Thursday, February 12, 2015

The Impact Of Modern Day Shaming

“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.]


  1. I find it very hard to feel sorry for the people that make willful statements that are clearly unacceptable.

    Do I think the shaming is out of proportion? No.

    Their unacceptable tweet can be seen by millions.

    There is a negative influence on those millions, with many, that unacceptable tweet may lend credibility to people with bigoted or racist views.

    The magnitude of the negative effect on the masses is not insignificant.

    No, if they'd not uttered unacceptable speech, they'd not have the trouble they brought on themselves.

    It's way too late to think people don't know what they do online is viewable by millions.

    It's that possibility of reaching millions that drive a lot of people to say things online.

    I don't feel sorry for anyone who suffers consequences for willfully uttering unacceptable things.

    Those who wish for less 'political correctness' are just wishing they could allow their freak flag to fly without being concerned they'd be caught out by their racism, homophobia, xenophobia etc.

    Talk long enough to people who think there's too much 'political correctness' and you'll find what lies under their public mask.

    We enjoy a certain amount of free speech, we are provided platforms to speak our minds.

    What we don't have, and should never attempt to grant to anyone,

    ….is a license to avoid personal responsibility for what we say.

    Words have meaning, ….learn what they mean before employing them.

  2. Of course, Joe. I see great irony here. You have been known to say intemperate things about people here and you've chastised me for being too restrained. On the one hand, in this comment, you're condemning folks for "willfully uttering unacceptable things." On the other you have no problem - or you didn't read the post carefully - with people 'willfully uttering unacceptable things" about the people who mistweet others.

    To be fair, I think you are distinguishing between saying what you believe to be truthful judgments about individuals and saying hateful things about categories of people. But a lot of what both of us write is 'unacceptable' to others. Who decides?

    I agree there's a certain satisfying self-correction on the internet. And people should be aware that the people who read their words might not understand their context. But most people are never plucked out of internet anonymity to have their words spewed across the universe for everyone to see and seethe over. My issue is not with correction, but with online pillorying of transgressors. The response is out of proportion to the offense. The anonymous mob anger is too self-righteous. At least those who were shamed in public at the stocks could see who was abusing them.

    The first victim in this story was being ironic. Was not really being racist. But I agree tweeting it was stupid. But stupidity isn't illegal.

    The second victim (I know, you'd call them perpetrators) didn't know that when she uploaded a photo on her phone it became public. Hey, the way technology changes these days, most people have little idea of where things on their phone or laptop end up. She had no intent to make it public.

    The third victim was telling a bad joke, quietly according to his story, which, nevertheless, someone overheard and took umbrage with, took his picture, and posted her outrage about online.

    I agree with you about 'political correctness.' That's a term that people in power made up to complain about people who got offended about their racial and sexual slurs. Their problem was they no longer had the power to enforce the things that they had censored before, their own political correctness. And they were pissed that they had lost the freedom to say whatever them damn well pleased.

    But what if cybermob retribution becomes its own form of censorship? Women bloggers who speak out can get terribly evil sexual and physical threats. (So can male bloggers.) That's also a form of political correctness. It terrorizes people into silence. That's the part I'm objecting to.

  3. First, saying something 'intemperate' is a far cry from giving voice to something unacceptable. You may categorize my speech as, on occasion, 'intemperate', but at that, you stop short of making the claim that I've given voice to something unacceptable.

    I stand by what I say and I have an understanding of the meaning of the words I employ.

    As to my mention of your being 'too restrained', I don't think my point then would be lost when and if it's put in it's proper context. (and you leave out that context in mentioning the specific occurrence, which could put other readers at a loss because they'll have to imagine for themselves what's being discussed in the abstract.)

    I agree that overblown cyber retribution, as you describe it, is problematic.

    Yes, people often over -react and misinterpret.

    Some too many make a habit of doing just that and not much of anything else.

    But that's not a modifier to excuse the acts of the individuals in question.

    Claiming 'irony' after the fact can all too often be abused, that's why satire in print is most often clearly labeled as such somewhere right from the get go.

    If not, one is leaving themselves open to interpretation. And if you're going to spout unacceptable language, you'd best be up front about your 'irony' or else suffer the consequences of trying to walk back what's already been let out of the bag. Too many times have I heard racist or bigoted talk, that when challenged, any acknowledgement came with the claim of …"I was kidding".

    Some things aren't appropriate, not even as a subject for 'kidding'.

    The second person not 'knowing' posting online could go public? For too long it's been all too common for everyone to be advised that anything you choose to post is predictably likely to be made public. Yes, people ignore those warnings, but that won't ameliorate the consequences of posting compromising material online. The habit of a few to place themselves in compromising positions predates the technology.

    (...if anyone doesn't know it yet, there's no such thing as privacy online.)

    As you say, the third 'victim' was telling a bad joke.

    'Quietly', you say, as if saying something unacceptable 'quietly' is any more acceptable than saying it loudly?

    If someone is concerned about consequences of saying something, don't say it where you can be overheard. It's pretty simple.

    Behave yourself in public or be prepared to accept the consequences.

    A bit more acknowledgement of the importance of ethical and mannerly behavior in all things, at all times, won't ever hurt anyone.

    For all the instances of public shaming you have reserves about I can cite instances where the public shaming was exactly the fit and proper response.

    The shining of bright lights on unacceptable behavior isn't something I wish to see minimized or marginalized.

    Imperfect as it may be, ...I think it serves a necessary purpose.

  4. Joe, I don't think we're far apart. It's a difference of degree. I strongly believe that too much openness causes less ultimate harm than too much secrecy. But that said, there's also a need for some reasonableness. Posting a nasty message online should happen only after you attempt to resolve something face to face. I realize that isn't always an option. But in the 'dongle' debate it surely was. I decided to see if I could find the actual joke. I didn't, but here's an overview of what happened there. The woman who was upset and posted also lost her job because of this. You can see yourself. A Dongle Joke that Spiraled Way Out of Control.

    There are conflicting values - free speech and being tolerant and respectful. Free speech, when it matters, is going to offend someone, because it challenges their belief system. My goal is to challenge people's beliefs respectfully.

  5. I'll confess to being intolerant, ...and disrespectful.

    I can't, and won't, tolerate racists, xenophobes, misogynists, bigots etc, etc, etc.

    I've no respect for any of them, and it's my aim to offend them.

    1. Calling someone a 'racist', "xenophobe', or 'bigot' tends to distill a whole human being from one facet of who the person is. We can describe, more accurately, what a person did at a particular moment. But we don't know that that moment is an accurate representation of who that person is. [Actually, in the cases above, we have to depend on the media to know what the person did, even, and that's risky.] Such labeling reminds me of how Rodney King was described in the media as 'a motorist.' We are all complex human beings. We're someone's children, other people's sibling. Most of us are employees, spaghetti eaters, wine drinkers, nose blowers, etc. And most people raised in the US are racists to some extent. It's part of our cultural heritage, from our history to our media. For some people, stereotyping groups of people based on their skin color is a major part of their identity. For others it's something that only shows itself on rare occasions.

    2. Bigoted employees, spaghetti eaters, wine drinkers, etc, aren't excused from their bigotry just because they fall into some random category wholly unrelated to their bigotry.

      As to being someone's children, bigotry breeds more bigotry.

      Whether they're wearing it on their sleeve, or if it 'rarely shows', it's bigotry all the same and making any kind of excuses for it only lends it an air of tractable acceptance.

      I'll pass, history shows that course hasn't been at all effective.

      Bigotry should be confronted, not overlooked, not pardoned and not made accommodation for.

  6. That's the old Joe I thought I knew. Wondered where (he/she/they) had gone, this person who stands up to people when they're wrong, anonymously.

  7. Needing attention are you?

    You, or anyone else, says something unacceptable in my presence,

    and I'll not hesitate to let you know it's unacceptable.

    My anonymity here has no bearing on the contextual validity of what I say.


    My remaining anonymous is totally irrelevant to and divorced from the message itself.

    You're just inexplicably concern trolling.

    That's another cyber-phenomena that the attention seekers, the petty and the trite engage in.

    Anonymous political speech has been recognized and protected in this nation since this nation's inception.

    It's merits and protections are enshrined and validated in our Constitution as well as through well documented Supreme Court rulings upholding that right.

    Anonymous political speech played a key role in our revolution, and in all political processes and social evolutions since.

    You moved to England.

    We rejected the English telling us how to act when we formed this nation,

    …we rejected them then,

    ...I've no problem rejecting your trite and petty attempt to obtrude now.

    1. Joe, Let's try to stick to discussing ideas. Let's try to focus on the commenter's words rather than their imagined motives. Jacob raised a legitimate issue about the contradiction between your choosing to post anonymously and your statement:

      "What we don't have, and should never attempt to grant to anyone,

      ….is a license to avoid personal responsibility for what we say."

      Yes, there is a right to post anonymously. But it's there for people who have a legitimate fear for their life or livelihood because of what they say. I don't know whether that's the case for you. But you should be in no danger since you deny that you say anything 'unacceptable.'

      I certainly see a contradiction between
      1. saying you're fine with the retribution these people got for words they said that got onto the internet (not intentionally for some),
      2. your declaration that people need to take responsibility, and
      3. your posting anonymously.

      I agree, for the most part, the anonymity doesn't affect the content, though it may affect how you express it. Yet you call out Jacob, not because of what he said, but because of who he is, something that you would not know about him if he had written anonymously. And your expression of it - that he moved to England, so his words don't matter - could easily be interpreted by some as xenophobic. And then you'd probably say, your words were misinterpreted. Which is what the people in the article said. But they weren't anonymous. It's also ironic that you seem to have no problem with the fact that the person who called out one of the people in the article, herself was attacked online and lost her job. Even though she was calling out what she interpreted as sexism.

      I could understand it if you made a different argument. Something like, "what I say is rational and reasonable. But someone could misinterpret it and attack me. Thus I choose to be anonymous." But you simply say, "It's my constitutional right" What you seem to imply is,, 'if others are stupid enough to be identified with what they say, then they deserve what they get, because the internet isn't a safe place."

      And, at the very least, you seem to use the same moniker when you post here, so while we do not know who you are in real life, we get a sense that it's the same person. (Of course that assumes that others don't claim to be Joe Blow and that you don't also post anonymously from time to time.

      Here's a decent discussion of the issue from Tech Republic.

      Among the many issues it mentions is that sites monitor anonymous commenters because they aren't consistent with the level of civility the site owners want. I will delete posts if they push too far against my guidelines and if they cause people not to comment here for fear of hostile personal attacks. Your post about Jacob is over the edge, but I'm leaving it so other readers can see the problems I see. So, if you need to respond to this, I recommend you do it carefully, without judgmental comments about the people who comment. Challenge their ideas, don't tell us who or what you think they are.

  8. So the attempt at public shaming through Jacob's innuendo is fine, passes right under your radar in a piece you wrote detailing your own struggles with people's abuse of the very tactic,

    …a straightforward and direct response to his unfounded innuendo is to be given the full eyeball of conjecture, speculation, and postulation.

    Yeah, nothing novel in that, …your prerogative.

  9. Joe, You accuse Jacob of 'shaming with innuendo.' Here's what Jacob wrote:

    "That's the old Joe I thought I knew. Wondered where (he/she/they) had gone, this person who stands up to people when they're wrong, anonymously."

    He also wrote:
    "Ah, yes, there you are! Good day."

    I can't tell if your latest comments are serious or you are just trying to ring my bell. If you're serious, then your thinking process and mine are totally different, because to me, your comments miss the point of what we were discussing and are contradictory.

    If you aren't serious, and you just want to see how far you can push me before I get mad, that's not going to happen. I try to treat every commenter seriously even though I realize not all are serious. My responses, at that point, are aimed, at trying to elicit a response that engages in substantive discussion. Sometimes I realize the commenter may be a lost cause there, but my comments are also for other readers, who will make their own judgments. To the extent that picking through foreign (to me) logic systems is a learning experience, I'm willing to go at it, but I think this thread of comments is no longer productive.

    It's not that I'm angry, but I've gotten to the point where giving you the benefit of the doubt no longer makes sense. You don't respond to other people's arguments, you focus instead on attacking them personally. I now have, in this series of comments, enough evidence that I'm satisfied that I'm not simply misinterpreting you. I've given you plenty of chances to explain yourself and you've not engaged in the issues at a serious level.

    After declaring yourself intolerant of racists and bigots, labeling other people as racists and bigots, and saying you don't care if you offend them, you now claim that Jacob has shamed you by his innocuously pointing out the contradiction between what you claim and your choice to post anonymously.

    Your claim makes no sense to me whatsoever. You applaud people attacking others online to the point that they lose their jobs, yet you complain when you're the 'victim' of someone questioning what you say. Even though your anonymity means there are no real world consequences beyond, possibly, your feeling bad. Here's a definition of bigotry (from Oxford Dictionaries)

    "Intolerance toward those who hold different opinions from oneself"

    I don't see how further comments from me would be productive here.

  10. Any doubts as to whether this was the real Joe Blow or some ersatz poseur were removed by the time I'd skipped to the end of this thread.


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