Hold it! Twitter 'Shaming' Serves a Purpose

'Victims' so obnoxious they draw social media wrath? They've earned their hell.

By Shannon Rupp 26 Jun 2015 |

Shannon Rupp is a Tyee contributing editor. Find her previous Tyee pieces here.

Were you raised by wolves?

The oft-heard expression of my childhood crossed my mind when I read about the latest incident of so-called internet shaming in which a British scientist, 72, told the World Conference of Science Journalists about "his trouble with girls in science."

"[T]hree things happen when they are in the lab. You fall in love with them, they fall in love with you, and you criticize them, they cry," Tim Hunt said. Then he added that this is why he prefers single-sex labs.

The quote, coming as it does from a Nobel Prize winning biochemist at the University College of London, was so astounding it was reported widely this month and spawned a hashtag. Women scientists all over the world have been dressing up in their work gear – field biologists in hip waders, chemists in masks -- and tweeting selfies tagged #distractinglysexy.

Very funny for us. Not so funny for Professor Chauvinist. He was soon seen whinging about how the university had decided to revoke his honorary professor status without due process, all because of a "quip."

His wife, also a science professor, confirms that making casual sexist comments is just his style. She assures us he doesn't really mean it.

"But really it was just part of his upbringing," Mary Collins told The Observer. "He went to a single-sex school in the 1960s. Nevertheless he is not sexist... I would not have put up with him if he were sexist."

As the recipient of one of the world's biggest prizes, the professor had probably been benefitting from the phenomenon CBC calls "host culture" -- organizations protecting ill-mannered staffers who bring them glory, right up until they stop bringing the glory. Then they dump them.

So I think it's churlish of Professor Hunt to whine about unfair treatment. Surely he understood the deal?

But according to him, his downfall is the fault of social media and PR departments. As writer Robin McKie opined in The Observer: "[Hunt's] treatment also demonstrates the innate cruelty of social media, and in particular the savage power of Twitter, which first revealed the scientist's transgression. The tale also demonstrates how PR departments, in trying to protect the reputation of institutions, often do so at the expense of the individuals who work for or make up those bodies."

No one explains exactly why Tim Hunt's right to make snide remarks about female colleagues should be greater than the right of those women to work in an insult-free zone.

Shaming the shamers

Questions like that are being lost as this new theme about the horrors of internet shaming takes hold. Partly due to Jon Ronson's recent book, So You've Been Publicly Shamed. He looks at some high-profile incidents and the new and sometimes shady business of online reputation management, which offers to redeem victims of the digital stocks.

The book's a hit because many people have been disturbed by the sight of the Twitter mob piling on an offender for what amounts to incivility. And many of us think it's unfair for people to lose their jobs just for being gauche in public. People like Justine Sacco, who was pilloried for her Marie Antoinette style of humour in Twitter.

Ronson paints a sympathetic portrait of the PR executive who lost her job, but as someone who watched it happening in real time -- and saw her rude, petty, mean-spirited Twitter feed before she deleted it -- I'd say the only surprise was that none of her coworkers tipped Gawker about her sooner.

An excerpt from Ronson's book, headlined "How One Stupid Tweet Blew Up Justine Sacco's Life" is misleading. It wasn't one stupid tweet. It was a long list of them that revealed a nasty attitude to people she considered inferior.

"I had a sex dream about an autistic kid last night. #fml," is typical of Sacco's idea of a fine joke. Along with references to things being "retarded." Although one of her tweets was almost prescient: "I can't be fired for things I say while intoxicated right?"

Sacco had less than 200 followers, but among them were subordinates and colleagues who were no doubt weary of her snide bon mots, which led to one of them tipping Gawker with what became the famous tweet: "Going to Africa. Hope I don't get AIDS. Just kidding. I'm white!"

Yes, for rich and lucky Justine, there is no one so unfortunate as to escape her twit wit.

The tone of all her tweets is a 21st century echo of a smug 18th century French aristocrat who has no idea there's a guillotine in her future.

Remember manners?

If you follow internet shaming incidents you'll find that most are sparked by what another era would have called bad manners. The targets of mob ridicule are breaking the rules around civil behaviour. And civility, lets face it, is the only thing keeping us all from killing each other in the streets.

In democratic countries, the etiquette for business and public life involves smoothing over inequities by maintaining the illusion we're all equal. We negotiate some ugly realities, such as discrepancies in wealth, education, and access to resources by being polite to each other. Which makes it particularly bad manners to revert to pre-democratic habits and sneer at those who lack your advantages.

Just ask Marie Antoinette.

If you examine the Twitter-shamed, you'll find that callous contempt for the less fortunate is usually the thing that attracted the torches and pitchforks.

"But, I was joking," the newly-shamed all whine. Really? How is it that in a civil society no one ever taught you that harassing, insulting, and bullying other people is not a joke?

That's the question quick-thinking Toronto TV reporter Shauna Hunt asked when two confident misogynists -- Shawn Simoes and Ryan Hart -- were harassing her in May with the fad for yelling "Fuck her right in the pussy."

She pointed out it was demeaning and asked her hecklers why they thought it was funny. "What would your mom do if she saw this?" Hunt added.

"She'd die laughing," said Simoes, the man who was fired by Hydro One after he revealed he was an undesirable employee on the six o'clock news.

Toronto Star cartoonist Theo Moudakis gave Simoes' mommy the benefit of the doubt in a cartoon that shows her whacking her son in front of a billboard with the message: "My son's an idiot." But I suspect that's more a reflection of what Moudakis' parents would have done.

I'm inclined to believe Simoes when he says his mommy would have laughed. And I bet his daddy would have joined in. My first thought on seeing these two harassing a woman in front of a TV camera was, "Clearly, they were raised by wolves." It takes years, and possibly decades, of telling someone he's special to produce princes like Simoes and his sidekick, Hart. (He's the genius who dubbed the FHRITP meme, "quite substantial.")

Like Professor Hunt, these two were so assured of their right to insult and demean someone they deemed inferior that they deliberately did it with an old-fashioned audience. That's telling. They all assumed there would be no consequences for harassing a woman on TV or insulting them as a group at a conference, because there had been no consequences in their private world. Where, apparently, the wolves are running the show.

No fan of trolls

Now, I'm the first to say there are plenty of problems with social media. The online harassment has reached a point where even Twitter's CEO Dick Costolo admits that their failure to police accounts threatening rape and murder is part of why Twitter is losing popularity.

"We lose core user after core user by not addressing simple trolling issues that they face every day," Costolo said in an internal memo, posted at The Verge last February.

But that's a separate issue. While trolls do eventually join most pile-ons, Internet shaming usually begins as a satirical hashtag inspired by some latter-day aristocrat treating the rest of the villagers with open contempt.

As I followed Professor Tim Hunt's story and saw the interviews about what the mean, mean internet had done to him -- he cried! -- all I could think about was all the advantages he'd had.

An Oxbridge education; a PhD that got him into universities with the funding available for him to do groundbreaking research; and then the plum-of-all-plums, a Nobel Prize.

He, of all people, ought to have behaved with some grace.

But how does he use that wealth and education? To get up in public and belittle people who weren't born with his good luck, which in the sexist world of science includes being born male. His enthusiasm for single-sex labs amounts to ensuring that if he has his way, half the population will never have the opportunities he had to do research.

I don't think anyone ought to lose a job over being an asshat, but the more I think about Hunt, the more I think he's lucky there isn't an actual guillotine around.

But that's a terribly uncivil thought. Instead, I'd like to propose yet another tip for negotiating the world of social media: "If you were raised by wolves, don't be surprised when one of those uppity peasants you just kicked throws you to them."  [Tyee]

Read more: Rights + Justice

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