Learning To Forgive In A Culture Of Online Shaming

Tell me you haven't forgotten about pillories, those cruel, colonial-era devices used for punishment? You know, those wooden planks that left people publicly stuck with just three holes for their heads and hands?

Or how about the dunce cap, that old-school relic signifying misbehaved school children, evoking a collective, sickly feeling of humiliation, whether our own or someone else's?

This concept of social shaming hasn’t changed, it's just taken on a different form—online.

giphy (5).gif

We’ve all heard of the terrible mistakes done by those who have fallen from online shaming. There's Justine Sacco, a former PR rep who, in 2013 on a trip to visit her family in South Africa, tweeted, "Going to Africa. Hope I don't get AIDS. Just kidding. I’m white!" Remember Ken Bone? With the red-knitted sweater who later became a meme from an appearance in a presidential debate in 2016? After his Reddit Ask Me Anything segment, his disturbing comment history on NSFW subreddits tainted his Internet hero image. For Kyle Quinn, an online mob went after him last year when he was misidentified as a white supremacist in Charlottesville, Virginia.

And of course, we come to the most recent online shaming on Logan Paul, a YouTuber with 16 million subscribers who became the most hated person in January, for posting a vlog that made light of someone who had taken their life in Aokigahara, the Suicide Forest in Japan.

Roughly four-in-ten Americans have personally experienced online harassment, and 62 percent consider it a major problem. Even VICE published a satirical piece on "The Five Stages of Internet Shamingwhere they wrote about the all-too typical scenario of what usually happens to a shamee.

Online shaming has become a de facto form of justice brought by those behind a screen.

How quick we forget, however, that behind the memes, think-pieces, and investigative exposes, there are real people whose lives are being altered, and, for some, the shaming has been very tragic.

Jon Ronson, a Welsh journalist and best-selling author of the non-fiction book, So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, focuses on what happens to the shamees after an online mob comes for them. Because, the lives of these people continue even if the shaming disappears after a couple of weeks.

In his seminal TED talk, Ronson explains that "we want to think they're fine, but they're not fine. The people I met were mangled. They talked to me about depression, and anxiety and insomnia and suicidal thoughts. One woman I talked to, who also told a joke that landed badly, she stayed home for a year and a half."

Carolyn Kim, an award-winning scholar, public relations professional, and digital strategy and social media professor at Biola University, believes social shaming has always been present in our society and technology has just amplified it to a new level.

"Because of social media, we have seen a rise in people getting voices they haven't had before, and being able to speak up when they see something they believe is wrong," she tells Beyond the Interview. "In some ways, that leads to clicktivism or liketivism—I'm going to jump up and feel like I'm making a change in the world. So that can be a mob mentality at times because not only do you do it for things you like and support, but you join bandwagons when you say this is not good and this is not right and we want to see a change in the world."

Kim hopes that when teaching about social media “people are walking away and realizing it's not dissected from our human experience; it's an extension of our human experience."

What else is part of that human experience? Forgiveness.

It might be hard to partake in digital forgiveness because it can be criticized as undermining the bad behavior or decision done by the shamee. On Psychology Today, Arthur Dobrin, a professor at Hofstra University, argued that forgiveness can be harmful to a society.

Dobrin believes that "forgiving too soon can undercut the feeling that leads us to hold the miscreant to the bar of justice."

So, if I forgive Logan Paul, does that mean I'm okay with what he did and that I don't believe in creating awareness for mental health? No.

Philly-native Lucas Wolfe, 25, struggled with depression and suicidal thoughts in high school and throughout college until he received professional help. After his high school alma mater lost a student to suicide, Wolfe decided to become a mental health advocate. This extended to the online community where he wrote an article for The Mighty, publicly forgiving Logan Paul.

"I went and watched the videos and thought, 'I understand why people are upset and offended. At the same time, I don't think we should crucify someone for making a mistake,'" Wolfe says.

Wolfe understands how easy it can be to online shame someone about a personal, sensitive topic such as mental health. For the victims of online shaming, most become aware of their wrongdoing and issue a public apology. For Paul, he shared his apology through a video and pledged to give one million dollars to suicide prevention organizations. Wolfe chooses not to be angry with Paul and instead wants to show forgiveness.

"Maybe you didn't do what Logan Paul did, but have you ever made a mistake in your life? Have you ever hurt a friend or a parent, brother, or sister or someone close to you? Or even yourself at the times you let yourself down, the times you engaged in some destructive behavior that you know is not good for you, and you just do it anyway. Don't you want to forgive yourself? Don't you want these people in your life to forgive you? If we want people to forgive us, we have to be willing to forgive them," Wolfe explains .

Getting angry is easy, but forgiving online is where it’s hard. After his article was published, Wolfe was subjected to his own hate through the comment section, as many questioned why he would even forgive Paul who made fun of the issue he is fighting for. Wolfe shares that letting go and allowing someone to learn from their mistakes is better for society to move forward. Forgiving Paul doesn't mean Wolfe is okay with what he did, he just wants Paul to be able to understand why what he did is wrong and what he can do about it.

C.S. Lewis wrote in his Essay of Forgiveness, "When it comes to a question of our forgiving other people, it is partly the same and partly different. It is the same because, here also forgiving does not mean excusing. Many people seem to think it does. They think that if you ask them to forgive someone who has cheated or bullied them you are trying to make out that there was really no cheating or bullying. But if that were so, there would be nothing to forgive...In our own case we accept excuses too easily, in other people's we do not accept them easily enough."

It doesn't matter whether you're a celebrity or just an ordinary person, everyone is subjected to become a victim of online shaming because we’re all human. We are all capable of making the same mistakes as the next person, some just as bad or some worse.

So before you go off to shame someone online, think about it: Have you ever made a mistake?