We have all heard by now of the unfortunate incident this week between United Airlines and passengers of flight 3411. There is no question that there was a better way for United to handle the overbook problem. There is no question that, in this case, the airline’s policy was simply inadequate to solve the problem. There is also no question that the incident was in no way the fault of the United employees who were supposed to board that flight. Let’s be real – it’s not as if they had a choice. This wasn’t a flexible vacation plan of their own; their employer (United) had them scheduled to be on that flight. There is simply no question – this was a tragic occurrence.
However, we aren’t treating it like a tragedy, are we? Let’s be real a moment; a tragedy doesn’t cease to be a tragedy if it is man-made or policy made. In many ways, it becomes more tragic than something like a natural disaster because it reveals something ugly about the heart of mankind. It makes many of us extremely uncomfortable – these reminders that sometimes we have absolutely zero respect for our fellow man or for the sacredness of human life. But if you’re watching the aftermath unfold on social media, you know well what I’m about to say: We are not treating this like a tragedy; we are treating this like another brazen opportunity to shame.
Be honest. You’ve seen the memes and gifs. You’ve heard the new slogans. Like me, you’ve probably chuckled at some of them. Maybe it’s the only way we know how to have a voice at times – to use social media to mock situations we find unforgivable. That is a problem in and of itself, and we can talk about that sometime. Regardless of why we do it, the result is that we shame whomever we have determined is the guilty party. We have seen this in our culture repeatedly the last several years. A person or party is deemed “guilty” of some atrocious action, or “stupid” in some ridiculous misunderstanding, and they are destroyed because of our incredible ability to mock and publicly shame them.
Maybe you want to tell me that it’s okay. Maybe you want to tell me that public shame is the best way to ensure reformation of behavior. You’re entitled to that opinion, and guess what?—I’m not going to shame you for it because I’ve had about enough of this phenomenon.
Do you remember when Kate Middleton was hospitalized during her pregnancy? Sure you do. There was an incredibly sad story of the nurse who was the butt of a radio prank and revealed confidential information about Middleton, thinking she was speaking to the Queen or something like that. It’s easy for us, looking in from the outside, to exclaim how ignorant and foolish someone must be to fall for such a prank. But really? If someone lies to you, and you believe it – for whatever reasons – it doesn’t make you culpable for the fact that they deceived you.
And how did it end for this nurse? I suppose if she’d seen things through, she would have been at risk of losing her job and her license. Breaking patient confidentiality is kind of a big deal. She may never have been able to work in a medical field again.
No matter, though, right? Some people laughed. Some just shook their heads and thought, “really? You bought that prank?” No matter at all.
Here’s what truly matters in the story: She killed herself.
Here, we saw a woman who was the unfortunate (and inconsequential – she wasn’t specifically targeted, she was just the person who happened to answer the phone) punch line of an immature prank, and the backlash was more than she could handle. Somewhere in her heart and mind, the public disgrace on top of the professional problem convinced her that she could not move on from this one tragic moment in her life. And so, bearing the weight of a shame that was not entirely of her own making, she took her own life. How, in this case, did public shame help reform any misguided behavior? The only thing it did was end the life of a woman who made a mistake.
Recently a young boy in my hometown was the victim of an online prank. Not knowing any better, he believed a lie that was perpetrated by his classmates on social media, and after learning the truth – after learning he had been tricked and made a public spectacle of – he hanged himself by the neck. His mother found him that way. He died this week in a hospital in Detroit. The victim of a ridiculous online prank, this child (I emphasize, this was a child – 11 years old) was shamed enough that he felt he couldn’t go on? Nobody is going to argue that this is okay because we all know intrinsically – it’s an outrage. This was a child, someone who our society should be protecting, and instead, we feed the cultural norms that cut his life far too short.
It’s not acceptable. You see, we think that we are doing some great public service in cases like the United debacle. We think that if we make them look ridiculous, we are standing on the right side of history. What we’re really doing is shaming them. And look, the United situation is different from the two stories mentioned above. It is drastically different. But, was it different for those United employees who, after Dr. Dao was removed from the plane, had to board the flight amid the outrage of all the other passengers? I’m not saying I wouldn’t have been outraged, myself. But none of what happened was of their doing, and they are, I’m sure, dealing with the shame we’re putting on United.
Is it different for Sean Spicer? Crikey – the man made a stupid gaffe. The rest of us have this ridiculous blessing of not always being “on.” Many of the stupid things we blurt out without thinking remain hidden in our private lives. Should Spicer do a better job as Press Secretary? Yes, of course. But can we ever just listen to someone say, “Gosh, I screwed that up—that’s not what I meant or intended,” and let it settle? Can we stop trashing the man?
Frankly, friends, I am tired of a culture where men and women and children feel that public humiliation is so bad, so strong, so unfixable that they take their own lives. I am tired of a culture where fallible beings are not permitted the grace to make mistakes or ever be wrong about anything. I am tired of a culture where the laugh of the day is more important than the frail lives behind the story. To be blunt about it, this is simply unacceptable. When did we become a society that not only accepts this, but fuels its fire?
What are we going to do about this, folks?
When our public shaming becomes so toxic that it takes the lives of people we have deemed “unpardonable” or ridiculous or foolish… then we have become the real fools. We can do better than this.
Many Americans this weekend will be remembering the pivotal moment of our faith – the death and resurrection of Jesus. As we consider once again this story of redemption, let us ask ourselves whether we even believe in redemption anymore… because our behavior towards anyone who makes a mistake lately suggests that we simply do not. And frankly… if we are more concerned with mocking than with redemption, that makes us worse than anything we mock; it makes us…