The price of public shaming in the Internet age

Posted at 7:38 AM, Apr 16, 2015
and last updated 2015-04-16 09:38:23-04

(CNN) — Do you believe in forgiveness? Do you believe in second chances?

Of course you do. Everybody makes mistakes. To err is human, to forgive divine. Right?

Not in the age of social media.

Take Victor Paul Alvarez. In January, the Boston reporter wrote a brief news story containing a bad joke about John Boehner. The wrath of social media fell on his head. Despite an apology, he was fired. Three months later, he’s still looking for full-time work.

Or Adam Mark Smith? He was rude to a Chick-Fil-A worker on YouTube. Had to sell his house and move to a new city.

Or Justine Sacco. She’s the public relations executive who tweeted, “Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding. I’m white!” Was buried on Twitter, lost her job, was left wandering in the wilderness.

Or how about the guy who made a joke about a dongle at a tech convention — or the woman who called him out? Or the woman who posed mockingly at Arlington National Cemetery? Or the columnist who cast aspersions on a boy band star’s death? Or …

All stupid acts. All perhaps worthy of some kind of punishment. But is this justice?

Jon Ronson wonders.

The British journalist is the author of “So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed,” which looks at the piling-on phenomenon.

In centuries past, villagers would cast out the dishonored. Colonial Americans had the stockade. Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Hester Prynne had to wear a scarlet “A.” Still, for most, the punishment was finite.

These days, it’s not enough for someone who’s screwed up to be rebuked. Even an apology and remorse are rarely enough.

On social media — Twitter especially, with its global reach and lack of irony — that person must be destroyed. Trevor Noah becomes the new host of “The Daily Show”? Suddenly, like political operatives doing opposition research, every last speck of his existence is pored over, with his missteps magnified into capital crimes.

“It’s so corrosive to create that kind of society,” Ronson said in a phone interview. “This desire we have to be like amateur detectives, (looking for) clues into people’s inherent evil by finding the worst tweet they ever wrote, is not only wrong; it’s damaging.”

Father James Martin, the editor-at-large of America magazine and a Roman Catholic priest, observes that what starts out as disapproval ends up “as a complete shaming of the person.” The biblical admonition of “an eye for an eye,” after all, was a way to describe proportionate justice, not go overboard.

The new shaming is much more relentless.

“There’s a real cruelty that comes with this mob mentality,” he said. “I sometimes compare it to bullies in a schoolyard all ganging up on person who, for one second, said the wrong thing.”

Going viral, going down

Martin makes it clear that there are distinctions.

If someone says something offensive, others are certainly allowed to respond. And if the person is a public figure who says something “outrageously sexist or racist or homophobic, then perhaps it would be appropriate that that person resign his or her position,” he said.

But, he added, the idea “that the person should have to pay for it the rest of his or her life is unjust.” Even death row inmates are more than the worst act they’ve ever committed, he observes.

Smith wonders whether he’ll always be followed by his worst act.

On August 1, 2012, Smith posted a video of himself haranguing a Chick-fil-A employee at a drive-through. The chain had become a political football in the aftermath of an executive’s statements about gay marriage, and Smith didn’t like the stance.

“I was thinking I was going to make a difference,” he told CNN.

By the next morning, Smith was regretting his rudeness. He posted an apology and attempted to apologize in person to the drive-through worker. (She didn’t want to talk.) By the time he got to work, however, the situation was out of his control.

The video went viral, and Smith — the CFO of a Tucson, Arizona-based medical device manufacturer — lost his well-paying job.

That was bad enough, but things were going to get worse. Over the next 72 hours, his e-mail was filled with vitriolic threats. His personal information was released, including the address for his children’s school. Letters were nailed to his front door.

He says he flipped back and forth between anger and wondering whether he deserved his fate.

“There was a tremendous amount of shame I felt. There were truths: I was rude. I didn’t feel good about my side of the street,” he said. “And then there were elements of ‘no, I don’t (deserve this). This is not right.’ So I was on both sides depending on the minute.”

What’s been more discouraging has been how the episode has dogged him. On the advice of an attorney, he kept the incident private after taking a new job in Portland, Oregon, only to be asked to resign when the news got out. Since then, he’s been up-front with prospective employers and even been offered jobs, but before long, they pull back — even if they were initially OK with the information.

It’s been rough, he says.

“I went into depression, and I had to pull myself out of this place where I had to realize that that was not who I am,” he said. At one point, he says, he considered suicide. At least that way his family could be provided for.

‘I know I’m not that guy’

Alvarez hasn’t gone through the same extremes as Smith, but he’s also struggled in the aftermath of a bad moment.

In January, a news item revealed that John Boehner’s bartender had planned to poison the House speaker. Alvarez, then a editor, wrote a story cracking a joke about Boehner’s liver, drawing the ire of Boehner’s spokesman.

The story soon caused an uproar, and although Alvarez was initially assured that things would blow over, they didn’t. He was given his walking papers within 48 hours, amid a sea of angry postings.

He apologized, going through every Twitter message and sending a personal note of acknowledgment.

He’s been freelancing since losing his job, and he’s still awaiting another full-time chance.

“I know that I’m not that guy,” he said. “The person who was struggling to put topspin on a story and came up with that lame joke, I know that’s not me. Now I’m trying to figure out the writer I’m going to be.”

In his book, Ronson investigates ways of combating the lingering impact of public shaming, since the Internet is seemingly forever. Fame and fortune help, as can be inferred by the number of celebrities still active after disastrous posts.

On the other hand, if you’re a nobody, the terrible event can be debilitating. Ronson decided to assist one shaming victim by enlisting a reputation manager, a person who cleans up Google search results.

Alvarez’s poor joke is still following him around. However, he says, he’s not worried about his legacy.

“If anything, I’m very proud of how I handled the fallout, and someone who wants to hire me and decides not to because they didn’t take the time to look at how I handled basically the worst week of my life isn’t someone I’d want to work for,” he said. “It’s easy to be your best when nothing bad has happened to you.”

‘Kindness and compassion works’

There have been positive uses for Internet shaming, says Ronson. He praises Twitter hashtags, such as #blacklivesmatter, #whyIstayed and #Yesallwomen, for highlighting social issues that were once hidden.

“A shaming campaign can be really, really powerful,” he said. There’s less homophobia, for example, because of such campaigns.

Nevertheless, he wishes there were more willingness to pause before firing, to put ourselves in another’s shoes.

Ronson spoke to another disgraced person, former New Jersey Gov. Jim McGreevey, who left office after a scandal that prompted him to out himself as gay. McGreevey now devotes his time to a prison-based therapeutic community.

As Ronson observes, McGreevey is building on the work of psychiatrist James Gilligan, who describes violence as an attempt to replace shame with self-esteem. Gilligan has spent decades working with prisoners and mental patients, and the solution, he believes, is to simply treat people with respect.

McGreevey has earned a divinity degree and spends a portion of his outreach trying to instill inmates with self-respect.

Ronson was moved by McGreevey’s efforts.

“Kindness and compassion works,” he said. “If we’re serious about wanting to improve the world, what McGreevey does is what works, and what we do on Twitter doesn’t work.”

Ronson knows it’s a tough sell — outrage and demonization can be more satisfying than compassion — but has hopes that the trend lines are pointing his way. He observes that Monica Lewinsky, once the poster child for public shaming, has given people pause with her recent writings and TED talk.

“I think people will have to change, because there’s clearly something wrong and it has to correct itself,” he said.

Martin, the priest, puts it in classic biblical terms.

“I would quote Jesus: ‘Let you who is without sin cast the first stone,’ ” he said. “What happens is, (the shaming) destroys a person’s life and livelihood, which is unjust. And it goes against the Christian message of forgiveness.”

Still, the shaming continues.

Smith, the former CFO, says he’s “back now.” He’s written a book, “Million Dollar Cup of Water,” about his experience and his journey to self-discovery. After a rocky patch, his 18-year marriage is strong, and his children know they are very much loved, he says. He’s now starting to work as a life coach.

“I know who I am,” Smith said.

Others, though, may never let the incident go.

As of Thursday, of the 144 Amazon reviews for Smith’s book, 85 give it one star.

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