Social Media, Our Modern Day Pillory

Meg Foster as Hester Prynne

Meg Foster as Hester Prynne

My friend Rachel Kranz has alerted me to a new book, Jon Ronson’s So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, which deals with instances of people being shamed by social media. Rachel challenged me to come up with literary examples of shaming, and I can think of dozens. Many of our great melodramas deal with public shaming, and the fear of being shamed lies at the heart of many of our great comedies. (We laugh in an attempt to rise above the fear.) Rachel’s own example of The Scarlet Letter, however, may best capture the intensity described by Ronson in the examples he provides in a preview of his book, published in the New York Times this past February.

His stories are appalling. For instance, there is the woman whose clumsy attempt at humor, sent to her 179 followers, was misread as racist and went viral so that she became demonized world-wide and lost her job. There is the man whose murmured joke to someone sitting next to him about computer dongles (this at a tech developers convention) was picked up by a woman in the row in front of him, who took a photo of him and tweeted it out. First he lost his job and then, in the backlash, she lost her job.

These two examples are noteworthy because we can relate to them. Who of us has not made insensitive comments at times, sometimes on social media?

In addition to giving us many other examples of social media’s power, Ronson looks back at our history of public shaming. He had assumed that it would decline when we became more urban, thereby allowing, say, an individual placed in the stocks to “just lose himself or herself in the anonymous crowd as soon as the chastisement was over.” He discovered, however, that punitive shaming continued on.

As his book makes clear, it’s alive and well today. It’s as though we have become a small community again, suddenly visible to all our neighbors. The Scarlet Letter may have written in the 19th century, but it captures how unwanted exposure feels to us now. His description of being pilloried sounds a lot like having an embarrassing tweet go viral:

In fact, this scaffold constituted a portion of a penal machine, which now, for two or three generations past, has been merely historical and traditionary among us, but was held, in the old time, to be as effectual an agent in the promotion of good citizenship, as ever was the guillotine among the terrorists of France. It was, in short, the platform of the pillory; and above it rose the framework of that instrument of discipline, so fashioned as to confine the human head in its tight grasp, and thus hold it up to the public gaze. The very ideal of ignominy was embodied and made manifest in this contrivance of wood and iron. There can be no outrage, methinks, against our common nature,–whatever be the delinquencies of the individual,–no outrage more flagrant than to forbid the culprit to hide his face for shame; as it was the essence of this punishment to do.

As it turns out, Hester is condemned to stand next to the pillory, not fastened within it. But that is bad enough:

The unhappy culprit sustained herself as best a woman might, under the heavy weight of a thousand unrelenting eyes, all fastened upon her, and concentrated at her bosom. It was almost intolerable to be borne. Of an impulsive and passionate nature, she had fortified herself to encounter the stings and venomous stabs of public contumely, wreaking itself in every variety of insult; but there was a quality so much more terrible in the solemn mood of the popular mind, that she longed rather to behold all those rigid countenances contorted with scornful merriment, and herself the object. Had a roar of laughter burst from the multitude,–each man, each woman, each little shrill-voiced child, contributing their individual parts,–Hester Prynne might have repaid them all with a bitter and disdainful smile. But, under the leaden infliction which it was her doom to endure, she felt, at moments, as if she must needs shriek out with the full power of her lungs, and cast herself from the scaffold down upon the ground, or else go mad at once.

Hester responds perhaps as well as one can respond. She neither seeks to hide the baby that she holds in her arms nor minimizes what she has done. The scarlet “A” has been wrought large enough for all to see. In other words, when you are caught out, don’t try to hide:

But the point which drew all eyes, and, as it were, transfigured the wearer,–so that both men and women, who had been familiarly acquainted with Hester Prynne, were now impressed as if they beheld her for the first time,–was that SCARLET LETTER, so fantastically embroidered and illuminated upon her bosom. It had the effect of a spell, taking her out of the ordinary relations with humanity, and inclosing her in a sphere by herself.

Just as twitter followers respond in every possible way, so too do the people of the colony. Some condemn, some are sympathetic:

“She hath good skill at her needle, that’s certain,” remarked one of the female spectators; “but did ever a woman, before this brazen hussy, contrive such a way of showing it! Why, gossips, what is it but to laugh in the faces of our godly magistrates, and make a pride out of what they, worthy gentlemen, meant for a punishment?”

“It were well,” muttered the most iron-visaged of the old dames, “if we stripped Madam Hester’s rich gown off her dainty shoulders; and as for the red letter, which she hath stitched so curiously, I’ll bestow a rag of mine own rheumatic flannel, to make a fitter one!”

“O, peace, neighbours, peace!” whispered their youngest companion. “Do not let her hear you! Not a stitch in that embroidered letter, but she has felt it in her heart.”

In the end, Hester is not destroyed but purged through her suffering. After paying the price for her social infraction, she finds a way to rise above it and become a beloved figure. By contrast, the mean-spirited Chillingworth, like those twitter haters who self-righteously pile on without examining their own flaws, fades away:

All his strength and energy–all his vital and intellectual force–seemed at once to desert him; insomuch that he positively withered up, shrivelled away, and almost vanished from mortal sight, like an uprooted weed that lies wilting in the sun. This unhappy man had made the very principle of his life to consist in the pursuit and systematic exercise of revenge; and when, by its completest triumph and consummation, that evil principle was left with no further material to support it,–when, in short, there was no more devil’s work on earth for him to do, it only remained for the unhumanized mortal to betake himself whither his Master would find him tasks enough, and pay him his wages duly.

Unfortunately, today’s parasitic Chillingworths aren’t limited to one person. They have an endless supply to feed on.

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