By Catarina Dutilh Novaes
In recent times there has been quite some discussion on the phenomenon of internet shaming. Two important recent events were the (admirable, brave) TED talk by Monica Lewinsky, and the publication of Jon Ronson’s book So you’ve been publicly shamed. Lewinsky’s plight mostly pre-dates the current all-pervasiveness of the internet in people’s lives, but she was arguably one of the first victims of this new form of shaming: shaming that takes world-wide(-web) proportions, no longer confined to the locality of a village or a city. Pre-internet, people could move to a different city, if need be to a different country, and start over again. Now, only changing your name would do, to avoid being ‘googled down’ by every new person or employer you meet.
As described in Ronson’s book (excerpt here, interview with Ronson here), lives can be literally destroyed by an internet shaming campaign (the main vehicle for that seems to be Twitter, judging from his stories). Justine Sacco, formerly a successful senior director of corporate communications at a big company, had her life turned upside down as a result of one (possibly quite unfortunate, though in a sense also possibly making an anti-racist point) tweet: ““Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding. I’m white!” From there on, her life became a tragedy of Kafkaesque proportions, and she’s only one of the many people having faced similar misfortunes discussed in Ronson’s book. Clearly, people truly delight in denouncing someone as ‘racist’, as in Sacco’s case; it probably makes them feel like they are making a contribution (albeit a small one) to a cause they feel strongly about. But along the way, for the sake of ‘justice’, they drag through the dirt someone whose sole ‘crime’ was to post a joke of debatable tastefulness on Twitter. But who has never said anything unfortunate, which they later came to regret, on the internet?
Hatred, resentment, social patrolling, pressure to conform, and shaming are of course at the very heart of human nature, so in a sense there’s nothing new under the sun here. However, and in view of the truly transformative effect that new technologies can have on human nature and people’s lives (in the spirit of the ‘extended cognition’ perspective that I endorse, but which goes much beyond cognition as such and involves all aspects of human life), we seem to be dealing with something truly novel and truly worrisome, of epic proportions. The lion is unleashed.
Public shaming of various forms is also part of the philosophical internet ecology, as everyone reading this certainly knows. Some prominent bloggers are known for saying rather unflattering things about people they disagree with, or whom they see as opponents. The GCC has been highlighting male-only conference for years, and while it does not seem to constitute direct ad hominem shaming, it has definitely been perceived as such by a number of people. (A topic I won’t discuss today, but which seems to be very important: how shaming can be wrongly used to support ‘noble’ causes, which btw is not the case of the GCC to my mind.) But in recent years a somewhat novel form of internet shaming has emerged in the philosophical internet ecology: anonymous shaming at the multiple meta-meta-blogs and their descendants.
I had been thinking about writing a post on internet shaming for a while, but it is something I saw on Facebook today that made me feel like it had to be done today. A prominent and well-established philosopher reports that he is the most recent target of vile attacks at the latest incarnation of the meta-meta-blogs. (I do not know what it is called, and have not been able to locate it, probably for my own good. Previous incarnations have been shut down, but then the ‘interested parties’ simply migrate somewhere else and start again. Brit Brogaard had a couple of really interesting posts on group polarization a few weeks ago, which are directly relevant for the present discussion.) What is particularly disturbing in this case is that the philosopher in question is going through an extremely delicate moment in his family life, involving hospital stays and illness of a loved one, and he has been rather upfront about it on his (private) Facebook updates. Now, there is reason to believe that at least some of his FB contacts are among the vile critics, and so they will have seen these updates on his difficult personal circumstances at the moment. (I know of other such episodes in which the meta-meta-blog denigrators seemed to be following the FB updates of the person they were attacking.) This is a very low new low: to attack someone publicly precisely as they are struggling with difficult personal issues.
I interpret all the hatred and resentment that transpires in the meta-meta-blogs in light of the dismaying situation of the current job market in philosophy. (I may be off the mark though, it’s a tentative hypothesis.) An awful lot of people are not being given a fair chance in this ruthless market, many of whom are currently being exploited in all kinds of precarious appointments (adjuncts, short visiting appointments). At least some of these people seem to be growing increasingly resentful of those philosophers whose careers seem to be going well. It adds to the resentment when some of these stellar philosophers are also involved with the cause of promoting diversity in the profession, which at least some of those struggling academics see as harming their professional prospects in virtue of preferential treatment accorded to minorities.
But here’s the thing: the professionally successful philosophers are also people who struggle with all kinds of issues in their lives – personal, physical, emotional, possibly even professional (even if this is not apparent to the world at large). While we are all told to ‘ignore the trolls’, it is becoming more and more apparent that insults coming from strangers on the internet do get to you in ways that are difficult to predict or explain. Indeed, a number of feminists have been reporting on the extremely negative effects of hatred outpour on their Twitter accounts and elsewhere, forcing some of them to quit altogether. On the side of the sender, the ‘emotional distance’ that the internet appears to afford seems to lead to the dehumanization of one’s target of criticism (and I suspect, also the perceived ‘comfortable, powerful position’ allegedly enjoyed by the target). But on the side of the receiver, the aggression is deeply felt, in ways that the sender probably cannot begin to fathom. As Ronson says in this interview (very last line): “Actually, in person, everybody is lovely.”
To sum up: Internet shaming is a very real and deeply disturbing phenomenon, and one that we do not yet fully understand. Why so much hatred online, when in person everybody is lovely? (Well, not sure I’d go as far as that, but certainly usually more humane!) I submit that philosophers are well placed to make important contributions to our understanding of the phenomenon, in particular through the concept of the transformative (both positive and negative) power of technologies, the concept of group polarization (e.g. Brogaard’s posts), and the concept of dehumanization, which a number of philosophers seem to be thinking about right now. (I’ll mention just two, who happen to spring to mind: John Protevi and David Livingstone Smith.) On a less abstract level, however, I do not really know what could possibly improve the very bad climate that currently reigns in the philosophical blogosphere, and that’s really depressing.