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Shame On You

The symbolism of the scapegoat bearing the burden of a community’s failings has been supplanted in the social media age by real people whose lives are being destroyed

Jon Ronson’s new book, So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed (Picador 2015) is characteristically quirky, witty and honest. Most of all, it is unnerving, leaving the reader with a chill in their bones as they reflect on society’s approach to those who – often inadvertently, ignorantly or plain foolishly – transgress its norms.

For a society which loudly proclaims its tolerance and non-judgmentalism, we know how to be intolerant of the people and the views we don’t approve of. The evolution of social media has illuminated this and Twitter in particular has, however unintentionally, fostered a peculiar tradition of viciousness.

Ronson examines the case of an American woman, Justine Sacco, who tweeted a tasteless joke about race and AIDS to her meagre 170 followers just before she boarded a flight to Cape Town only to find when she landed and was able to turn her phone back on, that she was the number one world wide trend on Twitter and the subject of the most unrestrained vitriol. Sacco’s smug joke is the kind people hear on an infrequent basis in private; she doubtless felt her 170 followers comprised a discrete and private cohort too, but she was wrong. Someone in this group spilled the beans.

Lindsey Stone experienced a similar mauling after an astonishingly ill-judged Facebook post from the Arlington National Cemetery went viral. She meant no harm, but entirely misunderstood the significance of a place devoted to the war dead. The attack on her was merciless, accusing her of things she would not dream of being or doing. Both Stone and Sacco’s cases are suggestive of a disturbing, underlying strain of misogyny in social media assaults which raises a few questions about the strength and respect of male-female relations today.

The lack of restraint in social media owes much to its speed, unaccountability and anonymity. Like drivers venting road rage in the bubble of their car, respondents feel both protected and empowered in their anger but even more so, given the physical distance between them and the object of their venom. Both Sacco and Stone lost their reputations, their jobs, their hopes. Neither felt a man would ever date them again following such a public ridiculing. The only redemption available to them was the vain hope their Google history would eventually track happier news about them. The internet never forgets.

In Leviticus 16, instructions were given for the sending of a goat into the wilderness after the priest Aaron had placed his hands on its head and confessed the people’s sins. From this we take the meaning of the scapegoat. The symbolism of an animal bearing the burden of a community’s failings has been supplanted in the social media age by a real person. This is too great a load for anyone to bear; in being driven from a normal life, their absence allows others to ignore similar failings in their own lives. Hypocrisy thus takes root.

The Christian duty of forgiveness frees other people from the prison of their failing and speaks to wider society, bearing witness to the mercy of God. Even God forgets our sins, as scripture dramatically presents (Isaiah 43:25). There are suggestions that the new media has enabled us to appropriate the judgment of God on a global scale; a power which belongs only to him. In Luke 12:3, Jesus says ‘what you have whispered behind closed doors will be proclaimed from the housetops’. In a perverse expression of realised eschatology, we have brought a divine judgment belonging to the future into the present and claimed it as our own. And there is little mercy to be found.

When faced with disaster, King David once said: ‘let me fall into the hands of the Lord, for his mercy is very great; but do not let me fall into human hands’ (1 Chronicles 21:13). As a Bronze Age summary of the digital era it is hard to surpass.



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