A couple of nights ago, after a disappointment in a hockey game, a number of folks in Vancouver rioted. They smashed windows, looted stores, and overturned and torched cars. This was not a crowd of the dispossessed. This was a crowd of hockey fans.
I confess that I'm quite surprised that Canadians riot. I was under the impression that they were too polite. Riots involve rudeness. There's an unacceptable risk that someone might say something cutting that could hurt someone's feelings based on social condition or ethnic group membership or something.
Anyway, regrettably for them, these were not practiced rioters, and few came equipped with masks. In the age of the cell-phone camera, misbehaving in public carries with it a grave risk of worldwide exposure (as Hermon Raju, our friend from yesterday's post, might tell you). The rioters did not heed those risks; they capered for the cameras.
Now come the modern consequences.
Within hours, people on the internet began collecting the pictures and identifying the rioters, particularly those who were doing notably obnoxious things like setting police cars afire. With the aid of such identification, police have already arrested some. As I said, these were not the dispossessed — they were people like Air Cadets on their way to college and water polo stars with scholarships. Many of these were Canada's privileged. They had Facebook pages.
Now, thanks to the magic of Google, any inquiry into their names yields evidence of their bad public behavior.
How should we feel about that?
The comments in the posts linked above are a microcosm of the public debate over this phenomenon. Some advocate deliberate public shaming of people who engage in bad public behavior. Others accuse shamers of vigilantism, judgmentalism, and failure to respect the presumption of innocence, and assert that modern Google-fame is a disproportionate punishment that will follow bad actors for too long, because such people "just made a mistake."
Here's my take, which is not terribly different than what I've been writing about this phenomenon for three years:
Vigilantism: Exposing people to the social consequences of their misbehavior is not vigilantism. Subjecting them to physical danger is. That's why decent people involved in this process don't post home addresses or phone numbers, and delete them when they are posted.
Proportionality: The proportionality argument is at least somewhat misguided. First of all, bad behavior doesn't go viral on the internet unless it's really notable. Garden-variety assholes don't get top Google ranking. You've got to be somewhat epic to draw this modern infamy — by, say, being a water polo star on a scholarship trying to torch a cop car because your hockey team lost. Second, lack of proportionality is self-correcting. If conduct is actually just not that bad, then future readers who Google a bad actor's name will review the evidence and say "meh, that's not so bad. Everyone acts up now and then." Saying that bad behavior should not be easily accessible on the internet is an appeal for enforced ignorance, a request for a news blackout. It's saying, in effect, I'm more wise and measured than all the future people who might read about this; they can't be trusted to evaluate this person's actions in the right light, like I can.
"They Just Made A Mistake": The argument that bad actors shouldn't become infamous because they "just made a mistake" is a riff on proportionality. The same criticisms apply: it takes a hell of a mistake to go viral, and future viewers can make up their own minds. Plus, this argument is often sheer bullshit. Trying to torch a cop car because your hockey team lost is not a mere faux pas; normal and decent people don't do it.
Can internet shaming be disturbing? Of course. Threads about Hermon Raju are filled with racist and misogynist drivel. Threads about the hockey rioters are filled with calls for murder. But that's not too different from the way any thread on the internet goes — the trolls are always with us. Moreover, bigotry-driven shaming is self-defeating. Shaming depends on shared values; if communities don't share the values, the shaming doesn't work.
One of the criticisms of modern society is that we're indifferent and best and rude at worst too each other because we're anonymous. We get away with things in big-city life that we couldn't in small-town life because the consequences of our behavior don't follow our name. Can the internet be the antidote for that phenomenon, at least for epic bad behavior? Can it be an effective deterrent to bad behavior in public? Can cell phone cameras be the arms in the catchphrase "an armed society is a polite society?"
What do you think?
Last 5 posts by Ken White
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