Friday, April 10, 2015

The attractions of a new shame culture, where denizens of Twitter and Facebook target people who harm society, are easy to see. Our plodding legal system often fails to do justice because of high standards of proof, the expense of lawyers, and the weakness of the laws—laws that are often so weak because rich corporations exert so much influence over legislatures. Indeed, shaming allows us to avoid the messy business of legislation in the first place; moral norms are enforced directly, so one doesn’t need to wait for the political system to lurch into motion. If there is no law against making racist arguments, we can nonetheless shame people who do. Shaming seems like a democratic, cost-effective, and fluid device for combating environmental degradation, racism, and homophobia—for creating a virtuous society.
But the truth is nearly the opposite. If you try to think of which group has been the most consistent target of social media shaming, it is surely women who dare to express their opinions or to break up with boyfriends. The major effect of social media is that it enables people to broadcast an opinion—or, more accurately, a gut reaction—to the whole world, instantly, without pausing to give it any thought. This, combined with pervasive anonymity and traditional animosity to anyone who acts or thinks unconventionally, has awoken atavistic instincts that are multiplied a hundredfold through herd mentality. And then these ill-considered reactions are stored indefinitely, while being immediately accessible to anyone, thanks to the efficiency of search engines.
It is possible to argue that the Internet has re-created small-town society, where everyone knew everything about everyone, so everyone acted virtuously in order to avoid ostracism and other sanctions. But this argument rests on a romanticization of that era. Small-town societies bred small-mindedness and conformity, and if they were ever tolerable, it was only because one could leave. One can’t leave the Internet. Once shamed, always shamed.