Brandon Ambrosino is a freelance writer in Delaware.
“Please move, ma’am,” the video begins.
D’Arreion Toles, who is black, is trying to enter his apartment building, but is being blocked by Hilary Thornton, a white woman, as her tiny dog runs between the two. It’s a perfect start to the kind of video that 2018 social media lives for.
“Do you live here?” she asks. “The key pad is right there,” suggesting that he use his key fob if he wants to enter.
“You’re blocking me,” Mr. Toles says.
“Into my building,” she replies. Mr. Toles, who’s filming the video, tells her it’s his building, too. She doesn’t believe him.
Up until this point, I get it: Some people could reasonably be concerned about someone insisting on entering their apartment building without a key. In fact, an e-mail from the St. Louis, Mo.-building’s condo association instructed tenants to “Never allow someone to enter when you enter or exit,” according to Ms. Thornton.
But you can’t help but cringe as you anticipate the intense fire this woman is going to come under over the next few days. Weeks. Months? The headlines write themselves: “White woman doesn’t let a black man enter his own apartment.”
Is Ms. Thornton a racist whose behavior is indefensible, like those who call the police when black people barbecue in a park (yes, this actually happened)? Or is she a concerned condo dweller enforcing the rules? She is likely somewhere in the middle – but once this video is online, it won’t matter. The online shame mobs will destroy her IRL (in real life).
After the man gains access to the building – according to the woman, by shoving his way in – she says, “You can film all you want. I’m not being rude. I’m not being disrespectful. You walked into a building that I was taking my dog out [of], and pushed your way in.”
She follows him to his apartment, and once she sees that his key fits his door, she changes her tune. Dramatically. For the record, she tells him, she just wants to meet him if he really is her neighbour. “I just want to say hi. What is your name?”
“Don’t ever do that again. You look pretty stupid on video,” he shoots back.
She seems to be desperately trying to make it better, to find a way to explain herself not only to him – but presumably to the millions of people who will end up watching her performance.
At some point during their interaction, it appears Ms. Thornton realized she might be about to become the next viral racist, taking her place among the ranks of #BBQBecky. Perhaps she suspected that perfect strangers would call for her to be fired, and that her employer would probably oblige them. None of those strangers would know or care about anything else in this woman’s life, including if she acts this way with all people trying to enter her building without a key, or if she has good reasons to have a heightened level of fear. (Perhaps she is one of the millions of women who is an assault survivor?)
Predictably, her employer, a property-management company that does not manage the residence in question, did fire her, calling the interaction “disturbing.”
“She did what she did to herself,” Mr. Toles told a local news station.
That’s only partly true. Of course she’s responsible for her actions, and only some of those are arguably justifiable – at least until she follows him into the elevator. Up until that point, it’s reasonable to think she might be acting in the interests of her and her fellow residents' safety. But if she was genuinely wary of this person, one wonders, why would she follow him into an enclosed space alone?
On the other hand, Mr. Toles is responsible for pulling out his camera instead of his key fob. He’s responsible for sharing the video on Facebook, and asking his followers to pass it along to local news providers.
And, of course, we’re responsible for playing along.
“Don’t go after the lady,” Mr. Toles wrote in the original post, which rang hollow. Did he really expect people would watch the video and then scroll quietly to the next thing?
Does he not know how social media works?
Does he not know how we work?
Renrou Sousou is a Chinese phrase loosely translated to “human flesh search” (HFS). Dated to the early aughts, HFS is something like a cybermanhunt or doxing. People take to web-based discussion boards and in elaborate searches uncover and share all the information they can find on their target. “Human flesh” refers to the flesh-and-blood humans working together to dig up the information. But you can also take it metaphorically: Humans on the internet are out for blood.
We don’t use this phrase in the West, but we have come up with our own ways to code a cyberhunt: “Here’s this terrible person who did this terrible thing,” we tweet. “Get on it!” Translation: Find out everything you can about this person, including their job, family, home and political affiliation, and let’s see how fast we can bring them down. A recent example is Alison Ettel, the San Francisco white woman who, after going viral for calling the police on a black child for selling water, was mocked online as Permit Patty and forced to resign from her job.
“You can hide all you want,” the woman filming her can be heard saying. “The whole world’s gonna see you, boo.”
Those words were intended to sound menacing. But because, as we watch the video, we interpret them in the context of the online world, we don’t classify them as a real-world threat. The woman filming the video was only suggesting that Permit Patty would be paraded, as a bad example of humanity, on the internet.
Imagine I come up to you in the real world and tell you I’m going to destroy you, that I’m going to get my friends involved, that there’s no hiding from us. Chances are such a threat wouldn’t be brushed off as easily. Sure, there are differences between the acts – physical proximity and immediacy, for starters. But when we consider that cyberbullying has led to real-world suicide, that internet harassment has resulted in career terminations, that Twitter mobs have gone after the wrong guy, that judges are holding people accountable for crimes they’ve participated in via social media, it becomes difficult to know where exactly to draw the line between the digital and non-digital worlds.
We have to stop pretending that social-media punishments are only minor inconveniences to the people we shame. They are life-altering. They are enormously consequential. They have the power to ruin people.
In Is Shame Necessary, Jennifer Jacquet says the essence of shame is exposure, which requires an audience. Shaming, she says, is “exposing a transgressor to public disapproval.” There are several theories as to why this behaviour might have emerged in our ancestors. While some researchers see it as maladaptive, a recent paper published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences posits what its authors call the information theory of shame: “shame is an emotion program that evolved to manage the evolutionarily recurrent threat of devaluation due to adverse information reaching others.” In other words, shame served an adaptive purpose in humans by encouraging our ancestors to cooperate and preventing them from damaging their social relationships.
That means there was an end goal to shame. But in the digital world, what is the goal of shame? Unlike tarring and feathering someone, digital punishments don’t occur in specific times and places. A shaming tweet lasts forever and follows you wherever you go. It’s not so much, for instance, that we get people fired; we make them perpetually unemployable.
I suppose one could argue this realization is a powerful deterrent against bad behaviour: Don’t mess up or we won’t let you live it down. But that’s assuming the angry digital mob’s sense of ethics will always be perfectly fine-tuned – which is clearly not the case.
We also need to consider whether the threat of never letting someone live it down is truly a motivator for good behavior. Is it really a win to, say, shame a racist into simply keeping his racist thoughts off Facebook while he continues sharing them in “safer” contexts? Sure, there’s value in public conformity to social norms, but the greater long-term value to society lies in cultivating members who are truly compassionate, tolerant and inclusive. The threat of eternal digital damnation doesn’t encourage people to mend their ways.
But that was never the goal. We’re not interested in changing the people we’re shaming. Shaming isn’t really about them; in fact, it usually ends with their public erasure. Shame is about us – the gleeful, cheering, liking, sharing, commenting, hating audience.
In a follow-up Facebook post to his video of his confrontation with Ms. Thornton, Mr. Toles thanked people for their support. “No time for negativity!” he said, before ending with basically an advertisement for himself, inviting fans to hear more on his take about what happened – “Video tomorrow & YouTube channel coming soon!”
He’s currently followed by more than 16,000 people on Facebook. His video clips have been seen more than 15 million times. The language he uses to tell his Facebook fans about a new interview with local media – “dropping the interview @ 10” – is the language recording artists use when they release new albums. Mr. Toles does seem genuinely interested in using his experience with Ms. Thornton to raise awareness about racism, but in some ways it seems he might be more interested in riding the wave of his recent viral fame, in building, out of this event, a brand for himself.
In 2018, drawing a line between “raising awareness” and “building a brand” is nearly impossible. You can do both at the same time, obviously, but you’ve got to be prepared to approach the question of motivation head on. There’s a lot of fame and money involved with clicks and likes.
Canadian professor and philosopher Marshall McLuhan became internationally famous for his idea that the medium is the message: The content of a message is inseparable from and defined by the context in which it’s sent and received. Whatever else social-media shaming might be, it will always be entertainment first.