shameOur schools are being asked to foster social and emotional learning. Not all parents agree with this mandate because exactly what they will teach as proper social and emotional behavior has yet to be spelled out in any clear way which leaves the door open for morality lessons that parents might not agree with. Adding in the fact that most of our teachers have not been trained to provide such lessons casts doubt on the likelihood of success in teaching SEL. Confounding the whole issue is the knowledge that technology is advancing far apace society, creating new moral dilemmas for which we don’t yet have standard answers. This generation has access to power through technology that previous generations could barely dream of and this technology is being pushed on the schools by those who stand to make a lot of money from its use. So what is today’s public school supposed to do to teach students to be conscious moral users of technology?

Perhaps they should begin building a curriculum around this book by Jon Ronson “So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed.”  Ronson took the time to investigate what happened to people who popped up in our social media feeds, the objects of widespread public ridicule, after their trend lines went down. He examined several easily recognized cases of average people, not celebrities, who had been publicly shamed and followed up with them after the shaming took place. We rarely get to see the full impact of these events because the algorithms don’t cover the “mundane” after story.

Take the case of Justine Sacco, the woman who made a hasty tweet before boarding her flight to South Africa from New York. “Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding. I’m white.” Stupid tweet. Sure. But she only had 170 twitter followers and as a private citizen with a less than illustrious twitter history such idiocy should have been part of the digital dustbin almost as soon as it was tweeted. Instead, one of her followers sent the tweet to a Gawker reporter who tweeted it out to his 15k followers who retweeted it and in a matter of minutes she became the most ridiculed woman on the planet. Meanwhile, being off line on an airplane, she had no idea what was happening to her reputation. The story becomes a tragedy from there. Justine was demonized. She received death and rape threats, lost her job, lost many of her friends and was dogged for more than a year by those who couldn’t get enough of shaming her.

When Ronson asked the Gawker reporter how it felt to ridicule Sacco he replied, “It was delicious.” He then quickly absolved himself of any guilt by saying, “But I’m sure she’s all right now.” Ronson’s book shows that those whom the collective has shamed are never really right again. The decay of the echo of social media puts that of the oil storage tanks in Rossshire Scotland to shame.

People who didn’t know Justine thought the fact that a woman was being socially destroyed and didn’t even know it, because she was still on board an airplane, was hilarious. Tweets like “#hasjustinesaccolandedyet may be the best thing that ever happened to my Friday night” were common. Ronson, who also wrote “The Psychopath Test,” hypothesizes why this might be so. In a Beck interview he described the power of social media for those who have traditionally been voiceless.

“And then we thought we can do things and we can right wrongs. In the early days of social media when a corporation had done something really bad and social media put pressure on them, they changed their policy. But then a day without a shaming was like a day picking fingernails or treading water. We fell in love with getting people and so we lowered our standards and started getting anyone.”

The book jacket says, “A great renaissance of public shaming is sweeping our land. Justice has been democratized. The silent majority are getting a voice. But what are we doing with our voice? We are mercilessly finding people’s faults. We are defining the boundaries of normality by ruining the lives of those outside it. We are using shame as a form of social control.”

The desire to destroy is so powerful, in fact, that people see what Ronson calls, conciliatory centrism, where we understand that people make mistakes and/or are more complex than 144 characters allows them to be, as a weakness. Why else would people who tried to defend those who were being shamed also be attacked and demonized? Social media allows Saul Alinsky’s tactic of isolate, ridicule marginalize to be used globally against an individual, like a nuclear warhead aimed at a dime store shoplifter. This makes the use of social media by the average Joe frought with danger.

“Everybody on Twitter has become like corporations that have to learn damage limitation” said Ronson in the Beck interview.

This is a hard caveat to apply to a tool with such strong allure. Ronson gave his explanation of why the lure of social media is so strong. I think it explains the allure for adolescents even better than for adults.

“People who were socially so awkward in real life that when you met them at a party they’d just be standing in the corner of the room [your typical adolescent] but suddenly on social media they were funny and eloquent and this is powerful. “

These are lessons many of today’s adult need to learn: restraint, empathy, compassion, expression perfection. Is it realistic to expect our K-12 teachers to have the answers ready to go along with a quizz and scoring rubric?

We don’t have time to figure out the full explanation of why collectively we are prone to using public shaming before we teach our children to stay away from this third rail. We are losing our children because they have been given a powerful weapon which so many do not understand or respect.

A recent CDC report highlighted a growing trend in adolescent suicide. An NBC piece on this intimated that social media could play a role in explaining this increase.

The CDC did not attempt to identify reasons behind the spike in suicide rates among America’s youth. Yet experts who work in the field point to a variety of potential factors — including depression, substance abuse and bullying. Many suspect social media also plays a role.

“We certainly know there have been cultural changes, including social media,” said Dr. John Draper, director of the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, a network of crisis centers that provides a 24-hour hotline for people at risk of self harm.

With social media, he explained, “there could be more cyberbullying, more public humiliation, things that add up to an increasing sense of despair among youth.”

Though Ronson doesn’t offer a lot of solutions in his book, he did offer one useful insight that should be included in a curriculum on cyberbullying. When asked whether the Gawker reporter ever experienced remorse over what he’d done, Ronson said that he had advised the man to at least meet with Sacco one time to understand who she really was. The two met for a drink, which prompted Sam Biddle, the reporter, to post a mea culpa of sorts.

“I’ve been asked many times if I would post Sacco’s tweet all over again, and I still don’t know how to answer. Would I post the tweet again? Sure. Would I post the tweet knowing it’s going to cause an incredibly disproportionate personal disaster for Justine Sacco? No. Would I post the tweet knowing it could happen? Now we’re in dicey territory, and I’m thinking of ghosts: If you had a face-to-face sit-down with all of the people you’ve posted about, how many of THOSE would you do again? We’re wading through swamps and thorns, here.”

Most of the cyberbullying piling on is done by people who do not personally know the target of their ridicule. Looking that person in the eye makes pointing the finger at them that much harder. The solution to anonymous abuse facilitated by technology is  low tech face to face real interpersonal communication. Reading Ronson’s book and having a class discussion of schadenfreude may be the best vaccination against out of control public shaming in the future.

Anne Gassel

Anne has been writing on MEW since 2012 and has been a citizen lobbyist on Common Core since 2013. Some day she would like to see a national Hippocratic oath for educators “I will remember that there is an art to teaching as well as science, and that warmth, sympathy and understanding are sometimes more important than policy or what the data say. My first priority is to do no harm to the children entrusted to my temporary care.”

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