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How to Criticize on the Internet: What Shame Teaches us about Online Harassment

Participating in that great experiment of the internet—social media in particular—runs some risks; an emotional tweet, a late-night blog entry, or a Facebook post after a couple of pints can not only get you into trouble with friends and family, but at times, even cost you your job and bring world-wide notoriety. Justine Sacco is probably the most famous case. Before boarding an airplane to South Africa, she tweeted what one could describe either as a misfired, ill-calculated joke or as an outright racist joke to her 170 followers on twitter. When she landed, she was trending at number one worldwide on twitter, people were openly harassing her, and among many things, wishing her to be fired from her job; a wish that her company granted. Even worse were the emotional consequences of the incident. Sacco states that “I cried out my body weight in the first 24 hours. It was incredibly traumatic”. Jon Ronson wrote an article about this case and later a book called “So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed”, portraying people who suffered from online harassment. In it, he also writes about Monica Lewinsky, who describes herself as the first victim of online shaming. Lewinsky talked about severe suicidal tendencies in the aftermath of her affair; her mother made her shower with an open bathroom door out of fear of what she might do. Why does online harassment have such devastating consequences?

The word shame is at the core of the problem, and reappears in terms such as “online shaming” or “cyber shaming”. Shame and guilt are the two cardinal moral emotions signifying that we have failed to live up to our own moral standards; both emotions give immediate feedback or “internal punishment” for our transgressions. People often use shame and guilt as synonyms but decades of research show that they are rather distinct (please see here  and here for excellent reviews of the research). While both can be elicited by the same action (e.g., tweeting an inappropriate joke or falling in love with your boss), and both can be experienced private or publicly, they differ in the subject and the concerns involved. The subject of shame is oneself as a person, whereas the subject of guilt is a particular action. Hence, shame evokes self-centred concerns: “Am I a bad person?” and “Do others think that I’m a bad person?” Guilt, in contrast, increases interpersonal concerns: “I hope I didn’t hurt the other person”. And while both emotions can be evoked by the same moral transgression, they have different consequences, with shame being associated with a host of particularly terrible ones.

Online critic and harassment is uniquely capable of evoking shame since people rarely focus on the particular transgression a person committed but rather immediately target the person (I wrote previously about the emotional fire that fuels online harassment). Sacco became a white supremacist and racist, Lewinsky a slut and home-wrecker. This may be partly due to the fundamental attribution error, our tendency to think that other people’s behaviour is caused by their character, while attributing our own bad behaviour to challenging circumstances; another person’s bad tweet reveals their horrible character, our misguided ones only highlight our stressful life. Armed with the knowledge of another person’s “true” character, we begin attacking it1.

Yet, such shame-inducing attacks have serious consequences, which more often than not outweigh the severity of the “crimes”. In the direct aftermath, feelings of worthlessness and powerlessness induced by shame lead often to attempts to deny, hide, or escape a certain situation. In contrast to a person who feels guilty, the person who is shamed after doing something wrong is less likely to apologize and more likely to blame something or somebody else for it. Feelings of guilt instead lead to constructive and proactive attempts to solve the situation. You might, for instance, wonder why someone did not just quickly delete the post and apologize for it, or why she blamed other people instead of taking responsibility. Shame might be the reason. Monica Lewinsky, for instance, denied her relationship with Clinton and tried to persuade a co-worker to lie under oath about it. Even worse, shame also leads to anger, aggression and the desire to punish and harm other people. Such actions are then interpret by the attackers as even more evidence for why the other person is wrong and horrible, leading to more attacks. A sad, self-reinforcing circle–which can be witnessed daily on the internet—ensues. And since shame deals with the question of whether or not one is a good, valuable person, it shouldn’t come as a surprise to learn that shame is related to depression, suicidal tendencies and a host of other undesirable consequences.

So, what can we do? It appears that the most important aspect is to focus the critic and the attention on the action itself, rather than making interferences about the underlying character of another person. Saying something stupid, writing something stupid, and doing something stupid are part of the human condition. When we criticize somebody else on the internet, we should try to constantly remind ourselves about how little we know about another person and their situation despite how confident we may feel about our insider knowledge of their soul. And if we ourselves have committed a moral transgression on the internet, we should try to think of this transgression with explanations that are within ourselves, yet that are at the same time something temporary and something we have control over (e.g., too emotional while writing the blog post or too much stress at work while tweeting). Such thinking gives us the responsibility for an action, but also allows us to deal with it in a constructive way; guilt offers redemption, shame doesn’t.



1Ironically, the people who feel the most insecure about a certain character attribute (e.g., being honest) are also the ones prone to call out other people on it (see research on self-completion theory). Such public criticism is a symbolic act that achieves self-completion and makes people feel secure about themselves. As Sloterdijk wrote, we live in a cynical world where liars call liars liars.

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3 Comment on this post

  1. “we should try to constantly remind ourselves about how little we know about another person and their situation despite how confident we may feel about our insider knowledge of their soul”

    The modern ideologies that promote public shaming as a tool claim to have absolute knowledge of the “problematic” souls of the people they attack. The most superficial characteristics of the target offer perfect insights into their true natures, and so “Fedora Shaming as Discursive Activism” makes perfect sense.
    Yes, that is a real thing.

    And the possibility of redemption is the last thing these ideologies want to offer. Shaming and internalize shame must be constant, or targets may eventually think they no longer need to “check their privilege”.

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