“Ignominy is universally acknowledged to be a worse punishment than death,” he wrote. “It would seem strange that ignominy should ever have been adopted as a milder punishment than death, did we not know that the human mind seldom arrives at truth upon any subject till it has first reached the extremity of error.”This is a quote from Benjamin Rush, a physician in Philadelphia and a signer of the Declaration of Independence. It's in Jon Ronson's long New York Times Magazine article on public shaming in the age of social media, How One Stupid Tweet Blew Up Justine Sacco’s Life.
Sacco posted a sarcastic tweet that people immediately jumped on as racist. In her words, to Ronson,
“To me it was so insane of a comment for anyone to make,” she said. “I thought there was no way that anyone could possibly think it was literal.”She tweeted from Heathrow just before boarding a plane for Cape Town. Little did she know about the firestorm that would greet her when she landed.
Ronson, not only follows up on Sacco, but other people whose lives have been turned upside down by people piling on online. In one case, there was a picture that the person "didn't realize that her mobile uploads were visible to the public." It took four weeks before the photo was discovered and she lost her job.
In another case, a guy at a tech conference, made a bad joke about computer body parts, quietly, to the guy sitting next to him. The lady in front of them stood up, took his picture.
"She tweeted the picture to her 9,209 followers with the caption: “Not cool. Jokes about . . . ‘big’ dongles right behind me.” Ten minutes later, he and his friend were taken into a quiet room at the conference and asked to explain themselves. Two days later, his boss called him into his office, and he was fired."The article is well worth reading. It looks at how things are taken out of context and people's lives are, at least temporarily, destroyed. And even if someone's words are in context and inappropriate, the impact of cyber shaming is totally disproportionate to the crime. If someone went to court for this, it would be a minor embarrassment and cost. But it wouldn't cost someone their livelihood.
This gets Ronson to look up the history of shaming in the US. Which led to the opening quote.
"The pillory and whippings were abolished at the federal level in 1839, although Delaware kept the pillory until 1905 and whippings until 1972. An 1867 editorial in The Times excoriated the state for its obstinacy. 'If [the convicted person] had previously existing in his bosom a spark of self-respect this exposure to public shame utterly extinguishes it. . . . The boy of 18 who is whipped at New Castle for larceny is in nine cases out of 10 ruined. With his self-respect destroyed and the taunt and sneer of public disgrace branded upon his forehead, he feels himself lost and abandoned by his fellows.'”Of course, Tweets, often alert us to something well worth reading, and I thank Mark Meyer, for retweeting about this article.
Something to chew on. Pause and think when you're about to post a questionable joke or in anger. Or when you're feeling righteous indignation about something you see posted online. Find out the truth first. Remember the golden rule - think how you'd feel if you were on the receiving end.
[UPDATE Feb 17, 2015: Here's the December 2014 Gawker post by the guy who spread Justine Sacco's tweet to infamy. They met, six months later. Here are a couple things he says about all this:
Twitter disasters are the quickest source of outrage, and outrage is traffic.Fortunately, traffic doesn't make or break this blog. It's good to know people are reading it, but I don't need to stir up fake outrage to boost traffic.
And, as it turned out, Justine Sacco is not a racist monster. She is a kind and canny woman who threw back cocktails, ate delicately, and spoke expertly about software. She was friendly, very funny, instantly relatable, and very plainly not a cruel sicko. We talked about college, jobs, home, family, and work—she'd recently landed on her feet as the communications boss for a small New York startup, and seemed to be happily rebuilding her career. . .
Sacco was not depressed, or even slightly bitter, and said she bore no resentment towards me at all. She'd only wanted to meet up, she explained, because I owed it to her. I should get to know her before ever writing about her again. There was no catch, no setup, no tricks—she just wanted me to consider her a person, and not a meme. . .This is the point I try to make over and over again. We shouldn't take something that a person spent a few seconds of their life doing and use it to judge a person. We all do stupid things now and then. Think about the stupid things you wouldn't like to have the world use to write your epitaph.]