While scrolling through Twitter recently I kept coming across explicit mentions of shame. Shame associated with being called out for misogyny/homophobia/racism/islamophobia/transphobia/ or ableism; shame for avoiding debt paperwork; shame for not knowing better… And each time I could relate, relate, relate. I want to try to reconstruct some of what was going through my mind in these different instances.
Let’s start here:
I just wrote a longer thread about mitigating shame in others when we confront them about their racist/sexist/homophobic/ transphobic/islamophobic/ableist statements and my laptop shut down. I take that as a sign. 😳😑 Another day.
The thread that I started was in response to another thread detailing the progress of recruitment of young white males into white supremacist thinking through gaming and social media channels. Specifically this tweet where Joanna Schroeder (@iproposethis) suggests that a young person’s first response to being called on posting racist or misogynist stuff is shame which then leads to poor decisions.
Then they're called out for these jokes/phrases/memes by parents, teachers, kids (mostly girls) at school & online.
The boys then feel shame & embarrassment – and shame is the force that, I believe, leads people to their worst decisions.
This made soooo much sense to me. I have 2 sons who like their games and although they are not white, they are still ripe targets for all the other messages which demean girls and women, ridicule gay and trans folks, and promote obnoxious, toxic masculinity as peak coolness. Confronting them with my concerns and objections can be more than a little challenging. Shame corners us. So we put on our armor and fight back.
I say “us” because I know shame quite well. I experience it on the daily. And no matter how well I can rationally tell myself that shame should not be my default response, it posts up with stunning regularity and confidence. So I fight back, too. My armor comes out faster than Ironman’s suit. Ask my loved ones. They know.
Shame is powerful. It will make us behave in ways we may not intend, have difficulty controlling, and in fact, lead us in directions we weren’t prepared to go. But we go anyway. That’s the catch I’m wondering about how to avoid – in myself and in others. Which is where a different thread had me thinking about this dynamic of calling out – generating shame and defensiveness in the other – responding to that defensiveness – and escalating to point far past learning or real recovery.
It’s cycle we see displayed regularly on social media. In fact, social media platforms live for this kind of inflammation that raises emotions, blood pressure and above all, engagement. How often have you found yourself drawn into an online confrontation, even as a bystander, and felt emotionally tapped? We don’t even need to be directly involved. Those emotions – the embarrassment, hurt, defensiveness, and often aggression – reach us right where we are sitting or standing. All the more, if we are the ones engaging head on. Overexposure is certainly unhealthy.
A couple of people brought up the topic of tone in confronting students expressing misogynist or racist beliefs. Confronting, yes but in a way that is not entirely damaging to the prospect of learning from the exchange. That is a tough challenge. Yet in the classroom we at least have a frame for structuring our dialogue; there are also power dynamics at play which will further influence the possible outcomes. Out on social media, while we may not be entirely on our own, we are open to public scrutiny and commentary in a way that poses different and potentially farther reaching consequences and challenges than a classroom exchange between teacher and student.
How do I engage someone whose viewpoint differs significantly from mine without necessarily triggering the shame-defensiveness-anger cycle?
I don’t have definitive answers but I’m thinking of ways I can help myself wrestle with these situations more effectively – which means in a way that I consider my own care and safety first before trying to save the world that’s already on fire.
Ask myself seriously: Is my engagement here necessary or essential? If not, then maybe leave the debate to others. I’ll go drink tea and read a book.
Before I wade into an ongoing conflict – I try to get as complete a picture of the existing context as possible. I read up and down the thread of tweets and responses to find out exactly who’s involved and try to guess why. Will this conversation be helped by my intervention? In what way? What do I have to offer that might be constructive or helpful?
I can use a side commentary by quote-tweeting the original source of conflict. I did that in the example below to make a point about context collapse and how we might mitigate the shaming cycle:
Creating lists of people to follow is a common practice. We do it to be helpful, to amplify voices we value, and also to engage others in a conversation. Guaranteed: no list can ever be complete. I have a different problem with lists especially on social media. 1/ https://t.co/G8HULzPIOt
In the event that I decide to confront someone, I use questions or invite the person to elaborate on a point of confusion. I only do this where I see evidence of learning potential based on other tweets, the person’s profile and timeline. I do my research first because if this is going to cost me some extra energy, then I want to spend it judiciously.
I pay attention to my own emotional household. What is this involvement calling forth in me? Where and how do I need to be careful? Who’s got my back if I need it?
I pay attention to my time expense. Is this time I have to dedicate to this cause right now? Should /must it wait? Often the real answer is yes. Not responding immediately gives me time to also sort out the steps above.
While this may not be much of an answer to dealing with shame in online confrontations (or elsewhere), it feels helpful for me to articulate how I decide which hill I’m willing to go to battle on (if not die on). Being intentional takes time. And everything about the platforms we use argue precisely against taking our time, pausing, and resisting urgency. The platforms we use are everything but neutral in shaping our online experiences. We make our decisions within the frameworks we are given, not those we have created on our own. This matters greatly.
The next time we feel drawn into a rage-inducing exchange, we can perhaps first ask ourselves how the platform benefits and if that’s where our energies are really best spent. Twitter loves our rage. Our individual and public health do not.
Headlines have a several functions: they should grab our attention, give us the gist of the topic, and make us curious enough to keep reading. In the digital attention economy, the most successful headlines elicit a flurry of clicks, followed by hungry eyeballs. That’s the goal. Hijacking the amygdala or viscerally activating your mirror neurons can all be strategically planned. Platforms that draw crowds know well what it takes to move the masses to click, comment and keep the attention machine running at high speed.
We’re tied up in this business model. In our attempts to stay informed, up to date, critically aware, we also click, click, click our way from one data mongering platform to the next leaving our digital breadcrumbs that will make others well off. Meanwhile these same platforms heap more oil on the dumpster fire of liberal democracies, and we all watch our precious civil liberties disintegrate before our very eyes. Somehow the profitable 1% will survive every political weather – they own our media, their power will not wane anytime soon.
And those headlines, increasingly designed “for your eyes only”, play us one song in 10,000 variations. It’s the song of inevitability, of market forces, of the End of Times. We listen over and over again because it’s ubiquitous and to be honest, it’s kinda catchy. Like the crime novel we can’t put down, we keep turning the pages of this ever unfolding horror story that doles out these pin prick closed questions: Will T do this? Can T do that? Each query a stab at our previously held beliefs about governance and decency and legality.
Questions I regularly ask myself when I'm outraged about injustice: 1. What resources exist so I can better educate myself? 2. Who's already doing work around this injustice? 3. Do I have the capacity to offer concrete support & help to them? 4. How can I be constructive?
Here’s what we can do: Listen to folks who know these ropes. Take their advice, learn from their example.
Take the headlines for what they are: Click-bait with a chance of substance. Read carefully, astutely. Follow Mike Caulfield who is my go-to expert in all things media literacy, especially fact-checking and avoiding disinformation.
Above all recognize that there is no need to go it alone. There are good people all over the internet doing good, meaningful things. There are helpful resources and we can support each other in finding and applying those resources. I resent the complicity of mainstream media in surrendering so fully to the tug of the attention economy and away from shoring up democratic norms through transparency, critical reporting and by countering bigotry. But I see this is where are and not elsewhere.
My illusions are no more. The scales have fallen from my eyes. The trouble is deep and so are our resources if we get our act together.
*2-3 times per week since mid 2017, I have consented to The New Yorker sending me updates to my mailbox on their latest editions. And through the headlines, I noticed patterns. The headlines above are a selection of e-mail headers that I received.
A remarkable summer has passed its midpoint. And yet there’s still so much yet to come: excitement, thrills, reunions and first meetings; a publishing and presenting, adventure and lots of the unknown. It’s been almost 9 months since Sean Michael Morris approached me about joining the faculty of the Digital Pedagogy Lab at University of Mary Washington in Fredericksburg, Virginia. It’s now July 2019 and we’re less than 2 weeks away from Day 1 of the Lab.
On the one hand, I can hardly wait! So many wonderful personalities gathered together for a whole week of reading, thinking, collaborating and creating. My mind becomes a flurry of enthusiasms at the thought: I get to be there! And not only that, I get to lead a track on Digital Identity!
On the other hand, I am also nervous. All of my insecurities come calling whenever I sit down to rethink my plans. I’m perfectly confident until I’m not and then I distract myself with Twitter and the downfall of liberal democracies everywhere and then I sit down to prepare and the cycle begins anew.
like finding a lost volume you missed on your shelves,
like arriving at a favorite but seldom visited restaurant and finding a bunch of friends thrilled to see you,
like being in a bar where they’re playing all your favorite songs, especially the ones you forgot were your favorites.”
Above all, reading their words helped me recognize how my thinking aligns with critical digital pedagogy. They also show me where I can find and create space in the field.
In one essay near the end, Sean describes how nervous he becomes before public speaking. The physiological symptoms sound both challenging and familiar.
I bring this up because nervousness – shaking, quavering, nauseated nervousness – is exactly what critical digital pedagogy feels like. Maxine Greene says that “experiences of shock are necessary if the limits or the horizons are to be breached.” It is therefore unwise to sit in our comfort when what we hope to do is unseat, to shrink when what we want is to grow. (From “Wide-Awakeness and Critical Imagination”, p. 271
Yes, exactly, I want to grow. I want to challenge what has been done before. I want to experiment and risk failure. So, heck yeah I’m nervous! And alive with all kinds of possibility. That’s the beauty. That is the frightening joy.