The Industrial Revolution of Shame

From The New York Times:  https://www.nytimes.com/2019/03/09/opinion/sunday/internet-shaming.html

Outrage is strange bait: It can feel wrong not to take it.

By Salvatore Scibona
March 9, 2019

In the 1954 John Cheever story “The Country Husband,” a man goes to a dinner party in a New York suburb and recognizes his host’s new maid, but from where? Suddenly, the scene returns to him. Years earlier, at the end of the Second World War, in a small French village where he had been deployed, he had looked on while this same woman — the wartime consort of the village’s German commandant — had been carted into a crossroads. Her neighbors had jeered while a little man had cut off her hair and shaved her skull. They had made her remove her clothes. Someone had spat on her. Crying and naked but for her worn black shoes, she had walked away from the village, alone.

Imagine, if you can bear it, this episode updated to the present: the viral video, the scene captured, shared, archived, never forgotten, its popularity measured in screen views. Rather than the gathering of a few dozen people in a town with one church and one restaurant, imagine the thousands or millions broadcasting their blame in comment sections, tweets, blog posts, many of them available forever to anyone anywhere. The offender is denied even the mercy of exile.

We are undergoing an industrial revolution in shame. New technologies have radically expanded our ability to make and distribute a product. The product is our judgment of one another. As in past industrial revolutions, the mass manufacture and use of a product previously available to just a few or in small amounts has given us the power to do harm at a previously unthinkable scale.

The defendants carted into the virtual crossroads are public figures as well as previously inconspicuous people — a drunk in a parking lot, a girl who overshares on Instagram. One day an actor is accused of faking a hate crime, another day a politician admits he attended a dance contest wearing blackface, another day a high school student’s grin seems to embody the contemptuous privilege of his class, another day those describing his grin that way are shamed for shaming him on preliminary evidence. To bring up any one of these examples is to invite the objection, “That time it was deserved!” Maybe so. But is there no way of discussing these controversies that doesn’t come down to whether an offender deserved the punishment?

Media culture has found a sweet spot in the collective psyche — outrage. Headlines are baited with it, promising an injustice. This is strange bait: It can feel wrong not to take it. Because looking away from an injustice has so often amounted to perpetuating injustice, we may feel we have a duty to click through, read the article and get mad. Even the private person who doesn’t tweet or otherwise share his thoughts in public gets sucked in, his conscience demanding the solidarity of judging in his heart, if not aloud.

However right and necessary all this judgment feels, does it feel good? Doesn’t it quickly feel, sort of, well, awful?

Traditional wisdom cautions us against excesses of judgment (see the casting of first stones, et cetera). Maybe that’s out of concern not only for the Frenchwoman Cheever describes but also for the person who spat on her. Interesting that we describe scorn as “bitter,” as though we can taste it, like a poison. Dishing it out doesn’t feel much better than taking it, but what else can we do?

Continue reading at:  https://www.nytimes.com/2019/03/09/opinion/sunday/internet-shaming.html

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