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It's a Shame

ShameI was catching up on news the other day online and ran across the story of Adam Smith, the former CFO who was fired after his vitriolic Chick-Fil-A video went viral. He went from making $200K a year with a million more in stock options to being on food stamps. He had managed to get a job elsewhere, but when his new employer found out about the video, they also fired him.

About the same time as seeing the news story, as I was cleaning my shed (have to love post-move spring cleaning)I ran across Jonah Lehrer's book, How We Decide. It reminded me of the plagiarism and fabrication scandal involving this book and his newer one, Imagine.

It's interesting how things of such short proximity collide in my brain. A couple of months back, I read a thought-provoking piece by Jon Ronson in the New York Times entitled, "How One Stupid Tweet Blew Up Justine Sacco's Life." In this piece, he dissects numerous incidents of public shaming. In this day and age of social media, it's pretty easy to pick a metaphorical skeleton clean in a matter of seconds and retweets. A couple of paragraphs struck me, though:

Still, in those early days, the collective fury felt righteous, powerful and effective. It felt as if hierarchies were being dismantled, as if justice were being democratized. As time passed, though, I watched these shame campaigns multiply, to the point that they targeted not just powerful institutions and public figures but really anyone perceived to have done something offensive. I also began to marvel at the disconnect between the severity of the crime and the gleeful savagery of the punishment. It almost felt as if shamings were now happening for their own sake, as if they were following a script.

Eventually I started to wonder about the recipients of our shamings, the real humans who were the virtual targets of these campaigns. So for the past two years, I’ve been interviewing individuals like Justine Sacco: everyday people pilloried brutally, most often for posting some poorly considered joke on social media. Whenever possible, I have met them in person, to truly grasp the emotional toll at the other end of our screens. The people I met were mostly unemployed, fired for their transgressions, and they seemed broken somehow — deeply confused and traumatized. (NYT 2/15/15, Ronson)

I know I've felt the self-righteous twinge of vengeance when I've perceived a wrong, whether against me or somebody else. In the early days of social media, Ronson nailed it: there was a leveling of social justice. But now it all seems so swift, so severe. And in this day of social media and mobile phones with video cameras, anybody and everybody seems to be fair game.

My bottom line is this: yes, there are people on this planet who do stupid, careless, thoughtless, and rude things. Their reasons are as vast as the stupidity of their actions. (Guess what? We all fall into that category; most of us are just fortunate enough that our actions weren't captured on camera or on social media.) Perhaps it's this Easter season and the thought of forgiveness is forefront on my brain, but maybe - just maybe - afford people a little leniency (or at least a meaningful dialogue) before passing judgment.

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