For nearly two decades now, we have slowly been sowing the seeds of shame and public humiliation in our cultural soil, both on- and offline. Gossip websites, paparazzi, reality programming, politics, news outlets and sometimes hackers all traffic in shame. It’s led to desensitization and a permissive environment online which lends itself to trolling, invasion of privacy, and cyberbullying. This shift has created what Professor Nicolaus Mills calls a culture of humiliation.
Consider a few prominent examples just from the past six months alone. Snapchat, the service which is used mainly by younger generations and claims that its messages only have the lifespan of a few seconds. You can imagine the range of content that that gets. A third-party app which Snapchatters use to preserve the lifespan of the messages was hacked, and 100,000 personal conversations, photos, and videos were leaked online to now have a lifespan of forever. Jennifer Lawrence and several other actors had their iCloud accounts hacked, and private, intimate, nude photos were plastered across the Internet without their permission. One gossip website had over 5 million hits for this one story. And what about the Sony Pictures cyberhacking? The documents which received the most attention were private emails that had maximum public embarrassment value.
But in this culture of humiliation, there is another kind of price tag attached to public shaming. The price does not measure the cost to the victim, which Tyler and too many others, notably women, minorities, and members of the LGBTQ community have paid, but the price measures the profit of those who prey on them. This invasion of others is a raw material, efficiently and ruthlessly mined, packaged and sold at a profit.
A marketplace has emerged where public humiliation is a commodity and shame is an industry. How is the money made? Clicks. The more shame, the more clicks. The more clicks, the more advertising dollars. We’re in a dangerous cycle. The more we click on this kind of gossip, the more numb we get to the human lives behind it, and the more numb we get, the more we click. All the while, someone is making money off of the back of someone else’s suffering. With every click, we make a choice. The more we saturate our culture with public shaming, the more accepted it is, the more we will see behavior like cyberbullying, trolling, some forms of hacking, and online harassment. Why? Because they all have humiliation at their cores. This behavior is a symptom of the culture we’ve created. Just think about it.
Changing behavior begins with evolving beliefs. We’ve seen that to be true with racism, homophobia, and plenty of other biases, today and in the past. As we’ve changed beliefs about same-sex marriage, more people have been offered equal freedoms. When we began valuing sustainability, more people began to recycle. So as far as our culture of humiliation goes, what we need is a cultural revolution. Public shaming as a blood sport has to stop, and it’s time for an intervention on the Internet and in our culture.
The shift begins with something simple, but it’s not easy. We need to return to a long-held value of compassion — compassion and empathy. Online, we’ve got a compassion deficit, an empathy crisis.
Researcher Brené Brown said, and I quote, “Shame can’t survive empathy.” Shame cannot survive empathy. I’ve seen some very dark days in my life, and it was the compassion and empathy from my family, friends, professionals, and sometimes even strangers that saved me. Even empathy from one person can make a difference. The theory of minority influence, proposed by social psychologist Serge Moscovici, says that even in small numbers, when there’s consistency over time, change can happen. In the online world, we can foster minority influence by becoming upstanders. To become an upstander means instead of bystander apathy, we can post a positive comment for someone or report a bullying situation. Trust me, compassionate comments help abate the negativity. We can also counteract the culture by supporting organizations that deal with these kinds of issues, like the Tyler Clementi Foundation in the U.S., In the U.K., there’s Anti-Bullying Pro, and in Australia, there’s PROJECT ROCKIT.
We talk a lot about our right to freedom of expression, but we need to talk more about our responsibility to freedom of expression. We all want to be heard, but let’s acknowledge the difference between speaking up with intention and speaking up for attention. The Internet is the superhighway for the id, but online, showing empathy to others benefits us all and helps create a safer and better world. We need to communicate online with compassion, consume news with compassion, and click with compassion. Just imagine walking a mile in someone else’s headline.
I’d like to end on a personal note. In the past nine months, the question I’ve been asked the most is why. Why now? Why was I sticking my head above the parapet? You can read between the lines in those questions, and the answer has nothing to do with politics. The top note answer was and is because it’s time: time to stop tip-toeing around my past; time to stop living a life of opprobrium; and time to take back my narrative.