The Internet can be used for totalitarian purposes, in the same way as can thousands of people ranting in a stadium. There is strength in numbers for good or ill.
As Ronson makes patently clear, all these people’s punishments by far outweighed the gravity of their so-called crimes. In fact, having researched the history of public shaming in America in the Massachusetts Archives, he can only conclude that Lehrer, for one, was humiliated to a degree that would have been thought excessive even in the 18th century, the Puritans of New England having seemingly worked out that to ruin a person in front of his fellows is also to refuse him a second chance in life. More.
Actually, new atheists (who tend to dominate in American cool culture) don’t suffer from the same problem as New England Puritans. They don’t think there is a God, so there cannot be a second chance.
In Is Shame Necessary? Jennifer Jacquet, an assistant professor in the Department of Environmental Studies at New York University, explores what she rather gleefully refers to as some “new uses for an old tool”, and though she resists the idea of going after individuals – she would rather we troll big business, government departments and non-voters – it isn’t difficult to see how the techniques she outlines in her book might be misunderstood, even abused. How, for instance, is it possible to shame “unhealthy” foods without also shaming those who eat them?
I’m not saying that shame doesn’t have its place; I’m far too Protestant for that. We should want others to think well of us. But as Ronson shows, it can be a terrifyingly blunt instrument, a cudgel not a scalpel. Wield it too enthusiastically, and the collateral damage is likely to be both grave and enduring.
It could be just what new totalitarians want. A window into every family’s kitchen.
And that’s just the trouble. How much intrusion created by shaming does any good? As opposed to what is merely techniically possible?
Note: One can find a similar story at The Economist.
Denyse O’Leary is a Canadian journalist, author, and blogger.