Twitter abuse and bullying – turn shame into humiliation
A few months ago, I was standing in a queue waiting to buy a sandwich. I was suddenly overcome with starvation and decided to sneak in at the side.
The woman beside me was very gentle. “I think you pushed in front of me,” she said.
All eyes were on me. I did the thing we all do, I stammered out a stupid excuse: “I didn’t realise, so sorry … Ummm, mild hypoglycaemia.” (True; when my blood sugar drops I’ll bite anything or anybody who stands between me and a cheese biscuit.)
But not the point — in that moment I felt a horrible shame. Shame feels like a hot burning sensation, heart rate increases, a drop in the stomach, a need to say “but”. Shame is the emotion typified by my friend who got up in front of a prestigious group of corporate colleagues to speak for the first time and vomited on stage.
So what is this feeling? We all have it. The word derives from European words that mean: to cover, to veil, to hide from feeling exposed. It’s linked to reputation and a desperate need to be publicly loved — hence safe and accepted in the community.
An audience is a prerequisite for shame, a real audience or make-believe. In other words, had I scored the sandwich unnoticed I would have felt guilt (as in sorry for the others waiting), but being caught gave me shame (self-worthlessness coming from a feeling of social disapproval; panic; I am bad and people know it).
But why do we feel it? Neuroscientists concur that shame has a biological function to alert us into avoiding social approbation. It’s an instinct from tribal days where we learned to belong or else die in the wilderness.
US author and psychiatrist Stuart Brown says we learned the rules through watching faces and physical actions. Later, the development of language allowed for more complex shaming in the form of chastisement — overt, or covert by way of gossip, jokes, mockery, and theatre. It instilled fear of rejection.
Shame has its upside in that it helps us learn, according to John Bradshaw author of Healing the Shame that Binds You, but only in its non-toxic form. It can help children understand ego boundaries and limits so they don’t get hurt or rejected, and they learn humility, adaptation, morality and how to relate to parents.
At its worse it’s toxic and disempowering; it demeans, diminishes and can make someone want to commit suicide. Shame is our internal tape saying, “I’m never good enough”, often from childhood and highly correlated with addiction, depression, violence, aggression, bullying, suicide and eating disorders, says Brene Brown, research professor at the University of Houston.
Brown, who studies vulnerability and shame, says it’s the inner parent always at us even when there is no longer a need. “Shame is an epidemic in our culture,” she says.
Enter the new world order of social media where we get publicly shamed for not fitting in. This has changed society as we know it.
In her new book Is Shame Necessary? New Uses for an Old Tool Jennifer Jacquet, professor of environmental studies at New York University, defends social media for this new phenomenon of public shaming, which many people feel has got out of control.
While many say cyberspace is the new walk of shame, the stocks and chains of ye olde days, Jacquet presents public shaming as a nonviolent form of resistance.
She argues that public shaming is crucial to social good. On her website, she names and shames Japan (for harpooning whales); governments that destroy the environment; banks; corporations that pollute; animal cruelty; overfishing; and Cecil the Lion’s killer.
Jacquet maintains human rights groups have long “named and shamed” torturers and dictators, rallying public opinion to punish perpetrators who formerly have escaped.
She quotes a line from Andrei Tarkovsky’s film Solaris: “Shame. The feeling that will save mankind.”
But there’s a flip side. People are deemed guilty and don’t even get the chance to prove their innocence before being punished.
As a result there is revenge porn, slander, body shaming and young people killing themselves. Careers have been ruined, people stalked and tormented. This is not true democracy. In many instances the maliciousness is silencing democracy through the fascism of political correctness, being as intolerant as the intolerance it is supposed to be quelling.
You can’t just call someone a paedophile. But a few weeks ago a man who calls himself a “daggy dad” was photographed by a misguided mum who thought he’d been taking photos of her young kids. She put his photo on Facebook calling the man a “creep” and encouraged her friends to share her post to alert parents of this potential deviant. The post went viral. The man — a father himself — was trying to take his first selfie in front of a Darth Vader cut-out to send to his kids. Where was his right to a fair trial?
Social media makes us all bullies, according to Monica Lewinsky, the best-known face of public shaming for her dalliance with US president Bill Clinton during the 1990s when she was a White House intern.
“We lose context for a story, but mainly we lose context for a person,” she writes in the Huffington Post. “This is someone’s daughter. This is someone’s sister.” A person copping online abuse just may have a different sense of humour or life view or way of articulating themselves, she says.
Some commentators on the Psychology Today website are calling cyber-shaming abuse without legal regulation as to whether the punishment fits the crime. It’s often just another form of mob mentality and barbarism. But why? Perhaps to help us avoid shame by being part of “the tribe” who is doing the shaming.
I see cyberspace as the new religion, the perceived wrongdoers as Christians in the Colosseum and Twitter, Facebook and others as the lions.
Have we ever changed from our historical tribal mentality of being right and the other religion, race or philosophy wrong? Some say it’s schadenfreude; wanting to see people brought down, a stoning of the “other”. The use of shaming has always been a double-edged sword from the word go.
While acknowledging Jacquet’s point of view, Welsh journalist and filmmaker Jon Ronson, in his new book, So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, explores how the internet exacerbates this facet of human nature, saying it has become terrifying especially since it’s playing into the old bigot-style stereotyping, of needing to dehumanise the people we hurt to feel better.
Ronson questioned the social tirade against Justine Sacco, who was publicly shamed, then sacked for a tweet she wrote in 2013: “Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding. I’m white!” Ronson suggested we at least ponder that she was parodying the situation, and that Sacco’s treatment was unfair. He was thereafter called a “white supremacist” on Twitter.
Ronson alludes to tweeters as “a pitchfork mob”, “the hanging judge”. Twitter users have “taken a lot of scalps”, he writes. “We were soldiers making war on other people’s flaws.”
Psychiatrist Ravi Chandra on the Psychology Today website calls it shaming the world into shape — but whose idea of shape?
“Shame itself is a horrible, pernicious, shapeshifting emotion implicated in suicide and violence,” Chandra writes. “Pronouncing someone (or oneself) as unworthy or unacceptable, separating from the experience of belonging — these are probably the worst punishments possible for social animals.” He asks whether such behaviour is a call to conscience or mob madness. In my opinion this is the most pertinent question of our century.
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