IN THE AGE OF PUB­LIC SHAM­ING, IT’S TIME TO RE­THINK OUR RE­LA­TION­SHIP WITH SHAME

Sharp Magazine Middle East (English) - - Column | Points Of Departure - BY: KA­MAL AL- SO­LAYLEE| APRIL

T his year was barely a day old when a shame­less act from the tail end of the pre­vi­ous one was met with a now­fa­mil­iar re­sponse: pub­lic sham­ing. On De­cem­ber 31, the pop­u­lar vlog­ger Lo­gan Paul posted a video on his Youtube chan­nel show­ing the body of a man who had hanged him­self near Mount Fuji in Ja­pan, in an area known as Sui­cide For­est. The video, which has since been pulled from Youtube, fea­tures Paul’s re­ac­tions to the body, which ranged from sur­prised to en­ter­tained. Celebri­ties and the gen­eral pub­lic im­me­di­ately called him out, de­scrib­ing the video as “hor­ri­fy­ing,” telling him to “Go rot in hell,” and ask­ing Youtube to shut down his chan­nel.

Paul, 22, re­acted by sug­gest­ing that he was at­tempt­ing to raise aware­ness of sui­cide by show­ing its harsh re­al­ity. Within a few weeks, he was at it again, post­ing videos of him­self taser­ing two dead rats and per­form­ing CPR on a fish. Youtube re­sponded by sus­pend­ing all ad­verts from his videos for what it de­scribed as a “pat­tern of be­hav­iour” that could dam­age the cre­ator com­mu­nity at large. Judg­ing from his al­most 4.3 mil­lion fol­low­ers on Twit­ter, the 17 mil­lion sub­scribers to his Youtube chan­nel, and earn­ings of up to $12.5 mil­lion in 2017, the fin­ger-wag­ging from Youtube is un­likely to leave per­ma­nent dam­age. If any­thing, Paul’s sub­scriber base has only in­creased af­ter the re­cent con­tro­ver­sies, and he seems to have found a way to cap­i­tal­ize on a fa­mil­iar and trou­bling sce­nario that

reaches beyond so­cial me­dia: in­di­vid­ual shame­less acts are per­formed, fol­lowed by acts of pub­lic sham­ing, and the cy­cle is re­peated. The moral space be­tween shamelessness and the grand per­for­mance of pub­lic sham­ing on so­cial me­dia is nar­row­ing. And it’s hap­pen­ing ev­ery­where.

You can draw a straight line be­tween Paul’s videos and Don­ald Trump’s tweets. What the two brats have in com­mon is shamelessness: the abil­ity to project some of the most de­based, self- de­luded thoughts and ac­tions with­out any hint of moral re­spon­si­bil­ity or sense of con­se­quences. But is tak­ing to Twit­ter and sham­ing the shame­less ever a good strat­egy? Ev­i­dence sug­gests that the Pauls and Trumps of the world lack ba­sic em­pa­thy and may be em­bold­ened, grat­i­fied even, when pub­licly shamed.

A more pro­duc­tive ap­proach may well start with a bet­ter un­der­stand­ing of the very con­cept of shame, which has been un­duly ma­ligned over the years — and which we should bring back to pub­lic con­scious­ness. I’m not talk­ing about the kind of shame that re­li­gions and moral­ity squads have forced on hu­man­ity over mil­len­nia — the shame that made women feel bad about their bod­ies (or their very be­ing); forced gay men and les­bians into clos­ets, deny­ing their sex­u­al­ity; or drove many cul­tures to brand sex out­side mar­riage to a sin. In­stead, I’m think­ing of what many cur­rent psy­chol­o­gists be­lieve to be shame’s power to keep our neg­a­tive and detri­men­tal ac­tions in check. The ex­perts re­fer to shame as a neg­a­tive emo­tion, a close fam­ily mem­ber of guilt, but it can have very pos­i­tive ef­fects, when we un­der­stand it prop­erly. It can stop us from acts that harm oth­ers or make sit­u­a­tions worse for those we know or don’t know. It forms part of and acts along­side our moral judg­ment and de­vel­op­ment. Plato talked about it as a “safe­guard” and eigh­teen­th­cen­tury Scot­tish philoso­pher David Hume de­scribed it as “the proper guardian of ev­ery kind of virtue,” so cur­rent think­ing has a long and rich pedi­gree.

“Ex­perts re­fer to shame as a neg­a­tive emo­tion — a close fam­ily mem­ber of guilt — but when we un­der­stand it prop­erly, it can have very pos­i­tive ef­fects.”

I grew up lis­ten­ing to my par­ents telling me and my sib­lings to have some shame when­ever our fights went too far. I can still hear my mother telling my older brothers to be ashamed of them­selves as they teased me about my lack of in­ter­est in manly things (sports, fight­ing, ac­tion movies). As I got older, I used the same ad­mo­ni­tion on my neph­ews and nieces on those rare oc­ca­sions when I of­fered to look af­ter them and they mis­be­haved. (Yes,

my un­will­ing­ness to babysit and help out my sib­lings is it­self a shame­less act, but its con­se­quences are lim­ited to the pri­vate realm.)

More aware­ness of pri­vate shame and the role it plays in pub­lic life could have saved the world a cou­ple of nasty sur­prises in 2016. Op­po­nents of Trump and Brexit re­lied on polling that sug­gested sup­port for both wasn’t as sub­stan­tial as sus­pected. With hind­sight, poll­sters have dis­cov­ered that when asked on the phone or in per­son about de­ci­sions, many vot­ers were too ashamed to ad­mit sup­port for a xeno­pho­bic pres­i­dent or an exit from Europe un­der­writ­ten, in part, by fear of im­mi­grants. When polled on­line, vot­ers took ad­van­tage of anonymity, felt less shame, and in­di­cated a pref­er­ence for Trump or Brexit.

While pub­lic sham­ing of the mag­ni­tude we see on so­cial me­dia is per­haps bet­ter and more in­stantly rec­og­nized, its many moral am­bi­gu­i­ties make me more con­cerned about its rise as a means to re­store or­der to the chaos of our dig­i­tal lives. Like old-fash­ioned shame, this vari­a­tion can be used for good or bad, and where you stand on it may come down to a par­ti­san and not an eth­i­cal rea­son­ing. I re­al­ize that I rel­ish the pub­lic sham­ing of po­lit­i­cal fig­ures I dis­agree with, but I’m morally of­fended when the tar­get is some­one whose ide­ol­ogy (or race or sex­u­al­ity) matches mine.

Per­haps that’s why I’ve never bat­ted an eye­lid at the #Metoo move­ment, which har­nessed the power of so­cial me­dia to name and shame some pretty hor­ri­ble men for decades of sex­ual ha­rass­ment and vi­o­lence. In this in­stance, sham­ing has suc­ceeded where cor­po­rate, le­gal, and so­cial in­ter­ven­tions have failed for cen­turies. But the weaponiza­tion of pub­lic sham­ing can go into darker, less clear-cut di­rec­tions.

Re­mem­ber the Amer­i­can PR ex­ec­u­tive Jus­tine Sacco? In 2013, she tweeted (min­utes be­fore board­ing her flight to South Africa) about how she hoped she wouldn’t get AIDS — be­fore adding that she wouldn’t be­cause she’s white. By the time her plane landed in Cape Town, so­cial me­dia had turned a tweet from an ob­scure woman into a pub­lic trial on racism and white priv­i­lege.

As Jon Ron­son ar­gues in his book So You’ve Been Pub­licly Shamed, it’s hu­man to make a mis­take or a mis­cal­cu­la­tion. It doesn’t mean that this woman — or oth­ers like her — is the per­son­i­fi­ca­tion of hate. Should she have ex­er­cised bet­ter judg­ment? You bet. Did the con­ver­sa­tion on race and AIDS change af­ter the dig­i­tal out­rage? Hardly.

So ex­actly what do we get from this col­lec­tive ex­er­cise of moral in­dig­na­tion? A re­lease of ten­sion? Virtue sig­nalling? The more char­i­ta­ble part of me thinks it has more to do with our de­sire to see jus­tice done. If so, our Twit­ter and In­sta­gram ac­counts now act as the judges and ju­ries of the uni­verse, and that should give us cause for con­cern. The less char­i­ta­ble part sees the blueprint of mob men­tal­ity that tyrants know how to ma­nip­u­late — hence Trump’s mas­tery of Twit­ter as a weapon to crush his op­po­nents and gal­va­nize his base. Like moral pan­ics and pop­u­lar up­ris­ings, pub­lic sham­ing may get the job done but, by and large, it’s a hatchet job. There will be blood.

I don’t think reg­u­lat­ing the In­ter­net will ever be a vi­able op­tion, but I be­lieve re­vis­it­ing pri­vate shame as part of an in­ter­nal checks-and-bal­ances process may mod­er­ate the tem­per of pub­lic out­rage. Min­i­miz­ing harm to your­self and oth­ers is at the heart of this new con­ver­sa­tion about shame.

There’s no shame in say­ing that it’s a small but good first step.

“YOUTUBE RE­SPONDED BY SUS­PEND­ING ALL AD­VERTS FROM HIS VIDEOS FOR WHAT IT DE­SCRIBED AS A “PAT­TERN OF BE­HAV­IOUR” THAT COULD DAM­AGE THE CRE­ATOR COM­MU­NITY AT LARGE.”

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