April 19, 2015

MEGAN MCARDLE: How the Internet Became a Shame-Storm.

Shame is one way we enforced good behavior in small groups before there were laws or trading networks. It is a very powerful motivator, and it helps us to come together in large cooperative groups with high degrees of trust and sharing. A hatred of being shamed ourselves and a love of shaming others who have transgressed both literally helped to make us human. . . .

So we need shame. The problem is, maybe we don’t always need so much of it.

In the small groups we evolved to live in, shame is tempered by love and forgiveness. People are shamed for some transgression, then they are restored to the group. Ultimately, the shamed person is not an enemy; he or she is someone you need and want to get along with. This is how you make up with your spouse after one or both of you has done or said something terrible.

In a large group, shame is punishment, but it still has a restorative aspect. One of the most surprising passages of Ronson’s book reveals that the drunken driver who had to stand by the side of the road with a sign detailing his crimes got more compassion and support than bitter catcalls from the people who drove by him.

On the Internet, when all the social context is stripped away and you don’t even have to look at the face of the person you’re being mean to, shame loses its social, restorative function. Shame-storming isn’t punishment. It’s a weapon. And weapons aren’t supposed to be used against people in your community; they’re for strangers, people in some other group that you don’t like very much.

Hence the term “Social Justice Warrior.” War is what you wage on the enemy, the other. And that’s what they do. They’re not well-meaning people who want to make our shared society better, and sometimes just get carried away. They’re angry, vicious people who want to eliminate disagreement.

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