The news cycle runs at hyper speed now. About one week ago, a group of students from Covington High School Catholic High School were filmed at the Lincoln Memorial behaving in a rowdy fashion in front of Native American activist Nathan Phillips.
A video of the incident received near-universal condemnation on Twitter, most of it coming from liberal online personalities. This was followed by a conservative backlash that came with more video showing further context and insisting that the situation was perceived unfairly. A counter-backlash followed, plus an apology tour by the teen in the video, Nicholas Sandmann, in which he claims that nothing untoward occurred. All of this took place in less than a fortnight.
[If you’re looking for an even-handed assessment of what actually happened at the event, I’d recommend this piece by Josh Marshall, who assessed each piece of evidence and links out to more so you can make some decisions yourself.]
I recently read Jon Ronson’s So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, in which he runs down a number of situations where the internet tried to destroy someone’s life. A terrible joke about AIDS in Africa became an international meme and blew up a woman’s life. A woman took a jokey photo at Arlington National Cemetary and lost her job helping people with learning disabilities. Time after time, the internet mob has shown that it is willing to annihilate people, seemingly randomly, if they step out of line in a way that strikes the right nerve.
Ronson’s thesis in the book is that shaming lessens us all. It can leave the subject irrevocably scarred, and it changes the mob doing the shaming too. It reshapes our values in ways that are troubling and make us less compassionate and more violent.
As a result of the book, I’ve tried to publicly shame people less often these days. But it can be a challenge because Twitter makes it so easy. Have a thought? Want to ruin someone who’s offended you? Fire off a tweet! It’s all very tempting and sad.
That said, I don’t think my approach is for everyone. I’ve tried not to condemn people for shaming, because one of the weaknesses of Ronson’s book is that it doesn’t delve into all the times that internet shaming has actually been unequivocally beneficial, such as when it is done in the name of justice, and the last recourse for people with no other options.
But one thing I have concluded I can do and recommend: Wait before tweeting. Think before tweeting. Deliberate before posting. Mull it over before blogging.
The Phillips-Sandmann video felt like it was genetically engineered to tap into all the sensitivities of our day. A group of white kids stood around a Native American war vet, seeming to mock him. The video is the video; the response to it revealed our sensitivities and anxieties. To one side, public shaming felt like it was necessary, because what other response could there be? This might be the only way to make this child pay for his insolence! If you’re on the other side, there’s a need to defend this innocent child from a liberal mob that’s ignoring the facts.
No matter what your assessment, I think it’s safe to say that all sides were bloodied in the fiasco. But to me, one thing remains clear: the rush to judgment benefits no one. I really appreciated Casey Newton’s take on the situation, in which he shares lessons from this incident.
I do think there was value in watching more video of the protests as it emerged before offering up a take. The more angles of the conflict that I watched, the more unsettled I was by the teens’ behavior — and by their chaperons’ inaction. Not everyone has the luxury of waiting until day four of a story to have a take. But a lot of members of the media … do? And if you do, you might consider holding your tongue, at least for 24 hours or so. It’s here that Twitter’s incentive system deserves criticism — the earlier you tweeted the first video, and the more incendiary your view, the likelier you were to have it shot into the algorithmic stratosphere. (One Vulture contributor was fired over the weekend after saying that he wished the teens were dead.)
Don’t rush. If it’s not a time-sensitive situation, the target of your outrage will still be there in a day or two. Plus, you’ll probably have a lot more information from which to craft your position.
Some more news and links from the week:
- I’m making at least two YouTube videos per month and you should subscribe to my channel! This week: I reviewed the Fyre Festival documentaries and reacted to the Academy Award nominations.
- Speaking of YouTube, one of my favorite shows is Hot Ones, which just invited Gordon Ramsay to eat a bunch of monstrously hot chicken wings. The results are incredible and make for a superlative edition of an already-great show.
- It was a bloodbath in the media industry this week. Massive layoffs at Gannett, BuzzFeed, and Huffington Post. There are many articles about what this means for journalism but for my money, this “prose poem” by John DeVore does a better job of summing up the situation than anything else I’ve read.
- The Atlantic has a damning story about Bryan Singer’s history of sexual allegations.
- At Buzzfeed, Sarah Ryley explains why it is that if you shoot someone in a major US city, you’ll probably get away with it.