Sunday, July 3, 2016

You Can't Say That and Get Away With It

About a year ago this blog recommended Kirsten Powers' book on the deliberate drying up of political discourse, Silenced. Powers contended that instead of defending positions and winning debates in the marketplace of ideas, too many folks were interested in simply shutting up their opposition. Although she self-identified as a liberal person politically, Powers didn't hesitate to call out people who shared her positions but who lacked her commitment to robust debate.

Conservative commentators Mary Katherine Ham and Guy Benson published a book on the same topics at about that same time, End of Discussion. Being conservatives, they also take aim at more liberal folks who are more interested in silencing their opponents than persuading them, but like Powers they point out how some conservative folks have done the same thing when they have the power to do so. They touch on a few cases where they actually agree with the position being argued by the silencers -- they too support same-sex unions, for example -- even though they completely reject the labeling and forced acquiescence sought by people who also favor that position.

Discussion ranges more widely than Silenced; Ham and Benson touch on some of the same incidents Powers relates but add several others outside the political arena. They also aim some well-deserved mockery at folks who operate on the "'Shut up,' they explained" model. The goal of getting a laugh makes their work a little breezier than Silenced, and its connection with current events means it will sound dated before long. But its central argument against the idea that shutting down debate is preferable to engaging in it remains timely, and unfortunately new examples will make certain that this is a subject that will bear repeated visits in the future, by Ham and Benson or others.
Author Jon Ronson admits that he had more than once joined in on Twitter mobs gang-shaming people who had done something that the twitterati deemed unacceptable. But when he found himself on the receiving end of unwelcome internet attention -- some people created a fake profile that used his name and tweeted with it as though it were him -- he started thinking about the consequences of that kind of public exposure. That led him to investigate aspects of the shaming culture all too often overlooked by those who participate in it.

In So You've Been Publicly Shamed, Ronson observes three well-known instances of people who made some online or public mistakes which somehow grabbed the attention of enough people that they brought about life-changing consequences. He also explores the concept of shaming itself in interviews with these three folks as well as some people who suffered public exposure and humiliation in pre-internet eras.

The problem for the folks vicitimized by the mobs, Ronson points out, is not so much the immediate two minutes hate which targets them. That passes, most especially because Twitter has a memory not much longer than the avians from which it takes its name. But the way search engines work keeps the most frequently-visited sites, pictures and mentions at the top of their results lists, meaning that even the remorseful are not allowed to truly repent. They are eternally imprisoned in their worst decision.

Shamed spends as much time trying to decipher what creates shame as well as what blocks it as it does outlining the stories of those who've undergone it. Ronson surveys that idea more than truly investigates it, but he's writing a pop-culture essay, not an academic work. In the end, we could hope that people who read his book might think twice before re-tweeting the latest outrage or piling on to the most recent transgressor of All That's Decent, and let people learn from their dumb mistakes.

No comments: