In my Know More! Reputations program, I have a section called “American Idiots” where I share stories of business executives who have done dumb things online that have cost them business or worse, their careers. This is one of my and my audiences’ favorite part of the presentation as there are some pretty hilarious examples. And of course it’s always more fun to laugh at others and their mistakes than to confront our own erroneous ways.
I must admit that I take some pleasure in publicly exposing others who are racist, sexist, and/or who participate in online bullying. In some way I suppose it is my passive-aggressive revenge against anyone who was ever cruel to me when I was young.
It’s not only in my presentation where I have experienced joy by exposing other’s stupidity. Many times when I have seen a rude, crude, and/or inappropriate online post, I have been quick to publicly share others’ foolishness. Unlike in my presentation where I sometimes do protect the guilty, because I cannot pixelate out someone else’s Facebook page or Twitter profile, when I call out the other person via social media, I am exposing that individuals name, place of work, and oftentimes full contact information to an audience of potentially hundreds of thousands of people who might not otherwise have known about the individual’s poor behavior.
Why not publicly call a racist out? Why not expose the sexist executive to the world? Why not embarrass the dumblehead so he never makes the same mistake again?
Yet I wonder if my participating in “public shaming” is wrong. For example:
About two years ago the marketing director for a very high-profile company sent an incredibly racist tweet, seen by her thousands of followers. The tweet was sent just prior to her boarding an international flight. As she was in the air with no Internet access, her tweet became one of the most popular topics on social media with her story and contact information being re-tweeted and shared by millions around the globe. By the time her plane landed, there was a crowd gathered at the airport to see if she would be instantly fired from her job. Of course she was.
Fast forward a year and she was interviewed about the incident. In the story she shares how – because the incident is the only thing that now appears when you Google her name – she cannot get a job, she can’t get a date, and that she’s even been alienated by some family members. There is no excusing her tweet or the harmful words contained within it. She claims she is not a racist and was completely joking. I don’t know if that’s true. But I do wonder, what good did her public shaming do? What good was accomplished? How was the world better served by publicly exposing her idiocy? Would it have been better to send her a private message sharing how inappropriate her tweet was and asking her to remove it before it became a global phenomenon?
You may be familiar with Curt Schilling, the World Series winning pitcher and current ESPN baseball commentator. In late February his daughter announced that she would be playing college softball. Like many proud fathers, Schilling tweeted the great news. What followed was some of the most crude, offensive, triple X-rated comments I have ever seen posted online, all in reference to Schilling’s daughter. Schilling did not stand idly by. Through a little research he was able to determine the names of some of the individuals posting the abhorrent words. Schilling then asked his followers to find out where the individuals worked and/or went to school. In no short order some of the individuals were publicly exposed and almost immediately fired from their jobs and kicked out of school.
As a father of a teenage daughter I celebrated Schilling’s actions. I am fairly certain I would have done the same thing in a similar situation. Yet I also wonder if the reaction was extreme. People do dumb things. People do really, really, really dumb things in the name of getting a reaction or a laugh. There is zero defense to any of the things these individuals posted about Schilling’s daughter. They were beyond inexcusable. Yet I also wonder what would have happened if Schilling had contacted each individual and given him the chance to delete his words and genuinely apologize to his daughter? Would a greater lesson have been learned?
Just two weeks ago Mo’ne Davis showed the sort of empathy and maturity that goes well beyond her years. You may remember Davis, the 13-year old Little League pitcher from Philadelphia who became the first girl to earn a win and pitch a shutout in the Little League World Series. Davis became an instant American hero, she was featured on the cover of Sports Illustrated, and Disney recently announced that they were going to make a movie about her story.
In response to Disney’s announcement, a Bloomsburg University student and baseball player tweeted that Davis was a “joke” and in his tweet he called Davis a very offensive name. The University immediately kicked the player off of the team. Social media exploded with comments in support of the University’s decision. Yet it was Davis herself that sent a letter to the school asking that the player be reinstated. In an interview about why she wrote the letter Davis explained, “I know right now he’s really hurt … everyone deserves a second chance.”
Maybe we should all learn from Mo’ne Davis in that, no matter how cruel and offensive a person’s words are, that all of us make mistakes, and all of us may deserve a second chance. There is no defense or excuse for any of the offenders in the previously mentioned stories. Again, the “father side” of my brain would want to do even more than what Schilling did. Yet in an age where virtually everything done online is archived and searchable forever, is it fair that one mistake – no matter how abhorrent – should temporarily alter a life and permanently damage a reputation?
The next time you see a photo, video, or comment online that you think is funny, cruel, or inappropriate, what will you do? Will you broadcast the information in an attempt to publicly shame the offender? Or will you try and reach out to the individual, educate him or her, and ask that the offensive post be removed and an apology offered?
I can honestly tell you that I do not
know what I will do, especially if the victim is someone I care deeply about. However, I do believe that with certainty, I will give pause prior to any action that I take and ask myself if the punishment of permanent shame fits the crime of temporary embarrassment.