The idea of public shaming to humiliate or punish people is not new. In the darkest times shaming highlights those who are different so others can scrutinize or attack. When more just motives are at play, shaming is designed to hold people accountable for actions deemed against the public interest. Even some modern day courts explore the idea of shaming as an alternative to other punishments.
But when you combine the lightning-fast speed and seemingly endless reach of Twitter (or other social media sites) with an aim to spotlight perhaps inappropriate behavior, do you get justice or a mob?
Public Shaming of the Annoying Airline Passenger
I stumbled upon this article in my Facebook feed today. I admit, I first read through it with amusement. Yeah, I nodded to myself as I skimmed. That passenger shouldn’t have been so self-absorbed, so rude, I mentally affirmed. She got what she deserved.
I’ve encountered my share of excessively rude customers throughout my past work in service industries. I can attest to what it feels like to have someone be unkind to you for a seemingly petty or selfish reason (I once had a guy point his finger and yell at me – then, a 16 year old trying to earn a little gas money – and tell my boss I should be fired because I forgot his orange juice. He made me cry.). And certainly, there have been plenty of times I wished folks like that would get their comeuppance.
But the world we live in today is one in which mere tweets – even those from personal accounts – can make national news and, as is painfully obvious this day and age, there are no “take backs” on the internet.
I get it. If I saw someone being unkind or cruel I’d want to speak up, and I’d hope others would join me. I wouldn’t envision an angry mob raining fire down upon the offender, but I would hope I live in a society in which I can count on others not to ignore badness. People should be held accountable for being jerks. But where do we draw the line? When is it right to call forth an army of righteous tweeters to dispense social media justice?
I’m really asking.
There will always be jerks. But there’s another side to this story. We’ve all had those days – things are just going wrong. All the things. We woke up on the wrong side of the bed. We’ve got pent up rage we’ve yet to vent. Someone hurt us or made us upset and we haven’t had a chance to deal with it yet. Things will be better soon. For now though, we just need the world to forgive us while we muddle through feeling angsty and bitchy. It’s okay, though. We’ll be nice to another person when it’s their turn to be angsty and bitchy. That’s how it works.
But then, snap. Tweet. Post. Retweet. A snapshot of our very worst moment – just got outta bed hair and make-up smeared all over – captured and immortalized for all the world to see and now there’s no living it down. There may even be worse consequences.
There are a few possible consequences to this sort of societal evolution – one in which Big Tweeter watches our every move ready to record and prosecute – but none of them, I think, involve honesty – and that’s what worries me.
For those who were just caught having a bad day, it all really sucks. You may very well be a nice person in everyday life, but you just happened to anger the wrong person at that exact moment you just couldn’t take it anymore. Now everyone who reads about you will make false judgments and accusations about your entire character.
For those folks thinking and expressing negative things about other peoples’ race, religion, gender, size, sexual orientation, etc. on social media – they aren’t likely to just ‘change their minds’ after being called out and skewered by the virtual mob. Especially not a virtual mob not particularly known for its rational debating technique. Instead they will shy away, hide their prejudices, and quietly pass on those prejudices to the next generation until it all begins again.
Empathy, compassion, and a little rational dialogue – that’s what changing hearts and minds takes.
It can be tempting to post or tweet or share the shaming. It can even feel like you’re joining online allies in a righteous battle against a wrongdoer. But remember that the world – and the internet – is a complicated place. Not everyone knows all sides of the story. Maybe Diane just needed a hug.