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Meet an Internet Shamer and the Person He Publicly Shamed

Is public shaming an effective way to change behavior? We interview someone who has been shamed and his shamer to find out.
 
 
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When it comes to holding private people accountable for their hurtful behaviors, online public shaming has become the way Internet users attempt to obtain justice. The recent phenomenon has inspired a variety of vigilantism, from women fighting back against bad relationship behavior to heavier people taking on size-ist comments. Even some restaurants have begun posting the names of people who break reservations on their social media pages. 

This public shaming trend has sparked a debate on whether or not it is effective in changing behavior. And so, while many media outlets and bloggers have speculated about its value, few—if any—have spoken to someone who’s actually been publicly shamed. 

Meet the Publicly Shamed

Michael was one of the people publicly shamed on a blog called Public Shaming for tweeting the following after the Boston Marathon bombing:

Michael told AlterNet that he was shocked to see his tweet on the blog after his friend pointed it out. However, he said he wasn’t embarrassed by what he tweeted.

“I stand by my tweets. … They were inappropriate, but I still stand by it,” Michael said. “Say the whole sand monkey thing was racist, and it was. But first of all, responding like two or three hours after an eight-year-old gets killed, obviously I might be in the mood to be a little bit disrespectful. If you look at my other tweets, I don’t say a word about race. I have friends of all different races. But because my brother was running in that Boston Marathon — he finished before the attack — I was obviously passionate about it. I was so pissed off that I just had to tell it like it was.”

Michael said he wouldn’t use the offensive term again, not because of being publicly shamed, but rather because he doesn’t typically use racist language to begin with. He said that, in the end, being publicly shamed simply amounted to a barrage of Twitter attacks.

“It wasn’t effective at all because … just random people were tweeting at me saying I’m a racist pig, I’m all this stuff.”

A look on his Twitter page reveals that he was bombarded with Twitter attacks, some of them even suggesting that he should die.  Although unapologetic in his interview, he did apologize for his language several times to Twitter users. The only resemblance of a healthy dialogue to emerge went like this: one user tweeted, “offensive, no?” to which he replied, “I apologize, that tweet was said in the heat of the moment.” To which she replied, “Cool, thanks for that.” Other than that, the attacks on both sides were brutal.

Meet the Public Shamer

For Matt Binder, the creator and editor of the Public Shaming blog, changing the behavior of those he shames is not even his goal.

Binder told AlterNet, “My goal isn’t really to change these people. A post isn’t going to do that. People contacting these people isn’t going to do that.”

Instead, Binder said, he wants to show readers that classist, racist, sexist, homophobic, etc. thoughts are still pervasive throughout our society — so much so that people are even willing to post these thoughts on a public forum.

“It’s more so to let people know these types of things exist—these thoughts, these views. I think a lot of people see things as being changed. They think, ‘When racist times were’ or ‘When sexist times were.’ I mean, yeah, we’ve moved a lot, but, at the same time, there’s still a lot more to go. And if you drop [these issues] now, [they are] only going to stall more.”

The subhead of Binder’s blog is “Tweets of Privilege,” because, he claims, the people tweeting offensive comments often do so because they personally don’t have to face these injustices.

The Effect of Public Shaming

While public shaming may not be effective in changing the behaviors of those shamed, it may deter others from posting hateful content online. Binder said he hopes to instill a sense in readers that those shamed on his site "aren’t cool."

He said, “If we are able to see these words and…show people that this is ridiculous, and dumb, and you come across as stupid saying these things, people are going to realize they don’t want to be like that or sound like that.”

Meanwhile, those familiar with the unjust systems that permeate our society may not think they need a reminder of just how racist or sexist some people can be. However, they still may be affected by Binder’s blog, and may even have a hard time getting through it.

For example, the post following the Boston Marathon bombing is especially egregious, with Tweeters making no attempt to hide their desire to obliterate people of Arab decent. One Tweeter, wrote: “I wish I could join the military so bad to kill some sand niggers.”

Binder said, “A lot of people who have responded to me say they are shocked at what’s being said, which is exactly what I was hoping for.”

Binder also said he wants to remind these people, who he said probably live in more liberal cities, that large portions of those in this country are prejudiced.

This reminder may work then, perhaps, to incite people to fight back against oppressive structural systems.  

Demonizing Individuals for Structural Problems?

While bigotry swarms Twitter, some argue that public shaming is a lazy way of taking on offensive behaviors. Instead of demonizing the oppressive structure of racism, for instance, people are relieving frustrations by demonizing the individuals who grew up within a racist society.

Social media researcher Kate Miltner told The Awl:

Using other people's humiliation and/or "just desserts" as entertainment (dramatic or humorous) is as timeless as shaming itself—moderation and reason aren't fun to watch. We are not dealing just with individual instances of specific behavior, we are dealing with a system in which we are all complicit, and that is a much, much harder thing to change.

But Binder says that he agrees. “It’s not really about the individuals. …But it’s important, at the same time that the individuality is shown.”

Perhaps, too, the first way to fight these structures and our complicity in them may be to condemn such explicit instances of injustice. Baby steps.

Binder said showing individuality requires putting a name and a face to what’s being said, which is why he does not censor people’s Twitter usernames or photos and simply posts them as is.

Binder gave an example of its importance:

A teacher contacted me and told me that he used my blog in a class … he was going through it in class to get his students’ feelings, and his students were kind of like, ‘This doesn’t happen here though, this is no big deal.’ … And then he starts scrolling down and it just so happens that one of the screenshots was a fellow classmate of theirs. And he didn’t even know that. … He said the tone of the class changed completely, from them like laughing it off and [saying] ‘These are just idiots who don’t exist in our world,’ to getting really serious and having a really serious discussion. I think that’s the real importance to the real-life aspect of it.

The Consequences of Public Shaming

Unfortunately, the real-life aspect of public shaming can have some very real consequences. Perhaps the most well-known case is the story of Adria Richards, who tweeted a photo of two white men she allegedly overheard making sexist comments at a technology conference. One of the men was fired from his job. Richards was repeatedly threatened online and eventually fired from her job, too.

In another famous public-shaming case gone extreme, Jezebel writer Tracy Egan Morrissey found students’ racist tweets during Obama’s re-election and contacted their schools’ administrators. Morrissey proceeded to push administrators on whether their students violated the school’s code of conduct and asked what punishment would be taken. Morrissey received strong backlash for her actions. Meanwhile, most of the students she called out deleted their Twitter accounts.

While Binder said public shaming could certainly go too far, he doesn’t believe the people he shames will be harmed or receive more punishment than, perhaps, a hail of tweets. Binder said only about three people have asked him to remove their tweets from his site, which he doesn’t do, especially, he said, because he thinks they just want to clear their names. He thinks it’s important to post exactly what the person said, and he hopes that shaming remains on the site.

“Some people might think the idea is to contact these people online and shame them themselves,” he said. “To me, that’s not the point of the site. The site itself is the public shaming. I don’t really want to encourage anyone to take any further [action].”

After his Boston Marathon bombing post, which went viral, a handful of those shamed on his site deleted their Twitter accounts. Binder gets frustrated when this happens, but he doesn’t think it should deter him from posting.

The Reminder We Need?

With the Supreme Court’s recent ruling on the Voting Rights Act, which essentially states that discrimination is an “eradicated practice,” perhaps it is imperative to remind people that our culture is still struggling with injustice. However, it may be better to make sure that those being shamed don’t suffer a punishment that exceeds the crime. After all, the point is to illustrate that our society is prejudiced as a whole, and that these individuals are ultimately products of that society. And because of this, people should keep in mind that they are often complicit in these prejudices, despite working to critique their most explicit forms. In the end, though, these reminders can help push people to try to transform oppressive societal structures. 

It’s necessary to remember that public shaming is not a very effective way to transform an individual. Possibly one of the best ways to take on individual hatred is to speak out against it among people you know. While it's often easy to let hateful remarks slide in your everyday life, it is important to look at these personal experiences as opportunities to engage. After all, dialogue and one-on-one encounters with people who have various life experiences is crucial to making any real change.

As Binder said: “It’s going to take something that happens in their real life. Something is going to happen to [those shamed], whether an event or someone they meet. …There’s no real work that can be done in terms of a post online.”

Alyssa Figueroa is an associate editor at AlterNet. 

 
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