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:
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.
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:
- 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.