Self-righteousness on social media and the politics of shaming

After Brexit and the Trump win, we’ve all got more acquainted with the idea that social media is toxic. From shaming to trolling, social media warps the nature of political debate. But it’s not all negative. Deborah Talbot investigates.


Jon Ronson has done much to highlight the issue of social media shaming. In his Ted talk, he describes two horrific cases of shaming. One was Justine Sacco, who made ‘that’ joke about South Africa and Aids, and as a consequence was subject to a veritable social media storm. She claimed it had been meant as a satirical joke, but instead illustrated that humour is very hard to convey in written form, lacking as it does the context of non-verbal cues.


Then there is Owen Jones, who earlier this year quit social media claiming that of the daily abuse he receives, the common thread is only that the abusers believe their views to be “so righteous and pure than the only possible reason for someone disagreeing with it is malice or greed”. In all these cases, and in many more besides, individuals have been the object of what Ronson describes as ‘mob shaming’ – humiliated, hounded, excluded, and in some cases losing their livelihood and even homes.


Media discourse is built around the concept of shaming


Ronson calls for greater civility in social conduct in social media. His analysis reminds me, in a way, of Richard Sennett’s critique of the rise of emotional expressiveness in politics and the collapse of civility, a civility previously defined by emotional restraint, in his epochal book The Fall of Public Man. It is a compelling formulation, though the rise of emotional expressiveness was perhaps a needful revolution of the 1960s.


But what we have now is not that; instead, we have emotional lability, which might be viewed as a product of emotional and behavioural censorship and control. Perhaps…



Media shaming and moral panic


In another interview, Ronson explores how he was part of the shaming industry because his background is in the media. Media discourse is of course built around the concept of shaming: exploring hidden shames and exposing them to public scandal, often for reasons of political expediency. Indeed, sex shaming was often the cornerstone of ‘particular government’s and government agency’s methods of dealing with political enemies.


Stan Cohen also wrote many years ago about how media discourse used techniques of simplification and amplification to reduce complex social problems to a social drama of ‘upstanding folk’ and ‘folk devils’. It seems as if this language has become the lexicon of politics, which has itself been spread and amplified through social media.


Another interesting twist of social media shaming is how the targets have changed. Previous targets of shaming were always a ‘punch down’. The establishment and media would attack a marginal but ‘different in some way’ social group, shaping their identity through an imposed discourse (because there is no such thing as a distinct subculture of mods, or rockers, or hippies, or punks, as many theorists from Cohen onwards pointed out).


Much of new social media shaming involves a ‘punch up’ – relatively powerless groups of people using this new forum to attack what they see as ‘privilege’. So the new social media shaming is directed at those with wealth, racists, and so forth.


Social purity and censorship


The trouble is, all this noisy bustle has interacted with a rather censorious attitude amongst some, which seeks to control and shut down all that it does not immediately find agreement. Many theorists have written about how social media, and Twitter in particular (possible because of its 140 character form), has encouraged people to simplify political meaning and simply seek out their tribe, ganging up on other tribes that seem different or confusing.


In an article posted anonymously on Anarchist News, one writer offers a thoughtful critique of the adoption of shaming techniques by the ‘left’. She expresses disappointment that anarchist politics has been subsumed by academic identity politics that mobilises shame to attack others. The politics of shame has destructive effects. As a psychological emotion, it makes people helpless, isolated and destroys social bonds.


The great thing about social media was how it gave a voice to voiceless people, but we’re now creating a surveillance society, where the smartest way to survive is to go back to being voiceless -
Jon Ronson


The writer points out that the political work of many oppressed groups is about confronting shame, a shame imposed on them because of their assumed inferior status. Overcoming a sense of inferiority and shame paves the way for the politics of liberation. One example of how the American cultural left uses shame is through ‘call out culture’. The writer describes what this is, and its impact:


“Unfortunately, in the modern left we don’t combat shame, we worship it. Perhaps the most obvious expression of the Left’s present obsession with shame and shaming can be seen in what has been dubbed “call out culture”. The “call out” is a form of shaming — which intentionally labels an individual as fundamentally bad — and is a deeply toxic tendency in the Left. Flavia Dzodan, writing for Tiger Beatdown, describes this dynamic.


[Call out culture] works more or less like this: I say something ignorant… Unbeknown to me, there are now ten posts in ten different blogs and social media platforms calling me a “BIGOT AND THE WORST PERSON EVER”. Each time, every one of these posts escalating in rhetoric and volume. Each new post trying to outperform the previous one in outrage, in anger, in righteousness… The intent behind it, more often than not, is just to make the one initiating the call out feel good, more righteous, more indignant, a “better person” - Flavia Dzodan, Come one, come all! Feminist and Social Justice Blogging as Performance and Bloodshed


At a personal level, perfectionism is understood as being a product of unacknowledged shame — and the same is true for puritanism in group settings. The call out performance reeks of puritanism, and thus shame. Recall that after shame is triggered, a person typically responds in four ways: withdrawal, attack self, avoidance, and attack others. The “call out” is an example of attacking others in response to unacknowledged shame, which then triggers shame in the target as well.”


Instead, the writer calls for informed discussion between people that don’t necessarily agree, and a thoughtful politics and policy that is aimed at changing and addressing social problems. That doesn’t mean there is no critique, merely that the activists should acknowledge that people make mistakes, and they can be discussed, without alienating the other.




Although Ronson doesn’t draw it out particularly, focusing instead on the loss of idealism and the twisting of the democratising impulse of Twitter, in his analysis shaming is fuelled by ressentiment. Ressentiment was defined by the philosopher Max Scheler as:


“…a self-poisoning of the mind which has quite definite causes and consequences. It is a lasting mental attitude, caused by the systematic repression of certain emotions and affects which…are normal components of human nature. Their repression leads to the constant tendency to indulge in certain kinds of value delusions and corresponding value judgments. The emotions and affects primarily concerned are revenge, hatred, malice, envy, the impulse to detract, and spite.”


This analysis seems bound up with the notion of power. Ressentiment is grounded in long-standing feelings of hopelessness. Those who are powerless have no opportunity to express the full range of human emotion, as these have been repressed. This analysis seems to echo the contemporary context of social media shaming. In both cases of Sacco and Lehrer, the individuals shamed were said to have ‘abused their privilege’. Indeed, in the case of Justine Sacco, stories were invented about her so-called privileged background, stories that turned out to be untrue. In both cases, the reactions from social media were ungrounded expressions of hate, although one that invokes sorrow, not counter-hate.


Hiding or confronting?


Ronson’s perspective is that maybe the sensible thing to do is retreat – to hide from the ‘mob’:


“Maybe there’s two types of people in the world: those people who favour humans over ideology, and those people who favour ideology over humans. I favour humans over ideology, but right now, the ideologues are winning, and they’re creating a stage for constant artificial high dramas where everybody’s either a magnificent hero or a sickening villain, even though we know that’s not true about our fellow humans. What’s true is that we are clever and stupid; what’s true is that we’re grey areas. The great thing about social media was how it gave a voice to voiceless people, but we’re now creating a surveillance society, where the smartest way to survive is to go back to being voiceless.”


Retreat a very understandable response. Social media is known to take up too much time, is exposing, and is productive of anxiety. So of course the whole concept of social media shaming is troubling. But ought we to condemn it out of hand or, like Owen Jones, go on the retreat? In a short online debate on Twitter between the magazine Driftmine (now closed) and @OccupyToronto, it was suggested by the latter that perhaps many of these political manifestations, of which shaming is a part, was the first stab at the mass democratisation of politics.


And it’s certainly true, mass expression through social media has been around for little over a decade, and it takes a while for this rapid social change to find a more manageable pace. Moreover, as already described, the press have had a free run at the politics of shaming for some time; now it is the turn of people active on social media, who haven’t been to public school and who aren’t being tutored in the fine art of the right-wing or liberal editorial.


The targets are certainly different. For every powerless victim mistakenly deemed privileged, like Sacco, there are roaming groups of social media ‘activists’ willing to shame David Cameron for playing sex games with a dead pigs head. They will shame the media for having a go at Tom Watson over his child sex abuse campaigning, or are doing a magnificent job exposing the media’s double standards over Corbyn. Not to mention Brexit and Trump.


Maybe, much like mass car ownership and the vote, democratisation produces unexpected results that may seem uncomfortable. Rather than retreat, however, perhaps civil engagement with social media, on the terms that we feel appropriate, might be better.


It is, further, difficult to imagine a politics devoid of moral condemnation. The ‘for shame’ of the younger self, translates into a weary eye-rolling ‘for gods sake’ as we get older or world-weary, but the impulse to have an affective response to something that disgusts is just the same. Of course, moral condemnation is different from shaming, but they do collide with frequency.


Perhaps what is missing is what should follow from that initial reaction – hard reading, evidence, checking the story, looking and absorbing counterarguments. We also need to learn to listen to others and be patient and self-reflexive when we encounter difference.


The immediacy of social media does mitigate against slow, thoughtful reflection, but is also adaptable. Absorbing some of the lessons of digital storytelling allows someone to unfold a story and debate rather than mindlessly bumping from news story to news story. Engagement is better than one-sided broadcasting, as the digital marketeers always say.


Perhaps there is a path to tread in the social media landscape for a more thoughtful politics.

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