Shame Nation

In their new book, Sue Scheff and Melissa Schorr examine the myriad forms of cyberhate and the devastating effects they have on the lives of those targeted.

Shaming isn't new. A few centuries ago, people who committed a misdeed would find themselves locked helplessly in a pillory in a public gathering place to be teased, laughed at and pelted with rotten food or dead animals. Some today would consider that barbaric. But is it any less cruel to send a tweet — or a hundred — to a stranger saying that she deserves to be raped? Or posting his or her address and threatening to harm his or her family? And rather than enduring mere taunts, what if the targeted individuals lost a job or had to move from their home, out of fear for their safety? In the 21st century, this is often how shame is doled out. And in Shame Nation, authors Sue Scheff and Melissa Schorr take us through myriad cases of this cybershame, as they call it — as well as its cousins cyberharassment and cyberhate and a few other forms of digital mistreatment. They examine what online hate is, how it has taken shape and show the devastating effects it has had on the lives of those targeted.

They include cases such as the one involving the CFO of a medical-device company. In 2012, he berated a Chick-fil-A drive-through worker because Chick-fil-A’s president made statements opposing gay marriage. The CFO filmed the incident and shared it on YouTube. It went viral and the CFO was harassed, lost his job and his house and was still looking for work three years later.

It’s easy to be lulled into a false sense of security, thinking, “I would never put myself in such a position.” Lest you think so, the book shows that sometimes you could be minding your own business when the shaming finds you. In the wake of the Ferguson, Mo., protests, a New York college student found racial slurs appearing on her Facebook page — although she hadn’t posted them. After they were reposted on Tumblr, she was branded a racist and calls were placed to her employer, demanding that she be fired.

Besides presenting cases of cybershame and their effects, Scheff and Schorr offer common-sense advice, including such gems as “Being smart can’t save you from saying something stupid” and “Never post something in haste or anger that you might later regret.” While the advice offered seems aimed at mining lessons from situations displaying the utter baseness of humanity, it’s simplistic and lacks real insight.

Shame Nation is at its most useful when it lists resources to consult for help and presents information from lawyers on what recourse one has if one has been shamed, harassed or threatened. Most of the resources given, however, are US-based. The legal information is also US-based; Canadian readers would do well to research laws in this country. General tips — such as checking privacy settings often due to frequent changes in policy — are more helpful.

All in all, while the book provides some entertaining and intriguing case studies and examples, it seems of optimal use to young people or those who are close to them. As a study of online shame, it misses the opportunity to add a complex analysis to the discussion of a phenomenon of the digital age. Other books do this better, such as Jon Ronson’s So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed. The book does, however, provoke questions about where all this shame is leading us, and the authors wonder if, deep down, we want a tamer digital culture. “Aren’t we all tired of the shaming and blaming?” they ask. It’s a worthwhile question.