Today’s post will probably not be particularly coherent. I’m working out a variety of thoughts related to a wide array of topics that all seem to come together in the phenomena of online shaming and harassment. I’d love to hear other people’s thoughts about the appropriateness of shaming, the role social media and the internet play in allowing people to shame each other, and the differences between harassment and activism.
There have been a lot of stories lately about people using shame or attacks on the internet to change other people’s behavior. Gamergate is one of the most obvious examples, although in that case shame was not the tactic, but rather threats and attacks (with at least one instance of someone physically attempting to injure another person). It doesn’t seem like it takes much thinking to realize that threats (especially death and rape threats) are not acceptable ways to change someone’s behavior, and neither is driving to their house with the intention of killing them. So we have a far end of the spectrum that is unequivocally Not Ok (I’m sure there is a freeze peacher out there somewhere who is apoplectic that I’m taking away their right to say whatever they want. When I say Not Ok I mean that this is a horrible, unethical way to try to change things you disagree with, whether that be women in games or super racist people).
But other examples are not quite as obviously horrible ways to participate in a decent society.
Recently, Gawker did some trolling of Coca Cola in a way that tarnished their brand. Coca Cola was in the midst of a campaign turning negative tweets into happy little pictures, and Gawker managed to make them tweet quotes from Mein Kampf. Was this useful? Was it cruel? It seems like Gawker might have been pointing out the ways that it’s really unhelpful to tritely paper over the actual harms that happen on the internet, especially when Coca Cola actively takes part in some extremely negative, harmful, and oppressive things. But did that message come across, and is it ok to shame or trick them?
At Skepchick, Kerry suggests that trolling a huge company is different from taking the same actions towards an individual. A recent New York Times article documents the ways that backlash to tweets can completely change an individual’s life, leading to them losing their job, developing mental illnesses, and even being afraid to date on the off chance that their date Googles them. The repercussions for Coke were that the company had to pull their campaign. So it does seem that there’s an important difference between using social media to ask someone (or someones) with power to change their behaviors and piling on the shame to an individual to get them to change their behavior.
BUT…one of the most effective ways to push social change is by upping the social costs of behaving poorly. So when more and more people start speaking up and saying that they don’t like shitty rape jokes, or that they won’t tolerate hearing racism and sexism, the more people learn not to engage in behaviors that actually hurt other people. When someone does something that is really a nasty, inappropriate thing (even if it’s simply saying a nasty, inappropriate shame) it does make sense for them to feel some shame, and for others to show their disapproval. Sometimes this does cross over into shaming for shaming’s sake, like name calling or mocking. That seems to be less helpful, although it’s something that happens with or without the internet: it happened in the past in public punishments like the stocks or public executions and whippings. It happens in individual friend groups all the time. It can even happen at larger events like performances or athletics.
So it makes complete sense that some of these shaming behaviors that are actually pretty effective ways of groups policing what behavior they find acceptable or not would move over to the internet. I’m curious if the people who think that this constitutes a destruction of free speech would think the same thing about the instances in which people are shamed or berated for saying shitty things in meatspace.
Of course there are some pertinent differences. The internet lets shaming happen on a scale far larger than most in person shaming ever would. It sticks around for a lot longer, and can get broadcast to a lot of people, even if just for their entertainment. Those differences can lead the shaming to follow someone for longer than it might have otherwise, but the emotional effects of being shamed don’t seem like they would be much different whether they were in person or online.
It seems like there’s a lot of nuance in which behaviors of calling someone out or asking someone to change are actually effective and aren’t horribly damaging to other people. There have to be some repercussions in order for a person to make any changes, but too many repercussions and you venture into “being a total shithead” territory (like death threats). For people who are extremely thoughtful about how they engage with other people this might not be a problem. There are actually people out there who are fairly careful on the internet about how they try to engage in activism, particularly when interacting with an individual.
But the problem is that the internet gives us all equal access. So especially if someone who is thoughtful and nuanced starts a critique of another person online, it quickly becomes a shitfest of insults and shaming, whether or not we intended it to be that way. This can still be surprisingly effective at getting people to understand that they’ve said something horrible, or at educating a larger group of people about a certain social justice issue, but it does seem to come at a cost. That cost involves hurting some people, the people who said something racist or stupid or awkwardly and then got attacked.
When does it cross into bullying?
I really don’t know. I don’t know how much responsibility we can take for the ways that companies respond when an employee has said something stupid. Calling for someone to be fired doesn’t seem relevant (unless that person is heading up some kind of policy or their actions would affect their own or their coworkers abilities to do their jobs). But sometimes when an employee is the source of bad PR, it’s in the company’s best interest to let them go. Are the internet masses responsible? Was it bullying or shaming to say that a person’s actions were gross or racist or bad? How does it change if that person has 170 followers vs. if they’re a CEO or entertainer?
Our gut instinct says that those in the public sphere should be willing to put up with some flak, but is it really fair to say that they deserve the kind of overwhelming shaming, criticism, and mob mentality that can come when a celebrity screws up on Twitter? How responsible do they have to be for the fact that their words and actions influence more people than the average joe?
Even if you’re one of the Good Ones, how responsible is it to join in the criticism if you know others are going to jump in and take it to a ridiculous extreme?
Guys I just don’t know anymore. I don’t know how much hurt is the acceptable amount of hurt to ask the privileged to put up with. I don’t know when criticism moves to bullying moves to harassment or how to decide what amount of privilege shields you from the worse end of that spectrum. I know that it’s really important that there are repercussions when someone says something racist or sexist or shitty or oppressive because saying those things actively harms the more vulnerable people. I just don’t know how.