Students in a middle school painted words important to them on rocks placed under a tree. “Patience,” “courage,” “strength,” and “peace” were scattered under the limbs. However the lineup of a yellow heart, “tolerance” and “healing” held my eye during a walk in 2013; they were an antidote to the lack of humanity words as weapons cause.
I thought of those rocks this week after reading So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, a new book by journalist Jon Ronson. He recounts recent examples of how far an online posse of righteous shamers can go condemning others’ ethical failings, judgment errors or offensive attempts at humor. Among the stories of social media shaming that Ronson includes are journalist Jonah Lehrer’s plagiarism, the racist-interpreted “joke” tweet of PR executive Justine Sacco and the obscene gesture in a photograph in Arlington National Cemetery Lindsey Stone posted of herself on Facebook.
Social media has a piranha capacity to feed off self-sabotage. Rationally, authors know plagiarism is an ethical time bomb, just as news anchors understand lying and distorting facts destroy credibility (the problems of Brian Williams erupted after the book was written). And no one should be surprised that Twitter and Facebook accounts don’t guarantee quiet repositories for acting out unfiltered attempts at humor.
However, not understanding the consequences of enraged social media is to be in denial over the potential consequences of losses — in jobs, trust, reputation, safety (as attacks cut more deeply personal) and even one’s life. It is a double-sided ignorance: Not seeing the piranha waits or recognizing if you and the piranha have become one.
Ronson, writing about the impact of the public shaming on Lehrer, explained:
“People were very keen to imagine Jonah as shameless, as lacking in that quality, like he was something not quite human that had adopted human form. I suppose it’s no surprise we feel the need to dehumanize the people we hurt — before, during, or after the hurting occurs….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.)”
Ultimately, shaming, Ronson writes, dehumanizes the onlooker as well as the person being shamed.
Shamers get trapped in feedback reinforcement says documentary filmmaker Adam Curtis , whom Ronson quotes. That process, Curtis points out: “… locks people off in the world they started with and prevents them from finding out anything different.”
A world of instant reaction means what we put out on social media stands alone without context or qualification. And rather than our comments accepted as random orphans of thought by people who know us and make allowances, strangers not in our circle can weigh in. To them, whatever we say or do is seen as a representation of who we are. It creates an accountability we dodge at our peril. Ideally, knowing this allows us to operate with more attention to our emotional intelligence — particularly our self-awareness, self-regulation and empathy.
As for viewers, instant reaction triggers instant judgments, often building off the tone of comments that have gone before. If reaction becomes outrage, are we even aware when it crosses over into shaming, bullying, threatening and deconstructing… fueled by assuming the other person “deserves” whatever we volley at them from behind the net of our anonymity? The irony is that our own thoughtlessness, insensitivity and capacity to injure can occur with the greatest frequency when we are convinced of the rightness of our own point of view.
In Dignity: Its Essential Role in Resolving Conflict, author Donna Hicks writes that while people have to earn respect through behaviors and actions, “dignity is a birthright” that everyone deserves. “Treating people badly because they have done something wrong only perpetuates the cycle of indignity,”she writes. “What is worse,” she continues, “we violate our own dignity in the process. Others’ bad behavior doesn’t give us license to treat them badly in return.”
“Dignity” — honoring one’s own and others –an enduring antidote to support diversity of opinion and our humanity.
Gael O’Brien, July 15, 2015
Gael O’Brien is The Ethics Coach columnist for Entrepreneur Magazine. She is also a columnist for Business Ethics Magazine where her July column is “Why More Companies Are Speaking Out on Social Issues.”