Internet Shaming: Why The End Doesn’t Justify The (Being) Mean

shamedJon Ronson’s latest book So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed begins his enquiry with a completely engrossing account of the onslaught of public shamings that have become increasingly popular on social media, Twitter in particular.

Chances are you’ll remember at least some of them. Jonah Lehrer is his first Twitter victim, a clever hotshot writer who embellished six of his Bob Dylan quotes in a book he wrote about creativity. For this he was virtually flogged in the online streets. When he attempted a public apology, he had to give his speech in front of a screen displaying an audience Twitter feed that quickly turned vicious. Under such circumstances, Lehrer froze emotionally, and that was enough to convince those tweeting that he wasn’t really sorry and his apology wasn’t good enough. They didn’t say it quite so nicely. His reputation in the three subsequent years has never recovered.

Then there was Justine Sacco, a PR person who made a regrettable joke tweet about AIDS before getting on a plane to Africa. By the time she landed there were photographers at the airport, ready to catch the look on her face when she turned her phone back on and was hit by hundreds of thousands of 140-character judgements of bile and hate. And Lindsay Stone, who had a silly photo taken of herself being disrespectful at the Arlington National Cemetery and posted it on Facebook. Oh there are more (Cecil the lion being one of the most recent) and in every instance jobs were instantly lost, reputations ruined, families destroyed, people thoroughly shamed. And the twitterers lapped it up; scarcely a day passes still without social media turning into judge and jury on some unlucky idiot.

‘It felt,’ Ronson writes ‘like we were soldiers in a war on other people’s flaws, and there had suddenly been an escalation in hostilities.’ Was it a sort of hysteria caused by group violence, he wondered? He looked into public shaming and discovered that it had been outlawed as a practice back in the 19th century because it was considered too brutal. The law has its limits, after all. People, alas, once unleashed do not. And once shaming has begun, it spreads contagiously. Ronson thought that his stories ‘only revealed that our imagination is so limited, our arsenal of potential responses so narrow, that the only thing anyone can think to do’ is shame, and shame again.

Ronson’s book is brilliant at pointing out the outrageousness of such behaviour (I was certainly spitting feathers at some points), but understanding the motivations of social media is a lesser goal in his book. He does argue, though, that even the most extreme shamers feel they are doing good – and the paradox of a million-strong crowd of self-righteous tweeters, all thinking they are on the side of the angels but looking from the outside like an avenging mob of bullies has the ring of uncomfortable truth about it.

Instead, Ronson goes on to explore what can be done about shame in the aftermath – how is it possible to recover from the public trashing of one’s reputation? After the fire and brimstone of the first half of the book, the second falls a lot flatter, but there are some crucial discoveries made. The most important of which is what terrible psychological damage shaming inflicts. Ronson talks to the psychologist and prison reformer, James Gilligan, who was sent to some of the worst US jails in the 1970s where murders and suicides occurred daily. After spending time with the most violent offenders he realised there was an obvious origin to their behaviour. ‘I have yet to see a serious act of violence,’ he told Ronson, ‘that was not provoked by the experience of feeling shamed or humiliated, disrespected and ridiculed.’ The more horrific their early experience of shame, the more violent they became in adult life. Shaming is profoundly destructive. It certainly does not achieve its intention of bringing a person to heel, or if it does, the cost is excessive.

But obviously, it must make the shamer feel like the good and acceptable side of the interaction. Ronson doesn’t talk much about the wider media, except to say that ‘in our line of work the more humiliated a person is the more viral the story tends to go. Shame can factor large in the life of a journalist – the personal avoidance of it and the professional bestowing of it upon others.’ And yes, the professional media offers a powerful model of misconduct that has filtered down to social media, showing us that this is how you behave in the presence of perceived wrongdoing.

But it doesn’t really explain the excessiveness of the threats on twitter in comparison to the perceived crime. You have to wonder why such outrage could be created by a writer who adds an innocuous half-sentence on the end of a Dylan quote? Jonah Lehrer’s case is the most perplexing of all.

Ronson never really comes up with answers either to why shaming is so tempting, nor to how we recover after being shamed. Unless we count hiring a specialist internet firm to bury the offending material under a ton of bland google entries. And I was surprised that he never went to talk to an ordinary psychotherapist, who would have told him some useful basic information about shame.

Shame only happens when an accusation chimes with a deep-seated fear that the criticism is correct. So the worse we feel about ourselves, the more vulnerable we are to being shamed. The answer, you might think, is to feel good about ourselves. But that urge is what provokes much of the thrashing around on social media that we see; the act of shaming is part and parcel of the need to tell others how ethical we are, what fabulous things we do, what great lives we are leading.

Funnily enough our entire culture seems to have forgotten the unbeatable antidote to shame and never once is the word mentioned in Ronson’s book: humility – and for all concerned. Humility is the recognition that we are flawed, that we are going to make mistakes, that we do not have all the answers, and never will. It’s a gentle acceptance of the reality of the human condition, in the awareness that we can and do learn. It’s a kind thing and a quiet thing (which is probably why it’s in short supply on shouty social media).

Although Ronson’s book is essentially about shame, it’s the parts about the internet which are by far the most fascinating. If you travel here regularly, you know that the virtual world is ruled by energy and entropy, and given there are so few attempts to control what happens, we get a pretty accurate portrait of what unrestrained human energy can do. It’s essentially a junior school playground without enough dinner ladies. We know the internet is a place where wonderful things can happen, but it can be vicious and spiteful too. We need laws here, not least because this book shows us that the law is much kinder than we are.

In the absence of those laws, though, perhaps all would-be online shamers might consider one important distinction: attack the issue, and not the person.

32 thoughts on “Internet Shaming: Why The End Doesn’t Justify The (Being) Mean

  1. I’ve noticed that this has been talked about a great deal in the press and online. It’s extraordinarily easy for things to gain ground on social media,Twitter in particular. Another example I’d add to Ronson’s list is Tim Hunt, the scientist hounded out of his job for his feeble ‘joke’ about women in laboratories which became a red rag to the Twitter bull. Yes, it was irritatingly sexist but the response was out of proportion to the offence. There’s an awful of of anger out there, some of it justified, but as you say ‘attack the issue, not the person’.

    • Yes, Tim Hunt is another good example. Of course what he said was foolish and misplaced, but to simply compound it by harassment isn’t the right way to go. When the twitter mob behaves worse than the original offender, how can this possibly be useful?

  2. I have such conflicted feelings about this! On the one hand, I do think the internet is too fast to be done with people for minor offenses. And on the other hand, I think the people who commit the minor offenses are, in general, absolutely awful at apologizing for being jerks. I think it would benefit everyone so much if we had a stronger culture of apology on the internet.

    ALSO it bothers me that Ronson doesn’t seem to ever note in his interviews (I haven’t read the book so maybe he gets into this?) that harassment on the internet disproportionately targets people in historically oppressed groups (women, people of color, etc.), and that the benefit of having all these voices on social media is that we are able to HEAR FROM these groups in a way that we haven’t always been able to hear from them. And how that plays into what he calls a culture of shaming. I don’t know. It is a complex and fraught thing.

    • I am never sure about this apology thing, because quite often a good apology is essentially about putting in a good performance. And who’s to say that those who perform well are actually the sincere ones? You can be sincere and sorry, but emotionally closed down and unengaging precisely because of the shame, I think. Apologies are good, though! I’m all for them. Ronson does talk about the fact that women and marginalised groups come off worst in these shaming sessions, receving more vicious comments than other offenders. He says that those who seek to shame believe that the most effective shaming removes the dignity of the offender. So there is a tendency to demand that men should lose their jobs…and that women should be raped. I just can’t get behind any of this as a reasonable way to respond to other people making mistakes in public. When you read about the stuff that gets put out there in the name of reprimand…it’s horrific, most of it.

      Have you ever read the book Being Wrong by Kathryn Schulz? It was one of the best books I read last year and is full of enlightenment about mistake-making and the hopeless ways we deal with it. I’m kind of thinking it should become a set text in schools, if there were actually any justice!

  3. What an excellent review and discussion. Didn’t Lehrer have history before the Bob Dylan affair? Which may have added to the furore he caused.

    There was also the astrophysicist who wore a shirt covered in near-naked women to the press conference when the Rosetta mission landed on the comet – another minor mistake that went wild.

    • Yes – what had happened was that Lehrer had recycled some of his old blog posts for the New Yorker, thus creating the oxymoronic concept of ‘self-plagiarising’. It’s another one of those half-crimes that I can’t get worked up about, when you think how few people ever see a blog post. He has a knack for getting into trouble for the sorts of things one might easily do in obscurity that suddenly become glaring in the light of fame.

      I remember that astrophysicist – and feeling sorry for him ultimately, as I watched a lot of the coverage with my son for his science communication project and it was clear the guy was so excited about the Rosetta mission and completely into the science. It WAS a hideous shirt, but to focus on it at the expense of the scientific history did seem a bit excessive.

  4. What an insightful and enjoyable post, Victoria. It makes me feel like reading the book will be a let down now, in terms of style and content – but I have seen it around and about, and am very intrigued. So much to consider.

    • I didn’t think of you immediately as a reader for this one, but it is a very quick book to read though ultimately distasteful (in a compelling sort of way!). You could stand in a bookshop and read the opening chapters, which I felt were the best…. just a thought! I must say I do wish I read faster. I should have been reading other things when I was reading this! 🙂

  5. I find this a scary thing to examine, the ugliness of people in mobs. It’s a good subject for someone to write about, though, very timely. It was interesting to read the link between shame and violence too. This was one of the aspects of Gone Girl that I really enjoyed, the very realistic way in which people judge those they have never met and know nothing about as innocent or guilty just by their performance on TV. Very good review.

    • There’s a very interesting chapter in the book about the ‘mob’, and although Ronson ends up unsure about its power, I still recall that Derren Brown programme where he showed how easy and quick it is to incite the mob mentality in his audience. I am constantly amazed by the way people think they can judge others on very small things. I like watching Strictly Come Dancing and am always curious to know what other people think on the online forums, but I give up with them after about week 7 because people get so protective about their ‘favourites’ that they will say dreadful things about the other competitors on the basis of almost no evidence at all. Then I feel uncomfortable – for the whole human race, really!

  6. I think much of what happens is due to the (lynch) mob mentality that gets into humans sometimes, and also the fact that a Twitter storm is basically anonymous. If the haters were face to face with their victims I doubt any of this vitriol would come out – it’s a cowardly kind of behaviour hiding behind a shield of invisibility.

    • I think that the distance is interesting: I’d always thought of that sort of crowd hysteria which affects a mob as being contingent upon being physically part of something bigger. But with Twitter, it’s just you and your computer. You’re not surrounded by people seething with emotion, yet you are still caught up in it.

      Like Jenny, I feel a bit conflicted about this. I do think that it’s good we can call people out on their mistakes, although being vicious is obviously never acceptable. It’s just the size of Twitter turns your opinion into part of a huge wave of outrage with ramifications beyond your intention. And 140 characters doesn’t encourage nuance.

      The Tim Hunt is a good example: I saw a lot of complaints about that which were not at all vicious and entirely right. But they formed part of something bigger. I don’t think that Tim Hunt’s employers behaved very well over it – though who knows, maybe there was history there? – and I am not sure you can blame Twitter for that.

      I’m also thinking of the recent furore over PEN’s decision to give an award to Charlie Hebdo. Some writers objected, and were truly excoriated for that. Which seemed odd: you are angry and aggressive because someone has a different opinion to you over an award about freedom of expression?

      Anyway, great post, sorry about the overlong comment.

      • Not overlong at all, Helen – a fascinating comment. There’s something about this situation that brings out my questions about mothering. It seems to me that the Twitter space needs good parenting, and what actually happens out there is – by some – bad parenting. When you see a child saying or doing something foolish and misguided, how do you deal with it? What actually works? Because we had an only child, I remember that Mr Litlove and I had a policy of only one of us being cross with him at a time when he’d done something wrong – otherwise we felt we were ganging up. I wonder what the optimum number of tweets is to make it clear to a person that they have made an error of judgement without going so far as to either destroy them completely, or make them so defensive they close down and cannot hear what is being said in any case.

        It makes me think of school teachers, too, in the bad old days, who would think nothing of shaming a pupil as a way of guaranteeing good behaviour. And yet that shame was a bad way of making a point, I think. And when we have power over others, even just the power that comes from being in the right, then we ought to use it decently. People so often feel powerless and it makes them go too far – you don’t need so much pressure to bring people into line.

        The Charlie Hebdo thing is a good example of how this all gets out of hand. Because it is still at the moment condoned for people to say what they like online, then all those who cannot bear another person’s different opinion react in this way. Ronson’s conclusion in the book is that people are using social media as a way of controlling behaviour in a disquietingly normative way. He says: ‘We are defining the boundaries of normality by tearing apart the people outside of it.’

        I certainly think we ought to consider the irony – at best – of behaving worse than those whose behaviour we would seek to condemn. And of using freedom of expression to limit the freedom of expression of others. Dog eat dog – not pretty.

    • Karen – do you remember a case on the news much earlier in the year of a woman who had been sending vicious tweets and had been doorstepped by the media? She was told that a police investigation might result and on camera she was very defensive ‘I can say whatever I like’, etc, etc. But then she committed suicide later. I feel for reasons like this, we ought to look very closely into the gap between what people will do when they think no one is looking, and no one will know, and what they will do when they ARE made visible. It seems to me a very contemporary sickness that we don’t pay enough attention to.

      • I remember the case and I agree. I think we’re actually struggling to cope with these new forms of interaction and we don’t actually know how people are going to be affected. It’s a subject that needs more looking into and less brushing under the carpet.

  7. Too bad the second half of the book isn’t quite up to meeting the challenge posed by the first half. Still, it’s an important topic that needs to be discussed. Does he discover anything about how anonymity on the internet seems to encourage such bad behavior? People will say things to other online that they would never dream of saying to someone’s face. It is both scary and fascinating how the internet so easily breaks down the barriers of IRL social codes.

    • It’s true the second half isn’t as interesting, but it’s a coherent book that raises a lot of questions. It would have been a very different book altogether if he’d tried to answer them (and you’ve got to wonder how much new research that would take!). He doesn’t go deeply into the question of anonymity as he begins with an anecdote in which he is instrumental in shaming some university researchers who create a spambot with his name. He’s very open about being involved in a lot of shaming incidents himself, and he uses his real name on Twitter. So I guess that put the question of anonymity out of the picture a bit. He is good, though, at saying, my goodness, I did this thing and didn’t realise how harmful it could be. Which is a useful way of going through his investigation – you never feel like he is occupying some sort of high moral ground!

      • His own instrumentality in the problem he documents makes me wonder about intentionality. Sometimes the ambiguities inherent in the limitations of text-only communications can inflame and embarrass. This is why emails often need backing up with other communications in our professional lives. There are probably occasions when differences of interpretation can tip the innocuous over into the ambiguous which is in turn tipped over into the unacceptable by a momentum of sentiment? One intended communication can turn into something different once it’s in its recipients’ hands.

      • Yes, I think that’s very true. I often think email is a cold medium that needs to be consciously warmed-up before it sounds polite. And when people type fast to a 140-character limit, there is massive potential for messages to be misread.

  8. Very interesting subject. It never ceases to amaze me that people who are very pleasant in ‘real life’ can post the most awful things online without thinking it may be hurtful. I suspect while social media is relatively new it will take a while before it swings the other way.

    • I agree, it is amazing what comes out of people online. I do wonder if anyone is doing any research into it – they must be, surely? You’re right it will take a while for change to happen, but the more we understand this situation, the more likely it is that some sort of solutions could be found.

      • There is a great deal of academic work published in this area, rightly so I feel. Several commentators have pointed out that certain groups (women for example) are treated to much more unpleasant attacks than “normal” white males. Unsurprisingly the LGBT community also comes in for some horrendous attacks too.

        A good academic discussion of one aspect of this is to be found in “Hey girls, did you know? Slut-shaming on the Internet needs to stop” Poole, E, University of San Francisco law review 48 (2013) 221

        A very interesting point that Poole makes in her article is that very often (in some arenas the majority) of “slut-shaming” posters are female.

    • And funnily enough, I was reading Emily Gould’s novel, Friendship at the same time. All the reviews I read of the novel suggested I couldn’t understand it without understanding what had happened to her. Whilst I don’t think that’s true, it was rather fascinated to hear all about the issues when she worked at Gawker – though quite how to tally up the balance of someone professionally besmirching others being besmirched herself I’m not sure! But it is a hypnotic topic.

  9. I admire Ronson for shining a light on this topic. Even if there are few easy answers, at the very least it helps to generate debate as the comments on your thought-provoking post demonstrate.

    • Absolutely – definitely time to have a conversation about the problems – and not one that devolves into a lot of flame-throwing, if that’s at all possible! After all, everyone’s online comfort and wellbeing are at stake.

  10. we have yet another example getting the headline treatment in the UK media right now. Yes there are some people who do idiotic things in social media but we also have people too quick point fingers and to take offence.

    • Yes, it’s this taking offence business that is so strange. I can understand disagreeing or even being appalled at someone’s foolishness, but you have to really hit a nerve to find yourself offended by something others do, and most of the stories I’ve heard just haven’t hit me that way. Mind you, I do find online bullying offensive in any shape or form, so perhaps it’s just a question of finding the right misdemeanour. But still!

  11. Very interesting. I’m often shocked how vicious the reactions are on Twitter are. (Not so in the case of the lion though – I feel very strongly about that.) But the apologies make me feel uncomfortable too. It all feels so medieval. Like they are being pilloried.

  12. Yes, I seem to remember reading a review of this which mentioned that Ronson, himself, was perfectly happy to admit he’d taken part in ‘shaming’ – which I saw as all part and parcel of its general ‘acceptance’.

    I’ve been pondering a post on this subject, myself, for some time now. (Apologies if the following thoughts are over long for a comment.)

    Online ‘shaming’ seems to be a reaction to ever widening feelings of insecurity and low self-esteem amongst people; their sense of powerlessness in every-day society. By attacking a person or social/racial group for some perceived wrong their own ‘worthlessness’ is transferred onto someone else and (temporarily) erased.

    The reason that women, in particular, are so often singled out is that (cf Berger’s ‘Ways of Seeing’) women are viewed, not as an entity in themselves, but in the context of the way that they ‘make’ you (generally the male) feel; the image that they reflect of you. If their beauty/intelligence/confidence/success shows up your reverse of these qualities then, for an increasing number of people, the way to feel better about yourself is to drag them down to a level below yours. In literature of the past the humble suitor strove to make himself worthy; today he strives to make her even more unworthy than himself.

    The desire to see someone shamed/humiliated stems itself from a deep sense of shame/humiliation. It is, as I argued earlier, a transferrence of ‘guilt’. No truly secure person hates in this way. Or at all. (There’s an interesting passage on this in Jocelyn Playfair’s ‘A House in the Country’.)

    The more violent and vile the denunciation from someone, the greater the self exposure as to how they feel about themselves. It is their own powerlessness, their own self-loathing, they are seeking to eradicate in this way.

    What concerns me is that no one seems to be standing up against this. If outrage there has to be, then where is the outrage against the expression of such threats? Why is no one pointing out that *nothing* can possibly justify such behaviour; that to treat even the worst person in the world in such a way diminishes *you* as a human being?

    To expand on Litlove’s metaphor: we are rapidly becoming a society of damaged children, fighting in a playground in a world with no grownups. There is nobody to stand up and say ‘this is not okay’. Nobody attempting to heal what is, at very bottom, a cry of pain: ‘Now you know how I feel!’

    What I feel is great sadness and pity that the world has somehow got into this state. Technology has not, in the end, made us more civilised; there is, I agree, something of the medieval, something almost superstitious, in these outbursts.

    The quality of humility is not the only one that has been lost. We seem, overall, to have lost our ability to behave as grown ups. From all I can see, it appears that both Piggy and Simon are indeed dead – it is Jack and his gang who are taking current society in their direction.

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