What do you think about the practice of online public shaming? Do you think we are too quick to condemn people and organizations on the internet? Or is engaging in criticism an essential part of digital citizenship today?
Have you ever participated in a social media pile on or been the subject of one? If so, what was it like and how did it make you feel?
In “Esquire’s Cover Boy and Our Culture of Shame,” Robyn Kanner writes about the practice of digital shaming. In 2004, as a teenager growing up in a small town in Maine, she campaigned for George W. Bush. Fifteen years later, Ms. Kanner — “a trans woman living in Brooklyn, with ‘Infinite Jest’ on my nightstand and ‘This Is America’ on repeat” — says her views have changed drastically:
I voted for Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012, and for Hillary Clinton in 2016. I believe that every person in America deserves health care. I don’t think we’re paying enough attention to the destructive damages of addiction. I’m terrified of climate change and believe we should end the use of fossil fuels. All my friends are gay.
Still, I harbor an intense fear that part of my past will be used to invalidate the person I am now. I’m afraid of what my friends would think of my campaigning for Mr. Bush. Would I lose their trust? Would they fear that I secretly support war or xenophobic views? Would they believe me if I told them that campaigning for Mr. Bush was one impolitic moment on a long journey of understanding who I am?
Things are far worse for Americans younger than me — those who don’t know a world without the internet.
The one on my mind this week is Ryan Morgan, a 17-year-old from West Bend, Wis. He’s the cover boy of the latest issue of Esquire — the subject of a story called “An American Boy” by Jennifer Percy. Morgan is a white, middle-class teenager growing up in a conservative home with parents who support President Trump. He’s a sneakerhead who loves video games and the Green Bay Packers. He hates how politics are dividing his friendships. “Last year was really bad.” he tells Esquire. “I couldn’t say anything without pissing someone off.”
In Wisconsin, white people account for 87.3 percent of the population. In the 2016 election, President Trump took all of the state’s 10 electoral votes. Ryan Morgan may not be the American boy some want, but he is the American boy who is.
Still, his presence in Esquire sparked rage online. Zara Rahim, a spokeswoman for Clinton’s 2016 campaign, called out Esquire for running the story during Black History Month. “Imagine this same ‘American Boy’ headline with someone who looks like Trayvon talking about what it’s like to have your mother sit you down to tell you how to stay alive,” she wrote on Twitter. Others echoed the complaint.
One can debate whether the article should have run a month earlier or later, or whether Esquire runs enough stories about teenage boys of color. But few if any of those criticisms actually engaged with the story itself: Was the portrait wrong? Did it add value to our understanding of America in this moment?
While many in the press attacked Esquire, others went for Ryan Morgan. Some suggested he needed to be punched. Some suggested sending him hate mail. Others just swore.
If in 2020, he chooses to go to college, the Esquire story and the reaction to it will come up during his interview. If in 2025 he finds himself online dating, it will be right there, on Google, for any potential dates to find. People change, pictures don’t.
Like myself at 17, the teenager on Esquire’s cover clearly doesn’t have strong political values or ideas; he seems to have adopted those of the people around him, maybe simply because he wants to fit in. Indeed, he talks about softening his positions to avoid being ostracized: “It’s better to be a moderate, because then you don’t get heat.” He is currently being shamed for being uninformed, for being a normal teenager.
Digital shaming is arguably the only punishment that does not have a statute of limitations. Do we really want to live in a culture like this? Where no one has the room to grow or change or become a new version of him or herself? I’d like to think that the differences between me in 2019 and me in 2004 is a sign that we all can. The question is whether we can give one another the generosity to do so.
Students, read the entire article, then tell us:
— Do you believe people can change? Have your own views or beliefs about something ever changed? If so, what changed and what prompted your transformation?
— Do you think it’s fair to judge someone based on his or her thoughts or actions as a teenager? Should adolescents be held to the same standards as adults? Why or why not?
— What’s it like to be a teenager in today’s culture of online public shaming? Do you fear being ostracized for your beliefs or values by your community or society at large? Are you more thoughtful about the things you read and post online? Are you ever worried that something you say or do will end up on the internet and come back to haunt you later in life?
— What do you think about the practice of digital shaming after reading this piece? Do you agree with the author that it prevents people, especially teenagers, from being able to learn, grow and change? Or, does it help us question our beliefs and teach us to be more thoughtful about our words and actions?
— Ms. Kanner ends her piece by asking, “Do we really want to live in a culture like this?” Do you? Over all, do you think online public shaming makes our society better or worse? Why?
Students 13 and older are invited to comment. All comments are moderated by the Learning Network staff, but please keep in mind that once your comment is accepted, it will be made public.