk88beY
HuffPost (November 3, 2013) Boston Marathon Bombing Victim Halloween Costume Prompts Online Fury. Retrieved from https://www.huffpost.com/entry/boston-marathon-victim-costume_n_4208720
Ortiz, W. C. (April 10, 2019) Punishment is Not Justice: Defying Definitions After Sexual Violence. Bitch Media. Retrieved from https://www.bitchmedia.org/article/feature/punishment-is-not-justice
The Price of Shame: Monica Lewinsky (2015) TED. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=H_8y0WLm78U
Public Shaming as Social Control: Jon Ronson (2015) Rotman School of Management, Big Ideas Speaker Series. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xa0TsbQt6GY
Rachel Libert (Director), Todd Wider (Producer), Jedd Wider (Producer), Rachel Libert (Producer), Tied to the Tracks Films (Producer), (2006). Beyond Conviction. New York, NY: The Cinema Guild. [Streaming Video]. Retrieved from video.alexanderstreet.com/watch/beyond-conviction database
Ronson, J. (2015) So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed. Kindle Edition. Riverhead Books, New York.
Zandt, D. (March 22, 2013) Why Asking What Adria Richards Could Have Done Differently Is The Wrong Question. Forbes. Retrieved from https://www.forbes.com/sites/deannazandt/2013/03/22/why-asking-what-adria-richards-could-have-done-differently-is-the-wrong-question/#3625d49735cb
Zarrell, R. (November 2, 2013) What Happens When You Dress As A Boston Marathon Victim And Post It On Twitter. BuzzFeed News. Retrieved from https://www.buzzfeednews.com/article/rachelzarrell/what-happens-when-you-dress-as-a-boston-marathon-victim