We have become a country addicted to public shaming, and it’s ruining pretty much everything.
Public shame is the currency that way too many of us trade in online. It’s the grease that keeps Twitter grinding away incessantly. It’s increasingly the only form of “justice” people seem interested in.
In case you’re incredibly lucky and have never experienced, witnessed or participated in online public shaming, here are a couple recent examples:
• At the end of March, ESPN commentator Keith Olbermann noticed a news story about a wild turkey hunter in Mississippi who had killed a rare white turkey. Olbermann’s took to Twitter to bash the hunter as a “pea-brained scumbag” and added this statement, which we’ll remind you was broadcast to the entire planet: “… we should do our best to make sure the rest of his life is a living hell.” Olbermann then turned his vigilante fury on the newspaper that published the story: “And the nitwit clown who wrote this fawning piece should be fired.”
• This month, a California woman took a photo of a man wearing a “Make America Great Again” hat, then posted it to social media, writing “get out of my town and never come back.” She also wrote, “I am going to publicly shame him in town and try to get him fired and kicked out of every club he is in. I am going to go to his house march up and down carrying a sign that says he hates black people. I am going to organize protests where he works to make him feel as unsafe as he made every brown person he met today.”
• That same California woman became a victim of public shaming herself when conservatives on social media began attacking her, even making death threats because of her opinions.
Making someone’s life a living hell for killing a turkey? Running someone out of town for wearing a hat? Killing someone for disliking a hat? These aren’t reasonable opinions to hold and they certainly could never lead to resolution of any disagreement.
Public shaming is all about humiliating someone else so you can feel superior. It requires the shamer to treat the shamee as less than human. It’s disgusting. But it’s become the only way this country has a conversation about anything.
Those conversations are worthless because they’re disingenuous and unproductive. No one is ever willing to express a real opinion in public anymore, out of fear they will be vilified and attacked. The storm cloud of public shaming hangs over everyone’s head, threatening to strike the moment they do or say anything that can be interpreted or misinterpreted as offensive.
Many good people, including many who truly want to have a positive influence on their world, have participated in and continue to participate in public shaming because they believe it can have a positive effect in some cases. It can’t.
When was the last time you stated your honest opinion, then someone called you a terrible person and you decided to change your opinion as a result? The answer is never. No one changes their mind because they’ve been publicly humiliated. Shame might change what someone says or does in public, but no one has ever truly changed a mind by poking someone in the eye.
Instead, shaming just makes it harder to connect with and understand someone who has an opinion you disagree with. Think about it — would you ever be honest and open with someone who was screaming at you that you’re a terrible person and your life should be made into a living hell? No.
Shame can only ever divide. If this country is going to start healing its many open political wounds, we must abandon shame as our currency. We must start listening and asking honest questions instead. And most importantly, we must be willing to have our own minds changed by those we disagree with.