Ed Driscoll

Escaping the Shaming Spiral

Chris Pratt, the actor starring in the upcoming Jurassic World, the umpteenth sequel to the venerable Steven Spielberg franchise has a novel approach for dealing with the Twitter mobs — he’s proffering a pre-outrage pre-apology for whatever he says during a press conference that will trigger the mob:

I want to make a heartfelt apology for whatever it is I end up accidentally saying during the forthcoming ‪#‎JurassicWorld‬ press tour. I hope you understand it was never my intention to offend anyone and I am truly sorry. I swear. I’m the nicest guy in the world. And I fully regret what I (accidentally will have) said in (the upcoming foreign and domestic) interview(s).

I am not in the business of making excuses. I am just dumb. Plain and simple. I try. I REALLY try! When I do (potentially) commit the offensive act for which I am now (pre) apologizing you must understand I (will likely have been) tired and exhausted when I (potentially) said that thing I (will have had) said that (will have had) crossed the line. Those rooms can get stuffy and the hardworking crews putting these junkets together need some entertainment! (Likely) that is who I was trying to crack up when I (will have had) made that tasteless and unprofessional comment. Trust me. I know you can’t say that anymore. In fact in my opinion it was never right to say the thing I definitely don’t want to but probably will have said. To those I (will have) offended please understand how truly sorry I already am. I am fully aware that the subject matter of my imminent forthcoming mistake, a blunder (possibly to be) dubbed “JurassicGate” is (most likely) in no way a laughing matter. To those I (will likely have had) offended rest assured I will do everything in my power to make sure this doesn’t happen (again).

Sonny Bunch of the Washington Free Beacon, who mocks the left’s highchair-banging outrage industry mindset by posing as a perpetually p.o.ed leftie at his Everything’s a Problem blog awards Pratt’s witty post with the maximum four problematics:

Oh, how cute. Chris Pratt thinks our outrage is something to be mocked. Chris Pratt thinks our hurt is something for you to play with. I cannot even with this. FFS. In some ways this is worse than Marvel’s Dude Bros acting all Dude Bro-y. Pratt’s implicit mockery of outrage culture for choosing to seize on any little dumb thing he might say is an incredibly marginalizing tool of oppression.

Apology NOT accepted. We’ve got our eye on you.

I give the transgression of making fun of outrage culture four problematics.

Heh. As Hans Fiene wrote last month at the Federalist, “We’re Addicted To Judgment Porn”; kudos to Pratt for simultaneously heading off the mob before they attack, and for subversively mocking their tactics.

In an article titled “The Shaming Spiral” in the new issue of Commentary, Christine Rosen reviews the recent book So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed by Jon Ronson. From the various reviews I’ve read, it sounds like Ronson’s book is a flawed by still useful look at a rapidly growing trend, as torch-wielding Frankenstein mobs search the Web and especially Twitter for the latest outrage to burst their blood vessels over. This passage from Rosen’s article features sums up one way to fight back — to simply choose to avoid being outrageously outraged over the outrage!!!!! surrounding you, although the person featured is someone who sounds like a rather flawed messenger to deliver it:

Ronson’s most interesting case study is the story of Max Mosley, a British Formula One racing executive well known mostly because his parents were Sir Oswald Mosley, founder of the British Union of Fascists, and Diana Mitford, one of the dazzling Mitford sisters (Joseph Goebbels hosted the Mosley’s wedding, which Hitler attended). Having unrepentant Fascists for parents is difficult enough; but in 2008 the tabloid News of the World published grainy photos of Max Mosley engaged in what they called a “sick Nazi orgy” at an S&M dungeon in London.

Such a revelation might have spelled doom for someone else, but as Ronson notes, Mosley immediately went on BBC4 Radio and acknowledged that he had a kinky sex life (Princess Dolore would approve) and stated that he had done nothing wrong. “If our shameworthiness lies in the space between who we are and how we present ourselves to the world,” Ronson writes, “Max was narrowing that gap to nothing.” Mosley successfully sued the now-defunct News of the World for claiming his activities were Nazi-tinged when in fact they were not (the evening merely had a martial theme, he noted). Mosley told Ronson that he refused to feel ashamed by the exposure. “As soon as the victim steps out of the pact by refusing to feel ashamed,” he told Ronson, “the whole thing crumbles.”

In her review of Ronson’s book at Bloomberg, Megan McArdle writes that “Twitter makes it absurdly easy to shame someone:”

 You barely have to take 30 seconds out of your day to make an outraged comment that will please your friends and hurt the person you’ve targeted. This means it is also absurdly easy to attack someone unfairly, without pausing to think about context — or the effect you are having on another human being much like yourself. No matter what that person did, short of war crimes, you probably would not join a circle of thousands of people heaping abuse upon a lone target cowering in the center. But that is the real-world equivalent of what online shame-stormers do.

This sort of tactic may buy silence, though it is likely to be the most effective on people who already agree with you and simply said something infelicitous. What it cannot buy is community, beyond the bonds that build between people who are joined in collective hate. With the exception of Lehrer — who clearly realized he’d done something wrong without needing to be told — the people whom Ronson interviews do not think that they were the victims of perhaps excessively harsh justice; they think they were victims of abuse. They often recognize that they did something stupid, but they don’t think they deserved to be fired after having their lives dissected and their character impugned by thousands of people who had never even met them.

And perhaps this satisfies the shame-stormers; they may want to change hearts and minds but be willing to settle for silence. This sort of shaming has costs, however. If you haven’t changed someone’s mind, you haven’t changed their behavior, only what they say. If they do harbor the bad beliefs you accused them of, those beliefs are now festering in private rather than being open to persuasion. And you haven’t even necessarily changed what they say in a good direction, because people who are afraid of unjust attacks aren’t afraid of being punished for saying things they know they ought to be ashamed of, but of being punished for saying something they didn’t know would attract this kind of ire. So they’re afraid to say anything at all, or at least anything more interesting than “Woo, puppies!” That’s not norm enforcement; it’s blanket terror.

But it helps, as Marc Fitch noted last month at the Federalist, to return a sense of proportion by placing the angry mob to scale:

It is often quite easy to feel that you are greatly outnumbered and that the entire world is against you, particularly if you have the gall to air your beliefs in the public realm (or be caught in it, in this situation). Social media can seemingly explode with anger at your mention of a political or cultural position that goes against whatever the Video Music Awards are advocating this year. You are beset by Legion.

But are you, really? Two thousand people is a drop in the bucket of the overall population, but when they all turn and look at you it can feel overwhelming. While outrage is nothing new in cultural or political fights, the Internet’s ability to allow individuals to reach people they have never met or places they have never been perpetrates an illusion. Memories Pizza was deluged with one-star ratings by people who had never been to the establishment or sampled its pizza.

It was recently revealed that nearly 70 percent of the criticism lobbed at Rush Limbaugh (which is ample) comes from a small group of activists that have devoted their lives to attempting to make his miserable. However, to view coverage of Limbaugh in television and Internet media, you would think that the entire country is listening and vastly offended at everything he says. You would see and hear what appear to be great swaths of civilization amassing against this radio host. But this is an illusion born of spirit, not of substance, and it is meant to influence the spirit of others. It is necessary to separate the corporeal reality from the illusory zeitgeist.

Few people have time to be so incensed, and those that do should not drive culture. Their offense is an illusion. Their feelings may matter to them, but need not drive discussions and certainly shouldn’t attain such grandiose proportions. Ideas can be debated and talked through, and individuals who maintain a decorum of objective detachment can often find common ground. But fight with a spirit, with irrational rage, and there is no way to find commonality.

The anonymity of the Internet allows this illusion to truly reach its greatest power as a single individual can assume any number of Internet personas that can spew any amount of nonsense and vitriol with no accountability or personal reflection whatsoever. The pseudo-anger and the Internet’s ability to instantaneously connect users can often give the impression of widespread outrage, when really hardly anyone has noticed.

The first time one encounters the Internet outrage mob, the pressure can feel overwhelming. But when the virtual mob is perpetual, such tactics begin to lose their force. Perhaps Pratt’s deft preemptive strike is another sign that the power of the outrage mob is hopefully, becoming diluted.

(Unless you’re a business owner with a physical storefront, alas.)