Social Media in the Age of Outrage and Public Shaming

Remember discussions? I think they were a thing once. A fad, like slap bracelets.  The idea, the definition, the hypothesis of a thing called a discussion exists in my brain like a ghost. A phantom memory maybe. Implanted by Obama and his Obamacare no doubt. Discourse. Ha! Who needs it? Get out your pitchforks, the mob is on the scene!

We are in an age, as South Park put it in its season premiere three weeks ago, of the return of PC. With the popularity of Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, and a myriad of other social media platforms, everyone is able to make their voices heard.  And that, inherently, is not a bad thing and can be used for good.  Take for example, the case of ego maniac greed monster Martin Shkreli who raised the cost per pill of a lifesaving AIDS drug from $13.50 to $750 overnight.  The internet came together to give Mr. Shkreli a piece of their collective mind and now, the cost will come back down.*  Instances like this, the way that technology has given the “little people” the ability to stand up to those in power and actually be heard, is fantastic.

But, there is a bit of  an ugly side to this which is that witch hunty (technical term), word police, no one is allowed to ever make a mistake again, side.  I have, at times, been called an easily offended person.  That’s actually patently untrue. I’m a passionate person and a strong believer in many social causes. I wear my heart on my sleeve, but I’m not easily offended. If you want to see easily offended check Twitter or the dark, shadowy place that is the comment section of Instagram posts.  Self-righteous outrage and public shaming abounds my friends.  We live in a time where whole books have been written about this phenomenon. (Jon Ronson’s So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed) It’s like we’re a society of Heath Ledger’s Jokers, trolling social media for someone to attack, just wanting to watch their life burn.  It happens to celebrities quite a bit with their millions of followers dissecting every word they say but it also happens to non celebrities alike, people who Tweet racist jokes about not getting AIDS in Africa because they’re white or show up to work on Halloween dressed as a Boston Marathon bombing victim.

Incredibly stupid and offensive, yes. But, should 140 characters define a person's entire life? I don't know.
Incredibly stupid and offensive, yes. But, should 140 characters define a person’s entire life? I don’t know.

Let me stop here and say this before we go any further. I’m not defending people who make racist comments or think it’s ok to dress up like the victim of a tragedy.  I don’t think that people should do these things. But, I do think that one comment or incident is no way to judge the whole of a person.  I also think that people can be educated.  People can change.  People can do better. I don’t think that these people should lose their livelihoods or have to walk around with a scarlet letter of some kind forever marking them.  What if we talked about these things instead of flying off the handle?  What if we tried to figure out if this was a habitual thing or simply a misstep, a single moment of sheer stupidity?  Take for instance, this Brazilian woman who was recently publicly attacked on social media for a racist statement she made decades earlier when she was a teen. She came across the video filled with equally hateful comments directed at her and responded that she had grown up and thankfully no longer thought that way. She wrote that she couldn’t even be totally ashamed of the video because it was proof that people can change and be better.

Admittedly it can be hard to find the line when it comes to Tweets, jokes and the like.  What’s an edgy joke and what is just racism, sexism, or homophobia wrapped up and presented as an empty piece of comedy. Nicole Arbour, for example, YouTube comedian who recently found herself the center of controversy for her video Dear Fat People.  She’s claimed that her videos are satirical and it’s comedy so people shouldn’t be so sensitive about it.  The problem is, if it’s satire, she’s not doing a very good job of writing sharp and witty jokes that make a point. She’s really just making fun of fat people. It’s lazy writing.  And yet, comedians and normal people alike should not be stripped of everything for making a bad joke. Everyone deserves the chance to learn and grow. By all means, say something when you feel a joke crosses a line or has nothing behind it except empty provocation. But can we put a moratorium on demanding a pound or more of flesh?

We have weird standards where people can drive drunk, be arrested for domestic abuse, commit all kinds of actual criminal acts, and get a second chance from the public at large, while others who say something offensive, in poor taste, generally stupid, etc, can potentially lose EVERYTHING they ever worked for.  It seems rather backwards. Everyone can really only speak from their own experience and perspective. If you have a a relative who died of cancer and a comedian makes a cancer joke you may not find that funny. Or maybe, you would. Maybe it would give you a sense of catharsis.  Not to sound all hippy dippy but, we really need to first look within ourselves and think about why words have triggered us. There is no such thing as a joke that will make EVERYONE laugh or leave everyone un-offended. The intent, however, unless that comedian is just a shitty person, is not to make you feel bad, it’s to make you laugh.  Comedians only want us to laugh at the things that potentially hurt us the most.  Laughter takes away something’s power over us.

An instance where offence and outrage DIDN'T lead to someone losing their job. Whether you find the joke offensive or not, Colbert was trying to make a larger satirical point about racial sensitivity.
An instance where offence and outrage DIDN’T lead to someone losing their job. Whether you find the joke offensive or not, Colbert was trying to make a larger satirical point about racial sensitivity.

These types of things don’t apply just to jokes and comedians either. Most of the time, I truly believe, that unless someone is saying something directly racist, homophobic, sexist, or generally awful, their intention is not to hurt anyone. Maybe they’re being insensitive or trying to be provocotive but really, at their core, they’re not looking to attack anyone.  If you just talk to someone calmly (crazy, I know) and see where they’re coming from and what their thought process is you could actually alert them to something they were unaware or ignorant of. If we discussed these potentially offensive things instead of looking to burn someone at the stake we might actually all become better, more enlightened people.

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