Shame and the Information Age

The information age has, of course, brought innumerable benefits. The benisons of technology are immediately apparent and therefore do not need explaining. You know what they represent, and these benefits are a reality in many millions of lives, bringing advances and improvements almost unforeseen a generation ago into wide circulation.

Online culture, an offspring of technological advancement, has come under increasing scrutiny of late. Its newness is still remarkable, and the extent to which it is divergent from traditional and analogue culture is noteworthy. There have been a raft of news stories written about abuse experienced online – and though a lot of this attention may be derived from little more than delayed shock at the new and different, there is something almost threatening about the mass dimension of such communication. It’s more frightening than something like ‘cyber-bullying’, which people seemed altogether too worried about when I was at school.

Recently, I read So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, a book by Jon Ronson which takes as its subject the particularly modern phenomenon of mass humiliation – often carried out for ostensibly moral reasons or in order to attack immoral transgressions – which seems to be an increasingly common part of contemporary communication. It is said to be important; it is considered news, and not always considered a bad thing; and this tide of shaming seems very likely to continue.

Ronson spends a great deal of the book talking about Twitter, because that is the medium through which much of this shaming seems to occur. There is a transgression, either within the online world or outside its immediate environs. People notice; they inform each other; they chastise or attack the guilty party; and then, in cases which were once rare and are now common, they all pile on, either making someone’s day rather unpleasant or, in extreme instances, blackening their name in the long term. (And, as is important in the modern age, this can have immediate and long-lasting effects on what comes up when the victim is searched on Google, potentially wrecking their ability to get on with life in the aftermath.)

People can lose their jobs; they can become estranged from their families and friends; they can be painted in a darker shade than had ever seemed reasonable. And the people who do it – who shame, who pile on, who insult and attack and besmirch – end up feeling rather pleased with themselves afterwards. They think they have done a good deed, and feel thus justified and vindicated.

This public shaming is different to the online abuse about which so much is written (‘vile Twitter trolls’ the like). It is not, as much abuse seems to be, the knee-jerk nastiness of those who are constitutionally unpleasant; and it seems to be much less of a mindless exercise: those who engage in public shaming are often abusive, but they do what they do not for kicks – or not initially – but rather because there seems some moral or intellectual justification for doing it.

Someone has transgressed; they have done something which contravenes accepted moral standards (even within a certain unrepresentative in-group); and they must be made aware of their wrongdoing and effectively (and collectively) punished.

That punishment can take the form of a ghoulish delight on the misfortune of others – often those who misspeak or appear to speak in certain unconscionable ways. The case of Justine Sacco, who sent a tweet which was wrongly deemed racist and was thereafter harassed and targeted and abused (all without her being immediately aware), is one which Ronson subjects to a great deal of attention. And he seems right to do so; her case is both representative and something more, an action of greater magnitude – perhaps even a bellwether of how extreme things can and may get in the future.

Sacco was on a plane while the world assessed her virtue and found her wanting. She was unaware at the time of her newfound infamy. In the aftermath, she lost her job; she was vilified; and all the while, her vilification became something of a game, an entertainment as well as an opportunity to parade personal virtue and petty public morality. ‘Has Justine landed yet?’ people asked. They said they could not wait to witness her reaction. They suggested someone go to the airport to see if she could be spotted.

Other cases of public shame that Ronson chronicles are perhaps a little different; perhaps these people are more deserving. Jonah Lehrer, a popular science writer who was in great demand until evidence of his plagiarism and personal dishonesty came to light, is not the most sympathetic of characters. He did do the things which were alleged; portentously, he did fabricate quotations from Bob Dylan for his book Imagine. What Ronson appears to object to is less the fact that Lehrer’s errors and deliberate falsehoods were reported and discussed, but rather the process of how the rest of the world reacted. Lehrer gave a speech in which he said some words in apparent apology; all the while, on a nearby screen, angry tweets and messages were projected into the eyeline of the speaker and his audience.

That incident seems unpleasant, but somehow warranted. And unlike in Sacco’s case, the wrongdoing at hand (in this case real, not imagined), and a lot of the fallout, took place partially – indeed, mostly – offline. He has lost work; his latter book has been recalled; and any esteem his name held in influential circles has dwindled to naught. (The same is undoubtedly true of others in journalism who have crossed boundaries as they relate to fabulism and plagiarism and telling the truth.)

And one need only watch the documentary Weiner, about Anthony Weiner’s doomed campaign for the mayoralty of New York, which contains numerous examples of TV comedians making reference to his private misdemeanours, to realise that shaming and its corollaries are not only carried out by hordes of the self-righteous nobodies which populate our online communications. Some of the keenest to shame are those who, unlike those who decide that they should serve as moral guardians, have some other stake in events. And it’s also possible that they, just like some of those who attacked Justine Sacco, may simply be doing it for a laugh.