Discussion: So you’ve been publicly shamed

I remember when we first got dial-up. I used to race down the stairs on weekend mornings and boot up our old computer. It would tingle a little as it turned on, as if shedding static cobwebs. I’d carefully remove the ethernet clip from the phone, pressing down the plastic top firmly and not letting go until I nestled it into the back of the computer. Knowing I’d have to remove it when my parents woke up, I’d load up seven chapters of whatever Fictionpress book  I was reading and settle in. Back then the internet was unexplored territory. Commercials with rippling text– y’know the late 90s when the text sometimes looked like it was made of slime?– would warn parents to watch their kids. People from all around the world would connect, comfortable in their anonymity. Anyone could do anything!

Then it transformed from unknown to the best tool known to man. The internet solved everything, or so the predominant wisdom at the time went. I remember those heady tech-utopian days when hate rhetoric seemed relegated to a dark corner that barely invaded our collective peripheral vision. There were no articles about how dictatorships could use the internet to reinforce their hold on nations or put out so much content it became difficult to wade through it and separate fact and fiction. There were no think pieces on how the internet village separated us into further categories– the internet was solely a means to freedom and education. It was the universal village! We could talk to anyone in the world.

Nowadays we don’t think of the internet as one big party. We even have internet specific terms for groups, and some of the groups have peeled themselves from internet forums to begin affecting our conversations, and policy, in real life.Perhaps the one holdover from the old unexplored days is the notion that “the internet is forever,” something even more terrifying when we consider what the shifting alliances or group loyalty on the internet can do to people’s lives. One tweet, one blogpost, one video gone viral and you’re an international joke, sometimes luckily and sometimes not. No doubt, not every viral bit stems from naivete or poor wording. There’s a certain thrill to the schadenfreude of watching the bully get punished, but what about the person who stumbles? And what happens afterward?

Jon Ronson’s book So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed examines exactly that. In it, he speaks with several people who’ve experienced public shaming for online, or sometimes offline, errors. Like many of us, Ronson had participated in an online dragging before.  Getting credit for a witty riposte or covering your relief you avoided censure with a sheen of schadenfreude when someone else falls into the same pitfall. He remembered when the internet made us all Davids against the Goliath of corporations*. How public shaming could punish the deserving. But what happens when the person we’re ostracizing or shaming has a face?

My third year of college I enrolled in a course on Public Policy. Among other books, we were assigned “How we Choose” by Jonah Lerner. I loved the book, in a sea of dense academic texts “How we choose” offered learning wrapped in effortless diversion.  Imagine my surprise when I learned that Lerner had been famously disgraced by a journalist with a deep love for Bob Dylan.  In a flash, Lerner went from pop science superstar to pariah. Michael, the journalist? He gained little money and little recognition for his investigative work.

Over the course of the book, Ronson met many times with Jonah Lehrer. He talked with him about shame, fear, depression and, later, about how Lehrer nurtured hope for a chance at redemption. Then, he was offered that chance: A speech at a well-known journalism conference. But when he appeared at the conference, still shaky and half-filled with loathing, he wasn’t just giving a speech to a small room. The entire world was watching. And the room? They were watching the world react on Twitter from a screen right next to  Lehrer’s head.  By and large, Twitter was not forgiving.

As I read about the backlash, I couldn’t help but remember an article I’d read some time back about this phenomenon.  The article, titled “Exiting the Vampire’s Castle” was British writer Mark Fisher’s lament about online culture. I can’t say I agreed completely with his propositions, but So You’ve been Publicly Shamed re-etched one idea in particular from Fisher’s article:”The Vampires’ Castle specialises in propagating guilt. It is driven by a priest’s desire to excommunicate and condemn, an academic-pedant’s desire to be the first to be seen to spot a mistake, and a hipster’s desire to be one of the in-crowd.” A chill descended upon me as I read this. I’d never be brave enough to admit I’d seen this.

I’d watched this happen when Carve the Mark, the latest book from Veronica Roth came out. The book community divided over Carve the Mark.  ARC readers reported racist tropes and, after reading their reviews, a number of members called for a boycott and declared consumers of the book racist. Another group disagreed.  They asserted that simply reading did not equate to virulent racism**. They accused the first group of a form of social censorship.

A member of the first group, LL McKinney pointed out that customers drive the market. If we support books with harmful representation and ignore more diverse voices, we’ll continue getting the same narratives over and over again. She added the publishing industry, even as it embraces “diversity” still gives space to predominantly white authors.  Eventually, the author broke her silence to rebut some of the claims. The language of the warlike group wasn’t based on North African/Middle Eastern languages but on Romanian and Hungarian. They also weren’t universally dark skinned.  Francina Simone entered the conversation  with an amazing  video dissuading people from grouping people together without examining actions and literature.  Simone spoke at length about her concern with the discourse surrounding Roth and book reading. Not only did the conversation move quickly away from the art in question, but it also took a great deal of time from promoting better books.

During the video, Simone decried tendencies to engage with people making honest mistakes and “trolls” in the same manner. “I want to dismiss that unless you’re being rude and angry about shit, you’re being passive,” Simone continued. Like in the Vampire’s Castle, I watched people launch into defense or attack to gain hearts on twitter from their carefully defined ingroup. Voices who had previously been accepted in the same community who disagreed were immediately jettisoned.*** Time and time again, more attention was given to the first person to spot something wrong,  qualities of virtue were ascribed to those who called for swift punishment, and belonging was gifted to those who went along. The Vampire Castle sucked positivity from the air.

Achieving a balance between acting on positive change and reacting to negative conditions is difficult.  When Jonah Lehrer gave his speech, many people were cynical of his intent. They were concerned that his reentry might affect the validity of the genre as a whole. They were skeptical of his suffering. After all, he was paid for the appearance, and his sometimes questionable word choice elevated instead of humbled him.

Before gave his speech, and before Ronson started investigating thoroughly the stories, and options for redemption of the recently shamed, he relayed Michael and Jonah Lehrer scoop to a theatre director at a party.  Instead of reacting with curiosity or laughter at Lehrer’s fate, the man shivered. “It’s  about the terror, isn’t it?…The terror of being found out.” It was then Ronson, as he inexplicably shivered too, he had a realization. He wrote:

“I had leapt into the middle of the Michael/Jonah story because I admired and identified with Michael.  He personified citizen justice, whereas Jonah represented literary fraud in the pop-science world. he made a  fortune corrupting an already self-indulgent, bloated genre. I still admired Michael. But suddenly, when the theatre director said the words ‘the terror of being found out’, I felt like a door had briefly opened before me, revealing some infinite horror-land filled with millions of scared-stiff Jonahs. How many people had I banished to that land during my thirty years of journalism? How truly nightmarish it must have been to be Jonah Lehrer.”

I can’t say I have any answers about how we should proceed on the internet. I can’t even tell you I know for certain where the lines between Righteous Justice and Vampire Castle begin and end. I can only offer more questions: In this atmosphere, how do people who have made mistakes achieve redemption? Can they? Should they? If so, when?  What does it mean if we create groups force strict in-group/out-group rules?  When anger becomes currency, how do we spend it? Are we the citizen justice or another fraud waiting to be outed?

*How corporations  have learned to use technology now is another topic worth exploring. I shall do my best to resist here since it’s not the point, but just know that I wanted to write about it.
** I should note here that many of the conversations did not consider racism as a matter of degrees but created a dichotomy. Another conversation worth having about how we frame racism and how smaller acts link to larger ones. But, again, off topic.

*** Like Simone, I am not attempting to tone police anyone. Even typing thisI’m afraid of some backlash. I doubt this will get any attention (in the scheme of things I’m not very important), but I still worry. In my time online, I’ve watched people bullied for a less than this. All it takes is one person with a lot of followers to assign new meaning or reframe.  To be clear, I am not attempting to censor anyone who has expressed anger or discomfort while on the internet. I am not asserting dog whistles and other similarly shrouded negative sentiments aren’t shrouded in more acceptable language. My only intention is to express some concern with how dynamics, like the Vampire’s Castle, might encourage us to be cruel, to gloss over nuance or context.

Also, you read all of this?! Holy shit. I’m impressed. Thanks for caring about my tiny blip of word nonsense in the vast ocean of internet entertainment.

The White Rose

Millions of “good” Germans did not like the Nazis, yet thought they were the less evil compared to the communists…Everything was still standing; life went on as before; but beneath the surface, something had changed.”– Inge Scholl on Germany shortly after Hitler’s election.

Many people from my country know how fascist Germany fell. Over the decades, WWII has increasingly been presented in the good versus evil narrative. While this narrative may fit better here than with other wars, it tends to gloss over the presence of resistance in Germany. It consigns all Germans to the role of active supporter or coward.

In Germany, for years following the regime’s downfall, The White Rose was assigned as required reading. The educators hoped that the bravery displayed in it, the choice to put others’ lives over country, even when that meant possibly losing your own, might help students do the same. They hoped children might recognize some of the warning signs  if ever another regime such as Hitler’s tried to take control.

The book itself is quite short, but gripping.  It follows the development of The White Rose, an student-lead underground resistance from its inception to its downfall. Sophie and Hans Scholl grew up in Hitler’s youth groups. They watched the environment turn from celebratory to one of censure– where young people,and their family, were scorned for expressing doubt in the regime, discomfort with its rhetoric against Jewish people. As the two grew older, they became more and more disenchanted with the government, more suspicious of the narrative they were being sold. When they reached university, they joined with others to form the underground resistance.

At this point in time, many were confident Hitler would only fall with military action, and perhaps the Scholls agreed, but during a time when so many had  given into apathy, the Scholls felt it their duty to resist using any means possible. For them, the question was not whether or not they supported the regime but what resistance meant in practice. How could they resist? How could they encourage others to?

The White Rose was born from defiance, anger and conviction of morals. What started with surreptitious meetings with like-minds; meetings where they could share texts from forbidden philosophers and writers and rail against the loss of freedoms and death which surrounded them. Even those meetings might be enough for imprisonment or death, but the group decided it wasn’t enough.With the aid of other students, and a professor, they  began putting together pamphlets which they scattered about different cities in Germany. Every time they traveled to place them in mailboxes of random people or leave them in front of university classrooms, they risked their lives.

These pamphlets reassured others that they were not alone. They denounced the regime for its cruelty and appealed to  German citizens’ humanity. One specifically outlined how to resist passively, instructing readers “to concentrate upon what was attainable…” and resist in small ways each day. When the Scholls were arrested after throwing pamphlets from the University steps, they knew they would be sentenced to death. They did not waver in their choice. From the record of their, and others’ testimony, the prosecution described the resistance as both child-like and devious; in competent and dangerous. As I read it, I could help but recognize echoes of this in today’s characterization of organized opposition.

Some have said the reliance of the book on text. Many pages are either reprints of the pamhplets The White Rose spread or the text of their trials. When one remembers the purpose of the collection, it becomes easier to understand why Inge Scholl did not speculate as often. Still, I can understand the desire for more– perhaps another edition with further thoughts from the two resistance leaders’ sister. Inge does write a conclusion where she tries to assess the impact her siblings had and make sense of the desire for current society to claim them as their heroes, to see themselves reflect in their actions. She writes:

“It would be wrong to see the action of the students in Munich in the period 1942-43 as a noble deed in the abstract. I twas concrete, and its goal and starting point were concrete…we should look upon [what they did] as a singular instance.

“It was an instance in which five or six students took it upon themselves to act while the dictatorship was totally in control; in which they accepted the lonely burden of not even  being able to discuss these matters with their families; in which they took action even though the omnipotent state allowed them no room for maneuver; in which they acted in spite of the fact that they could do no more than tear small rifts in the structure of that state– much less blast out the corner stones.

“It is rare that a man is prepared to pay with his life for such a minimal achievement as causing cracks in the edifice of the existing order.”

Near the end, The White Rose includes an account of Sophie Scholl’s last days from the view of a fellow prisoner. It is heart-wrenching. As I read, I wondered if I could ever be as brave as Sophie Scholl was, even as her death drew near. We all like to believe we’d be on the “right side of history”. We like to think we’d be the hero, but when people are  disappearing everyday; when executions are carried out for reading the wrong text or protecting another person, could you really say you would  lay down your life for your morality?

Authoritarianism relies on fast movements and a cocktail of xenophobia and forced-nationalism. It assumes that with enough violence and mistruth, people will simply give up. That this small group would sacrifice their lives to save the German soul is exceptional. Many have suggested a dark shadow has fallen over our world recently. Some say this reflects in the literature we consume and, indeed sales for dystopian tales like 1984 and The Handmaiden’s Tale have risen. Both these books are speculative horrors, neither offer the surety that comes with knowing evil has been defeated. The White Rose is similarly sobering. It is only through knowledge of history that we know the Scholl’s won and, as Sophie Scholl said to the judge before her death “Soon you will be standing where I now stand.”  The White Rose offers readers the heroes of a good story, but more importantly, it offers some guidance for the non-heroes, the people who picked up the pamphlets from their mailboxes and felt a little less alone.