(Reading this article with the below video playing is recommended.)
The latest story of internet mob justice is a depressing one.
Two elderly hearse drivers driving the flag-draped coffin of a military man stopped to grab a donut before their long drive from one Florida town to the next.
A man saw the parked hearse and took a video of himself confronting them about this apparent disrespect to a fallen hero.
When they didn’t seem remorseful for stopping at a Dunkin Donuts, he sent the video to a pro-veterans group. One thing led to another and the video went viral, the internet freaked out, and the two men—both in their seventies—lost their jobs.
“Our lives are now ruined because of a donut,” one of the men wrote on Facebook. “God forgive me. We now have no means of income because of a donut and being human.”
Few things are as dangerous as the toxic mix of hero worship and outrage culture.
Two elderly men are now out of their jobs because they stopped to grab a snack before making an hour-and-a-half drive.
As The Daily Banter’s Michael Luciano writes, “To the people who are upset about their decision, what exactly were they supposed to do in that situation at that moment? Were they supposed keep driving and hope they didn’t start to feel faint, lose focus, and maybe hurt somebody or themselves?”
The details, the men’s names, the name of the man who confronted them and the myriad bloggers and journalists who wrote about how outrageous it was, aren’t important. It’s just another story in a long litany of outrage culture online.
There have been so many others.
To Cater A Gay Marriage Or Not To Cater A Gay Marriage
A mom-and-pop pizza shop—Memories Pizza in Walkerton Indiana—had to shut down temporarily because of the internet’s reaction to the owner telling a journalist that they wouldn’t cater a gay wedding. They didn’t actually refuse business to any gay people. It was merely a hypothetical question, posed by a journalist, about catering a gay wedding. (It’s unlikely many gay couples would request a mom and pop pizza place to cater their wedding to begin with, of course.)
Whether you agree or disagree with their stance on gay marriage—and I certainly find their position wrong—the shaming and threat to livelihood is a gross overreaction, and an ugly side to a movement that ought to be about justice, not vengeance, two things we often confuse. As The Atlantic’s Conor Friedersdorf asks, “Should we destroy their livelihoods?”
Ironically, the outrage and death threats and flood of anti-Memories Pizza backlash had a reverse reaction: The owners raised over $1 million in a crowdfunding campaign, and reopened to crowds of supporters, none of whom were interested in the pizza, only in lashing back at gay marriage supporters. Mob Justice created a reactionary mob in response, almost like some crazy ideological grassroots arms race.
Above All Else, To Thine Own Self(ie) Be True
Internet outrage culture is an international phenomenon.
Recently a man snapped a selfie of himself at a Melbourne Target and was “outed” as a creep stalking children by another shopper, who posted his picture to Facebook in the hopes he would be “caught.”
Of course, all he had actually done was take a selfie of himself standing by a large picture of Darth Vader in a “May the 4th be with you” sign to send to his kids. The entire thing was a miscommunication—but truth is unimportant in online shame culture. Outrage is the only currency that matters. And whoever is most outraged wins.
The woman called the man a “creep” in her post, and the internet Justice Mob was only too quick to jump on the bandwagon, sharing the picture of this man across social media until he began receiving death threats.
The father of three and all around normal person says his life has been completely upended by this mistake. And as one of the man’s friends has noted, “I bet the story of his innocence does not reach the numbers that her original post met.”
The vestiges of “stranger danger” can be seen here, and an uglier side of helicopter parenting.
That Shirt Is From The Moon!
There are smaller moments of outrage that don’t necessarily target individuals. Outrage over perceived sexism in video game ads or LEGO Avengers toys.
Then there are times when real achievements are overshadowed by the internet’s rush to take offence at something, anything, and talk loudly about it.
Take the case of scientist Matt Taylor, whose team of incredible scientists landed a rocket on a moving comet—a serious technological achievement.
But all eyes were on Taylor’s shirt, which was an eccentric affair covered in scantily clad women. The internet basically ignored how awesome and amazing the comet landing was, choosing instead to froth at the mouth about how awful Matt Taylor was as a human being. Bloggers everywhere who didn’t know Mr. Taylor were certain he was a monster.
It goes on and on. People are accused publicly, called out on social media. Pictures are posted. Rumors are circulated. Jobs are lost and reputations damaged. Sometimes the people being shamed are bad people. But always the shaming circumvents due process, precedes true justice, and serves mainly to inflate the sense of self-importance and egos of its progenitors.
Whatever cause outrage culture serves is made secondary to the sweeping, irrational mob.
When people play the victim card and bend over backwards to be as offended as possible when they really aren’t. Using hissy fits, political correctness, character assassination, and a false sense of moral authority, the outrager hopes to gain power and public recognition for their brave act of justice as well as a sense of control over their meaningless existence. Often accompanied by demands for financial compensation for their “pain and suffering”.
via Urban Dictionary
O tempora o mores!
Outrage culture is outrageous. That’s the irony.
When I read these stories, I find myself outraged. The impulse to reverse-shame is strong. Who was the man who posted the video of these poor hearse drivers? He ought to be outed and shamed! He ought to lose his job, because an eye for an eye. Because justice.
Who was this woman who ruined this poor man’s life over a selfie? She ought to be outed, too. She ought to receive her own death threats, her own reputation smeared.
That’s the impulse, isn’t it? We post the stories of unintended consequences to our Facebook pages and our Twitter accounts. We may not even want to out anyone or shame anyone. Maybe we just want to point out, as I’m doing now, that this propensity of ours to grab our digital pitchforks is dangerous, inhumane, impersonal and easy. But it’s a slippery slope isn’t it?
We are armchair warriors for social justice or hero worship, defending the honor of hypothetical people from these avatars of Otherness. It’s lazy and cowardly. People say things online they would never say to one’s face. There’s too much reward and too little risk in shaming others, even without all the facts in.
Journalists are only too happy to engage in it, of course. It is clickable. Outrage draws eyeballs like flame draws moths. When the dust settles, the damage is already done.
Think of Rolling Stone’s recent publication, then retraction, of a story about a campus rape that never happened. When holes in the story first appeared, defenders of the story tossed all sense of justice to the wind. Innocent until proven guilty doesn’t matter at all to the outraged internet. That the story ended up relying on just one person’s version of events, a person wholly unreliable and untrustworthy, didn’t matter to the outraged masses. Or to the magazine responsible for upending the lives of innocents in pursuit of a story.
As LA Times columnist Meghan Daum notes, ”when so many people are so busy looking for ways to be offended, reasonable questions aren’t only pointless, they are threatening. The very act of questioning someone’s outrage is often taken as act of aggression, one that just leads to further outrage.”
These are just a few examples from recent months of outrage culture, public shaming, and mob justice.
There have been many others and, sadly, there will be many, many more. What can we do?
In some sense, the problem is one of herding cats. Individuals post nonsense to Facebook all the time. It’s then reshared and spreads like the black death. And individuals aren’t journalists, can’t be expected to even read past the headline let alone verify the veracity of these stories.
Journalists and publications, on the other hand, do have a responsibility to tell the truth, to dig for the facts, and to report both sides of an issue. It’s far too easy for online publications to simply re-post what’s been posted elsewhere. I glanced through the “suggested reading” posts on Facebook dealing with the story of the Dunkin Donuts hearse drivers. Each headline grew more outrageous. Soon the headlines seemed to suggest that the hearse was simply left abandoned in the parking lot, drivers nowhere to be found, corpse left to bake atop the asphalt.
But even monitoring the blogs and websites has become a little like herding cats now. Facts are sidelined. The click is king.
All we can do is trust but verify. All we can do is be better ourselves, not engage in the blood lust, put ourselves in the shoes of others. Empathy is hard work, but hard work is the best kind of work.
We should question our own selves before we call for heads to roll, before we leap to conclusions, before we share something on social media with the intent to shame or harm another human being.
What we should do, and what we do, are often very different things unfortunately.
Even the use of “we” in these sentences is a scapegoat. I am not “we.” I cannot control “we.”
All I can do is control my own actions and keep in check my judgment and assumptions. It’s a matter of responsibility, of manners, of neighborliness. These aren’t qualities we ask for enough online, until we’re outraged by someone else’s improprieties.
Shame is not a new social tactic. It can even be valuable in society. When a child steals something and is appropriately ashamed of their actions, they hopefully learn to not steal again. When a politician is caught sending naughty pictures to young girls online, the action should be shameful enough to lead to resignation or worse. A documentary in India highlighting the huge problem that country faces with rape should shame India’s leadership enough to enact change. (They just banned it, of course.)
Shame isn’t bad in and of itself. It’s how we wield it that counts. It’s how outrage culture can spin almost any story, even factually incorrect ones, into a terrible force.
Let’s just hope we don’t fall victim to the same blunt weapon for no reason other than bad luck. I’ve yet to take my own selfie with Darth Vader, but it’s not outside the realm of possibility. Lord help me if I’m wearing the wrong princess Leia shirt when I do.
Should I be afraid?
Never mind. Our culture of fear is a story for another time.
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