Shame, Guilt, Narrative and Twitter: “I mean just try to see it human, see it human…”

There was fascinating discussion on BBC Radio Four’s Start the Week, on the scaling of public shame. It should be available later today as a sound file. Core to the conversation is Jon Ronson, and the thesis in his latest book is that Twitter has taken shaming to an extravagant and social destructive extent.

Despite advocating the positive use of public shaming (she gives a powerful example of it’s use in California to get tax refusers to cough up what they owe to a State which regularly teeters on bankruptcy), Jennifer Jacquet points out that the low cost of shaming others on Twitter is what leads to the destructivenss.

But there is also a thoughtful and thought provoking reflection from Michael Buffong, the Artistic Director of Talawa on his experience of their current production of All My Sons by Arthur Miller.

Buffong ties shame to guilt and speaks about the socially disastrous effects of it backfiring in circumstances in which the guilty party powerfully asserts his own narrative on events by living down the shame.

Indeed, that very point is well made in this review by Jacquet of Robson’s book

To give just one example: is the Twitter shaming of a columnist who has written vile, ill-considered stuff about the death of a gay pop star less likely to make her repeat offend? Probably not.

As Gilligan points out, public shaming leads to what we often call mortification, a word that should give us a strong clue as to its ultimate consequence. Coldness sets in, a deadness.

To quote Millar, “I mean just try to see it human, see it human…”

If I get a chance, I’ll add some text from the broadcast when they put the edited version online…

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  • chrisjones2

    I have to say it…..is this not a society where values are so fractured and distorted that what might in a more normal world be seen as a public shame is elevated to a public value that should be applauded – for example the DUP / OOs attitude to some parades and SFs stance on the cover up for IRA pedophiles?

    How in that context does shame have any impact in wider society when there is no shared set of values? Can shame exist in a moral vacuum?

  • mickfealty

    More emphasis on Miller then. Try to see it human. All of these problems you point at point beyond your would be miscreants to (to keep the literary seam going) a process Yeats described nearly 100 years ago…

    The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
    The best lack all conviction, while the worst
    Are full of passionate intensity.

    None of this discussion pertains to Northern Ireland per se. It’s a feature (as opposed to a bug) in the broader new media landscape. It’s by dint of that that these things will be part of the day to day discourse here too.

    I’m not a fan of NI exceptionalist fatalism, as you might have already worked out Chris. But I do think we need to develop sustainable and genuinely democratic cultural safeguards in this new ‘democratic’ landscape.

    I doubt that can be done without revitalising the lost (human) middle. In the meantime, calumnies sting without disabling remember?

  • chrisjones2

    I think there are ways to do it in a human and reasonably humane manner. And this is sometimes an area where the internet and new media can help in distributing information more widely / making it more accessible and in doing this through channels that are not mediated by the usual political interests. But its a balance and new media creates the opportunity for both good and bad outcomes which socially we haven’t yet learned to live with

    A small but good example of this is in tax. Look at what has happened in the UK on the abuse of the tax system by big corporations and HMRC. I think that without new media and the internet, that would never have been broken publicly or been exposed as it has been. Those in power would have covered it up. Without new media could Oborne ever have got the coverage he has in exposing the manipulation of the Telegraph’s coverage of HSBC?

    Look too at the way the Irish handle detected tax evaders- quietly publishing a quarterly list of those who haven’t paid up – the public equivalent of the stocks. They do the same on food establishments censured or closed down by public health. Not as big a profile but very effective

    The problem is of course that all those are areas where (outside narrow commercial and political interest) there is a strong public consensus on what constitutes a ‘public good’ and some mediation on the factual base.

    The problem on the Twittersphere generally and in other new media is that the public mob bays to the latest story that may or may not be correct but may just play to own personal prejudices. Todays brouha over Dolce and Gabbana is a good example. They have the right to hold those opinions – no matter how stupid offensive or objectionable. But what starts as a minor issue that exposes that (surprise surprise) there are many different facets on opinions within the gay community itself on an issue of huge complexity suddenly mushrooms. All hope of any rational discussion is lost. The differing opinion is suddenly elevated by the hysterical mob into something quite different which only a lynching will satisfy – the modern equivalent a black guy sleeping with white women!!!

  • Ben De Hellenbacque

    Poe’s Law and being misinterpreted.
    Godwin’s Law and “I take offence at that”
    Embarrasssment, shame, humiliation, calumny and mortification can only exist within a wider context – what is absolute consciousness?
    How solipsistic can be we become in the twittersphere?
    How effective is social media/twittersphere in reconciling the self to any wider reality?
    Sartre’s ontology and shame reminding us that other people exist.
    How can virtual reality co-exist with reality?
    Fear of shame and ridicule forcing us to conform.
    The easy abuse of political correctness where we can assume moral superiority and even ruin others’ lives.
    Adapting to a certain (maybe short lived) consensus or zeitgeist to navigate our way.
    Warped moral relativism where sticks and stones condemn the perpetrator less than a statement?

    Meanwhile in wee Norn Iron our various sects howl into their own online echo chambers with no challenge (except from LAD & Them’uns). Has anything that is exceptional to NI ever gone viral?

    We may have a surfeit of religion in NI but shame strangely isn’t the potent force that persists in the more secular world that is in constant motion around us.

  • chrisjones2

    What is reality? Nothing exists absolutely. It only exists when it is observed – like Schrödinger’s Cat so perhaps there is no objective real ‘reality’ just different quantised options