Tuesday, April 21, 2015

On shaming and second chances and the paucity of first chances

I've been following the internet discussions centered around Jon Ronson's So You've Been Publicly Shamed.  And I've thought, and thought, and thought some more, and I've finally been able to put my finger on exactly what it is that bothers me about the cases Ronson describes.  On the one hand, look at the job titles of the people Ronson describes:  acclaimed author, CFO of a major corporation, PR executive.  All pretty desirable positions.  On the other hand, look at the things these people did to screw up their lives:  falsifying a nonfiction book, yelling at a fast food clerk and posting it on the internet, publicly posting an offensive racist joke.  All pretty stupid things that anyone who's made it through middle school should know better than to do.  And after this, these people think they should get a second chance.  And they'll probably get it.  But the fact of the matter is that good positions like the ones these people screwed themselves out of are far rarer than people who want those positions and are capable of doing them.  So when the mass of people who are struggling to get by from day to day see these people, who've screwed up so egregiously, saying "I should have my position at the top of the heap back," we're inclined to say, "No.  Hell no.  You've already demonstrated that you're a jerk.  Let someone else - someone who hasn't acted out so stupidly - have a shot now.  You had your shot and you blew it.  Why should you get a second chance when so many of us never get a first one?"

To give another example, one closer to my life:  I was a student in the history department at University of New Orleans when the Stephen Ambrose plagiarism scandal broke.  I never had Dr. Ambrose for a professor - by the time I came along, he was at a point in his career where he was able to devote almost all his time to writing and research - but I remember following the news and being horrified.  Horrified not so much because of what he had done - I knew that in every field there were going to be some bad apples - as because of the general lack of consequences.  I knew that if I, as a graduate student, had committed similar acts of plagiarism, that would be it - my hopes of a history career would be over.  But when Ambrose did these things, the university stood behind him, his colleagues rallied around him, and after a brief period of finger-wagging, it was as if this had never happened.

And I think that's why people piled on the people profiled in Ronson's book - because we've seen how people at the top of the heap are allowed to fail, then offered a second chance and enabled to stay at the top of the heap, while those of us at the bottom of the heap know that should we fail in anything even approaching the same degree, that will be the end of what little social and financial stability we've managed to carve out for ourselves.  Public internet shaming is an attempt to equalize things - since we can't do it by bringing the people at the bottom up, we're left to do it by bringing the people at the top down.