Internet attacks are incredibly common. Mob mentality and outrage du jour are so frequent they seem normal. They are not. They are not normal, they are not okay, they are not acceptable.
They occur with incredible frequency because we like to misinterpret, we like to take sides, we like to be outraged at someone else instead of doing the hard work of improving ourselves.
I often wonder what on this site is going to come back to bite me. Which post of mine is going to be taken out of context and held up for public scrutiny? Will it be the time I made a TSA agent cry, because that one received a number of "you shouldn't have been sexually assaulted by your government, what did you do wrong?" comments that, well, I chose not to publish, because ground rules. Maybe it'll be the part about Chris and Dana and their beliefs that gay people are second class citizens, oh, boy that incident was fun, where I was told to shut up about repeating what they said.
Regardless, it'll happen, I'm sure of it. Wouldn't it be a good thing to consider what I'll do when it happens? I think so, so I picked up this book to read.
The first part of the book had me wondering why I figured this would be a good book to read on the subject. It started out with, "Hey, look, here's what happened to me, the author," and went into something like, "huh, public shaming, it's a thing." And then I learned the story of Jonah Lehrer, which I headn't really paid much attention to at the time of its occurance. I could argue my life is better for not having been aware of Lehrer at the time, but I will admit I grew tired of the Twitter Outrage Of The Day™ many, many years ago.
I kept reading, however, as I do, and the book became interesting. It became relevant. It provided story after story of how internet public shaming is far, far worse than the public shaming of yester-century, and how incredibly damaging shame is.
So, how does one survive public shaming?
Turns out, the way to endure and survive public shaming is not to be shamed. Which cracks me up, because so many older people are outraged (OUTRAGED) and how shameless (SHAMELESS!) young folk seem to be. Perhaps there's a cause and effect there.
This book, along with Daring Greatly, goes a long way to providing a game plan for surviving public shame. I truly hope I never have to care, but, well, the Internet. It's a matter of when, not if.
I recommend this book, it's worth a read.
We were at the start of a great renaissance of public shaming. After a lull of almost 180 years (public punishments were phased out in 1837 in the United Kingdom and in 1839 in the United States), it was back in a big way.
“Bad liars always think they’re good at it,” Michael said to me. “They’re always confident they’re defeating you.”
When I finished the story, he said, “It’s about the terror, isn’t it?”
“The terror of what?” I said.
“The terror of being found out,” he said. He looked as if he felt he were taking a risk even mentioning to me the existence of the terror. He meant that we all have ticking away within us something we fear will badly harm our reputation if it got out—some “I’m glad I’m not that” at the end of an “I’m glad I’m not me.”
I think he was right. Maybe our secret is actually nothing horrendous. Maybe nobody would even consider it a big deal if it was exposed. But we can’t take that risk. So we keep it buried.
Maybe it’s a work impropriety. Or maybe it’s just a feeling that at any moment we’ll blurt something out during some important meeting that’ll prove to everyone that we aren’t proper professional people or, in fact, functional human beings. I think that even in these days of significant oversharing we keep this particular terror concealed, like people used to with things like masturbation before everyone suddenly got blasé about it online. With masturbation, nobody cares. Whereas our reputation—it’s everything.
"But at the time I didn’t think it was wrong. If I’d thought it was wrong, I would have taken some trouble to hide my tracks.”
There must have been among her shamers a lot of people who chose to willfully misunderstand it for some reason.
I think this is a key attribute of today's society. We choose to willfully miscontrue what other people are saying, like it's a game to show someone where they are wrong and you get points each time you twist the truth into bullshit.
I think our natural disposition as humans is to plod along until we get old and stop. But with social media, we’ve created a stage for constant artificial high drama. Every day a new person emerges as a magnificent hero or a sickening villain. It’s all very sweeping, and not the way we actually are as people.
I suppose it’s no surprise that we feel the need to dehumanize the people we hurt — before, during, or after the hurting occurs. But it always comes as a surprise.
In psychology it’s known as cognitive dissonance. It’s the idea that it feels stressful and painful for us to hold two contradictory ideas at the same time (like the idea that we’re kind people and the idea that we’ve just destroyed someone). And so to ease the pain we create illusory ways to justify our contradictory behavior.
Ted Poe’s punishments were sometimes zany — ordering petty criminals to shovel manure, etc. — and sometimes as ingenious as a Goya painting. Like the one he handed down to a Houston teenager, Mike Hubacek.
In 1996, Hubacek had been driving drunk at one hundred miles per hour with no headlights. He crashed into a van carrying a married couple and their nanny. The husband and the nanny were killed.
Poe sentenced Hubacek to 110 days of boot camp, and to carry a sign once a month for ten years in front of high schools and bars that read I KILLED TWO PEOPLE WHILE DRIVING DRUNK, and to erect a cross and a Star of David at the scene of the crash site, and to keep it maintained, and to keep photographs of the victims in his wallet for ten years, and to send ten dollars every week for ten years to a memorial fund in the names of the victims, and to observe the autopsy of a person killed in a drunk-driving accident.
And it worked. Hubacek did this, took responsibility for his actions.
“The justice system in the West has a lot of problems,” Poe said, “but at least there are rules. You have basic rights as the accused. You have your day in court. You don’t have any rights when you’re accused on the Internet. And the consequences are worse. It’s worldwide forever.”
It felt like we were soldiers making war on other people’s flaws, and there had suddenly been an escalation in hostilities.
He conceded that a few “distinguished women” did exist, but “they are as exceptional as the birth of any monstrosity . . . Consequently, we may neglect them entirely.”
I wish said asshat didn't have people who, even these days, believe his crap.
“When I was writing my biography of LeBon,” Bob Nye told me, “he seemed to me the biggest asshole in the whole of creation.”
And his second message was that a smart orator could, if he knew the tricks, hypnotize the crowd into acquiescence or whip it up to do his bidding. LeBon listed the tricks: “A crowd is only impressed by excessive sentiments. Exaggerate, affirm, resort to repetition, and never attempt to prove anything by reasoning.”
“The ‘only acting’ line is a red herring,” Haslam wrote, “because if you are on the receiving end of brutality it doesn’t matter if the person was acting or not.”
“Acting is not ‘unserious,’” Reicher added. “Even if we are performing, the question remains, ‘Why did we act in a particular way?’”
This is in regards to the Stanford Prison Experiment, where the one "guard" who instigated the whole abuse thing says he was "only acting the part, making things interesting" because that's what the researcher wanted.
“The irony of those people who use contagion as an explanation,” Steve Reicher e-mailed, “is that they saw the TV pictures of the London riots but they didn’t go out and riot themselves. It is never true that everyone helplessly joins in with others in a crowd. The riot police don’t join in with a rioting crowd. Contagion, it appears, is a problem for others.”
"So the question we have to ask—which ‘contagion’ can’t answer—is, How come people can come together, often spontaneously, often without leadership, and act together in ideologically intelligible ways? If you can answer that, you get a long way toward understanding human sociality. That is why, instead of being an aberration, crowds are so important and so fascinating.”
I asked Mercedes what sorts of people gathered on 4chan. “A lot of them are bored, understimulated, overpersecuted, powerless kids,” she replied. “They know they can’t be anything they want. So they went to the Internet. On the Internet we have power in situations where we would otherwise be powerless.”
By some strange circular coincidence, it was Jonah Lehrer’s fellow New Yorker writer Malcolm Gladwell who had popularized the stop-and-frisk policy. When it was first implemented in the 1990s—it was known as broken-windows policing back then—Gladwell wrote a landmark New Yorker essay about it, “The Tipping Point.” He called it “miraculous.” There was a correlation between coming down heavy on petty criminals like graffiti artists and fare dodgers, his essay argued, and New York’s sudden decline in murders.
Yet another reason Gladwell books are garbage. REALLY not a fan of his "let me take a story, claim it is scientific evidence, and print a book about it" style of story telling.
"Part of the reason all these kids have become experts on the Internet is because they don’t have power anywhere else. Skilled trade is shrinking. That’s why they went there. And then, holy shit, it blew up.”
I asked Mercedes to explain to me one of the great mysteries of modern shamings—why they were so breathtakingly misogynistic.
Nobody had used the language of sexual violence against Jonah, but when Justine and Adria stepped out of line, the rape threats were instant. And the 4chan people were about the most unpleasant.
“Yeah, it’s a bit extreme,” Mercedes replied. “4chan takes the worst thing it can imagine that person going through and shouts for that to happen. I don’t think it was a threat that anyone intended to carry through. And I think a lot of its use really did mean ‘destroy’ rather than ‘sexually assault.’” She paused. “But 4chan aims to degrade the target, right? And one of the highest degradations for women in our culture is rape. We don’t talk about rape of men, so I think it doesn’t occur to most people as a male degradation. With men, they talk about getting them fired. In our society men are supposed to be employed. If they’re fired, they lose masculinity points. With Donglegate she pointlessly robbed that man of his employment. She degraded his masculinity. And so the community responded by degrading her femininity.”
From his look, I guessed he considered them places of integrity — nonexploitative, shame-free retreats from a world that overvalues shame as a weapon.
Eventually, General Motors was forced to admit the plot and apologize to Nader in a congressional hearing. The incident proved to him, and later to Max, that the car industry was not above trying to shame its opponents into silence in its battle against safety do-gooders, and that people in high places were prepared to ingeniously deploy shaming as a means of moneymaking and social control. Maybe we only notice it happening when it’s done too audaciously or poorly, as it had been with Ralph Nader.
Ha. Like we would believe corporations are good. Even the best, nicest, cleanest corporations are made up of people, and there is always more than one side.
“Growing up I was ashamed of everything,” she wrote, “and at a certain point I realized that if I was open with the world about the things that embarrassed me they no longer held any weight! I felt set free!” She added that she always derives her porn scenarios from this formula. She imagines circumstances that would mortify her, “like being bound naked on a street with everybody looking at you,” and enacts them with like-minded porn actors, robbing them of their horror."
Donna nodded but said she didn’t want to talk about other parts of the porn industry. She wanted to talk about what she was trying to achieve with Public Disgrace. “America is a very puritanical place,” she said. “If I can help one person feel less freakish and alone because of what they like, then I’ll be a success. But I know I’ve already reached more people than that.”
And now, he wrote, he thought he had the answer. It was simply that he had refused to feel ashamed. “As soon as the victim steps out of the pact by refusing to feel ashamed,” he said, “the whole thing crumbles.”
I reread Max’s e-mail. Could that be it? Does a shaming only work if the shamee plays his or her part in it by feeling ashamed?
And on it went. Almost none of the murderous fantasies were dreamed up in response to actual danger—stalker ex-boyfriends, etc. They were all about the horror of humiliation. Brad Blanton was right. Shame internalized can lead to agony. It can lead to Jonah Lehrer. Whereas shame let out can lead to freedom, or at least to a funny story, which is a sort of freedom too.
But there was one exception, Andrew said. The conversation between them turned to the one woman who had visited Alexis.
“Everyone was laughing about her,” Andrew said. “Then, suddenly, this one older gentleman, who had been much quieter than the others, said, ‘That was my wife.’ Oh, Jon, you could feel the energy shift. Everything changed immediately.”
“What kind of jokes had you all been making about the wife?” I asked.
“I don’t remember exactly,” Andrew said, “but they had been more mocking. She was looked at differently by the men and, yes, with her it was considered more shameful.”
But the shifting sands of shameworthiness had shifted away from sex scandals—if you’re a man—to work improprieties and perceived white privilege, and I suddenly understood the real reason why Max had survived his shaming. Nobody cared. Max survived his shaming because he was a man in a consensual sex shaming—which meant there had been no shaming.
I think we all care deeply about things that seem totally inconsequential to other people. We all carry around with us the flotsam and jetsam of perceived humiliations that actually mean nothing. We are a mass of vulnerabilities, and who knows what will trigger them?
“An apology is supposed to be a communion—a coming together. For someone to make an apology, someone has to be listening. They listen and you speak and there’s an exchange. That’s why we have a thing about accepting apologies. There’s a power exchange that happens. But they don’t want an apology.” He looked at me. “What they want is my destruction. What they want is for me to die. They will never say this because it’s too histrionic. But they never want to hear from me again for the rest of my life, and while they’re never hearing from me, they have the right to use me as a cultural reference point whenever it services their ends. That’s how it would work out best for them. They would like me to never speak again.”
But I think he read all this in my face, because he suddenly said: “The way we construct consciousness is to tell the story of ourselves to ourselves, the story of who we believe we are. I feel that a really public shaming or humiliation is a conflict between the person trying to write his own narrative and society trying to write a different narrative for the person. One story tries to overwrite the other. And so to survive you have to own your story. Or”—Mike looked at me—“ you write a third story. You react to the narrative that’s been forced upon you.” He paused. “You have to find a way to disrespect the other narrative,” he said. “If you believe it, it will crush you.”
“Let me ask you three questions,” he said. “And then you’ll see it my way.
"Question One: What’s the worst thing that you have ever done to someone? It’s okay. You don’t have to confess it out loud.
"Question Two: What’s the worst criminal act that has ever been committed against you?
"Question Three: Which of the two was the most damaging for the victim?”
“Oh, it’s a very simple game,” he said. “You need to figure out something that’s so esoteric the expert can’t possibly know about it. Maybe it’s something that’s not relevant to the case, but it has to be something they cannot know the answer to. They’ll be incapable of saying they don’t know. So they’ll gradually walk down the garden to the place where they look really stupid.”
“Why are they incapable of saying they don’t know?”
“It’s their entire profession,” Clive said. “It’s respect. It’s a big deal being an expert. Imagine the things you can discuss at dinner parties as opposed to the other boring people at the table. You’re the witness who put Ted Bundy away. They’ll do anything to not look stupid. That’s the key thing. And if you can make them look stupid, everything else falls by the wayside.”
Then I caught myself. Judging someone on how flustered he behaves in the face of a shaming is a truly strange and arbitrary way of forming an opinion on him.
This is the reason why: Throughout the 1980s, Gilligan ran experimental therapeutic communities inside Massachusetts’s prisons. They weren’t especially radical. They were just about “treating the prisoners with respect,” Gilligan told me, “giving people a chance to express their grievances and hopes and wishes and fears.”
The point was to create an ambience that eradicated shame entirely. “We had one psychiatrist who referred to the inmates as scum. I told him I never wanted to see his face again. It was not only antitherapeutic for the patients, it was dangerous for us.”
At first, the prison officers had been suspicious, “but eventually some of them began to envy the prisoners,” Gilligan said. “Many of them also needed some psychiatric help. These were poorly paid guys, poorly educated. We arranged to get some of them into psychiatric treatment. So they became less insulting and domineering. And violence dropped astoundingly.”
I want more of these programs, tbh.
But we know that people are complicated and have a mixture of flaws and talents and sins. So why do we pretend that we don’t?
“It’s disorienting,” I said, “that the line between hell and redemption in the U.S. justice system is so fine.”
“What the first page looks like,” Michael’s strategist, Jered Higgins, told me during my tour of their offices, “determines what people think of you.” As a writer and journalist—as well as a father and human being—this struck me as a really horrifying way of knowing the world.
Justine had tweeted them herself, laboring under the misapprehension—the same one I labored under for a while—that Twitter was a safe place to tell the truth about yourself to strangers. That truth telling had really proven to be an idealistic experiment gone wrong.
But I was struck by a report Anna Funder discovered that had been written by a Stasi psychologist tasked with trying to understand why they were attracting so many willing informants. His conclusion: “It was an impulse to make sure your neighbor was doing the right thing.”
“The biggest lie,” he said, “is, The Internet is about you.” We like to think of ourselves as people who have choice and taste and personalized content. But the Internet isn’t about us. It’s about the companies that dominate the data flows of the Internet.
Some things were known. In December 2013, the month of Justine’s annihilation, 12.2 billion Google searches took place—a figure that made me feel less worried about the possibility that people were sitting inside Google headquarters personally judging me. Google’s ad revenue for that month was $ 4.69 billion. Which meant they made an average of thirty-eight cents for every search query. Every time we typed anything into Google: thirty-eight cents to Google. Of those 12.2 billion searches that December, 1.2 million were people searching the name Justine Sacco. And so, if you average it out, Justine’s catastrophe instantaneously made Google $ 456,000.
"Google has the informal corporate motto of ‘Don’t be evil,’ but they make money when anything happens online, even the bad stuff.”
“I suddenly feel with social media like I’m tiptoeing around an unpredictable, angry, unbalanced parent who might strike out at any moment,” he said. “It’s horrible.”
That line about how we don’t feel accountable during a shaming because “a snowflake never feels responsible for the avalanche” came from Jonathan Bullock.