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15 minutes of shame

Graham Smith

The ancient Roman poet and satirist Juvenal did not have Twitter, so thank translator Stephen Harvey (b. 1655) for effectively retweeting this little gem down through history: “And there’s a lust in man no charm can tame/ Of loudly publishing our neighbour’s shame.”

Real talk. And not bad for 87 characters. I’d favorite it.

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Shame, after all, is having a moment right now. Especially online, and especially as a verb. Lately, the platforms of social media feel a lot more like pillories: Every page is a town square, every post is fit to be whipped, with each update carting in fresh flogging fodder.

Earlier this month came the star turn for Janelle Ambrosia, a shopper at the Dollar General in Cheektowaga, N.Y., whose venomous N-word-heavy parking-lot tirade against car-starting, black-while-parking (and admirably smooth-operating) Buffalo resident Narvell Benning was recorded and posted by Benning to YouTube. Despite not being particularly pleasant to sit through, the clip rocketed to the top of Reddit’s video channel and is approaching 10 million views.

More than 50,000 people croaked (mostly) disapproval in the video’s comment swamp (“Omg,” wrote one, “someone pls leak this woman’s info. We need to sic the internet on her.”). Thousands more piled onto a Twitter account that appeared to be Ambrosia’s (nope, just a quick-fingered troller who changed Twitter handles), and over 3,000 followers signed on just to watch the parade troll by. Memes and jpegs and hashtags were generated, stripper jokes (“How many cops have I stripped for?” she growls in the video) and death threats were spat in equal measure, her home address and phone number were circulated, and shortly after Ambrosia spun/whimpered/sneered her side of the story in a radio interview for WBLK (it didn’t go so well), her real Twitter account was suspended. So, score one for civil discourse?

Internet shaming has become something of a national pastime. And while election seasons might bring out the mad-as-hell constituents in each of us, the off-season finds us just as thirsty for justice.

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Internet shaming has become something of a national pastime. And while election seasons might bring out the mad-as-hell constituents in each of us, leading us to point our outrage ever-so-slightly upward toward the Facebook pages and Twitter feeds of those in power, the off-season finds us just as thirsty for justice, and our vitriol for other people’s vitriol grows aggressively equal opportunity.

These days anyone with a sufficiently defective filter can become shamous overnight. A quick scroll through Matt Binder’s sprawling Public Shaming Tumblr reveals a rich cross-section of the contemporary shamescape, with each screencap of every execrable racist, sexist, homophobic, or otherwise nasty notion tacitly offering shamers a complete toolkit for direct karmic enforcement.

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Consider the ever-growing all-star cast of castouts: There’s cranky anti-fed rancher/tax-evader Cliven “I Want to Tell You One More Thing I Know About the Negro” Bundy. Or disgraced Clippers owner Donald Sterling, recorded saying how bothersome it was that his girlfriend was visibly “associating with black people.” Or sacked PR exec Justine Sacco, who tweeted a racist AIDS joke before a flight to Africa and landed to find her career in flames, (complete with a hashtag (#HasJustineLandedYet) for tuned-in gawkers). Or Janice Daniels, the small-town Michigan mayor who tweeted that she’d trash her “I Love NY” tote bag now that “queers can get married there.” Or small-town Arkansas school board member Clint McCance, who posted on Facebook how much he liked that “fags can’t procreate” and “enjoyed” that “they often give each other AIDS and die.” Or Alicia Ann Lynch, the Michigan woman who tweeted pics of herself dressed up as a victim of the Marathon bombings for Halloween.

Our appetite for online humiliation has a history. From the earliest “n00bs” getting “pwn3d” by “l33ts” to today’s more fun-size schadenfreudey treats offered by garden-variety “fail” videos, the thrill of watching (and rewatching) comeuppance in action is hard to match. And the communal sense of satisfaction that comes with setting civil discourse back on track with a million-handed smackdown is almost enough to make one believe that such a facile solution to bigotry could exist.

But like a cat reluctant to stop catching and killing the mouse it has caught and killed, our desire to cleanse the Internet of bigotry is at odds with our impulse to put bigots in the spotlight. And with millions of individual moral high grounds, the level playing field of social media has become a craggier, more treacherous landscape.

Navigating this means keeping your bearings between the respective mocking, rebuking, and ousting of Bundy, Sterling, and Daniels and the threats of death, rape, and mutilation casually lobbed toward McCance (and his family, who were forced to move out of state), Sacco, and Ambrosia. How, exactly, is circulating a scan of Lynch’s driver’s license, distributing nude photos of her, and calling on Twitter to “make sure she fries” the most effective way to showcase the virtues of sensitivity?

If you squint rather than read your feed, you can almost make out the shape of a positive societal norm being asserted by the masses. Especially in the case of gay rights, the simple visibility of people pushing back against discrimination is a signal of progress.

But in addition to the warm self-congratulatory glow that comes with policing the zeitgeist, shaming could also be an extension of our desire to tailor each of our Internets into the individually customized stream of acceptable content we’ve come to expect. Civility on demand, as it were.

In the process, some offenders may learn the true consequences of tone-deaf or outright hateful speech (others, notsomuch). But if we sometimes find ourselves feeling helpless against the grander injustices of bigotry playing out in our lives offline, there’s at least a smidge of solace to be taken in our virtual neighborhood watch, that offenders might think twice before disturbing the peace. As the 19th-century wit Sydney Smith might have tweeted (if only he could have!): “The most curious offspring of shame is shyness.”

Michael Andor Brodeur can be reached at mbrodeur@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @MBrodeur.

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