Digital Shaming, or (The Scarlet Letter: A 21st century tale)


In ethics and law, there goes the very well known aphorism “let the punishment fit the crime”; it is also a characteristic of retributive justice in classical criminology theory. Hammurabi, a king of Babylon, had decreed in the same vein three thousand years earlier “an eye for an eye.” And is this not logical? One who commits a crime or wrongdoing is penalized in a manner fitting the offence. Certainly, in this age which many consider to be man’s most enlightened and liberal yet, it is correct to assume that now, more than ever, we would uphold this rationale. But the advent of technology and social media, a phenomenon I’m sure will engender quite a few deep-seated issues in the future, has impacted this society by way of how we pass judgment. The story of Justine Sacco, a woman who’s trivial albeit foolish tweet ruined her life, is indeed tragic. Although, if you really think about it, her tweet about not fearing AIDS because she is white could be interpreted as some real slick satire. As in, it was her attempt to make fun of Western racial privilege, of westerners who believe that AIDS is something that can only affect a third-world country and not themselves, of the conceivable bubble that we of this hemisphere were fortunate enough to be born into. Not that anyone cared to examine it in this light Twitter users jumped at the chance to be a part of the Right crowd‒the indignant, mocking, self-righteous, always-correct warriors who tasked themselves with ensuring the speedy demise of this woman who dared to tweet out of line.

Now, this is not a defense of all tweets foolish or offensive. People can be so terribly unwise when it comes to posting on public platforms that it often seems like they deserve to bear the consequences. If you post any type of offensive or oppressive content, it’s your fault when the backlash hits, I believe. A prime example of this is the micro-blogging site Tumblr. Many users of this site openly support the ‘doxxing’, or online leaking of personal information, of people who have made offensive statements (often online). The most frequent targets of this practice are people who have racist, sexist or homophobic remarks on some online profile or page. Doxxing usually includes the full name, address, phone number, and place of work; in some cases, the doxxers show they ain’t playin and release emails, social security numbers (!), credit and debit card information, bank account numbers and statements. The hope is, by specifically releasing the place of work, they can attempt to get the erring individual fired and thus justice is served.

Public humiliation is, however, a two way street, with a couple of alleyways and U-turns in the mix. When people criticize a person that has fallen short for their error, when they tar and feather them with scorn and contempt and boil them in extreme insult, they are simultaneously exposing their own personal flaws. The very nature of the backlash and consequences of these lapses in judgment or critical thinking also comments on the characters of those who engage and revel in the directed disdain. These people on other side of the screen destroy lives and do not care. The “Internet shame machine” as Jon Ronson dubs it, that has been constructed is lethal, and those that fuse together to form it even more so. Even the name and connotation suggests some monstrous and disturbingly efficient cartel of hate. Our cherished and beloved internet has done an exemplary job of making us nameless, faceless entities who can devastate lives and then sit down to enjoy a TV show in the same hour. We are all of us witnesses to the exuberance and excitement of a virtual stoning.

It becomes frustrating when you realize that this is how it is and the way people are. Social media and its trappings are truly just massive scale bids for attention. We stare into these screens lost and searching for validation, for approval. And when is becomes congratulatory to partake in dousing a person’s life in petrol and flicking a match onto it, we gleefully jump at the opportunity. Social media plays on our vices and follies; human nature has never been so digitalized. There is no pillory or stocks more debilitating than a hurricane of online hate, shame and emailed death threats, no Scarlet Letter platform more brutal than watching your world burn before you as firebombs of online and irl backlash, derision, mockery and cataclysmic consequences are dropped overhead.

Lex talionis? This is the Draconian Era 2.0.



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