Sunday, 5 April 2015

How Shaming Shapes Our Society

When Twitter user Zeynep Tufekci shared this post and Glyn Moody retweeted it, I took half an interest in it and went to have a look at what people were saying. One comment that stood out was,

“shaming is an important part of how we shape our culture.”

Tonight I want to look at how shaming is used to shape our culture, the impact it has on the people involved, and what we can do to avoid falling foul of it.

The point of shaming

Shaming is used to correct, control, and silence individuals and groups. It's an authoritarian construct and has existed for as long as humanity has, it's not an internet thing. People used to be put in the stocks or pillory and pelted with all kinds of stuff, they were made to wear bridles, had bits cut off their faces or bodies, had their heads shaved, or were made to wear symbols that marked them out as pariahs. Today, they get monstered in the general media and/or doxxed, mobbed, or presented in a negative light on the internet. The effect tends to be the same; people end up having their reputations shot to hell, which can affect their employment situations, their relationships, and other aspects of their lives. It shapes our culture by working to maintain the status quo of social attitudes, political thought, and personal behaviour. It's very effective at controlling people's behaviour and reinforcing generally held attitudes.

We all do it

Like it or not, we all get involved in shaming sooner or later, it's just a matter of degree. Having been on the end of reputation trashing myself, I find myself siding with the person on the receiving end on principle. Monica Lewinsky is a classic example. Look at the argument I had with a commenter who seems to hate Monica for doing something stupid when she was younger.

When she was younger and got ratted on by someone she trusted. FIFY.

As I pointed out in the linked exchange, had Linda Tripp kept her mouth shut no one would have known about it. That everybody does is down to Tripp. That Lewinsky has had an uphill struggle to scrub the red letter A off her metaphorical front door for the last 17 years is down to the fact that everybody and their dog made her the bad guy. Why not pick on Clinton or Tripp? Why blame Lewinsky for the whole thing? And why do the people intent on shaming Lewinsky change the narrative to make her look worse? Because focusing on the sins of others gets the focus off ourselves; for one shiny minute we can pretend we are morally superior to She Who Did That Thing We Disapprove Of. Besides, it's fun and everyone else is doing it, which makes it okay to gang up on this woman, right?

How those involved are perceived and treated

Have you noticed that the patriarchal system was thoroughly upheld in the linked conversation? The narrative, according to my antagonist, is that teenage temptress Lewinsky had her wicked way with the Leader of the Free World, then bragged about it to her ex and a friend, then to everyone over and over again on an assortment of TV programs. That people were hurt was down to Linda Tripp exposing the affair in excruciating detail, having recorded her conversations with Lewinski, a point that was ignored by my antagonist. She seemed particularly incensed that St. Bill of the Elevator Trousers was not presented by Lewinsky as being more exalted than an average Joe, or something. Well over-familiarity breeds contempt. Once you've seen a man in a compromising position it's hard to see him in quite the same way. I've got no respect for Clinton, for the record; he should have known better than to cheat on his wife, literally while in office. I should point out that I seem to be in the minority; most people seem to prefer to bash Lewinsky for a stupid situation she got into when she was young.

The impact of shaming

Being publicly shamed can mess with your head, get you fired and make it hard to get another job, mess with your relationships, and generally foul things up for you. This is, of course, one of the reasons it's so popular; it gives shamers power over the shamed. It's "Burn the witch!" for the internet. It got me knocked completely offline for three months, I had to set up new social media accounts, and I had to cut off ties with everyone associated with the community I used to be a part of. I still can't go back to it, I burned all my bridges there in an effort to bring the trolls down with me. I was partially successful but only got the low-hanging fruit (the hangers-on who joined in). The main antagonists have run out of credibility as far as I know (they pretend to be respectable in other parts of the community) but I'm not interested enough to find out how they're doing now since I'm aware that drama trolls aren't interested in healthy relationships, they're all about conflict and don't care whether people like them or not.

How shaming affects the community 

That I felt no personal shame was never at issue is not the point; that I can't show my face at that community any more because people believe what was being said about me, mostly in personal messages that were never publicly displayed, is. Whether or not they truly believed this crap — that I'm arrogant, a bully, a liar, a social-climbing wannabe with ambitions above my ability, that I want to bend the community to my will, etc., is up for debate; once a quorum of people has agreed that This Is A Thing, it doesn't matter any more because everyone believes it so it must be true. Everyone is doing it so it must be right. When critical mass has been reached you've got no chance. So they may have gone along with it not because they believed it but because others were doing it and they didn't want to be left out, or something. I saw that happen to Monica Lewinsky in 1998 and today on Twitter. To me it's just a stale old news story. To others she is a witch and must needs be burnt at the stake forthwith. Why? Because enough other people are saying it that it must be true. Add some good old-fashioned patriarchal puritanical double standards, and we're off.

What can we do if it happens to us?

That Lewinsky has spent the last seventeen years trying to scrub her reputation in public doesn't help her much, per the linked conversation. I'd have advised keeping her head down and getting quietly involved in charity work. In a puritanical nation, that would have been seen as a sign of contrition and the scandal might have blown over and been forgotten about. That said, the Clinton administration pretty much threw her under the bus and Democrats gleefully joined in the Lewinsky-bashing. Every time the incident was brought up, they'd whack Lewinsky like a piƱata and encourage others to join in. Still, the charity work might have made her look a little better; she is still being portrayed by many as a gold-digging whore. Okay, so what do we do if we end up being shamed ourselves? Well I've already told you:

  1. Be humble, admit when you're wrong and don't be defensive
  2. Put right what you did wrong or are perceived to have done wrong
  3. Keep your head down; do not actively try to put the record straight, it'll backfire
  4. Be consistent. If you tell your side of the story to anyone, don't change the details or add to them
  5. Don't go looking for support from people who keep the controversy going, that'll make it worse

While every single one of those points may seem counter-intuitive, they actually did work when I finally put them into practice. I'm not promising things will go back to the way they were if you take the advice; they won't. I am saying that you can start afresh after the dust has settled so you need to let it settle. People will continue to think badly of you long after it has ceased to be fashionable to do so because they cherish their opinions. Since there's no point in trying to change a cherished opinion the best you can do is ignore it and move on as best you can.

When shaming works

Shaming does shape our society, we know that. I have used it to embarrass individuals and groups who annoyed me, with varying degrees of success. It should, however, be a last resort, not the first port of call, otherwise you end up being seen as the bad guy yourself for trying to stir things up.  Before you even start, though, you've got to ask yourself why you're doing this. Is it to make a company provide decent customer service after you've exhausted your other options? Is it to make an individual behave or post in a way that is more to your liking? Or is it to pull someone down and trash their reputation so they can't show their face online or in real life? Shaming is a powerful tool and I wouldn't discount using it since that would be hypocritical. However, I would advise being very sparing in the use thereof; these things can and do come back to haunt us so be aware of the impact of your actions on and offline.

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