Viral Shaming

Opinions aren’t the problem. Opinions are the solution. The problem, in my opinion, is that most of the posts on social media aren’t opinions, they’re positions taken against others’ posts, which were positions taken against others’ posts. We’re not precise with our opinions. Before I start on a gorilla, I’m going to discuss a lion.

I hate the guy whose kill of the lion went viral some months ago. He’s easy for me to hate. He hunts for sport, he hunts endangered species for sport, and he killed a lion from a sanctuary, named “Cecil.” That’s a helpful narrative if I’m eager to fuel my hatred, for him, which I am. What really happened is likely more complicated and it wouldn’t be precise for me to leave that out. This rich dentist maybe always wanted to hunt and kill a lion. He found a safari tour that offered him that opportunity, for a large fee. They probably didn’t advertise the questionable practices they used to sell that product to him, i.e. luring a lion off a sanctuary into an area where it was no longer protected. I could dismiss that and say he should have known, but how many items do I buy at stores that if I investigated how they got to that store would leave me feeling guilty for purchasing them? I can still hate the guy, but when I bring in these possibilities I start questioning if his punishment fit his crime. The organized viral shaming he endured was severely damaging. The dentistry business he spent his life building closed. A few dental hygienists lost their jobs, too. (I would guess.)

Now we have parents who are being virally shamed for a moment of losing close eye on their child. However lax their supervision might have been, they did nothing deliberate. Now at a time when they would be basking in relief that their son is alive and well with ‘what could have happened’ teaching them a valuable lesson, they’re instead having to endure blasting from the internet about what horrible parents they are. The gorilla and the kid are innocent. The gorilla had to be killed. We’re not going to let a four-year-old wander into a gorilla exhibit at a zoo and not take the safest action possible to protect him, even if that means killing the gorilla. Between the zoo and the parents, I’d call the fault a coin flip. If I’m at a zoo with a four-year-old, I’m going to keep a watch on the kid, as best I can. I’m also going to make the assumption that him crawling into an exhibit with a gorilla isn’t in the realm of possible trouble he can get into.

We tend to assume we’re safe. I’m going to bring one more example into this post, that’s been on my mind. A few years ago, there was a tragic internet story that deeply upset me. A fan at a baseball game in Texas, while leaning over a rail for a foul ball, fell and died. I was highly sensitive to the story because I was grieving for my own father and I remember the man had a ten-year-old son. Then despite knowing that few things cost you your faith in humanity more than reading internet comments, I dragged past the story and read numerous responses from people who would have been smarter and not risked death over a baseball. They created a simple narrative that made ridiculing him possible, I suppose to avoid the anguish of empathizing with him. An obviously false narrative. He didn’t risk his life to catch a souvenir baseball. He lost track of where he was when he leaned over a railing and lunged for a foul ball, which every fan dreams of catching. His focus had been on the game and not on the drop past the railing, because we tend to assume we’re safe.

I don’t know all the details of the zoo incident, but I don’t need to know them to keep the possibility in mind that the parents were watching their kid but expected him to wander off in any other direction except into the gorilla exhibit. So they probably looked everywhere else first, after he slipped out of sight as kids sometimes do. The point is we don’t know what happened but we can imagine a variety of circumstances. So because an innocent gorilla was shot and killed and that sucks we become highly motivated to choose a scenario that gives us someone to blame, because we’re angry and we imagine that if we have a place to put our anger we’ll feel better, which we actually won’t. The problem is worse because this story has gone viral and so has our directed anger at these parents, who have no identity outside of the assumptions we’re making about them.

The counter to the line of thinking I’ve tried to present here is usually the argument for holding people accountable. Which doesn’t apply, at all, to the baseball example, but certainly does to the lion one and, maybe, to the zoo one. But while we’re holding people accountable, we’re also missing our opportunity to contemplate us finding ourselves in similar circumstances and how differently we’d feel then and how much more understanding we would be of those mistakes, which ironically is our failure to hold ourselves accountable in the way we, first, think and then present what we think on social media.


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