I won. Within days, the academics took down @Jon_Ronson. They had been shamed into acquiescence. Their public shaming had been like the button that restores factory settings. Something was out of kilter. The community rallied. The balance was redressed.
We were at the start of a great renaissance of public shaming. After a lull of almost 180 years […], it was back in a big way. 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.
We all have ticking away within us something we fear will badly harm our reputation if it got out—some “I’m glad I’m not that” at the end of an “I’m glad I’m not me.” […] Maybe our secret is actually nothing horrendous. Maybe nobody would even consider it a big deal if it was exposed. But we can’t take that risk. So we keep it buried.
The common assumption is that public punishments died out in the new great metropolises because they’d been judged useless. Everyone was too busy being industrious to bother to trail some transgressor through the city crowds like some volunteer scarlet letter. But at the archives I found no evidence that public shaming fell out of fashion as a result of newfound anonymity. I did, however, find plenty of people from centuries past bemoaning its outsized cruelty, warning that well-meaning people, in a crowd, often take it too far. […] They were stopped because they were far too brutal.
It didn’t seem to be crossing any of our minds to wonder whether the person we had just shamed was okay or in ruins. I suppose that when shamings are delivered like remotely administered drone strikes nobody needs to think about how ferocious our collective power might be.
A life had been ruined. What was it for: just some social media drama? I think our natural disposition as humans is to plod along until we get old and stop. But with social media, we’ve created a stage for constant artificial high drama. Every day a new person emerges as a magnificent hero or a sickening villain. It’s all very sweeping, and not the way we actually are as people. What rush was overpowering us at times like this? What were we getting out of it?
All these people had […] come together spontaneously, without leadership. I wasn’t one of them. But I’d piled on plenty of people like Justine. I’d been beguiled by the new technology—a toddler crawling toward a gun. Just like with Dave Eshelman, it was the desire to do something good that had propelled me. Which was definitely a better thing to be propelled by than group madness. But my desire had taken a lot of scalps—I’d torn apart a lot of people I couldn’t now remember—which made me suspect that it was coming from some very weird dark well, some place I really didn't want to think about.
It seemed to me that all the people involved in the Hank and Adria story thought they were doing something good. But they only revealed that our imagination is so limited, our arsenal of potential responses so narrow that the only thing anyone can think to do with an inappropriate shamer like Adria is to punish her with a shaming. All of the shamers had themselves come from a place of shame, and it really felt parochial and self-defeating to instinctively slap shame onto shame like a clumsy builder covering cracks.
I received an interesting e-mail from Max Mosley. Like me, he’d been thinking a lot about what it was about him that had helped him to stave off even the most modest public shaming. And now, he wrote, he thought he had the answer. It was simply that he had refused to feel ashamed.
“As soon as the victim steps out of the pact by refusing to feel ashamed,” he said, “the whole thing crumbles.”
Almost none of the murderous fantasies were dreamed up in response to actual danger—stalker ex-boyfriends, etc. They were all about the horror of humiliation. Brad Blanton was right. Shame internalized can lead to agony. It can lead to Jonah Lehrer. Whereas shame let out can lead to freedom, or at least to a funny story, which is a sort of freedom too.
Inside Court One of the Biddeford District Courthouse half a dozen of the men from the Zumba list sat on the benches, staring grimly ahead while news crews pointed their cameras at them. We in the press area were allowed to stare at them and they weren’t able to look away. It reminded me of how Nathaniel Hawthorne had described the pillory in The Scarlet Letter: “[An] instrument of discipline, so fashioned as to confine the human head in its tight grasp, and thus hold it up to public gaze. The very ideal of ignominy was embodied and made manifest in this contrivance of wood and iron. There can be no outrage, methinks . . . more flagrant than to forbid the culprit to hide his face for shame.”
As it happens, Max’s and Andrew’s sins would in Puritan times have been judged graver than Jonah’s. Jonah, “guilty of lying or publishing false news,” would have been “fined, placed in the stocks for a period not exceeding four hours, or publicly whipped with not more than forty stripes,” according to Delaware law. Whereas Max and Andrew, having “defiled the marriage bed,” would have been publicly whipped (no maximum number was specified), imprisoned with hard labor for at least a year, and on a second offense, imprisoned for life.
But the shifting sands of shameworthiness had shifted away from sex scandals—if you’re a man—to work improprieties and perceived white privilege, and I suddenly understood the real reason why Max had survived his shaming. Nobody cared.
“Literally, overnight everything I knew and loved was gone,” Lindsey said.
And that's when she fell into a depression, became an insomniac, and barely left home for a year.
The criminal justice system is supposed to repair harm, but most prisoners—young, black—have been incarcerated for acts far less emotionally damaging than the injuries we noncriminals perpetrate upon one another all the time—bad husbands, bad wives, ruthless bosses, bullies, bankers.
I thought about Justine Sacco. How many of the people piling on her had been emotionally damaged by what they had read? As far as I could tell, only one person was damaged in that pile-on.
“Universal among the violent criminals was the fact that they were keeping a secret,” Gilligan wrote. “A central secret. And that secret was that they felt ashamed—deeply ashamed, chronically ashamed, acutely ashamed.” It was shame, every time. “I have yet to see a serious act of violence that was not provoked by the experience of feeling shamed or humiliated, disrespected and ridiculed.”
“Normal prison is punishment in the worst sense,” Jim told me. “It’s like a soul-bleeding. Day in, day out, people find themselves doing virtually nothing in a very negative environment.”
I thought of Lindsey Stone, just sitting at her kitchen table for almost a year, staring at the online shamings of people just like her.
“People move away from themselves,” Jim said. “Inmates tell me time and again that they feel themselves shutting down, building a wall.”
Six months later. Three people sat together in the council chamber at Newark City Hall: Jim, Raquel, and I.
Jim had intervened. The prosecutors were persuaded that Raquel was a victim of an “abuse cycle.” And so instead of twenty years she served four more months and then they let her go.
But the Stasi didn’t only inflict physical horror. Their main endeavor was to create the most elaborate surveillance network in world history. It didn’t seem unreasonable to scrutinize this aspect of them in the hope it might teach us something about our own social media surveillance network.
Social media gives a voice to voiceless people—its egalitarianism is its greatest quality. But I was struck by a report […] that had been written by a Stasi psychologist tasked with trying to understand why they were attracting so many willing informants. His conclusion: “It was an impulse to make sure your neighbor was doing the right thing.”
We have always had some influence over the justice system, but for the first time in 180 years—since the stocks and the pillory were outlawed—we have the power to determine the severity of some punishments. And so we have to think about what level of mercilessness we feel comfortable with. I, personally, no longer take part in the ecstatic public condemnation of people unless they've committed a transgression that has an actual victim, and even then not as much as I probably should. I miss the fun a little. But it feels like when I became a vegetarian. I missed the steak, […] but I could no longer ignore the slaughterhouse.
Feedback loops. You exhibit some type of behavior (you drive at twenty-seven miles per hour in a twenty-five-mile-per-hour zone). You get instant real-time feedback for it (the sign tells you you're driving at twenty-seven miles per hour). You change your behavior as a result of the feedback (you lower your speed to twenty-five miles per hour). You get instant feedback for that decision, too (the sign tells you you're driving at twenty-five miles per hour now. Some signs flash up a smiley-face emoticon to congratulate you).
[Feedback loops are] turning social media into “a giant echo chamber where what we believe is constantly reinforced by people who believe the same thing.”
We express our opinion that Justine Sacco is a monster. We are instantly congratulated for this […]. We make the on-the-spot decision to carry on believing it.
“The tech-utopians […] present this as a new kind of democracy,” [my friend wrote]. “It isn’t. It’s the opposite. It locks people off in the world they started with and prevents them from finding out anything different.”
If anyone should change their behavior, I thought, it ought to be those doing the shaming. Justine’s crime had been a badly worded joke mocking privilege. To see the catastrophe as her fault felt, to me, a little like “Don’t wear short skirts.” It felt like victim-blaming.
“The essay might be a turning-point,” wrote Peter Bradshaw in The Guardian. “Twitter-shaming allows people who complacently think of themselves as basically nice to indulge in the dark thrill of bullying—in a righteous cause. Perhaps Ronson’s article will cause a questioning of Twitter’s instant-Salem culture of shame.”
People were realizing […] that what happened to Justine wasn’t social justice. It was a “cathartic alternative.”
Using social media to distribute […] videos [of police brutality] was a world away from calling a woman who’d just been in a train crash a privileged bitch because she wanted her violin to be okay. One act was powerful and important—using social media to create a new civil rights battlefield. The other was a pointless and nasty cathartic alternative. Given that we are the ones with the power, it is incumbent upon us to recognize the difference.
What’s true about our fellow humans is that we are clever and stupid. We are gray areas.
And so, unpleasant as it will surely be for you, when you see an unfair or an ambiguous shaming unfold, speak up on behalf of the shamed person. A babble of opposing voices—that’s democracy.
The great thing about social media was how it gave a voice to voiceless people. Let’s not turn it into a world where the smartest way to survive is to go back to being voiceless.