I got publicly shamed, but am grateful for the experience.
I’ve heard many a feminist take on public shame, heard people’s ideas on who’s to blame for it, and why.
Some backstory: My alleged transgression was not giving in to the wants of what a man wanted me to do in a very conservative town. I stood up for myself in a place where, I was actually told, “women are to be seen and not heard.” It started with trolling, then evolved into full-scale slander and character defamation for fighting back. I wasn’t the only one I saw it happen to. Anyone with a pronounced opinion on anything who dared speak their mind, regardless of what was known to be already cool with people, thus breaking and showing complete disregard for the rules of fitting in, got publicly shamed. That was a town, where, if a man wanted something from you, you gave it to him. Standing ground and showing disregard for a man’s image, got women in big trouble. People egged it on, people joined in on the defamation and making fun of me without regard. To my dismay, I saw how easily people who I thought were friends were swayed by a little bit of excitement online, how anxious they were to bark at something and had been all along. My feelings weren’t hurt as much as I was saddened to realize how alone I was. I saw how many people were out for themselves and their entertainment, how easily they could make me a shame victim.
It’s a psychologically violent act, meant to shake people up mentally and emotionally and then last forever in the memory of the Internet. Just like the bully in the cafeteria who trips you as you walk by, the public shamer is reveling in his or her own power by showing you that they have it. “I have power and I want you to SEE it! There’s no escaping it!”
I wondered, do people shame others online as a means of asserting a sense of status, or unwittingly a sense of being special that they desperately want? Is public shaming a symptom of an increasingly privileged society, where now, we’re all supposed to care about who’s offended? The Internet makes everybody suddenly privileged; they have this identity that is suddenly shiny and charming, and it wasn’t before. Identity, image, become a power to wield.
The psychiatrist James Gilligan has worked with prisoners for decades, trying to help them get a sense of self-respect. He believes that violence is an attempt to replace shame with self-esteem. I wondered if this was also to blame for public shaming on the Internet. Like bullies, habitual shamers feel at odds with their identity and they get a sense of security through putting you at odds with your identity. They’d hate it if it happened to them.
It doesn’t matter. All they knew in my case was that I did something to get myself on the radar, and by getting on the radar alone instead of handling everything perfectly, due to moments of being human, I was fair game for some public humiliation. Was that it? Who was really behind it?
You know who else did something to get on everyone’s radar? Monica Lewinsky. Tons of politicians have had affairs. But she got caught. Not only did she get caught, she seemed unapologetic about it. I didn’t like Monica. I thought she was a disgrace. But I didn’t even know her personally. She had never done anything bad to me directly. She didn’t make Bill lie under oath. She didn’t force Bill to do any sex acts. Even if she had enticed him, it was his decision to act on it. But anyway, I didn’t even know her. Yet I had despised her for so long, made casual jokes myself about her, even online. I’ve been a bully too, cackling away on the Internet making fun of someone.
Looking back, it makes no sense. Why devote energy to hating someone I didn’t even know, who posed no threat to me whatsoever? It’s kind of ridiculous. I thought she was bad for the image of the modern career woman in general, and destroyed all that feminism had sought to achieve.
But I don’t think she cared. She wasn’t doing that to offend me, Lauren, or any feminist in particular. She just did it. Maybe she was a hurting kid. Maybe she got swept up in having attention from someone so important. Maybe it was too much for her and she was overwhelmed so she did something silly. Maybe she felt glamorous.
If she had really been thinking that her actions would make it very hard for her to find a job for the rest of her life and be dubbed “America’s B.J. Queen,” I don’t think she would have done it. To be known the world over for giving someone a blowjob isn’t something I’d want on my resume. I couldn’t judge her. I had no idea what she was facing and enduring at the time. I only knew how she was made to look by the media. She was made to look like she was shamelessly exploiting her transgression, as thought she’d been thinking of doing that from the beginning. If she had been, she would’ve used the Paula Jones testimony as an opportunity to get the ball rolling. She was a still-naïve girl who trusted and confided in someone too easily, Linda Tripp.
We’ve all spilled beans to someone who hurt us. We’ve all had our trust broken. To my horror, I’ve realized that I’ve been in on the bully game. There was a time when I had no feeling for the shame victim, had no problem making her a shame victim, when I was out for myself…just like how I thought all my friends jumping on MY shame bandwagon had been. Is anybody completely immune to it, ever?
Monica is now a contributor to Vanity Fair, and she advocates against cyberbullying.
“The most egregious had been generally ignored. People seemed indifferent to the deeper matters at hand, such as the erosion of private life in the public sphere, the balance of power and gender inequality in politics and media…”
I know I’m not alone when it comes to public humiliation. No one, it seems, can escape the unforgiving gaze of the Internet, where gossip, half-truths, and lies take root and fester. We have created, to borrow a term from historian Nicolaus Mills, a “culture of humiliation” that not only encourages and revels in Schadenfreude but also rewards those who humiliate others, from the ranks of the paparazzi to the gossip bloggers, the late-night comedians, and the Web “entrepreneurs” who profit from clandestine videos.” –Monica Lewinsky, “Shame and Survival”
I think that now’s a good time to start listening to her. She knows the subject pretty well. She’s answered my questions as to why people cyberbully and troll, who’s really to blame for the culture of humiliation.
Us. We’ve created this ourselves.