One of the most repellent features of online and social media discourse, for me, is the endless moral one-upmanship. Even in what now seem the far off days when I I haunted the OneTouchFootball forums, online shaming and self-righteousness seemed far more intense and focused than the real world equivalent. Of course, anyone who thinks these phenomena didn’t happen pre-Internet is massively deluded, but the sheer speed and reach of online shaming is something else. The most notorious example probably being Justine Sacco:
Actually, a better candidate for original victim is Justine Sacco, the PR executive who tweeted to her 170 Twitter followers before getting on a plane to Cape Town, “Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding. I’m white!” It was during the Christmas holidays when news is always slow, so a Gawker post about the tweet quickly went viral. People around the world were soon enjoying the suspense of knowing Sacco was on a plane with no Internet access and no way to know that she had become an object of global ridicule
Not only that, but she lost her job. As far as I can make out, the practice of online shaming transcends political and sociological categories. There doesn’t seem to be an online grouping or community immune. As is always the way, there is at least an element of ingroup/outgroup definition, with the Bad People being outcast from the Good People. This René Girard quote springs to mind:
<blockquote class=”twitter-tweet” data-lang=”en”><p lang=”en” dir=”ltr”>“All are drawn unwittingly into the structure of violent reciprocity -which they always think they are outside of- because they all initially come from the outside and mistake this positional and temporary advantage for a permanent and fundamental superiority.” <br><br>~René Girard</p>— René Girard Quotes (@Renegirard1923) <a href=”https://twitter.com/Renegirard1923/status/1031302568113328128?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw”>August 19, 2018</a></blockquote>
And while I’m at it, here’s another germane quote, from Gil Bailie discussing Girard:
The secret mimeticism beneath the surface of the assertion of autonomy drives the process toward ever more desperate gesticulations of authenticity which in fact amount to an open declaration of its opposite. On the social level, the end result is a spiritual alienation from oneself and from a healthy social matrix, an alienation from which relief is often enough sought in crude and ultimately violent forms of social solidarity.
Someone tweeted that Andrews is conflating people who can justifiably be described as victims of this online shame culture with others who deserved opprobium , the question being in the latter group how many deserve the longer term impact of the shaming (I am paraphrasing and can’t right now find the original) While there may be some merit in this, I can’t help the point is more the dynamics and sheer vitriol unleashed, regardless of cause. Based on a few seconds of video, a tweet, or a brief news report we indulge a perennial human habit of shaming our neighbours.
Some highlights from Andrews’ essay:
There is a celebrity fashion blog called Go Fug Yourself that specializes—or specialized back in 2011, the one and only time I visited the site—in unflattering paparazzi shots and red carpet disasters. The odd thing about Go Fug Yourself, I discovered, was that all its nastiest posts featured the same tic. After unloading whatever brutal snark she had for Jennifer Lawrence or whomever, the writer would always include the same disclaimer: A celebrity has one job, and that’s to look glamorous, so if you can’t manage the one thing you owe us in exchange for all the money and fame, then find another line of work, and until then lay off the cheeseburgers and hire a decent stylist. This dime-store Joan Rivers can’t think she’s fooling anyone, I thought as I scrolled through the archives to see if every post really included this lame moral alibi. Her motivation has nothing to do with celebrities falling short of their duty to the public. She’s making fun of ugliness for the same reason anyone does: It stimulates our lizard brains.
The more online shame cycles you observe, the more obvious the pattern becomes: Everyone comes up with a principled-sounding pretext that serves as a barrier against admitting to themselves that, in fact, all they have really done is joined a mob. Once that barrier is erected, all rules of decency go out the window, but the pretext is almost always a lie.
In Trust Me, I’m Lying: Confessions of a Media Manipulator, Ryan Holiday’s memoir of his years as a PR consultant, he describes a roundtable meeting at the Huffington Post where the editors discussed how a certain big company should have handled its recent PR crisis. The editors offered the usual bromides: “Transparency is critical.” “Be proactive.” “Get out in front of it.” Holiday replied, “None of you know what you’re talking about.” The old rules don’t apply in the free-for-all world of online journalism, and they especially don’t work when the figure at the center of the controversy is one lonely individual. If a client came to him because he was being called a racist or sexist on Twitter, Holiday says (pardon the vulgarity), “I would tell him to bend over and take it. And then I’d apologize. I’d tell him the whole system is broken and evil, and I’m sorry it’s attacking him. But there’s nothing that can be done.”
When I was debating whether or not to write this essay, which, after all, revisits an unpleasant incident that has long been at least semi-dormant, if not quite forgotten, I saw a headline in the New York Times: “His Body Was Behind the Wheel a Week Before It Was Discovered.” The man, Geoffrey Corbis, had committed suicide in a parked car in the East Village. Only his name wasn’t really Geoffrey Corbis, the Times explained. He had been born Geoffrey Weglarz. He changed it after an incident in 2013 at a McDonald’s near his home in Connecticut, when he threw a sandwich at a pregnant server who had given him the wrong order. Newspaper coverage of this funny local fracas did not mention Weglarz’s recent divorce or long-term unemployment after leaving his job as a computer programmer at Dell. He couldn’t find work with the McDonald’s story at the top of his Google results, hence the attempt at a fresh start as Geoffrey Corbis.
All this puts me in mind of Philip Larkin’s The Mower – we should be kind while there is still time:
The mower stalled, twice; kneeling, I found
A hedgehog jammed up against the blades,
Killed. It had been in the long grass.
I had seen it before, and even fed it, once.
Now I had mauled its unobtrusive world
Unmendably. Burial was no help:
Next morning I got up and it did not.
The first day after a death, the new absence
Is always the same; we should be careful
Of each other, we should be kind
While there is still time