Sunday, April 26, 2015

For Shame

I just finished Jon Ronson's So You've Been Publicly Shamed, a book detailing how public shaming works in today's social media landscape.

The book itself, I believe, is both interesting and important; he goes through several people's lives as they go through the aftermath of having the entire world publicly call them out for some sort of behavior, whether it be getting caught in a prostitution ring or a single tasteless tweet. The book itself is fascinating as it goes into this detail and seeing how people live through something rather unique in history--a world where one word or sentence is now available for (literally) the entire world to react and judge.

Sadly, the book doesn't do two things I wish it would have: one is to delve more into the history of public shaming (he does devote some time to it, but not nearly enough to provide a lot of context). Second is dealing less with the individual examples and more navel-gazing introspection as to what that means for our society at large.

Megan McArdle's take on this roughly corresponds with my own thoughts, but I read her article before the book. Now that I've had the time to read the book I can sort of reconcile my opinions.

We're really talking about a few different things, which I believe is the core of people who might disagree. There was the old-school public shaming, which literally meant dragging souls out to the town square, placed in stocks, and judged by the community. This sort of thing was (rightly) removed from modern society, although it does exist in some forms; it's not unheard of for a judge to incorporate shaming as part of a sentence. (Ronson is surprisingly sympathetic to this; a lot of the people he spoke with that went through such a shaming felt that this was by far the only way they could change their behavior.)  If done judiciously and not via malice, I am also sympathetic to this, although my big fear is that there is a thin line between genuine, behavior-changing shaming to outright hostility and revenge.

The second is more intimate: one may not care how the community feels about them, but they may be concerned about how their close friends and family feel about them. This is most likely the shaming that has the greatest effect, but pretty much by definition is impossible to "officially" endorse. A judge can't make your dad be disappointed in you. The only way to making this sort of shaming effective is via a shift in the culture, and it's difficult to steer that in any effective manner by choice. It was popular in the 80's (and espoused by social scientists like Charles Murray) that many of the social ills we suffer in modern society is due to a lack of this intimate shame. When our families, churches, schools, and other institutions lose influence, there's less of a reason to care if you are ashamed of what you've done--we didn't need a government program to force people to do X when a disapproving look from our parents worked just as well. This is tricky, since it's difficult to separate these relationships into discrete patterns, but it's a compelling, if imperfect, theory.

The third is new, and that is the public shaming of the world via the internet. One tweet, or Facebook status, or blog post can literally be shared to everyone on the planet, and they can immediately respond within seconds. This is unprecedented and, one has to admit, a little scary.

The previous two forms of shaming involved people and institutions who were invested in the target. Judges want people to reform and family members want you to succeed, so shaming had a perfectly legitimate application as a deterrent to bad behavior. For institutional shaming, a solid list of rules and laws existed so--if one was found guilty--most are comfortable with the shame because it's been through a legitimate process to determine this. After all, some people do deserve to feel ashamed of what they have done, and the social pressure and institutions had evolved where there was a back-and-forth between the shamers and shamees, as it were. It was constructive because there were incentives on both parties to assist.

Not so with this new form of shaming. People who get publicly shamed have thousands, if not millions, of people who actively put forth an effort to judge someone else, often with little by way of context or justice. There are no rules; once the judgement of the public has been determined, there is literally no way to stop it. And there are no consequences for the shamers--a brief, ten-second email with which a person has no stake still causes immense grief to the target. The constructive portion of the act of shaming is destroyed; it's a million anonymous fingers, pointed accusingly at a person whose transgression are often mild and certainly haven't been vetted through any sort of vehicle for review or justice. 

It's frustrating, to say the least. I've seen companies and politicians make extraordinarily minor missteps only to see their entire future crumble. Regardless of whether it is fair or not, the verdict is enacted and there's very little anyone can do about it. Books like Ronson's trigger a small amount of self-reflection regarding the act of public shaming, but one suspects that it's a difficult trend to counter.

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