Every so often on Twitter, someone draws an unlucky card and gets stoned to death. Yes, I’m conflating Shirley Jackson’s classic allegory of mob vengeance, “The Lottery,” with a contemporary social-media phenomenon called “Twitter-shaming,” one example of which was the nasty attack on Kelly Clarkson by "most hated woman in Britain" Katie Hopkins who called her a "chunky monkey". Hopkins was motivated by spite or need for attention or both, though Clarkson defended herself admirably. Another infamous shaming is described thoughtfully and compassionately in Jon Ronson’s recent New York Times article, “How One Stupid Tweet Blew Up Justine Sacco’s Life.”
Justine Sacco - Blown Up
You may or may not recall the fate in December 2013 of the 30-year-old Sacco, a senior corporate communications director at IAC, who had a whopping 170 Twitter followers at the time. (I have over 200 and I don’t even try.) While wandering around Heathrow airport during a layover, Sacco tossed off some semi-insensitive tweets about her fellow travelers, such as “Dude: Get some deodorant,” followed by the now-infamous, “Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding. I’m white!”
Somehow this went viral: broke the internet, along with her life, which emotionally speaking went into a death-spiral. The viral blowback went beyond protest to something like the fate of Jackson’s heroine. Within hours (sic) of Sacco’s tweet, and without the benefit of hearing from the tweeter herself, tens of thousands made her a target. Her employer denounced her, while Sacco-themed hashtag-feeds flooded with venomous, hateful messages. One read, “We are about to watch this bitch get fired. In REAL time.” #firejustine When her flight landed in South Africa 11 hours later, her life had been irreparably altered. The Twitterites had their scalp. Eleven…hours…later.
A year later, in the grip of what sounds like deep depression and PTSD, she apologized to Ronson for her admittedly clunky and insensitive stab at making fun of “white cluelessness”, adding that “I thought there was no way that anyone could possibly think it was literal.” She was not known as a racist beforehand; her South African family include Nelson Mandela and ANC supporters. After her firing, she volunteered in Ethiopia, though the article portrays a scarred, inwardly anguished woman.
We could of course debate endlessly about whether or not she deserved her fate, whether it was fair of Tweeters to start a hashtag called #hasjustinelandedyet on which some clamored for photos of her shock and humiliation upon landing and checking her phone. “Come on, Twitter! I’d like pictures” chortled one. I myself gave the story scant attention at the time, figuring she deserved it for such “blatant” racism before I moved on to the next dozen things. After reading last month’s article, I posted the story on Facebook, in order to point out the dangers of such virtual “mob rule”, but I was surprised to discover how many felt she had it coming. “She should have been fired,” said some of my friends. This disturbed me, not because it sounded unfair to Sacco but because it seems so many of us now have no problem with snap judgements on subtle, ambiguous matters such as motivation, intent, humor, in such a way that destroys lives in instants, with something like vengefulness if not glee – albeit at a distance, like bombs dropped from a drone. We swipe our screens from afar, satisfyingly destroying targets, without the unpleasantness of having to witness the collateral damage or self-assess our contributions. Frankly, it’s creepy. There are others like Sacco, who made similar errors of judgement – but some of them were inadvertently captured by eavesdroppers or standers-by and never meant to go public, though their lives were torn apart all the same, for comments or jokes meant for friends. It turns out Milan Kundera’s ironically bitter novel “The Joke,” about humorless and destructive moral righteousness, is not just about the dangers of fervent communism after all.
Being Human Has a Price
Has it become unsafe in our society to make a mistake, accidentally or privately, over drinks with friends for instance, to express those parts of ourselves which Jung described as “the shadow:” those perceptions or attitudes that the ego, for various reasons (some of them socially imposed), deems unacceptable and keeps hidden? An extreme example is seen with sex addiction, where someone’s often positive public image stands in shocking contrast to a “secret life” littered with “shenanigans” that friends, family or fans find contemptible. Except that those behaviors represent yearnings which have somehow, ironically, become “contemptible” to the ego. Jung said, "The shadow personifies everything that the subject refuses to acknowledge about himself” – though without such conscious recognition, the shadow forces its way into awareness whether we like it or not. We saw this with Brian Williams, where a trustworthy persona was overshadowed by a more boastful quality perhaps unacceptable to the conscious ego. (The shadow never sleeps.)
The qualities of these shadow-parts vary with each individual, of course, although there are overall societal norms, more or less, such as racism, sexism, homophobia and so forth. Yet there is a part of all of us that, to some degree or another, harbors feelings and perceptions that we would never dare express out loud. (Dostoevsky and Kafka are masters at depicting the struggle with shadow-selves.) Who doesn’t have a streak of rebelliousness or contrariness? I, for example, was horrified at some of the thoughts and feelings that ran through my head when I – Mr. Therapist – became a parent. Fortunately I was able to joke about it with friends who were similarly “guilty,” such as when I heard my newborn daughter crying at 3 am and muttered to my wife, “Tell the brat to shaddap.” We were both exhausted, and laughed. This of course is a rather tame example. We see this in political journalism all the time, with focus on “gotcha” scandals rather than substantive arguments about, for instance, how to save the planet from melting down. Ambiguity, irony and perceptual nuance become, well, dull. Who among us can survive such relentless scrutiny?
We can’t even be insensitive in private anymore, even if we’re just blowing off steam by dancing with the shadow for a moment. Some of the folks in Ronson’s article were eavesdropped-upon, intending their private stabs at inappropriate (or borderline offensive) humor meant only for friends. Humor, if it’s to have any “bite” at all, must sometimes run the risk of going too far. When did we become so bloodthirstily humorless?
There was no prior record or public instance of racism with Justine Sacco, but one Tweet burned her house down. We showed her! (I guess.) I would argue that these spasms of virtual outrage represent (vain) attempts to purify ourselves, rid ourselves of that pesky shadow, by projecting racism or sexism or insensitivity upon the ones who were, to our satisfaction, taken down a few pegs (their lives destroyed.) What is the difference between this and, say, public dunking during the Puritan era? Are we all really that virginally pure that we have never, ever said anything (even privately) that might offend someone, somewhere, sometime…? Or, have any of us ever slipped and said something they wanted to take back? Ever? (You in the back there…come on now, admit it.)
Social Media Wins Again
Do we really want all semblance of privacy to become “quaint”? Who in God’s name can thrive or survive under such suffocating surveillance? The part that bothers me most is that under these Orwellian conditions we lose a piece of our humanity, in that it becomes unsafe to make a mistake, slip up, or dance with the shadow for a moment in private, harming no one, before reassuming our public selves. Justine Sacco never had the chance to explain or apologize or express remorse for her (again, insensitive and clunky) attempt at satire before she was chopped off at the knees. She was jetlagged and acting as a private citizen, forgetting for a moment her public identity. She made a mistake, correctable with a public amends (which no one gave her a chance to make.) Shouldn’t someone be judged on consistency of behavior? Donald Sterling, for instance, had a private conversation recorded without his knowledge or consent. But he had a longstanding record of racist sentiment, and zero interest in acknowledging it as such, so it could be argued justice was served. But what if there had been no such record, his “bugged” comments made public? Would a rush to “stone” him have ensued?
There are other problems with the dizzying, no-time-to-think reactiveness of our evolving social media, one of which is that current “outrages” are – just as Kundera predicted in The Book of Laughter and Forgetting – quickly forgotten and replaced by fresh ones. The fallout suffered by our scapegoats du jour are, however, not so easily remanded, with a lifetime of consequences and harrowing trauma in tow. Is it easy to shrug and say, “They deserved it”? Do we want our increasingly virtual culture to be that merciless?
The Psychology of It All
Such developments compromise us psychologically and existentially, in that we thus harbor the illusion of keeping our shadow selves in the closet while projecting upon safely distant others. Jung himself remarked that acceptance of the “yucky” parts or ourselves “acts like a life-saver. It…reincorporates the shadow into the personality, producing a stronger, wider consciousness than before.” This process requires sensitivity and emotional safety, and I’m beginning to wonder if French cultural critic Jean Baudrillard was right when he said that today’s virtual culture entails “more and more communication and less and less meaning” outside of fleetingly empty catharsis. I hope to live in a world where mistakes are allowed, with at least a chance for amends and reparation, which tolerates rather than seeks to destroy our highly imperfect humanness. In the meantime we all remain at risk, it seems, for drawing the unlucky card.