Lately I’ve been reading Jon Ronson’s book “So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed” which is about the advent of public shaming that has overtaken the internet. (For the latest example, see the dentist who killed Cecil the Lion.) Ronson explores a number of cases one might have heard of—Justine Sacco, Lindsey Stone, even my old acquaintance Mike Daisey who fabricated details of a radio report he did on Chinese workers. These are all people who committed some offense and were basically torn apart by strangers on Twitter.
I’m reminded of an event I observed on my facebook feed. (I’ll keep it anonymous but if you know the story you’re sure to recognize it.) A local songwriter performed at a local bar some months ago and when he went to get paid they basically told him to get lost. The songwriter reported this on facebook and dozens of his followers and their friends, maybe over a hundred, went to the facebook page for the venue and basically screamed at them.
I don’t fault the songwriter for doing what he did, but there really was some sense that he was unleashing a mob. The venue owners relented, apologized and paid him. They’ve stopped doing music and I wouldn’t be surprised if their revenue has dropped as a lot of people have probably sworn off ever going there.
The event bugged me a bit though I have a hard time saying why. Maybe it comes down to two things. These kinds of online mobs deliver a form of justice but is it equal to the crime? These bar owners basically stole 100$ (the payment for the performance) but it seems very possible that they’ve lost thousands in lost revenues. And on top of that I imagine these guys have lost some friendships and had their reputations forever tainted over what used to be a private dispute. Screaming mobs are very imprecise tools of justice.
My second concern is that the people who mete out these shamings—the people posting negative comments on someone’s facebook page or tweeter feed or whatever—aren’t being entirely honest with themselves as to their reasons. They may see it as a purely moral statement but I think everyone likes being a bully, likes the catharsis of damning others. I’m not sure shaming is so much about punishing the perpetrator as much as it allows the shamer to feel good about themselves, and in step with their society, to get high with self-righteous fury
The Cecil the Lion case brings this up for me. I like animals and the guy sounds like a douchebag, but lions are killed by hunters every day (as are plenty of other animals.) Why go after this guy? Because this particular lion was somehow protected? That feels like a pretty arbitrary, legalistic reason. Because Cecil was sort of a “famous” lion? Frankly, I’d never heard of him (I don’t know any celebrity lions.) It seems more likely that people saw a mob movement growing online and jumped at a chance to scream at another person. But I think that mob power can be corrupting. It should be avoided not to protect the target but to protect yourself. (Now, I’m far from perfect on this. I’m often having mental conversations with myself mocking this or that person. But I seldom, if ever, participate in online attacks.)
There’s probably a third reason I’m wary of the idea of online shaming. If you go through the archives of acid logic there’s are doubtless many things that would offend a lot of people. And I wonder of the online mob will ever come for me?