Justice and Shame in the Age of Social Media
This morning Vikram asked why we forgive some celebrity offenses and not others. In his post he throws up a few possible theories onto the board, each of which eventually wilts under his own keen scrutiny. As it turns out, this is a topic I’ve been thinking about quite a bit lately — or at least, I have been thinking about a topic that is very similar.
In this wondrous modern age, after all, one of social media’s primary functions is to collectively lift previously unknown faces from our midst and award them a kind of temporary celebrity status. And in most cases, the fulcrum on which this fleeting fifteen minutes pivots is the mantle of public shaming. Sometimes we grant this celebrity status to those whom we wish to publicly shame; other times, to those we feel are exceptional at dishing out such shame. As with the more traditional types of celebrity Vikram examines, our decision of when to dispense justice and when to grant absolution to our King Cake celebs seems somewhat arbitrary.
Take, for example, the rather obvious case of Justine Sacco.
I doubt very much anyone here needs to have the story retold in its entirety, but as a quick reminder it was Sacco who made the questionable quip over Twitter, “Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding. I’m white!” The deluge of outcry by an outraged Twitterverse that followed has become something of a symbol — though a exactly what it’s a symbol of tends to vary from person to person. Many consider it a textbook example of how social media can be used to make real and positive social change; others a symbol of the animal brutishness of the mob unchained. What is commented on less frequently but is to my mind more interesting, however, is the degree to which the Sacco story acts as a symbol of the random and wholly arbitrary process we go through when we create and elevate these temporary celebrities.
As Jon Ronson notes in his book, So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, much of the response to Sacco was substantially worse than original offending tweet. Some tweets called for Sacco to be raped by someone with AIDS; others reveled in violent snuff fantasies. Many were (somewhat ironically) terribly racist, while a far greater number were astoundingly misogynistic. For whatever reason, though, the same public that had declared “This far, no further!” with Sacco’s hapless clunker decided to give a collective pass (if not an outright re-tweet) to all of the others.
In his book, the question Ronson asks throughout is the same Vikram asked in his post: Why do we forgive some their public transgressions, and work tirelessly to destroy others? Like Vikram, Ronson keeps latching onto theories which, as he continues to study more examples, end up falling short. By the end of the book, he still isn’t exactly sure what the answer is.
But I think I just might know the answer. If I’m right — and I very much think that I am — it says something more that a little disquieting about humanity. Because what I have decided is that what we really want when we are outraged in these instances isn’t justice. It’s to inflict pain.
In Ronson’s book, those who quickly overcame attempts to shame them had one thing in common: They didn’t really care all that much what we thought of them. In some cases this was because they were obscenely wealthy; in others, because they were simply too busy to care what was happening on social media. Some didn’t care because they were clueless. And some didn’t care because — not to put too fine point on it — they were huge, colossal assholes. In the end, though, it didn’t really matter why they didn’t care. They went on their happy way, and we either quickly lost interest in them or — in a few cases — changed our collective opinions of them from public scourge to maverick iconoclast.
Collectively, when we use social media to lift a plebeian to the throne for the sole purpose of beheading them, we tell ourselves that what we want from them is explanation, contrition, and apology. In fact, however, it appears that what we really want is to see someone suffer. Exactly who it is that is chosen on any given day to suffer for our public entertainment isn’t so important, just so long as someone does. If they ignore us we’ll go away. But if they let us see that we’re getting to them — through anger, tears, repeated pleas to consider context, or whatever — we can’t get enough. Which means that no matter who we are individually on social media, as one we act as the world’s biggest troll.
Thinking about Ronson’s book led me to another somewhat depressing conclusion about the lies we tell ourselves when we pat ourselves on the back for using social media the way we do. Like my point above, it’s one Ronson misses. (Or to be more precise, it’s one he missed. I floated the idea by him, and he declared it “brilliant” and let me know he intended to steal it — which brings the total number of personal heroes that have called anything idea of mine “brilliant” to a staggering number of just one guy.)
That observation is this:
We tell ourselves that we use social media to democratize, and that through Twitter and Facebook and blogs and so forth we have the collective power to bring low the rich, the famous, and the powerful. It’s a beautiful idea, but at the end of the day it’s just a pretty lie we like to tell ourselves.
Try this experiment at home. Make a list of all the people upon who social media has passed judgement and found Needing of Our Collective Punishment. Now divide this list into two groups: those who were wealthy and powerful prior to that judgement, and those who lived modestly and held no real power. Now Google around, and see where they all are today.
What you’ll find, by and large, is that we haven’t really hurt the rich and the powerful at all. In a lot of cases we’ve actually helped them, either by making them even more famous or by inadvertently rallying their own troops. And if we annoy them too much, as it turns out, they can completely remake their image relatively quickly; they can even make their transgressions disappear from search engines. There are companies that do this now, and they do it astonishingly well. They also charge hundreds of thousands of dollars, which means they exist more for the Floyd Mayweather Jrs of the world than they do the Justine Saccos. So tweet away your grievances to the rich and powerful, and while you’re at it tweet away to the wind and the rain for all the good it will do you.
The people on that other, list though…
Justine Sacco, Lindsey Stone, Adria Richards… What we did to them is something we should all be thankful isn’t a prosecutable crime, as it likely might be in a more just universe. You’d think the death threats, the creepy promises of rape, the public firings, the long periods of unemployment, the bouts with clinical depression and PTSD would be enough for us — that just that short list of horrors we wouldn’t wish upon our worst enemy would sate our lust for side-showing human suffering in the name of Progress. But it’s not. We continue to punish them to this day, and we do so largely for the reason that, at it’s heart, is the answer to the question Vikram posed that started us off in the first place.
We do so because we can, and because we enjoy it.
[Picture: Woodcut of public flogging, via Wikipedia.]