Shame game: When the joke’s not funny anymore

It might be a quip  about a hair style, agentle taunt about a misspelling, a wee joke from a person you last saw in sixth class, but it all adds up to death by a thousand digital cuts and it’s about time we called a halt, writes Clodagh Finn

Shame game: When the joke’s not funny anymore

IT used to be considered rude to point and laugh. When did that change? I’m trying to pinpoint the moment when I crossed the line myself. One day, I used to find that kind of thing voyeuristic and mean-spirited, then the next, there I was at the front of the huddle around the computer screen guffawing at the latest celebrity blooper.

It was hilarious stuff — the newscaster touching up his make-up; the continuity announcer fluffing her lines; the A-lister tripping on the red carpet.

Somehow, it seemed okay to snigger if the person was famous. Or rich, like that time the boy-band member asked who Socrates was, or the time 50 Cent vented at this grandma for making him put out the bins, or that famous time Paris Hilton thanked the late Nelson Mandela for his amazing ‘I have a dream’ speech.

The backlash to the Mandela-Martin Luther King mix-up was immediate. The faux pas was retweeted 15,000 times and the slagging, picking, poking, teasing, mocking and ribbing went on for days. Then the news broke that she had never, in fact, sent that tweet. It was fake.

So, what happened next? Well, nothing. No one rushed to take back the scorn and ridicule. Makes you think, doesn’t it? Though it’s near impossible to avoid the stream of breathless stories about celebs, of all hues, and their various misadventures.

There was a particularly mean story during the week about a DJ who walked into a bollard. He hurt himself but it was reported like this: “Fortunately, a woman nearby caught the hilarious moment on camera and shared it with the world on Twitter.” I felt sheepish for even reading the story — and, in truth, a little bit sullied. “Fortunately”?

“Hilarious moment”? Really? It made me think of the day I took a near-tumble in the office, tripping over a bag strap and ricocheting from one desk to another before banging, with an impressive thud, into a filing cabinet. I somehow remained upright, but anyone who saw it was in stitches.

Afterwards, a colleague apologised for laughing and said I was lucky that no one had caught it on camera as it would have been up on YouTube in a flash.

And sure what harm if it had been; who really cares about Josephine Soap’s mortifying office dance?

The issue, however, is that this sort of mundane mishap is now considered broadcastable ‘news’.

It’s fine — well, sort of — if you’re a grown adult and able to defend yourself against the taunts that will surely come, but what about that 12-year-old who was ‘outed’ as a bully on Facebook by his own mother?

It doesn’t matter what he did or which side of the debate you’re on, how can anyone think it is reasonable to subject a child to the gaze of the world at large?

Had he committed an offence, his case would have been heard in a children’s court, in private. Had he been older (and again assuming that he had committed a crime), he would have been judged by just 12 of his peers, not every single person with a smartphone.

But here’s the thing: he has not committed any indictable crime yet the rights and wrongs of his actions (and, to be fair, his mother’s) are now wide open to discussion. Anyone can add their tuppence worth.

That’s public shaming in my book, which is just another word for mob justice. When the ‘accused’ is vastly outnumbered by those doing the accusing, then something is wrong.

It’s a question of scale. If a child does something wrong, it is entirely reasonable to do something constructive about it. Put that child’s misdemeanour on a digital platform and you are exposing it to the righteous outpouring of the masses. It is just one voiceless boy against a particularly vociferous world.

At least celebrities have PR people to do their bidding. This boy and all the other mere mortals who find their lapses or blunders online are all on their own.

Facebook’s ‘Bullygate’ went viral but it’s at the more extreme end of the scale. Every single day, ordinary people with ordinary lives pay the price of connectedness.

Someone might post a picture of them without their knowledge. It might work well, eliciting ‘likes’, smiley emoticons and little thumbs-up. Or, as often happens, the smart alecs wax lyrical with a procession of snide remarks and putdowns that are supposedly funny but, in truth, grind away at a person’s self-esteem.

It might be a quip about a hair style, a gentle taunt about a misspelling, a wee joke from a person you last saw in sixth class, but it all adds up to death by a thousand digital cuts.

I thought we were trying, as a nation, to leave shame behind but it seems to be the most potent tool in the digital age.

Can I dip a toe in the water here and ask if there is anybody else out there who would like to run up the white flag and call an end to the online shame game?

Or, at the very least, could we try to channel it in a worthwhile direction? Let’s shift the focus entirely and recall how the internet played a huge part in highlighting the human tragedy of the refugee crisis by flashing around the world that harrowing picture of a dead Syrian toddler on a beach in Bodrum.

At the time, people argued that it was justified to publish such an invasive image because it was designed to prompt the world into action.

That argument rings rather hollow now, but maybe the image really did strike a chord. I would love to see a study on how the photograph of Aylan Kurdi moved the ordinary person on the street: did it prompt more donations, more discussion, more lobbying, more debate? Did it make us point — and, instead of laughing, try to effect change?

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