Otherwise known as “The Revolution Will Be Digitized”. Imagine being caught in the act of something reproachable. What happens next: the nagging, the punishment, and a message not to repeat your behavior. You serve your dues to the parties affected, directly, as a matter of interpersonal conflict.
Now put that conflict on a Facebook profile with a couple thousand friends and a public message board. Who decides your character: everyone. Any would-be private matter of discourse becomes instantaneously a public spectacle.
Recently I read something interesting in a book: If Only I Could Believe by Wim Riektkerk. As a Christian guide, it discusses faith and doubt for a modern generation seeking to find the answers. One of the most interesting chapters talks about the difference between “guilt” and “shame” and how it relates to this issue. Specifically, it places the two under a cultural lens with its reference to anthropologist Ruth Benedict’s The Chrysanthemum and the Sword, which examines the major differences between Eastern and Western cultures.
Western cultures (being Europe and the US of A), according to Benedict, rely on a “guilt” culture” where the worst offense is to be “caught in the act” of something wrong. Basically no one wants to be seen with their hand in the proverbial cookie jar. If so, we are made to serve “justice” and atone for ourselves. The threat of atonement is, therefore, what keeps us in line with “the rules”.
Eastern cultures (being Arabian, Indian, and Chinese), on the other hand, operate on a “shame culture”. In a “shame culture” losing one’s honor or reputation is a worse fate to suffer. Humiliation takes the place of guilt; social expulsion the place of atonement. Western cultures have had their counterparts: think the Scarlet Letter. Hester Prynne is shunned, due to her adulterous affair with Arthur Dimmesdale (spoiler!). She has to wear a letter denouncing her in front of the entire town. And everyone keeps her at arm’s length, maybe further. She is denigrated mercilessly as the historical version of “that hoe over there”.
Nowadays it doesn’t take a town to proclaim one. It only takes a profile. By definition, “guilt” is more of an imperative than an exposure. It is making someone feel wrong for committing wrong, but also inducing them to do right. Shame, although similar, is more of making one’s actions public, as an example, in addition to making someone feel bad. It does not emphasize atonement but rather ridicule as a punishment. Cue the Game of Thrones bells, while Queen Cersei walks naked through a crowd of peasants.
One of the major concerns in Riektkerk’s book is that our civilization is changing from a predominately guilt-culture to a predominately shame-only culture. The fear of public failure outweighs all else: how many mental health organizations have you heard addressing this issue lately? This idea of self-comparison is especially present in today’s media. As a matter of fact, social media has taken your “street cred” (Riektkerk uses the term) and placed it on digital steroids.
Social media has pushed us to the ideal: what someone else has on their wall that we desperately need for ourselves. Or simply a way to elevate ourselves at the expense of others. Depression and anxiety have naturally set in: what else would you feel after scrolling through pictures and posts that show only the “best” elements of someone’s character? You become idolatrous, covetous, and determined to build yourself based on THEM.
And that’s only the mild part. Where the guilt factor plays in is where private wrongdoings become public issues. How many times have you seen someone take a screenshot of text messages and emails, or even a simple photo and then post it online? How many recordings, messages, hashtags, and links to someone’s profile have gone “viral”?
It seems like we’re on a race to exposure when it comes to judgment. In previous days, if you had a disagreement with someone you might confront them directly and say what your grievance was. Or, you might run around, telling everyone in your neighborhood. But you wouldn’t reach a thousand “likes” by the end of the day. You wouldn’t go “viral”, worldwide, with a personal altercation. But you could still go “public”.
Social media seems to have tipped the guilt-culture completely over to shame. Make no mistake, there has always been shaming in our culture. But now it seems very idiosyncratic: what one person wants to say for likes or validation. It doesn’t seem to aim at changing the behavior, but rather making someone your digital poster child for it.
Certain things need to be brought to attention, obviously. The problem occurs when this action isn’t balanced with penance, but judgment alone. If I were to go full pessimist, I would say that no one’s really seeking atonement: they’re seeking attention. But some people are less self-serving than others. Just not enough.
Meaning that, if you have a disagreement with your professor, boss, or co-worker, you’re more likely to publicize it. Why: because affirmation. You want your friends to agree with you. You want that particular person to feel isolated among their digital peers. Because you like the power to do that. And you like to “know” you have the power to do that.
We’ve all been guilty, myself included. More than anything, this post is an observation of how media has changed our behavior. As far as society goes, I would say that positivity relies on a balance between the chrysanthemum and the sword. Not a cancellation of one or the other. As life becomes “viral”, the balance can sometimes fade.
Too much “guilt-tripping” is far from good. But at least it seems more direct. Shaming, especially in the digital age, seeks validation instead of deterrence. It can have a deterring effect, yes. But that isn’t the primary reason for it.
Selfishness brings out the worst in both cultures. But I think I prefer guilt-tripping (not that I like it). Meaning that selfishness in direct confrontation is better than self-righteousness in public exposure. You can negotiate with someone who comes directly to you with a problem, in most cases. In others, you might have to go outside the box (legal cases). But it’s a little more aggravating when you have personal business becoming public spectacle. Celebrities do it (cough, cough KANYE); Trump OVERdoes it. People everywhere start public beefs over private disagreements. People ostracize over opinion circles, including and excluding.
Sounds like the wave of the future. Or rather, present discourse. The better parts of social media have taught us to network; the worst parts have trained us with a purely “reactive” discipline. Meaning outrage isn’t a grievance; it’s a magnet. (See dongles, manspreading, threatening women with nude leaks).
Guilt-tripping says “You know, you shouldn’t have done that”. Shaming says “Hey, look at what this asshole did”. It demands attention, rather than closure. It’s a digital blow horn that rallies the crowd to your side. YOUR side (emphasis on the “you”). Again, we’ve all probably done it before, and still do it today. What matters is the lack of social balance between yelling “fire!” and putting it out.