Shame doesn’t scale

There are many reasons to celebrate the internet, not least the availability of the vast majority of written human knowledge at the fingertips of anyone with a browser and a connection. We are only scratching the surface of the possibilities of this incredible increase in the “velocity” of ideas and the interconnections between previously-disparate areas of study. The marketplace of information and thought has become exponentially more free in this generation. Who knows what marvelous inventions and discoveries might result?

There are many well-documented negative consequences of the internet too; groups of people with destructive or malicious intent can more easily find each other and work together.

There seems to be a growing trend, uniquely facilitated by the internet which, on the face of it, has the appearance of being positive and for the good of society but perhaps has regrettable long term consequences.

The concept of “shame” is a highly-efficient mechanism developed though evolution  to ensure socially-compliant behaviour by people in small groups. A tribe will ostracise and shun a member who acts against the common good, not using the designated latrine area, for example. This shaming has served us well as a species over thousands of generations, enabling us to live and work together far more effectively with surprisingly few conflicts. If you think that last sentence sounds incorrect, consider how many more fights and blood feuds we’d have in society if we did whatever we wanted without considering what the neighbours might think.

Perhaps shame loses its utility with scale, that is, the damage done by shaming a behaviour becomes too extreme compared to the benefit it may bring?

The most recent example that springs to mind is that of James Damore and his now infamous dossier as a response to a request for feedback following his attendance at several internal Google diversity seminars.

Despite the fact that the original document (here, complete with the charts and citations most media reports edited out) reads as a well-argued counter argument as requested, the internet outcry was intense enough to result in Google firing him.

The vast majority of criticism (maybe use alternate search engines to look for it) was ad hominen rather than explaining where Damore’s arguments were flawed.

Similarly, Justine Sacco was subject to an internet campaign of shame following an ill-advised poor taste joke on Twitter. She too lost her job as a consequence.

Regardless of whether or not the content of Damore’s dossier was accurate or had worth or whether Sacco’s joke was in poor taste, in an earlier age the consequences of both would have been unlikely to be so extreme.

There is a tendency to “pile on” on social media to shame individuals with whom we disagree. The left-leaning are particularly adept and enthusiastic in this but it is not exclusive behaviour by any end of the political spectrum.

Shame does not scale up well.

What might be the consequences of this increased consequence to shame at scale?

Bill’s Opinion

This blog itself is a great indication as to the consequences; anonymous and hosted in a country with some of the better internet privacy laws. I’d prefer to write this under my own name but the risk to my livelihood and privacy is too great.

But more broadly, how many of us have witnessed situations on social media where you would have wished to make a contrary statement or at least debate the point but were conscious of the risk of being subject to being labeled with one of the words with the ‘-ist’ suffix. My personal LinkedIn timeline is a classic for this; I see so much that I take issue with and would want to call out as incorrect or at least logically-flawed but the risk of collateral damage is too great.

So, the consequence is silence.

Note, the consequence isn’t that the contrary opinions go away, just that they are not aired in the company of those who will disagree with them.

So the ultimate consequence is increased polarisation of opinions where opposing views are rarer exposed to each other in the marketplace of ideas to compete to discover which is contains more truth.

It’s fashionable these days to suggest reasons for Brexit and Trump winning and often these might be only tangentially-related , but this silence of the shamed might have a very strong correlation.

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