When Your Shame Becomes My Self-Expression

I’ve been reading a lot of articles of late on the subject of shaming. A new book is out by Jon Ronson called So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed.  Ronson spent the past three years traveling around the country and meeting with the targets of high profile shamings. As the description says, “The shamed are people like us – people who, say, made a joke on social media that came out badly, or made a mistake at work. Once their transgression is revealed, collective outrage circles with the force of a hurricane and the next thing they know they’re being torn apart by an angry mob, jeered at, demonized, sometimes even fired from their job.”

Today I read an article on the TED blog about Monica Lewinsky’s re-emergence as a spokesperson for those who are shamed online. Nadia Goodman wrote:

As TED’s social media editor, I have seen a lot of nasty comments. I’ve seen grown men and women deride a 14-year-old girl for her choice of dress. I’ve seen them say they’re revolted by a beautiful transgender woman. On every talk about race, I’ve seen a slew of racist comments. But none have ever been as bad as the comments we got when we published Monica Lewinsky’s TED Talk, The Price of Shame. At least at first.

I learned through my Facebook feed that somehow I had missed an uproar over Trevor Noah’s old tweets.

Most of the articles I read about trolling, media shaming and viral online shaming campaigns make the same assumption, an assumption I believe is mistaken. People generally assume that we shame people who transgress in order to bring them back into line and to compel them to behave in socially agreeable ways, in much like the Puritans did when they put people in the stocks.

I don’t think this is actually what is happening. I came to this realization today while reading an old article I’d stored in my “to read” program. (I have about 180 pages of articles there and I thought it might be time to clear some out.)

The article was published in Insights by Stanford Business with the headline Why Seeking Common Ground Can Backfire.

Research shows that conversations between people seeking common ground can influence which ideas and people gain cultural prominence. The best baseball players don’t always get elected All-Stars. And the Nobel Prize doesn’t always go to the most deserving member of the scientific community. This, according to a pair of recent studies, is because such recognition can depend upon how well known an individual is rather than on merit alone. Moreover, because it’s human nature for people to try to find common ground when talking to others, simple everyday conversations could have the unfortunate side effect of blocking many of the best and most innovative ideas from the collective social consciousness…the more people are talked about, the larger a role they play in society — and the more they will subsequently get talked about. This creates a self-reinforcing ramping up of social prominence that is not necessarily deserved.

The researchers in the study referenced in this article found that when people were given the choice to speak with people they had not met before about baseball players who were well known, but were having mediocre seasons, or those who were not as well known but were having very good seasons, they invariably talked about the more famous players because they served as a common point of reference.

Well known people and their scandals serve as common conversational currency. We no longer read the same books. We do not share the same religious beliefs and the stories that are handed down through those traditions. We do not have a common store of mythological characters that we can use as common frames of reference for our ethical discussions. In fact, it often seems that all discussions of ethics and values only take place in a context of political polarization and a left/right team sport. So the fraternity brothers with their racist song become fictional characters that we can all use to discuss what we will stand for, what we want to be associated with, and what behavior is appropriate.

We are using these episodes, not to control the behavior of the perpetrators, but to define who we are either in support or opposition to the figure being shamed. Their “fat chick” tweets or extramarital affairs or offensive videos give us an opportunity to blog, to present ourselves on Facebook, to tweet our reactions and to generally exclaim what type of people we are. (In much the same way that a woman felt compelled to tell me at a book signing that she did not approve of the subject matter of my book. She didn’t say this to persuade me of anything but to define herself as the type of moral person who would not read such a book.) We care very little about the people we shame. They are not people we know, but stories we are told. We aren’t going to live with them, and their behavior will generally not affect us directly at all.

If you need proof of this hypothesis, watch this clip of Jon Ronson being interviewed on The Daily Show. In it, Ronson notes that most people give little thought to the people who have been shamed once the firestorm has passed.  If you do not want to watch the entire interview, go forward to about the 6:50 mark. Ronson says that when he asks people how the victim of a public shaming is now, years later they say “Oh, I’m sure she’s fine.” Often that is not true.

In this clip Monica Lewinsky makes a call for a cultural shift. I think a lot of people share her concern that our media culture seems to thrive on these types of vicarious morality tales with little regard for the consequences to the individuals involved. If your particular brand of bad behavior seems to strike a chord with the passions of the moment, you may become good copy.

Lewinsky talks about changing the narrative– her personal narrative. But perhaps we need more fictional narratives, more characters, folk tales, modern myths that we can hold in common and discuss and debate. We need common stories.

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