Shame Spiral

I think sometimes about how the same eagerness with which we share “interesting” articles on the web also leads us to shame, destruct, and otherwise terrorize fellow humans on the internet. There is this shame spiral, and on one end is our pleasure in connectivity, in reading a think-piece that gels with our worldview, and on the other are our impulses (fully realized) toward alienation, i.e., look at what this horrible person has posted or tweeted and, come on, gang, let’s destroy him/her. I’m not a neuroscientist, but I wonder about what can be said, chemically speaking, of the uneven space between our uniting to uplift and our uniting to disparage and condemn. The pleasure spiral toes both lines.

In the spirit of “sharing” online, I wanted to highlight a recent article, “How One Stupid Tweet Blew Up Justine Sacco’s Life” (I kind of love the headline, as it seems to riff on the cringeworthy clickbait parlayed so often nowadays). It’s an excerpt from a forthcoming book by author Jon Ronson called, fittingly, So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed. In the essay, Ronson details the now-famous online shaming of former corporate communications maven Justine Sacco. On her way to visit family in South Africa, Sacco fired off a series of seemingly innocuous tweets, and then a not-so-innocuous one that sealed her internet fate as she flew, unknowing, across the continents. Ronson relays the series of events that mobilized the tweeting public into a sham[ing] spiral, as hashtags like “#HasJustineLandedYet” reveled in anticipatory destructive glee. And it was destructive: it seemed the entire world, or at least the contingent of active tweeters, rallied against her; news outlets proclaimed their disgust; Sacco was ultimately fired from her high-profile job. And then Ronson, as part of a larger-scale project in which he interviewed other victims of online shaming, eventually met Sacco and talked to her over the course of several months. He differentiates her earlier responses (defensive, corrective, apologetic, shocked) from later ones, when she refuses to disclose information about her current situation. In a conscientious move, she denies her casting as victim: “Anything that puts the spotlight on me is a negative,” she says. 

Embedded in this story is the common knowledge that it’s easier to position someone or something as the enemy and then bludgeon him/her/it repeatedly, either in tweets or think-pieces, when you haven’t met him or her in person, or engaged on a personal level. Ronson affirms this; he writes that he made an effort to interview the shaming victims included in his book project in-person, whenever possible. These are the conversations, presumably, where nuance becomes possible. In a lot of ways, despite Twitter’s democratic reach, I think the medium is best at mass-mobilization—which, even if geared toward stretching visibility around a certain topic, cause, or campaign, can also shut out space for ambivalence. I can think of several times I took to Twitter or Facebook, dissatisfied with what I perceived to be an over-simplified channeling of an issue or viewpoint; I’d type, sometimes hit “send,” and then sit in full-body-pulsing fear of not saying it exactly right, not issuing enough eloquence in my challenge so as to make a mark. Because despite its 140-character limit, Twitter is hardly a flippant medium. As Ronson’s piece illustrates, the stakes feel higher and higher on both sides of that spiral: to pioneer a ‘new’ viewpoint around which the masses can congregate (religious imagery not intended here), either for ‘better’ or for ‘worse,’ becomes the objective. The ethics here get murkier and murkier: how do we speak out at all, and to what end? Who do we consider, and not consider, either in our line of fire or in our line of solidarity? Ronson’s piece doesn’t offer answers, necessarily, but it does speak out, in a way; it outlines these dilemmas and some of their consequences.


On Publishing and Self-Preservation

It is a curiosity of 2015 that when sitting in your office, computer open, you can see news unfold while missing the nugget of actual news entirely. There is a few-minutes’ range in which the article link is published, and then article link gives way to original commentary, and original commentary—often humorous—replaces the news nugget itself. Such was the case earlier this week when suddenly my social media feeds became bloated with references to Harper Lee (yes, that Harper Lee). I missed that few-minutes’ range and arrived for exclamatory tweets invoking Lee’s name, and silly riffs on the title of her sole published work, To Kill a Mockingbird. I’d find out, with the few-seconds’ handiwork of typing “Harper Lee” into Google, that those riffs on that one title were purposefully to-the-point: Lee’s publisher announced earlier this week that Lee, at age 88, would publish her second book, a prequel-of-sorts to Mockingbird.


I heaved a metaphorical sigh of relief—now I was in-the-know, part of the zeitgeist tide, and could craft my own response. I did so without much digging, and with the comfort of conversational immediacy; on Twitter, I could be brief and briefly insightful about the matter, without having to write, or even think out, a think-piece first. And so I took aim at the jokiness which seemed to dominate the social media response to Lee’s news. Why was it radical that she publish another work at her age? Where was our acknowledgment of and appreciation for a life lived outside of, but in tandem with, an outstanding literary work that has endured since 1960? I thought it said something about our collective [in]ability to celebrate the lifelong work of an accomplished woman writer, about how the news disrupts easy categorization of Lee as a reclusive crone. It was just earlier this week that an obituary for Australian author Colleen McCullough went viral, with its sharers calling attention to the demeaning language with which the author described the deceased’s physical appearance. I wonder if Lee’s eventual obit would read similarly, focusing on her decision not to publish another work until her later years.

These are all, of course, imaginary wanderings, just as the jokes were, and are. What unites them, I think, is an impulse toward self-preservation: an urge to be remembered for that statement issued five minutes ago, whether it be a joke, like one I saw from numerous Twitter authors, “2 Kill 2 Mockingbird,” or a subtle admonishing of said jokes, like my statements. The anxiety I feel before publishing a quip online is interlinked with my anxiety about whether or not these snatches of conversation serve any purpose other than to mark territory in the digital sphere.

These anxieties, and these published statements, traffic in emotionality; their publication grounds emotions in time, so that we may revisit them, and think that is what I felt then or why did I feel so protective over Lee’s oeuvre? I see, and participate in, this slow albeit frenzied charting of cultural consensus, and think, do these tweets a canon make? There’ve been several articles published over the last few days that muckrake the dirty, ethically knotty details of the announcement regarding Go Set a Watchman. In uncovering details that a 180-character dispatch cannot, these articles question whether Lee’s ‘decision’ to publish was actually her decision in the first place, given her physical and mental capabilities, and her lawyer’s perhaps-too-convenient discovery of the new manuscript. These articles include no quotes from Lee herself—because Lee herself didn’t issue any, at least until The Guardian reported that Lee was, allegedly in her own words, “alive and kicking and happy as hell” about this second novel being published.

“Alive and kicking and happy as hell” may be a genuine sentiment, or it may be another emotion byte intended (and perhaps engineered) both to provoke and appease, and perhaps inspire a feeling of intimacy, of connectedness, with the much-mystiqued author herself. The statement almost reads like a tweet, and in a way I can see it unfold on my feed along with every other exclamation and every other joke, in which we fashion ourselves closer and closer to said cultural touchstone—be it Harper Lee, or her novel(s), or anything else. There is, ostensibly, a certain type of participation encouraged here: a participation in the preservation of other people’s lives, and the lives of their ideas. Maybe the jokes keep coming because we assume a collective understanding of said person, said idea, said touchstone. And, in the United States, To Kill a Mockingbird functions as a touchstone indeed, if its ubiquitous inclusion in grade-school English curricula is any indication. I haven’t read it since ninth grade, but I know the plot and its themes front-to-back. I know both are still relevant, given the ways our histories have moved since 1960. I know I want to read it again, especially after hearing about the coming of Lee’s second book.

In the conclusion of Jessa Crispin’s vehemently-titled New York Times editorial (“Don’t Do It, Harper Lee”) about the Harper Lee hoopla, Crispin proclaims:

We have been greedy. One great book is enough. The appetite for more Harper Lee (and more J. D. Salinger, among others) stems from wanting to recreate that first encounter. That moment we went from not having read To Kill a Mockingbird to having read and loved To Kill a Mockingbird.

But we can’t wipe the past and go back into it anew. And sometimes when our high expectations come crashing down, it’s not only our emotions that bear the brunt of the fall. Sometimes we take others out with us.

I don’t question the significance of To Kill a Mockingbird, but I do question, and bristle against, the tyranny of pinning certain works of literature to categories like “great” or “awful”—and especially the suggestion that we do so before they are published, before we, as readers, can engage with the material itself. I bristle, in a similar way, against the rapidity with which our responses to the news align in one way or another, and the extent to which our jokes repeat themselves so as to draw us farther from each other, or else closer to our own self-image. And sometimes we take others out with us: we perpetuate stereotypical images that feel close because, paradoxically, they feel far away: an aging author, in a small Southern town. The perpetuation of these images gives me ethical qualms; so does the lack, or murkiness, of information surrounding Lee’s agency in publishing her second novel.

What to do, then? I’m conflicted. If this new novel is indeed published, I imagine I’ll read it. In the meantime, I’ll seek out more information. I’ll also seek to engage that which already exists: a well-written novel about race in America, which feels relevant to me in a way my 14-year-old self couldn’t have imagined. I imagine the same would be true for many of us.