With each passing year, it becomes harder to remember what life was like before the rise of social media and the creation of online cultural spaces. Despite these spaces becoming increasingly central to the Anglophonic middle-class experience, we are still grasping for the words and concepts that would allow us to discuss the realities of online living.
Part of the problem is that online spaces change more rapidly than the moral and linguistic frameworks we use to describe and evaluate them. For example, in the early days of Usenet, people would use the term ‘trolling’ to describe the act of making provocative statements in an attempt to elicit a response. As the Internet became more densely populated and online communities stabilised, people began to see trolling as an unambiguously anti-social activity, hence the once-ubiquitous request that people not ‘feed the trolls’. The more people came to frown upon intentionally provocative behaviour, the more trolling shifted from being something you did to something you were and so people now use ‘troll’ to refer to anyone behaving in an unpleasant or disruptive manner while online.
This linguistic drift is a clear sign that our cultural spaces are changing faster than our conceptual frameworks as while we still use the term ‘troll’ it now refers not only to people who make provocative statements in an effort to keep a conversation going but also to people who issue rape threats to celebrities. Common parlance encourages us to treat these types of activity as one and the same because common parlance lacks the linguistic and conceptual subtlety to cope with an ever-expanding array of online social contexts. We desperately need to talk about what happens to us when we go online and yet every time we try, we find ourselves hamstrung by a vocabulary that is always one step behind the spaces we choose to inhabit.
Many discussions of online behaviour work by comparison; they tell you what happened online and then compare those actions to a real-world equivalent and invite you to judge the online behaviour by a more familiar set of real-world standards. An excellent example of this methodology is Jacob Silverman’s infamous broadside against contemporary literary culture in which he claims that:
If you spend time in the literary Twitter- or blogospheres, you’ll be positively besieged by amiability, by a relentless enthusiasm that might have you believing that all new books are wonderful and that every writer is every other writer’s biggest fan. It’s not only shallow, it’s untrue, and it’s having a chilling effect on literary culture, creating an environment where writers are vaunted for their personal biographies or their online followings rather than for their work on the page.
While Silverman does an absolutely fantastic job of articulating his alienation from American literary culture, he grounds his alienation in a rather unflattering comparison between American writers chatting on Twitter and a previous generation of American writers engaging in the kind of ritualised provocation that dominated ‘60s and ‘70s literary culture:
Today’s reviewers tend to lionize the old talk-show dustups between William F. Buckley and Gore Vidal or Noam Chomsky, but they’re unwilling to engage in that kind of intellectual combat themselves. They praise the bellicosity of Norman Mailer and Pauline Kael, but mostly from afar. Mailer and Kael are your rebellious high school friends: objects of worship, perhaps, but not emulation. After all, it’s all so messy, and someone might get hurt.
Silverman’s comparison certainly raises some interesting questions about the nature of literary culture and the personas that contemporary authors choose to adopt but while we may share his nostalgic yearning for a time when authors could afford to be operatically mean, there is something deeply unsatisfying about such a flat comparison between two cultural contexts separated by entire generations. Surely Mailer and Kael adopted the personas they did because the literary culture of their day encouraged them to do so? Do we really want to believe that Normal Mailer was naturally a stone cold bitch but today’s writers are all frightened and weak-willed? Thinking about the past may provide a basis for judging the present but we must be careful that our desire for moral certainty does not eclipse our need for genuine understanding.
Jon Ronson’s latest book So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed uses the same basic methodology as Jacob Silverman’s essay: He considers our growing fondness for dog-piling people on social media and compares it to public floggings, locking people in the stocks and other forms of public humiliation. Much like Silverman, Ronson revels in the moral certainty that comes from comparing 21st Century Twitter users to 17th Century Puritans but while Ronson tries to balance condemnation and understanding, his preference for condemnation results in a book that is both frustrating and unbalanced.
So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed begins with Ronson summoning a Twitter mob to shame a bunch of academics into taking down a ‘bot that was using Ronson’s name and likeness to tweet about food and cock. This chapter really sets the tone for the book as while Ronson uses his flirtation with mob justice to begin a journey of self-discovery in which he comes to realise that he is part of the problem, you can tell that Ronson still thinks that his victims deserved it:
‘I think we feel annoyed with you,’ Dan continued […] we think there’s already a layer of artifice and it’s your online personality – the brand Jon Ronson – you’re trying to protect. Yeah?’
‘NO, IT’S JUST ME TWEETING,’ I yelled.
‘The Internet is not the real world,’ said Dan.
Ronson portrays the three academics as sociopathic charlatans who play games with other peoples’ lives and while he distances himself from the hatred spewed at them after he uploaded a video of their conversation, his description of the encounter is shot through with feelings of anger and moral outrage that are never adequately unpacked despite their relevance to the subject at hand.
From there, Ronson runs through a series of case studies in which he interviews people who had their lives turned upside down as a result of some more-or-less harmful faux pas: One person had their career destroyed for putting a soundbite into Bob Dylan’s mouth, another messed up the privacy settings of her Facebook account and wound up being targeted by American right-wingers, and a third made an off-colour joke about AIDS before boarding a transatlantic flight and discovered upon landing that her life and career were in ruins. Engaging and well-written, these chapters humanise the shamed and drive home the message that public shaming is a form of punishment that is brutal, disproportionate and ultimately quite arbitrary. Ronson dwells on numbers of Twitter followers and botched Facebook privacy settings because he wants us to see that these people did not deserve the punishments they received but he glosses over many of the subtleties including the difference between public and private speech.
By far the most interesting and morally ambiguous case study is the one dealing with a couple of guys at a tech conference who happened to be overheard when making lame jokes about ‘dongles’ and ‘forking someone’s repo’. Unfortunately for them, their private conversation was overheard by someone sitting in front of them who promptly turned around, took their picture and posted it on Twitter. Within minutes, one of the men had been sacked and the resulting counter-shaming resulted in the woman who took the picture also losing her job. Ronson interviews one of the guys and notes that he is now wary about what he says around women but the more arresting interview is with the woman who took the picture
‘Danger?’ I said.
‘Have you ever heard that thing, men are afraid that women will laugh at them and women are afraid that men will kill them?’ she said.
‘People might consider that an overblown thing to say,’ I said. She had, after all, been in the middle of a tech conference with 800 bystanders.
‘Sure,’ Adria replied. ‘And those people would probably be white and they would probably be male.’
This seemed a weak gambit. Men can sometimes be correct. There is some Latin for this kind of logical fallacy. It’s called an ad hominem attack. When someone can’t defe3nd a criticism against them, they change the subject by attacking the criticizer.
Speaking of ad hominem attacks, there’s a neat little rhetorical trick that Ronson repeatedly pulls throughout the book. Whenever he wants someone to come across as arrogant and unpleasant, he mentions how reluctant they were to grant him an interview. So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed is written in a very informal first-person style that encourages us to identify with Ronson’s viewpoint meaning that every time an interviewee is reluctant to answer Ronson’s questions (and frankly… why should they if they don’t want to?) it feels as though they are rejecting us the readers. Ronson pulls this trick with the woman who took the picture and goes on to paint her as someone whose moral certainty is downright dehumanising:
‘He’s a white male. I’m a black Jewish female. He was saying things that could be inferred as offensive to me, sitting in front of him. I do have empathy for him but it only goes so far. If he had Downs Syndrome and he accidentally pushed someone off a subway that would be different… I’ve seen things where people are like “Adria didn’t know what she was doing by tweeting it.” Yes, I did.’
Ronson goes out of his way to provide exculpatory contexts for most victims of shaming but his attempts to do the same for the woman who took the picture winds up painting her as a moral zealot who also happens to be emotionally unstable:
When I asked Adria if her childhood trauma might have influenced the way she’d regarded Hank and Alex, she said no. ‘They say the same thing for rape victims. If you’ve been raped you think all men are rapists.’ She paused. ‘No. These dudes were straight up not being cool.’
As with the academics in the opening chapter, Ronson paints an unflattering picture of an unrepentant sinner and revels in his own moral certainty rather than seeking the humanity that lurks behind the façade of strength and righteousness. In fact, Ronson’s description of the woman is so unflattering that I would suggest it constitutes a form of public shaming in its own right. Consider, for example, the impression of the woman contained in Rachel Cooke’s review of the book:
Two days later, one of these men – who knows on what grounds, exactly – was “let go” from his job. Richards’s satisfaction both in this, and in the “fear” she claims she felt when she overheard his puerile chatter, is so intense it seemed to me to border on something close to sexual excitement.
It is deeply regrettably that Ronson displays so little curiosity about his unrepentant sinner as trying to understand why people would want to publicly shame each other is a far more pressing and interesting question than the one that winds up dominating the second half of the book. Rather than exploring the world of online social justice activism or dwelling on the atavistic joys of mob justice in an age of growing inequality, Ronson waffles a bit about the Stanford Prison Experiment before devoting himself to the entirely self-evident question of how wealthy, well-connected and individualistic men manage to endure a public shaming while less privileged and more vulnerable people wind up being completely destroyed. He even devotes a couple of chapters to the practicality of putting one’s life back together after a brutal shaming and concludes that the best way to recover is to spend a lot of money on fancy search engine optimisation and group therapy.
So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed is an intensely frustrating read as you can feel the book’s energy and purpose draining away the further it gets from the central idea that online dog-piles are the 21st Century equivalent of a public flogging. The book works brilliantly when Ronson throws himself into cataloguing the inhuman effects of public shaming but when the time comes for Ronson to explain why people would want to behave in such an unconscionable manner he talks briefly about himself before changing the subject to something more fun like shame-free porn stars and oddball psychotherapists! Ronson does a fantastic job of demonstrating the injustice and inhumanity of public shaming but his reluctance to engage with the allure of the online dog pile mean that his book never comes close to either furthering our understanding of the phenomenon or providing a realistic solution to the problem.
So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed is a wasted opportunity as well as a frustrating read as so many online spaces are being torn asunder by waves of public shaming that dissolve friendships, corrode trust and atomise entire communities. Even those corners of the Internet that have grown weary of endless dog-piles and call-outs find themselves unable to move beyond them as the backlash against public shaming results not in more understanding and empathy but in another wave of brutality and condemnation as yesterday’s righteous heroes are turned into tomorrow’s unspeakable villains. So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed is a widely-publicised book by an extremely visible writer that could have helped people to break the cycle and start rebuilding old friendships but rather than leading with an understanding of the present, Ronson limits himself to a far less ambitious condemnation of the past.
Another of the problems associated with understanding online social interaction is that while there are definitely academics working on the problem, the timescales they operate under struggle to keep step with technological change and even if someone does produce a timely book or article that delivers real insights into online behaviour, chances are that their ideas will still struggle to reach a wider audience. For a while now, I’ve been hoarding articles about the phenomenon of public shaming but rather than sitting on them in preparation for some article I will probably never get round to writing, I thought it might be fun to provide a few links and insights of my own:
1 – I’ll start with what is probably the most important and rigorous work on my list: Jeffrey M. Berry and Sarah Sobieraj’s The Outrage Industry is an examination of American cable news and how both sides of the political spectrum use moral outrage to build audiences. Much of the book is weighted down with statistical analysis of American cable news but the real meat of the book lies in Berry and Sobieraj’s attempt to understand the allure of coordinated moral outrage. Rather than treating outrage as a product of cynical manipulation, Berry and Sobieraj suggest that Americans are being drawn to that type of rhetoric by a growing reluctance to express political opinions in public.
Anxious about the social consequences of being seen to have the ‘wrong’ opinions, Americans are reportedly growing more and more reluctant to discuss politics with all but their closest friends and family members. Unable to express themselves freely in their daily lives, people go on-line and wind up gravitating towards the media platforms and online communities with worldviews most similar to their own. As might be expected of communities built around ideological concerns, political communities reward those members who are most vocal and ideologically pure. This creates what can only be referred to as a radicalisation spiral in which people find themselves drawn into increasingly uncompromising attitudes that not only makes them more reluctant to express themselves in public but also more ideologically demanding about the media they consume and the communities they inhabit.
Given that politicised communities invariably wind up rewarding the most vocal and ideologically pure, members of politicised communities need an arena in which to demonstrate their commitment and no arena is better suited to such displays than the decontextualized universe of social media. American anxieties around political discourse have moved not only beyond America but also beyond the realms of traditional political discourse and so the question we should be asking ourselves is not why people are obsessed with publicly shaming each other but why we aren’t all doing it all of the time. Ronson talks about public shaming in terms of empathy failure but The Outrage Industry talks about it in terms of anxiety; people don’t publicly shame each other because they can’t empathise with the shamed… they do it because they’re anxious about their own social standing.
While people are generally aware of their own escalating anxiety levels, they tend to minimise the growing intemperance of their own views or modes of expression and account for their feelings of anxiety in terms of a (more-or-less well-conceived) political ‘other’ that either passively silences them or actively persecutes them for expressing their opinions in public. The resulting balkanisation of cultural spaces means that any encounter with a different set of political views serves not only to re-enforce belief in the existence of said political ‘other’ but also to legitimise the process of radicalisation that created the balkanisation in the first place.
2 – Our growing anxiety around disagreement can also be explained using Elisabeth Noelle-Neumann’s concept of the Spiral of Silence according to which:
The closer an individual feels their opinion resides to the held majority opinion the more likely they are to be willing to voice it in public discourse. A few other important tenets to mention: this theory relies heavily on the idea that the opinion must have a distinct moral component (i.e. abortion, legalization of _______ ), no one will experience the spiral of silence trying to talk out what toppings to get on their pizza with roommates.
The author of the above article is quite right when they say that people will most likely not be silenced when discussing their choice of pizza toppings but recent years have seen whole swathes of popular culture politicised as part of America’s on-going culture wars. It used to be that only politicised commentary on popular culture would prompt a response, and then any kind of commentary came to be seen as political speech. Now even private purchasing decisions resulting in no public commentary at all have been politicised and become sources of anxiety as people are shamed and counter-shamed for the ideological and racial purity of their Amazon baskets. If politics causes anxiety and everything is politicised then everything winds up provoking anxiety.
3 – Another interesting take on public shaming and social media is this Aaron Bady piece in the New Inquiry. The article covers a lot of ground and says a lot of things that are both true and obvious but what grabbed my attention was his invocation of Paul Grice’s Cooperative Principle. Grice is a philosopher of language who noted that productive conversations tend to follow basic rules that help people to extract the intended meaning from the text of what happens to have been said. Bady notes that online conversations frequently contravene this principle as we not only take what other people say out of context (e.g. an isolated tweet or a quote culled from a much longer piece), we actively invent our own contexts by making all sorts of assumptions about the people whose words we are discussing. As Bady points out, this type of behaviour is not only natural but necessary for communication:
Nothing we find on twitter would make any sense at all if we didn’t place it in some social context, construe it by reference to assumptions about what it is or what it is doing, and treat those projections as if they were basically valid. We have to assume that we are contextualizing the text correctly.
Take our natural fondness for intellectual shortcuts and combine it with a culture that encourages us to treat people with different opinions as part of some nebulous political ‘other’ and you have a recipe for assuming the absolute worst about people and interpreting everything they say in the worst possible light.
One of the major differences between the present and the pre-Internet age is that (pre-Internet) your chances of encountering someone with a radically different set of assumptions and experiences were actually kind of slim: Your friends were people who lived near you, people you met at school, people you met at work or people who were sufficiently similar to you that you moved in occasionally-overlapping social circles. The Internet completely changed this… when you say something on social media, there is literally no telling who will wind up reading the thing you wrote and so the chance that your words will be correctly contextualised by everyone who reads them is virtually zero. This is a social problem that is almost completely unique to the Internet age.
4 – The practicalities of communication between radically different contexts is addressed in a rather neat little article that appeared a few years ago on the website Offbeat Bride:
We suggested having a drink, when some of you don’t drink. We’ve written about honeymooning in regions with political turmoil, where some of you won’t go. We’ve featured pictures of smoking brides, and when some of you think that it’s a bad example for younger readers. We referred to a vegan wedding as “cruelty-free,” and some of you like meat and don’t appreciate the insinuations that you’re cruel, thankyouverymuch. We’ve offended environmentalists by referring to a non-green-enough-for-their-tastes wedding as “eco.” Once, an advertiser told us she was uncomfortable with our talk of genital excretions — but that ended up being a misunderstanding about the word “squee.”
The author of the article concludes (somewhat optimistically) that the best way past this problem is to be more charitable, not to assume that someone’s decision to write about wedding underwear is indicative of a value judgement about choosing not to wear underwear on your wedding day.
The article makes it all seem quite easy because choosing a wedding dress is not usually a political act but many of the discussions the article link to show that the personal really is the political and that having someone talk about “cruelty free” vegan banquets can be just as anxiety inducing as any other form of political speech. The practicalities of this type of discussion are also addressed in an editorial published on the Romance-related site Dear Author. Janet considers the anger generated by what she calls ‘representational missteps’ and how that anger is not only making people less likely to talk about books online, it is also making people more risk-averse when it comes to taking chances with their own writing and reviewing:
In order to even have that discussion, we’ve got to have a conversation space that feels safe enough for people to disagree without getting massively defensive or offensive. And I feel like what’s happening instead is that many people are simply not engaging at all.
I really started to notice this during the massive Fifty Shades backlash, where some people were talking about how they felt shamed, and others felt that shame was being conflated with critical discussion of the book, and rather than working through this dilemma, the discussion just kind of dissipated without resolution. Readers felt they needed to justify their reading tastes, complete with disclaimers for problematic texts.
Our fondness for public shaming and the associated anxiety surrounding political speech means that the only safe online spaces are the ones that are only accessible to people we know and trust. The balkanisation of online spaces is an attempt to solve this problem by forming large gangs of like-minded people but the larger the gang becomes, the greater the chances of political difference and political difference always provokes anxiety that results either in silence (if you feel you’re in the minority) or a move to cleanse the community through call-outs and public shaming (if you feel you’re in the majority).
5 –This piece by Asam Ahmad has been so widely circulated that it even found its way to me independently of social media. Clearly concerned about the epidemic of public shaming, Ahmad argues that call-out culture (the practice of publicly shaming someone for ‘problematic’ speech) should be replaced by a ‘call-in’ culture:
What makes call-out culture so toxic is not necessarily its frequency so much as the nature and performance of the call-out itself. Especially in online venues like Twitter and Facebook, calling someone out isn’t just a private interaction between two individuals: it’s a public performance where people can demonstrate their wit or how pure their politics are. Indeed, sometimes it can feel like the performance itself is more significant than the content of the call-out. This is why “calling in” has been proposed as an alternative to calling out: calling in means speaking privately with an individual who has done some wrong, in order to address the behaviour without making a spectacle of the address itself.
It’s not just that public shaming doesn’t work… it’s that it seems actively harmful to the communities that engage in it:
In the context of call-out culture, it is easy to forget that the individual we are calling out is a human being, and that different human beings in different social locations will be receptive to different strategies for learning and growing. For instance, most call-outs I have witnessed immediately render anyone who has committed a perceived wrong as an outsider to the community. One action becomes a reason to pass judgment on someone’s entire being, as if there is no difference between a community member or friend and a random stranger walking down the street (who is of course also someone’s friend). Call-out culture can end up mirroring what the prison industrial complex teaches us about crime and punishment: to banish and dispose of individuals rather than to engage with them as people with complicated stories and histories.
Ahmad’s piece is excellent: Short, simple and positively overflowing with wisdom, it perfectly articulates why public shaming is a terrible way of dealing with social transgression. My issue with Ahmad’s article is very similar to my issue with Ronson’s book: Public shaming is not about the person being shamed… it’s about the people doing the shaming. This idea is touched on in an old piece that appeared on the much-lamented Tiger Beatdown. As part of a wide-ranging critique of call-out culture, Flavia Dzodan writes:
And here’s the thing, on the surface, call outs are done “for good”. Of course shitty statements need to be challenged, nobody would deny that. Of course those who are hurt by shitty statements deserve to be recognized in their grief and deserve a sincere apology. But that’s not at the root of “call out culture”. The intent behind it, more often than not, is just to make the one initiating the call out feel good, more righteous, more indignant, a “better person”. In the end, the call out is not done for the benefit of a collective goal, it is done for entertainment and shocking value. Call outs are to blogging what Big Brother voting rounds are to reality TV: you have been found wanting and you are now expelled from the house. Because, of course, this is what is rarely mentioned, someone might be attempting to audition for your seat. Someone who thinks they are more righteous, better, more politically engaged than you.
What Ahmad and Ronson both miss in their arguments against public shaming is that while individuals may claim to be acting out of a desire to punish transgression and police their own communities, they are also subject to structural forces that actively encourage this type of collective brutality. The great scholar Rene Girard argues that scapegoating and collective acts of brutality are so fundamental to the construction of human communities that their motifs are repeated throughout every world religion. According to Girard, it is no accident that Jesus died for our sins or that he happened to be executed in a style as brutal as it was public. Wikipedia has quite a neat summary of Girard’s ideas about how an act of collective violence can establish a community:
If two individuals desire the same thing, there will soon be a third, then a fourth. This process quickly snowballs. Since from the beginning the desire is aroused by the other (and not by the object) the object is soon forgotten and the mimetic conflict transforms into a general antagonism. At this stage of the crisis the antagonists will no longer imitate each other’s desires for an object, but each other’s antagonism. They wanted to share the same object, but now they want to destroy the same enemy. So, a paroxysm of violence would tend to focus on an arbitrary victim and a unanimous antipathy would, mimetically, grow against him. The brutal elimination of the victim would reduce the appetite for violence that possessed everyone a moment before, and leaves the group suddenly appeased and calm. The victim lies before the group, appearing simultaneously as the origin of the crisis and as the one responsible for this miracle of renewed peace. He becomes sacred, that is to say the bearer of the prodigious power of defusing the crisis and bringing peace back. Girard believes this to be the genesis of archaic religion, of ritual sacrifice as the repetition of the original event, of myth as an account of this event, of the taboos that forbid access to all the objects at the origin of the rivalries that degenerated into this absolutely traumatizing crisis.
Citizens of the Internet do not just shame and humiliate each other, they sanctify the fallen in articles, blogposts and wikis that continue to draw traffic for years after the initial transgression. We do this because collective action creates a collective subjectivity and collective subjectivities – a sense of ‘we-ness’ – are the building blocks of community. By casting people out, we draw each other closer and because communities are born of that rapprochement, they cannot help but return to the same brutal behaviour patterns that allowed their foundation in the first place. Ronson’s concern for the victims of shaming is laudable and Ahmad’s desire to break the cycle and promote more effective communication is nothing short of inspirational but I cannot help but wonder whether the ever-expanding popularity of online public shaming might not reveal an unpalatable truth about human nature, namely that you cannot have community without brutality and asking people to stop these acts of collective violence might very well be as pointless as asking people to stop having communities.