Saturday Bag o’ Public Shaming

bag of shame#HasJustineLandedYet

Remember that hashtag? It trended for twelve hours one day last December, blanketing Twitter and Facebook. It was a flash mob phenomenon, with the emphasis on mob. It made a previously unknown woman a pariah, and it cost her a job.

I think about recycling that hashtag every time social media turns against some poor slob who says something regrettable, but then I realize few would get the joke.

The target of yesterday’s twelve-hour burn-the-witch frenzy was a USAF staff sergeant who posed for an in-your-face photo with a POW/MIA sign. People reacted as if she’d pissed on the American flag. Taken a dump on a basket of puppies. Drop-kicked a baby. The photo spread like wildfire on Twitter. The sergeant was identified and named. By this morning the USAF was talking about taking “appropriate action” against her.

One member of last night’s Twitter mob said this: “Airman disrespects POW/MIA emblem by sticking tongue in mouth of POW/MIA emblem in photo.”

I couldn’t resist jumping in with this: “We worship posters now?”

To me, the POW/MIA flag poster is just that, a poster. I worked for several Vietnam War POWs when I was in the Air Force, and they were all good men. I have nothing but respect for those men, and indeed for any American troops held captive by enemy forces. But the POW/MIA flag poster has become identified with the Chuck Norris/Ted Nugent branch of right-wing politics, and I’m not going to endorse warmongering by worshipping one of their symbols. Disliking a poster that has been co-opted by a certain brand of conservative politics does not mean I’m not a patriotic American.

I think the woman who lost her job after the #HasJustineLandedYet witch hunt was guilty of nothing more than making a bad joke, her punishment grossly out of proportion to her offense. I think the sergeant who French-kissed the POW/MIA poster was joking too. I hope all she gets is a slap on the wrist; I’m pretty damn sure she’ll never do anything like that again.

People have always gone in for public shaming, but social media makes it happen a lot quicker. Crack wise at breakfast, and by lunch you’re in the town square, squirming in the stocks.

A certain amount of self-censorship can be a good thing. We all have unworthy thoughts from time to time, but most of us have learned to keep them to ourselves. Not so much because we’re afraid of what people might think of us, but because we’re polite. If there’s no need to hurt feelings or open old wounds, why do it?

But if social media becomes a venue for public shaming and witch hunts, we’re going to button up for bad reasons. Because we don’t want to be pilloried. Because we don’t want to lose our jobs. Because we don’t want to see our names dragged through the mud. Because none of us want to be the next Woody Allen.

© 2014, Paul Woodford. All rights reserved.

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