I recently read Jon Ronson’s powerful book So You’ve Been Publically Shamed – an exploration of how the internet has become an incredibly unsafe place, and how public shaming online destroys lives offline. The culprits, he says, are us – good, well intentioned, and usually smart people who pile on, mock, and ridicule anyone who challenges our collective groupthink.
The take away messages from So You’ve Been Publically Shamed are alarming, and makes the internet feel terrifying to anyone, including myself. “With social media,” Ronson writes, “We’ve created a stage for constant artificial high drama. Every day a new person emerges as a magnificent hero or a sickening villain. It’s all very sweeping, and not the way we actually are as people.”
I’ve experienced both sides of this coin during my time on the internet. I was swept away to minor progressive stardome for my previous blog Sacred Tension, which stood defiant against oppressive beliefs about gay people. I was suddenly an internet hero, a cyber-Ghandi who has paving the way for a better world. And I’ve experienced the other side of it – I’ve been screamed down by twitterfolk for being oppressive towards gay people (despite my protestations that I am myself gay and have been supporting the gay community for years), for being a perpetrator of respectability politics, for being an enabler of an oppressive regime. I’m always stunned by the turn around – how I can become a hero or a villain within a matter of seconds. It creates a sense of psychic whiplash.
And I, too, have taken part in the artificial high drama. I too have shamed others. I’ve piled on, mocked, and ridiculed. I’ve judged complex fellow human beings by their single-sentence tweets.
As I’ve reflected on Ronson’s book and what I have experienced and observed on the internet, I’ve come to an uncomfortable, alarming realization: some of us good, social justice, politically correct, liberal people no longer have the emotional intelligence to destinguish dissenting opinions from true crimes against humanity. We no longer understand the place and time for outrage. We cannot distinguish between ideas we deem corrosive held by good people from acts or words of violence. We are, as Ronson says, constantly looking for clues to someone else’s hidden inner evil. Our amygdalas have a hair-trigger response to anything that seems remotely oppressive, and we respond to it by oppressing.
This is concerning, especially because the most obvious way foreward is to find common ground with those with whom we disagree, and go through the refining work of engaging in the free exchange and criticism of ideas. I’ve watched numerous minds changed – or if not fully changed, radically opened – to equal rights for LGBT people simply through the long suffering work of respectful engagement. Instead, I watch too many good, social-justice minded people use insults, slurs, or silencing to respond to those we dislike.
I can’t help but come to a conclusion I don’t like, and will undoubtedly make me unpopular: the regressive left is real, and it hinders the true liberation that it promotes. This position is hard for me to stomach, as I am myself a gay, liberal, feminist, inclusive person.
In my own struggle to come to terms with this reality, I’ve decided to institute a single practice: replacing outrage with curiosity. When someone says something I think is vile, I redirect my immediate social justice warrior reaction and instead ask, “Why?” Instead of attacking, I choose curiosity. Here is a mysterious person before me who says incomprehensible things: this is my cue to explore, investigate; to be Sherlock Holmes instead of Torquemada. As I practice this, I discover the reality: outrage is popular because it is easy. Curiosity is scarce because it is truly radical, world changing, and excruciatingly hard work.
There is much to be outraged about in this world, and we should be: oppression towards women, religious violence, persecution of gay people, and endless wars and inequality are all causes for genuine outrage. But so too is there much to be curious about – usually other people we encounter who we fail to understand. When we conflate the two we fail to change the world, and that is nothing but a tragedy.
P.S. – for more from Jon Ronson on online shaming, here is a powerful Ted Talk.