Every status update since the dawn of Thomas


Sunday, 25 September 2016

Shame. Shame. Shame.

1. Back to the playground

We were about 11 years old and queued up for something at school when one of the confident, popular lads took his digital watch off and smelled the strap.

“Urgh” he went and proceeded to get everyone around him to smell the sweaty rubber. I smelled it. And I said something to the tune of: “Urgh, that smells like your fingers do when they’ve been up your bum.”

There was a moment of silence. It was an odd thing to say. I thought it was funny (I was 11) and also thought it was fairly uncontroversial – come on, now, we all know that smell, right? We’ve all caught an unfortunate whiff when going about our ablutions before washing our hands, yeah? If I was 16 and into edgy gross-out humour I might have said “That smells like arse crack!” and might have got a laugh (we would have been 16).

But I was 11, and I said: “That smells like your fingers do when they’ve been up your bum.”

I said it. And after the beat of uncertain silence, the confident, popular lad roared with laughter and said: “He puts his fingers up his bum and then smells them.”

Everybody gasped in horrified glee and slowly it worked its way down the line – Urgh! He LIKES putting his fingers up his bum! And he LIKES smelling them! He’s gross! He’s smelly! He’s a pervert!

I tried to explain myself but it only made matters worse. They weren’t interested in my mitigation. And how could I take it back? I’d said it, it was a matter of public record. So for the next few weeks I was the “bum fingers” kid, and just had to suck it up. What had happened was that the quiet, weedy, arty guy had said something weird and it was gift – everyone was just ripe and itching to jump on it, to have someone to taunt and feel better than. I’d walked right into that role.

On the scale of bullying that is a pretty silly and inconsequential example, of course – I could have used much more extreme and traumatic examples that I saw, received or even took part in dishing out from those awkward, anxiety-filled early years, but let’s keep it light eh? – the point is that kind of situation was utterly everyday and banal in the playground.

As you grow up you think things are different and you won’t ever go back to that. While talking about introversion (here), I said: “Having spent much of my childhood feeling vaguely threatened and misunderstood by pretty much everyone except my immediate family and closest friends, I slowly discovered that communication was a kind of super-power – to be able to explain yourself, articulate your case and express what the hell was going on in that inner world of yours was a transformative skill to develop,” – and I still feel that. But recently I’ve begun having doubts about the universal effectiveness of that super-power, because I’m starting to see plenty of cases where, both online and in the media, it doesn’t count for shit.

I am of course talking about public shaming – where someone says something a little offensive or ill-advised and are met with a tsunami of outrage and anger, from howls of cackling derision, to calls for them to be stripped of their job and title, to full-on threats of extreme violence and death (often sexual, if female).

The victim's original comment may have been a bit unpleasant, a bit inappropriate, and not something I’d condone or sympathise with, so it took me a while to pin down why the outraged response troubled me so – and it’s that, up there. The playground fear. The realisation that you’re just one unwise quip away from public humiliation and ruin.

It doesn’t matter if it wasn’t what you meant. It doesn’t matter if what you said doesn’t really represent what you think, feel or who you are. It doesn’t matter what the intended tone or context originally was. Explanation or logical argument can’t repair it – if what you said could possibly be taken as the kind of thing we might imagine a truly awful person could say, then you are that monster in the eyes of the world now, with no chance of redemption.

Because those doing the shaming are no more interested in the reality, subtlety and humanity behind an utterance than kids in the playground – what they want is a scapegoat to make an example of, to suffer and then disappear, so everyone else can go home feeling righteous and superior. If the mob wants to tear you down, it will tear you down, blind to all reason, nuance and the facts of the matter.

2. The new moral majority

I remain deeply, deeply suspicious of the motivations of righteous rage – most of the time I simply don’t buy it as this pure and noble thing we’re supposed to accept it as. It’s not humble or fair-minded, it’s cruel and disingenuous. There’s always a whiff of “casting the first stone” lack of self-awareness about it. As Nietzsche put it: “No one lies as much as the indignant do.”

I was going to write something on this topic anyway, but then I read Jon Ronson’s excellent “So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed” and it kind of covers it – but at the same time has made the matter crystal clear in my head. This kind of mass group-shaming is just vile, and not a little bit scary.

One thing I kept thinking while reading that book is how people just love pointing the finger. They get off on having their little inner tyrant unleashed to lord it over others, while at the same time feeling that’s fine because they are justified and holy, right is on their side and everyone approves. We look to others for what is acceptable, and so when everyone starts attacking it suspends the usual social norms of being polite and forgiving – or actually considering the victim as a human being – while rewarding us with praise for joining in, egging us on. Add online anonymity and the short attention span of internet interaction to that and you can be as vile and violent as you like, with no need to consider that you don’t know the context and subtleties behind what was originally said.

And the fall-out for the victim of a shaming is not all over and forgotten quickly as it is for the perpetrators. Towards the end of Ronson’s book, he interviews Michael Fertik who runs reputation.com, a company which works to bury online shamings and damaging Google results for clients. Fertik responds to criticism that he’s “manipulating truth and chilling free speech” by saying:

“But there is a chilling of behaviour that goes along with a virtual lynching. There is a life modification... People change their phone numbers. They don’t leave the house. They go into therapy. They have signs of PTSD. It’s like the Stasi. We’re creating a culture where people feel constantly surveilled, where people are afraid to be themselves... This is more frightening than the NSA. The NSA is looking for terrorists. They’re not getting psychosexual pleasure out of their schadenfreude about you.”

Ronson himself says the early days of social media, where people thought they could be themselves and say anything to anyone, had proven to be naive: the sensible tactic these days it seems is to be as bland as possible online.

“The great thing about social media was how it gave a voice to voiceless people. We are now turning it into a surveillance society where the smartest way to survive is to go back to being voiceless,” he said.

Certainly I don’t want a society where one off-the-cuff remark can override everything else you ever did or said and cost you your career, reputation, friends and mental well-being if the mob decides to turn on you.

The irony is that much of this is being done in the name of liberalism, as those shamed are often perceived as transgressing against modern progressive values in some way – caricatured as the worst kind of backwards-thinking, overprivileged, oppressive dinosaur whether they actually are or not. Broadly speaking I’m also a progressive liberal, dammit, and to me this just seems a complete betrayal of that – the shouty moral majority used to be the ultra-conservative right wing. Us liberals thought we’d largely vanquished that kind of knee-jerk Mary Whitehouse censorship nonsense, for a more open-mined, diverse society. But no: now the shouty moral majority is us.

3. Paradoxical behaviour

Western culture in the new millennium is deeply confused about this stuff, with weird and wild extremes going on. On the one hand we have never been more accepting of the shocking, “edgy” and extreme, and love to wax worthy about the importance of freedom of speech and the right to offend and be offended. At the same time we love to destroy the lives of anyone who says anything that even resembles something we deem “not cool”, even if the comment itself was the kind of thing you hear average people say everyday, and actually fairly inconsequential.

It’s completely unremarkable to guffaw on a week night at, say, South Park, Family Guy, Bo Selecta (back in the day) or a Frankie Boyle gig, pushing the boundaries of taste and acceptability... and yet a single slightly off-colour tweet, even if clearly intended as absurd or ironic, can end someone’s career.

Ronson covers in-depth the example of a woman who was reduced to a jobless, scared, numb, shell-like recluse for the sake of a picture at a war memorial where she pretended to shout and flip the bird next to a “silence and respect” sign (not actually shouting or intending disrespect, note, but just as a visual pun). She was so demonised and hounded online that it flooded any Google search for her name for years to come, while death threats and outrage continued unabated... and meanwhile the Sex Pistols, who wouldn't have thought twice about such a stunt and would have meant it, are currently being lauded as a beloved cultural institution in exhibitions across London for the 40th anniversary of punk.

This is paradoxical behaviour, it just doesn’t stack up. Now I know there is an argument to be made about the licence of entertainers and artists to say things us everyday working drones who have to toe the line cannot, but the hugeness of the disparity is mind boggling.

4. Telling the difference

People are often silly and ignorant, yes, and often need it pointing out that what they joke about can be hurtful and perpetuate ingrained inequalities – but they don’t deserve destroying for that. We have to be able to tell the difference between someone who proudly publishes Mein Kampf and someone who is making a quip without considering how it might sting; between Roosh V and some immature college geek thinking he’s being ironic. Or, as Ronson points out, a battle for civil rights and a “nasty imitation” witch-hunt. The response has to be proportionate, or we're lost.

People say stupid things in jest all the time. It doesn’t mean that’s what they really think in their sober moments. Neither does it mean that’s an indication of how they would personally treat actual people ­– in fact the shock of that mismatch is often the very joke itself. And yet we pretend we don’t know this. Why? Because we want someone to pounce on, point and shout at, to feel righteous over and superior to.

Ages ago I did a silly post about telepathy where I argued that if we knew the contents of everyone’s thoughts we would not be able to maintain our social judgements based on appearance and public presentation any more: “We would all have to become inconceivably more understanding and forgiving of others if we were going to be party to everyone’s inner-most secrets and feelings all the time,” I said.

To some extent social media has created a world where the kind of off-the-cuff, unfiltered contents of our heads, that previously only our friends and family might hear, can now be instantly displayed to everyone all over the world, as immortal pronouncements carved in code. We still haven’t got to grips with that, neither as writers nor readers – both those of us spewing out thoughts and those of us judging them may have to modify our behaviour. Sure, we should be more mindful about what we say, but equally we cannot judge a tweet or facebook status like a carefully-planned and edited publication.

On shaming I am now off the fence. Unless there is a genuine injustice to be urgently addressed with an actual victim, as Ronson puts it, I’m not up for this shaming lark at all – it’s not redemptive, there is no positive outcome for anyone, just vileness upon vileness until everyone is angry, damaged and numb. And if I may be so bold, I’d like to suggest we all stop and think if it’s really fair, necessary and worth doing before we lay into anyone online, or at least think about how we should go about it and why we are doing it.

Do you actually know what this person is about? Can you be sure you are being fair to them and the spirit and context this was said in? Do you really know what the effect on their lives could be and do you actually want that? Have you never said anything a bit risque and ill-advised that could be taken as a bit dicey - could the mob not one day just as easily turn on you? I mean to say, for Chrissakes, that guy that the Christians like said it 2,000 years ago: "Let him who is without sin..."