Friday, August 7, 2015

On kindness and social media shaming

On Kindness, psychoanalyst Adam Phillips and historian Barbara Taylor’s new book, delves into that most fundamental of human attributes – kindness – and raises some important questions about how we understand and embody kindness today.

Charting the centrality of kindness in human history, literature and social thought, Phillips and Taylor ask why kindness has become a sign of weakness in our modern times, a cause for anxiety in an age preoccupied with success.

Kindness, or the lack of it, occupies a complex place in our lives today. “There is nothing we feel more consistently deprived of than kindness,” they say. They argue that “the unkindness of others has become our contemporary complaint” and “nothing outrages us more than people being unkind to us”. And yet, we “are never as kind as we want to be”.

Phillips and Taylor make the case that while we are often afraid of “living according to our sympathies” (“kindness is the saboteur of the successful life”), the kind life – “the life lived in instinctive sympathetic identification with the vulnerabilities and attractions of others” – is the life “we are more inclined to live”. In fact, we often find ourselves living the kind life without “the language to express it, or cultural support for it”.

In addition to the historical and literary content of their work, their message to the reader is a pragmatic and timely one – kindness is an indispensable part of our human heritage and condition: “In giving up on kindness – and especially our own acts of kindness – we deprive ourselves of a pleasure that is fundamental to our sense of well-being.”

In her review of Phillips and Taylor’s book, popular blogger and curator Maria Popova writes: “…at some point in recent history, kindness became little more than an abstract aspiration, its concrete practical applications a hazardous and vulnerable-making behavior to be avoided — we need only look to the internet’s ‘outrage culture’ for evidence…”

Popova’s observation strikes me as being especially apposite to recent discussions of the place of ‘outrage culture’ in our contemporary milieu. I believe her interlinking of a perceptible general decline in kindness and outrage culture – our decade’s constantly accreting zeitgeist – is worth exploring further.

Defined by our digital engagements and disengagements, life in 2015 comprises multiple daily negotiations between “hazardous and vulnerable-making behaviour[s]” that can be exposed and those that cannot be exposed; between vulnerabilities that can and cannot be shared.

Social media have made it possible to break down and transcend earlier barriers. More often than not, our communications with the world – with those we know and those we do not know – now occur not through carefully-constructed lenses and filters but rather the permeable prism of instant and spontaneous access and exposure. Phillips and Taylor write: “If there is no invulnerability anywhere, suddenly there is too much vulnerability everywhere.”

But the profusion of vulnerabilities has engendered not only an accompanying increase in our capacity to symphathise, emphathise and identify with others (which it arguably has), but also growing impatience with others’ ‘flaws’ and ‘mistakes’. Along with constant ‘liking’ and ‘favouriting’, instantaneous condemnations and disavowals have become an inalienable part of the ritual of daily encounters with the vulnerabilities of others.

This is where journalist Jon Ronson’s new book So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed comes in. Ronson’s research is a timely contribution to our understanding of how the internet is continually shaping our behaviour and, as Popova’s provocation puts it, our capacity to practice and embody kindness.

In his book Ronson chronicles recent cases of social media ‘shaming’ and the impact it had on the lives of the people who were shamed. Ronson interviews notable figures and everyday folks – like Justine Stacco, Lindsey Stone, Hank and Alex and several others – whose online or real-world faux pas led to an avalanche of hate from offended social media users and eventually, after much rallying, to their being fired form their jobs. They found themselves isolated and unable to cope with the emotional (and financial) fallout of what they thought was at worst a stupid mistake.

The book highlights the devastating cost of public shaming that one never sees once the furore has passed and the offenders – “the real human beings who [are] the virtual targets of these campaigns” – have been punished.

Ronson writes that in the early days of social media outrage “the collective fury felt righteous, powerful and effective”. It was as if “hierarchies were being dismantled, as if justice were being democratized”. However, as time went on, he “watched these shame campaigns multiply, to the point that they targeted not just powerful institutions and public figures but really anyone perceived to have done something offensive”.

Now, he says, one is frequently confronted with a “disconnect between the severity of the crime and the gleeful savagery of the punishment”. He argues that “ideological crusade[s] against perceived bigotry” have also become “a form of idle entertainment”. We take as much pleasure in having our opinions validated by the shaming of those we perceive to be ‘wrong’ and ‘flawed’ as we do in witnessing the (real-time) spectacle of their downfall.

Here, I am specifically interested in how Ronson’s chronicle of social media shaming intersects with the place that kindness occupies in our social world and habits.

“We were soldiers making war on other people’s flaws,” Ronson writes. Others’ flaws and vulnerabilities have become opportunities for us to engage in corrective action and forms of what sociologist/criminologist John Braithwaite calls “stigmatic shaming”, which is designed to “set the offender apart as an outcast”.

Phillips and Taylor write: “Bearing other people’s vulnerability — which means sharing in it imaginatively and practically without needing to get rid of it, to yank people out of it — entails being able to bear one’s own.” “Vulnerability,” they say, “is our shared biological inheritance”. To be able to bear witness to others’ perceived flaws and vulnerabilities – without instantly excoriating, censuring, censoring or ostracising them – one needs to work from a place of empathy. More fundamentally, it entails adopting kindness, rather than suspicion, anger and hostility, as the default starting point in our engagement with others’ vulnerabilities. In practical terms, it entails assuming that flawed humour, for instance, which lies at the centre of Ronson’s book (for having been the cause of most of his informants’ downfall), as also at the centre of several more recent cases of social media shaming, is, after all, an instance of someone’s flawed sensibilities – not a manifestation of their inherent desire to cause or incite harm.

More than this, however, there is also the always-elided issue of the deliberate quashing of ideas that are seen as problematic or as offensive. Jezebel founder Anna Holmes offers her perspective on this:

Jezebel contributed to what I now call ‘outrage culture,’ but outrage culture has no sense of humor – we had a hell of a sense of humor. That’s where it splits off… The fact that people who are incredibly intelligent and have interesting things to say aren’t given the room to work out their arguments or thoughts because someone will take offense is depressing to me.”

Ronson argues in his book that we are “creating a world where the smartest way to survive is to be bland”. Perhaps, as Popova tantalisingly suggests and then sets aside in her take on Phillips and Taylor’s On Kindness, shifts in our capacity for kindness, empathy and acceptance ought to lie at the core of our understanding of recent trends in the world of ideas and social media.

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