Outrage, shock, empathy, and shaming.


I’m writing a book on videogames culture that heavily focuses on the online harassment within it. (It will be out in March 2016.) As part of my research I read Jon Ronson’s “So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed”, along with a few others. I found it a fascinating book, and I enjoyed the ways it made me uncomfortable, and the ways in which it made me ask questions. So I thought I’d do a little mind dump about it. I’ve also been reading Roman Krznaric’s book “Empathy, a handbook for revolution,” and found that they complement each other quite well. Not that they’re saying the same things, but rather they have elegant moments of dovetailing.

Earlier this year, we lost our friend and great writer, Kat Muscat. Tattooed on her arm were three words that were without a doubt her personal motto: “Defiance. Feminism. Empathy.” She lived this way, she wrote this way, and after losing her, it felt like a constructive way to grieve for me to devour as much about the three topics as I could. To become adept at them, to understand their anatomy, and maybe then feel closer to her. If I didn’t, then at least I’d learned some stuff? It beats crying every time someone looks like her.

In studying empathy in terms of enacting social change, I’ve discovered it to be not only a loving approach but an essential one in the anatomy of Getting Shit Done, as long as it doesn’t stand alone. When we think of empathy we often think of putting yourselves in someone’s shoes, and possibly even seeking a rush of looking as though we’re Better At Human Feelings than others. “Look how well I can empathy” is often a hidden subtext behind the sharing of a confronting article on Facebook, or Twitter. Without forthcoming action, empathy can be performative at best, and self-indulgent wank at worst. But used in conjunction with other things, in a certain order, it’s some powerful stuff.

Lots has been written about “outrage culture”, mostly scoffing and piousness about how “sensitive” we’re all becoming. How quick we are to get in a tizzy about something. It’s all too familiar to hear this as a woman, we’re so often told to calm down or stop being hysterical, that the hairs on my neck stand on end whenever anything even slightly resembles this narrative, even if I have to squint to see it. It’s like Spidey Senses. This squinty reaction happened quite a few times during Ronson’s book. At times I felt it as a call to settle down, all a bit too convenient for all the people trying to shut up marginalised voices. But in reality, it was a call to have more empathy. It was someone shouting to the pillory “Hey! Hey I don’t think this is right!” and it was hard for me to balance this raising-hackles instinct with the (very necessary) call for more empathy. I wanted more empathy.

What I’ve been finding is that there might be legs to the idea that outrage is entirely necessary to social change, but it needs tempering and nuance in order to actually do anything other than act as someone’s personal catharsis. Philosopher and professor of psychology at City University of New York Jesse Prinz essentially says there’s more to social change than stepping into someone’s shoes, because at the end of all that, all you’re doing is standing there in someone else’s footwear.

“To say you’re against empathy is like to say you’re against puppy dogs, but I do think that these self-help books that give us this sense that there’s a kind of panacea — there are investments and government programs dedicated to increasing empathy, that is simply a misallocation of resources.” 

If you think about the kind of outrage we experience when we witness an injustice, when we think about major problems of global poverty that have structural and political origins, that outrage can be extremely motivating. Feelings like outrage and injustice are much more successful at motivating more moral emotions than these vicarious forms of distress that are associated with empathy.” 

When we want to achieve real societal change, we need to first hit Empathy, to make people care. This then helps us make them Outraged enough to want to help. If you finish this pattern with a call to Action, something you can give them to help, they most likely will. When “shock” tactics are used, without empathy, outrage, and action coming next, they are, in my humble opinion, total bullshit and exist purely for people to wank about how much they care about something more than everyone else. It’s why “raising awareness” is becoming eye-roll inducing for so many.

A shock tactic, by definition, is meant to render us motionless. To stop us in our tracks. That on its own cannot be a motivator to action for it’s the exact opposite. Let’s take the example of the social media feeds of certain kinds of animal activists, just to pick one out of thin air. A bear in a cage, weeping, or dead animals, or animals caught in rubbish or traps, will often scroll down our social media feeds, shared by an animal lover who “just can’t.” We feel shock, we feel empathy for the animal (for we have our own animals at home, or have had pleasant experiences with animals, or anthropomorphise them), but unless we’re allowed to feel outraged at who ever is responsible, we’re stuck there. We’re stuck in “Oh my god that’s awful” land. That land reaps no crops. If that viral post is followed by who is doing this to them, and what we can do about it (which is hopefully more than just donating money, but that’s a whole other discussion), then it might actually enact change. But “shock value”, on its own, is a myth.


I think a lot of what Jon Ronson discusses in his book is the ugly mob mentality that appears when we get stuck in the shock or the outrage part of this cycle, and the only action afforded is to fire off missives at people. When people were angry at Justice Sacco for making a really poor taste tweet (that many would argue is racist) they wanted to destroy her. People were braying for blood and they weren’t going to be satisfied until she got off that plane and found out she was fired. People went to the airport hoping to snap a photo of the moment she found out, so we could all revel in it together. Half of this is because she’s a woman and people hate women. The other half is that people found her actions disgusting, and had no way to take action against the structures and reasons that enabled her to say it, so they attacked her. In their quest to be righteous they thought they could take one brick from the big wall of racism. But in reality, they eviscerated a woman who made a dumb tweet, and had no regard for what it would do to her life, and didn’t think about the fact that a huge part of this was because she was a woman. Yes, I think her tweet was racist and in incredibly poor taste. But it’s so important to have empathy for her situation, because we’ve all fucked up and said dumb shit. Empathy isn’t complacency, it’s hard fucking work. Misogynists came out of the woodwork, some of them even pretending not to be racists for 5 minutes so they could jump on the bandwagon and publicly flay a woman.

There’s nuances in the topic of public shaming via social media that I wish Ronson explored a bit more. Most of the victims of the public shaming he spoke to had admittedly done something stupid or regrettable. He spoke to a plagiarist who was found out, a woman who wrote a dumb tweet, and many others. What I think was lacking was just how easy it is for people to be publicly shamed for *doing absolutely nothing wrong*. We’ve seen in the last few years, women being attacked for doing incredibly reasonable and non-controversial work, especially in the field of videogames. People being shamed and attacked viciously for doing work that would be considered completely innocuous in any other setting. He did say how important social media was for marginalised voices. He didn’t stray into “Oh you silly things” territory about how we should all just turn our phones off and get over it. But I would have liked to have seen people represented to hadn’t done a dicky thing first. Of course, it’s his book, he can do whatever he wants, and if he didn’t find that interesting that’s totally okay. (Check me out having empathy for him instead of getting mad, topical!)

It’s very easy to read Jon Ronson’s book as “everyone settle the fuck down, don’t get your knickers in a knot,” but that would be doing it a disservice. He’s not saying that. He’s asking for us to question the social media pile on. The mob mentality. He’s telling people to put the pitch forks down, no matter how righteous you may be. It’s a good point. What I especially like about it, is that it’s normally marginalised voices that get piled on the hardest, and I want to see that happen less, but also what I liked about this view is that if we don’t waste our time on the pile on, we can dedicate it to moving toward actual change instead. I still think social media is an important way to speak truth to power, much like physical protests or collectivising, but I think when we don’t have any rules for engagement and the systems in place profit from these shitfights, that we could stand back and just consider even for a brief moment if we want to participate in it. I’ve jumped in a bunch of pile ons, when they’re punching up. Sometimes it feels like a tiny win. But Ronson’s book has given me food for thought about what constitutes a win at all. Just because something feels like a win doesn’t mean it will be one, and the book has helped me see it more clearly, as someone who was of the “DON’T CARE, SENDING TWEET TO MISOGYNIST IDIOT FOR CRIMES AGAINST BRAINING” persuasion, and is easily seduced by the whiff of promise that comes after.

Unfortunately he’s getting a lot of flack about this book, and he wrote about it on Monday for the Guardian. The thing about the hasty world of social media is we lose nuance, that’s something I don’t think many people would disagree with. The nuance he is calling for is that we can be righteous in challenging systems of oppression and hatred, but we should be ever mindful of oppression and hatred being the tools we use in order to achieve this. In the book he says, “I think our natural disposition as humans is to plod along until we get old and stop. But with social media we’ve created a stage for constant artificial high dramas, everyday a new person emerges as a magnificent hero or a sickening villain. It’s all very sweeping, and not the way we actually are as people. What rush is overpowering us at times like this? What are we getting out of it?”

We need to turn our Shock and Outrage into Actions that don’t hurt other people. This would be Defying the urge to pile on, Feminist in its consideration of intersectionality, and Empathic in its reminder that we’re all humans behind those screens. Keep telling those who abuse power to fuck off, but we need to be mindful of our own power, too.

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