Should We Publicly Shame Cheaters?

This past week has seen two shameful episodes in the Creepy People Getting Into Others’ Private Affairs And Shaming Them Online category.

First, Gawker published (for no apparent reason) a story about a married “C-Suite” Condé Nast executive who arranged to spend a weekend with a male porn star who then attempted to blackmail him–and, with Gawker’s capable help, succeeded*. Max Read, the now-former editor-in-chief of Gawker, justified the story thus: “given the chance gawker will always report on married c-suite executives of major media companies fucking around on their wives.”

Second, hackers are threatening to leak the user data (including credit card numbers, addresses, and listed sexual fantasies) of 37 million individuals using the website Ashley Madison, which helps people find partners to have extramarital affairs with. The hacker group claims that the reason for the attack is because Ashley Madison charges money for user account deletion and then doesn’t fully delete the information, but their demand isn’t a change in the policy–their demand is that the site goes offline altogether.

As I noted in my recent piece on the subject of Creepy People Getting Into Others’ Private Affairs And Shaming Them Online, nobody is safe when this sort of behavior is socially acceptable. Nobody. Because we all do immoral things at some point in our lives, and while some will claim that cheating is its own special category of immorality and therefore deserves naming and shaming online, that doesn’t really seem to follow from any reasonable premise. Cheating is (generally**) wrong because it’s wrong to break an agreement with someone without first letting them know that you are unable to stick with the agreement. (And being unable to stick with an agreement obviously kind of sucks for everyone involved, but I’m uncomfortable with classifying it as immoral.) It’s not wrong because sex is bad, or because wanting sex with more than one person is bad. The reason cheating gets placed in its own special category is because it pertains to sex and relationships, not because it’s inherently worse than other immoral acts. (It may be worse than some immoral acts, to some people, in some circumstances, but that’s not an inherent property of cheating.)

And I am entirely unconvinced that homophobia did not play a role in Gawker’s story, or in the (presumed or actual) interest of its audience in that story. Stories about men cheating on their wives with other men get attention in a way that stories about men cheating on their wives with other women just do not. Charitably, one could claim that this is just a man-bites-dog effect–these stories are so much more rare. But the fact that we place them in an entirely separate category from other “Men Cheating On Wives” stories suggests that same-sex attraction is, well, an entirely separate category. Who cares which gender someone sleeps with? We still do, apparently.

By far the most disturbing claim I’ve seen about these incidents is that outing cheaters is for the good of their “victims” (that is, the people they are cheating on). This is the claim that Max Read so flippantly made, and also a claim I’ve seen about potential benefits of the Ashley Madison hack.

First of all, consider that when you out someone as a cheater, you are also outing someone as a “victim” of cheating (or a “cuckold,” or whichever term you wish to use). This may not seem like a big deal, but being cheated on is also quite stigmatized to some extent–maybe not quite as much as cheating, but still. A woman who gets cheated on may be accused of being “frigid” and “failing to keep her man happy”; a man who gets cheated on may be ridiculed and considered less of a man. (That’s in the context of heterosexual relationships, but I don’t doubt that same-sex relationships are subject to some of the same gendered societal crap.) For some people, the pity may be even more difficult to deal with than the blame. And while nobody’s posting the cheated-on spouses’ names online, all their friends and family will know! Now their private pain has become quite public.

Further, put yourself in their shoes. If you’re going to find out that your spouse is cheating on you, how would you like to find out? By having thousands of people retweet an article about it? By having all your friends text you and ask if you’ve seen that Gawker piece? By having your coworker stop by your office and say, “Wow, I’m so sorry, I can’t believe your partner was using that cheating site!”

I wouldn’t be surprised if many people would rather not know at all.

In fact, some people would rather not know at all in any case. It’s a common assumption that if someone is cheating on you, naturally you would want to find out ASAP so you can dump them. But for some people, peace of mind is more important. They may suspect their spouse is cheating, but as long as things are basically fine and there’s someone around to help support the children, they’d rather just not deal with finding out. That’s valid. It’s not my place to tell someone what they ought to want to know and how they ought to respond to a suspicion that they’re being cheated on. It’s not what I’d want for myself, but everyone doesn’t have to want what I want.

I think there are some cultural components to this as well. While I haven’t conducted (or read) a comparative study, it seems that a lot of Russian couples approach extramarital affairs in this “don’t-ask-don’t-tell” sort of way. I can’t imagine they’d be pleased if someone came tattling on their spouse for their supposed good. I really wish Americans–and people in general–would remember that their norms and standards are not universal or inevitable. In some other cultures, by the way, it’s also considered extremely messed-up to meddle in people’s private lives this way.

Finally, when you out someone as a cheater, you may be actually outing them as polyamorous. Anecdotally, I’ve found that there are many more people practicing consensual nonmonogamy without publicly coming out as poly than there are people who are out as poly. In fact, being accused of cheating is one of the dangers of not coming out as poly, but for many people it’s still safer than coming out, which could cause them to lose jobs, child custody, and so on.

A poly person who gets “outed” for cheating (or whose primary partner does) faces a really uncomfortable dilemma: they have to either come out (which also means outing at least one of their partners), or they have to perform the role of either remorseful cheater (with all the public groveling that entails) or jilted spouse (with all the public pity that entails).

A poly person who does choose to come out at a moment like this is likely to face a lot of backlash. People are in some ways even more suspicious of polyamory than they are of cheating–at least the latter fits into their understanding of relationships to some extent. On the flip side, people may claim that they’re lying about being poly so that they don’t have to face judgment for cheating. You can’t win.

In fact, when you put people’s private sexual lives on trial, nobody wins.

That’s because we all sometimes act immorally, and we all sometimes fail to live up to our own ideals. That is not some special sort of failure reserved for Bad People; we all do it. There are times to speak up and stop people from hurting others, and there are gray areas where no one (certainly not me) can really say whether or not something should be publicized. This is neither.

If you want to prevent cheating–if that’s really such a hot issue for you–then encourage people to consider and explore alternatives to monogamy. Not all people who would cheat in a monogamous relationship would behave ethically in a nonmonogamous relationship, sure. Some people suck. Other people are trying to do their best with what they have, and they don’t realize that they have a lot more options than they thought.

So, what now? some will ask. Gawker’s gonna Gawk and hackers gonna hack. True, we can’t undo the damage that has been done and we can’t necessarily prevent creepy people from ever creeping on others and putting their personal business online.

What we can do is refuse to learn the information or act on it. I still don’t even know the name of the executive who hired the porn star, and I don’t intend to learn it. I will not look at the list of Ashley Madison users, just like I chose not to look at the nude celebrity photos that got leaked last year. You shouldn’t either. If more people agree not to look, this type of information loses its power, and those who collect it and leak it lose the power to judge and ruin others’ lives for the fun of it–or for whatever twisted moral justification they manage to invent.

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*As Parker Molloy pointed out, the Gawker story may actually have been in violation of the Society of Professional Journalists’ code of ethics. If Gawker wants to keep positioning itself as a source of Important Journalism For Our Day And Age, they should take note. Can’t have it both ways.

**Also really important to note, as Dan Savage and Esther Perel both have, that cheating doesn’t always happen in a simple context where one person is a “victim” and the other is the “bad terrible cheater.” Sometimes people cheat because they are stuck in awful, possibly abusive relationships, and cheating is a way they preserve their sanity. Is this rare? Maybe. I don’t know. You don’t know either, though.

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Can We Not Record Strangers’ Conversations And Put Them On Twitter?

Have you ever had that experience where everyone’s laughing at something and you’re just sitting there in silence, internally screaming WHAT THE FUCK WHAT THE FUCK WHAT THE FUCK???

That happened to me when I read about this “hilarious” livetweet by a Canadian blogger of a “douchebag” on his first date at a cafe. I’ve been seeing this shared all over the internet, including by lots of my friends, always with comments about how “hilarious” it is and how much of a “douchebag” the guy is. At first I kept asking myself what I was missing about this, but then I realized that maybe it’s other people, and not me, who are missing things.

“But you can’t help but overhear people sometimes!”

Let’s start with the obvious fact that, while overhearing people in public places is inevitable, intentionally paying attention to them when they clearly don’t mean to include you is not inevitable, and documenting their conversation for the purpose of spreading it around on the internet is even less inevitable. Haven’t we been saying this all along about online stalking? If you know that someone would not be comfortable being listened to and recorded–and you should always assume that a stranger would not be comfortable with you listening to them and recording them–the correct thing to do is to not listen to and record them, unless there is a compelling reason to. Sorry, but making fun of an egotistical dude is not that compelling a reason. I’m talking about stuff like, protecting others from violence or abuse.

“But he’s an asshole!”

Some people also apparently believe that it’s okay to violate someone’s assumed boundaries/privacy because “they’re an asshole.” Here’s an uncomfortable fact many of us don’t like to think about: someone out there thinks you’re an asshole. Yes, you. Many people probably think that I’m an asshole. There are probably many people who think that the things I say to my friends in public spaces are so completely ridiculous and laughable that they should livetweet them to all their Twitter followers and see what happens. There are people who think that you and your partner sound totally ridiculous when you’re out on your dates, too. And since people tend to have friends and Twitter followers who agree with them, their “hilarious” livetweet of your personal conversation might get quite a bit of traction online.

“But no, the people who think I’m the asshole are wrong! They’re the assholes!”

Good luck with that.

The thing is, you never really know someone’s story. Often when people shame someone online, they end up with a completely wrong impression of what was really going on. This is a particularly painful example of that–a person who was shamed online for sitting on a folding chair on a treadmill and watching TV. This viral photo, I suppose, was meant to be some representation of Everything That Is Wrong With Fat People These Days. Of course, they got it wrong:

It’s not just the fat-bashing that hurts. Or the humiliation, the shaming, this last safe societal prejudice. All that is bad, of course. What really hurts, though, is how much the boys who took that photo of me “doing it wrong”—and the thousands of people who see it—will never know.

They’ll never know how experiences just like this began dividing me—early—from my body. That the taunts of “fatty” and “blubber” and “lardass” when I was 6 made me stand at my bedroom window and wonder if it was a long enough way down to the ground; that when the kids at lunch poked my stomach with pencils to see if I’d deflate, I honestly wished I would, with a long, satisfying “sssssss”; that by the time Ms. Gleby was leading my entire sixth grade Phys Ed class in laughing at me, I no longer had a body at all. I was a floating head, and I was determined to think of my physical form as a brick that I had to suffer the inconvenience of dragging around. My body wasn’t me. It was despicable. It was nothing.

The people who laugh at this picture won’t know that every jeer, every “mooooo,” and every “sorry, no fatties” made me more and more successful at being bodiless.

And they won’t know how scary it’s been to decide to maybe make a different choice.

They’ll never know what came before that treadmill-sitting moment: 80 minutes of aerobic exercise. They’ll never know how long it took me to feel worthy of motion, worthy of joining a gym, how long it took me to decide that moving actually felt good, and then the discovery that this was the way to reunite my floating head with the rest of me, to feel my body at its most basic, a biochemical machine that supports me. That’s what I am on a treadmill. That’s what bodies are. They are not appearance. They are purpose. It’s so hard—irrationally hard—to remember that. The world makes it hard to remember.

I’m not saying that the guy on the date had some deep back story that was causing him to appear to be a douchebag when he really wasn’t. Maybe he really is a douchebag. Maybe he really is terribly sexist. But it’s important to remember that we’re seeing this guy through one person’s lens, and that person was clearly motivated to make him seem as ridiculous as possible in order to create a bunch of viral tweets.

I’m not going to throw out some platitudes about never judging people or thinking that they’re silly. Judge, but like, consider that you’re maybe not the ultimate arbiter of whether or not a total stranger that you’ve never even interacted with is A Douchebag?

“But it was anonymous, so what’s the problem?”

Yes, shaming people online anonymously is worlds better than shaming them online and actually naming them (or posting photos of them). However, keep in mind that when something goes viral online, you lose control of it. There have been plenty of instances in which internet mobs have deliberately identified and named previously-anonymous people in viral stories. Sometimes this has disastrous effects, especially when these internet mobs are incompetent (as they are wont to be) and name the wrong person.

Even without a mob, though, some random Twitter follower could be like “Oh hey, I’m in that cafe too! That guy is [insert physical description here].” And someone else could be like, “Oh, I totally worked with that guy once and he was such an asshole.” And before long, the fragile veil of anonymity is gone, and someone is getting named and shamed online for something really quite insignificant.

Besides, they still know it was them. They still have to deal with the humiliation of thousands of people mocking them for it. It’s easy to claim that being an asshole means you deserve this, but do you really? And, as I said earlier, I’m pretty skeptical of any attempt to label a total stranger an asshole on the basis of one person’s tweets. (Not that that’s not at all the same as not believing someone who claims that someone harassed or assaulted them. It’s different when you 1) name a specific thing that the person did and 2) they did it to you.) I’m more okay with shaming people for doing specific harmful things to other people, because–although this is a controversial point–there is some evidence that this can (in certain types of situations) be an effective way of preventing people from hurting each other and/or helping to repair the harm already done. Being egotistical and annoying is not that sort of offense, though.

“So what, sharing stories about other people online is always wrong?”

Nope. It’s a spectrum and there are lots of different ways to talk online about one’s experiences offline. Posting about it on a private friends-only account is different from posting it publicly. Sharing the location is different from not sharing the location. Sharing a line (or a few lines) of dialogue is different from obsessively documenting an entire conversation. Sharing something positively (i.e. “Here’s an awesome compliment a stranger gave me!”) is different from sharing something negatively. Sharing something in order to warn people of a problem is different from sharing something purely for the purpose of ridicule. Sharing something that was said to you is different from sharing something that you overheard that was not meant for you to hear. (To that end, this would’ve felt somewhat less creepy if it’d been livetweeted by the woman who was on the date with the guy.) Sharing something to your audience of 50 Twitter followers is different from sharing something to your audience of 20,400 Twitter followers, which is how much the blogger in question has.

I could go on. Point is, there’s a lot of nuance. A decision to share something after a careful consideration of some of these questions would leave me feeling a lot more comfortable than a broad claim that “well it’s anonymous” or “but he’s an asshole.”

I feel like a lot of the response to this is stemming from the deep frustration many people have with 1) dating, 2) egotistical people, and 3) sexism. (Keeping in mind about #3 that, as far as I could tell, there wasn’t really any clear sexism in the livetweet. Just a guy being incompetent at engaging a woman in conversation. Which could be sexism, could not be.)

I get it. These things are really quite frustrating and I actually have no patience for any of them, including dating. But 1) unless it happened to you personally, this is not your story to tell and 2) there are plenty of ways to share these stories with friends and get support and laugh about it that don’t involve viral tweets. I’m a huge fan of posting on Facebook (not publicly) and of having a group Facebook message going with close friends, where everyone can share their various frustrations and triumphs.

I’m just not here for this creepy eye-f0r-an-eye “if someone is an asshole then it’s now acceptable to do just about anything to them” thing.

And lest it seem like I’m doing the irritating “can’t we all just get along and not be mean to each other” thing, let me be perfectly clear: a world in which the response to this blogger’s livetweet is “whoa wtf that’s creepy and obsessive what are you doing” rather than “LOL SO HILARIOUS LOOK AT THAT DOUCHE” is a world in which we are all safer. Because the world we have now is one in which, apparently, people actively eavesdrop on each other, record each other’s conversations, and make them go viral online for the purpose of ridiculing them.

Do you want to live in that world? Because in that world, anything you say can be used against you for no particular reason. Even if you did nothing ethically wrong or actually harmful. You can wake up one morning and have your entire Twitter feed ridiculing something you said to a friend on the subway yesterday, and even though it’s anonymous, you will know, and your friend will know. Your boss could call you into their office and ask why you were talking about sex positions with your girlfriends at a bar over the weekend. The top search result for your name could be a “hilarious” livetweet from one random hour of your life you wish you could forget.

So, we could live in that world if y’all really want to. Or–or–we could decide, and persuade others, that obsessively recording a stranger’s entire conversation and putting it online is a weird and creepy thing to do. We could recalibrate our response from “LOL WHAT AN ASSHOLE” to “um why are you so preoccupied with what random strangers are saying on their dates?”

I’m not scared of dudes who talk about themselves too much and say silly things about what it’s like to be a writer. I am, however, terrified of all these vigilantes who think it’s their role to police the relatively innocuous faux pas of total strangers.

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Further reading, since I didn’t want to get too repetitive:

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How We Justify Shaming, Harassment, and Abuse

[Content note: online harassment]

Usually when we tell people not to do bad things, such as threatening feminist writers with rape or telling them to kill themselves, we emphasize that these things are bad to do because they’re bad to do, not because of who we’re doing them to. You shouldn’t threaten me with rape for writing this blog post because threatening people with rape is a monstrous thing to do, not because I am right and my blog post is correct. Even if my blog post were completely wrong and even if I was kind of a crappy person, threatening me with rape would still be wrong.

But of course, because human beings are human beings, these principles often fly right out the window when we’re angry, frustrated, disempowered, or simply annoyed. Yeah, sure, verbally abusing people online and violating their privacy is generally wrong, but this person is really bad. This person’s ideas are wrong and they need to stop saying them. This person hurt someone I care about, so they deserve this. This isn’t even a real privacy violation, because that information was out there anyway. It’s not abusive to say something that’s just true. It’s not like there’s anything else I can do in this situation. I was really angry so you can’t really blame me for doing this.

Spend enough time among humans in groups–so, maybe a few hours or days–and pay attention, and you’ll notice enough of these rhetorical devices to make your head spin. One recent one that has my brain hurting concerns Amy Pascal, a former Sony chairperson whose emails and other private info were leaked last fall when hackers stole thousands of documents from Sony, which subsequently ended up on Wikileaks.

Considering that this happened so soon after that ridiculous celebrity nude photo leak last summer, you would think that most people would treat something like this pretty seriously. They didn’t. It turns out that Amy Pascal made racist comments about President Obama in her emails, which I think we can all agree she shouldn’t have done regardless of whether or not she had any idea it could ever be public.

However, that someone has done a bad thing doesn’t then make it okay to do bad things to them in retribution. Certain consequences are, I think, appropriate, depending on what the bad thing was. Sometimes people lose their jobs for saying racist things, which (unlike many people) I think is okay. In a multicultural society and workforce, saying racist things makes you a worse employee than someone who is otherwise just like you but does not say racist things. A company that allows employees who say racist things to continue working there is going to eventually alienate a substantial portion of its customers or clients, and so it is in that company’s best interest to fire employees who say racist things.

Likewise, sometimes people lose friends when they say racist things. I think that’s also appropriate. Everyone deserves to decide for themselves who they do and do not want to be friends with. If I don’t want to be friends with people who say racist things, and you say racist things, then I will stop being your friend. Not only am I personally angered and irritated by racism, but I can’t be friends with someone that I can’t trust not to mistreat my friends of color. (And yes, making “racially charged comments,” as they’re known, is mistreatment.)

But is it okay to publish someone’s personal information because they’ve said a racist thing? Is it okay to shame them in a sexist way? Is it okay to specifically go out of your way to publicly embarrass them about something that has literally nothing to do with the racist things they said?

I don’t think so.

But that’s exactly what Jezebel did to Amy Pascal when they published her leaked Amazon purchases along with “snarky” commentary, shaming her for the personal care/hygiene products she chose to use.

AmyPascal

Screenshot from Jezebel

I think we can all agree that this doesn’t add to the conversation. It doesn’t undo any harm done by Pascal’s racist comments or teach anyone why they were wrong. It doesn’t hold her accountable for them in any way. It doesn’t accomplish anything. It reminds me of a bunch of middle school girls publicly shaming and bullying another girl because they found tampons in her locker or because they found out that she bleaches the hair on her upper lip. It’s completely pointlessly cruel and Pascal did nothing to deserve it.

Jessica Roy writes at NYMag:

The problem with this genre of commentary is that it celebrates a gut-level delight in the same sort of invasion of privacy that drove Redditors to distribute those nude celebrity photos: Exposing people’s secrets — especially powerful people’s secrets — doesn’t just make us feel good, it makes us feel powerful. And though the Sony leaks show Pascal made hundreds of Amazon orders, the highlighted products seemed picked exclusively to humiliate a woman for attempting to stay young in an industry that demands it. Surely writing about Scott Rudin ordering a bottle of Rogaine wouldn’t have packed the same punch. This doesn’t mean women can’t and shouldn’t critique other women. But humiliating a woman based on her body — whether it’s the private photos she took or the products she ordered — seems like overkill.

In a piece about doxxing “for good,” Ijeoma Oluo has a similar take on this analogous issue:

Freedom of speech also comes with accountability for that speech — but doxxing isn’t about accountability, it’s about silencing. Techniques designed to intimidate people out of the public sphere are wrong, no matter who is doing it. Deciding that we will not stoop to their level and that we will not risk innocent people does not fix racism, sexism, homophobia and the like, but it helps us protect the ideals that we are fighting for.

[…] Harassment and threats must be recognized as the crimes they are, whether they come from MRAs or from overzealous anti-racists. You’ve got to be vigilant in condemning harassment, just as you should if you witness it in the street. We need to stop making excuses for people who get joy from instilling fear in others.

The connection between these two things might not be readily apparent. Should we really compare leaking someone’s beauty regimen with threatening them with violence or doxxing their address? I would argue that we should. Both of these things get justified with claims that the target is such a bad person that they deserve this treatment. But of course, as Oluo points out, innocent people get hit with the splash damage all the time.

I think the problem goes beyond that. If we make a rule that says, “Doxxing/abuse/harassment/threats/shaming is okay when the target did something really bad,” then everyone gets to interpret “really bad” for themselves, and you may not like that interpretation. For instance, there are people online who earnestly believe that I am a threat to their livelihood and to the continued functioning of our society. Many MRAs also believe that feminists pose a serious and imminent threat to their physical safety. Surely by their standards I have done plenty of “really bad” things, such as writing widely read articles about feminism.

I cannot overstate the importance of pointing out that they really believe this. They’re not just saying it to get some sort of Points online. They’re not lying. (At least, not all of them.) They believe this as truly and completely as I believe that inequality exists and must be fixed, that there is no god, that I love my friends and family.

Think about your strongest convictions and how real, how powerful your belief in them is. Now, imagine that someone believes with an equal conviction that I am (or you are) a terrible person who poses a threat to them and to everything they love and care about. Imagine that we have all spent years cheerfully promoting the idea that “Doxxing/abuse/harassment/threats/shaming is okay when the target did something really bad.”

Now try to reason this person out of threatening me or you with death or worse. Try to convince them that if they obtain access to our silly Amazon purchases or private emails, they shouldn’t post them online. Try to convince them that if they have information that could destroy our lives if made public, they should keep it to themselves.

This is why I don’t feel safe in online spaces that promote doxxing, abuse, harassment, threats, or shaming against anyone, no matter how much I fucking despise the person they’re doing it to.

If doxxing/etc is ever okay, then it is always okay. Because if it is ever okay, then we will find ways to justify it in any situation we want. We will always be able to point to someone’s racist emails or tweets. We will always be able to show that they really really hurt someone we care about. We will always be able to claim that the internet would be better off if this person just disappeared from it.

I don’t know what to do about doxxing, quite honestly. I don’t. Sometimes doxxing is the last resort of people who are themselves extremely unsafe and have no idea what else to do. Sometimes doxxing happens because the authorities and the websites where abuse takes place continually refuse to take these issues seriously and address them and help keep people from having their lives wrecked. Why the fuck did it have to take doxxing to stop someone from posting “creepshots” of underage women on Reddit? This sort of thing makes me want to curl up in bed and just scream “what the fuck” and “I don’t know” over and over. I have no answers about this.

But nobody was in danger because Amy Pascal’s Amazon purchases had not been made public. Whatever brief rush of glee that article’s author and readers experienced as a result does not justify the violation of someone’s privacy. The fact that doxxing and shaming and all of that may, in some fringe cases (I said may) be a necessary evil doesn’t mean we now have license to use it recklessly and constantly.

It is so easy and tempting–and seductive, really–to lash out at someone who’s made you angry or upset. It’s easy, too, to justify it to people who already agree with you by telling them how angry or upset you were. But ethical behavior isn’t just for situations when you’re feeling calm and happy. It’s also for the situations when you’re angry and upset. It’s especially for those situations, because when we are calm and happy, we usually need little encouragement to do the right thing.

It is true that taking the high road doesn’t necessarily mean that we “win,” whatever winning even means. It won’t necessarily keep us safe. People will still threaten to rape and kill me because I’m a feminist.

But the more we encourage people to think of this behavior as inherently wrong rather than wrong only in cases where we don’t personally dislike the target or think they did something bad that makes them deserve it, then the more other people will call out this behavior when it happens. The more people call it out, the less socially acceptable it will be. The less socially acceptable it is, the greater the social costs of doing it, which means that the more likely it will be that people who do it will face real consequences, such as getting banned from Twitter or losing their job or losing friends.

And the more people face real consequences for doing these things, the less these things will happen. Not only to the people you hate, but also to the people you love.

On Shaming People Online “For Their Own Good”

[Content note: online harassment and bullying]

Online vigilantism in general is nothing new, but lately I’ve been noticing a disturbing trend of people trying to teach others that they “should’ve known better” by posting “embarrassing” photos of them online, and/or doxing them based on photos of them that were already online.

Two examples I’ve come across:

1. A dude went to a Magic: The Gathering tournament, found as many players as he could whose butt cracks were exposed, and posed for photos next to them. And then put them online. Apparently this is “part funny, part social commentary, and part PSA.” From the Daily Dot:

Showing your ass in a convention of 4,000 people is “unacceptable,” he says. “There is no way (barring some sort of handicap) that they didn’t notice this. Not doing anything about it is lazy, gross and bad for the community. Some people won’t get into magic because of this type of stuff.

“I hope that people will see this and think ‘maybe I SHOULD pull my pants up.’”

2. A bunch of Reddit and 4chan dudes have apparently made it their personal mission to dox women whose photos end up online, whether intentionally or not, to, once again, “teach them a lesson.” Sometimes this means doxing women who purposefully upload sexy photos of themselves to subreddits like r/gonewild, and sometimes this means doxing women whose email accounts get hacked or who get photographed without their knowledge or consent.

The reason all this stuff has caught my attention isn’t just the sexism and body-shaming it often entails, but the circular reasoning of it–something I’ve noted about these types before. We’ll punish you for putting photos of yourself online because it’s a stupid thing to do. Putting photos of yourself online is a stupid thing to do because we’ll punish you for it. You shouldn’t wear ill-fitting clothing that exposes parts of your body that shouldn’t be exposed because then people have to look at it. People have to look at you wearing ill-fitting clothing that exposes parts of your body that shouldn’t be exposed because we just took a photo of you and put it on the internet. Women who put sexy photos online have no self-respect because putting sexy photos of yourself online is a bad thing to do because it shows you have no self-respect because putting sexy photos online is a bad thing to do because–at this point my ability to write words breaks down and I have nothing to say but WHAAAaaaaAAAAT A;LSDKFASLKDF;ASDFAJ;D?!

Whenever you find a silly self-justifying spiral like this, you know there’s something going on that people either can’t or won’t acknowledge.

I have some questions for these brave heroes. First, to Redditor OB1FBM, who posted the butt crack photos:

  • If this is really about making a “public service announcement,” why’d you post it to r/funny?
  • If you’re really worried that “some people won’t get into magic because of this type of stuff [butt cracks],” why aren’t you worried that people won’t get into Magic because the community apparently has creeps who go around taking photos of people’s asses?
  • If you really wanted to “spare the person the shame of being confronted in front of other people” (say, by tapping them on the shoulder and warning them that they need to pull their pants up), why the fuck did you post this on the internet?
  • If you really want to make MtG tournaments more comfortable for those who likewise find butt cracks “unacceptable,” why didn’t you talk to the organizers about implementing a dress code?
  • If you really want to make people change their behavior, why haven’t you considered the evidence that shaming isn’t an effective way to do that?

Next, for the men who think it’s their sacred mission to shame and terrify women for existing in photographic form:

  • WTF?
  • If you like looking at attractive women (and I know you do, or else why the fuck are you on r/gonewild), why are you making that astronomically less likely to happen by making them afraid for their lives?
  • WTF?
  • If your entire worthless thesis is that women shouldn’t let photos of themselves get online because look what can happen, why do you have to actually make that happen in order to make your argument? That’s like robbing someone’s apartment to “helpfully” point out that they need to keep their apartment locked so that shitheads like you don’t rob it.
  • WTF?
  • If these women are, as you claim, “looking for the attention” of having their full names, phone numbers, addresses, and social media accounts posted online and spread widely, why wouldn’t they do that themselves? It’s not difficult to post your own full name, phone number, address, and photos online. Shockingly, I don’t think they need your assistance with this task.
  • WTF?
  • Supposing posting a sexy photo of yourself online (or storing one in a private account that gets hacked, as it were) is really such a bad thing, is being threatened with rape and death, having one’s family threatened with rape and death, and never being able to get a legit job ever again really a reasonable punishment? Hell, even rapists don’t usually face such a strict penalty.
  • WTF?
  • Why are people who dox people on Reddit literally Hitler unless they’re doxing semi-naked women?
  • WTF?

And on and on it goes. I have more questions than answers here, really.

These two seemingly unrelated phenomena might not seem to have much in common at first: one involves “hot” women and the other involves “ugly” (or, at least, “gross” or “disgusting”) men, one involves doxing and the other does not, one involves shaming people for committing what most consider at least a faux pas and the other involves people simply existing and having bodies.

But there are a lot of similar themes, too: the self-righteous vigilantism, the use of shaming as a disciplinary tactic, the insistence that the targets “deserved” or “asked for” what they got, the creepy obsession with people’s bodies and what they do with those bodies, the indignation at something that’s frankly none of anyone’s business.

I’m sure someone’s going to comment here about how yeah well you shouldn’t have your butt crack showing. Yeah, I guess you shouldn’t, at least by our local norms of what should and should not be shown in public (remember that this is neither a universal nor a natural truth, but a social construction). There are a lot of things you generally should not do, such as speak rudely to strangers without provocation, take up more seats on the subway than you need, or leave too small a tip at a restaurant. Are we prepared, then, to publicly shame people who do these things as well? Where do we stop? Are we prepared to take photos of parts of strangers’ bodies that we know that would not want photographed and put those photos on public forums frequented by thousands of people? Is the sight of a human body that offensive?

OB1FBM claims rather unpersuasively that “it’s not about being fat,” but it is, in fact, exactly about that. In order to talk about why lots of people are so gosh-darn rude as to have their butt cracks visible when they’re sitting, you have to talk about the fact that mass-produced clothing fits very few body types well, and denim especially is not a fabric that’s great at molding to bodies as they move. Unfortunately, for whatever reason, denim is the normative fabric for pants in Western society.

Brian Kibler writes:

Here’s the thing. I was a fat kid growing up. I know the kind of treatment that many overweight people deal with. I was mercilessly mocked by other kids in school. My own brother told me that I would never get a girlfriend. Even to this day, I habitually tug on my shirts to keep them from hanging unflatteringly over my body. That feeling is something that never goes away – the sense that everything just fits wrong on you, and feeling like you’re never truly comfortable in your own skin. Public shaming was hardly a new and novel experience. It was often just what I felt from *being* in public. It certainly wasn’t going to be the catalyst for some sort of change in my behavior. And I’m sure my ass hung out of my pants from time to time.

Want to change the way people dress at Magic tournaments? Be a good example. I’ve made a point since I started playing again to always dress up for tournaments, and you know what? I’ve seen people emulating that. “Be the change you want to see in the world”, as they saying goes – not “Be the asshole who makes fun of other people because they aren’t how you want them to be.”

OB1FBM might not be trying to make it about being fat, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t. It’s about that, and it’s about people being engaged in a gaming competition and forgetting for a moment that they need to pull their pants up or their shirts down and thus committing what can at worst be considered a small and common faux pas.

I’m a little bewildered that I had so much trouble finding critical responses to this stunt when I googled it that I realized how necessary this blog post was. I am, and yet I’m not. The devaluation of consent, autonomy, and dignity in our society extends far beyond the usual culprits of sexual assault and harassment.

And speaking of that, while I’m stating the obvious. There is nothing a person can do that justifies having their personal information found out and posted to thousands of people online*. Taking naked photos of themselves and giving them to a partner doesn’t justify it. Taking naked photos of themselves and putting them in a password-protected online account doesn’t justify it. Taking naked photos of themselves and putting them on a forum meant for that purpose, without the personal information attached, doesn’t justify it. Existing in public where they can be photographed looking “sexy” doesn’t justify it. Being a sex worker doesn’t justify it. Making you uncomfortable because someone’s owning their body and sexuality who shouldn’t be doesn’t justify it. Being a woman doesn’t justify it.

If you knowingly, purposefully violate people’s privacy and consent in order to “teach them a lesson,” you are not offering up a “public service announcement” or doing your community some sort of act of kindness. You are a bully. You are every schoolyard bully who has ever beat up a kid to “teach them a lesson,” you are every workplace bully who has ever ostracized a coworker and sabotaged their work to “teach them a lesson,” you are every online bully who has sent anonymous violent threats to people you don’t like to “teach them a lesson.” You are every person who has committed violence and abuse against their partner to “teach them a lesson.”

What a proud tradition you carry on.

~~~

*As usual, a caveat! This blog post is discussing shaming people for behaviors that do not directly harm anyone. In a follow-up (hopefully), I’m going to talk about the murkier ethics of shaming people for behaviors that do directly harm others.

Thanks to this blog post for alerting me to the MtG thing.