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Thoughts on Culture: The Echo Chamber of Public Shaming

If you have a Facebook account, you probably saw links to the Buzzfeed article “A Lot Of People Are Very Upset That An Indian-American Woman Won The Miss America Pageant.” If you haven’t seen it, the article is a compilation of racist tweets, lamenting that an “Arab” won Miss America so soon after 9/11. These compilations are increasingly common. “Public Shaming” is an entire Tumblr devoted to reposting “tweets of privilege” to entertain and enrage its followers.

As an Asian-American, when I read racist tweets mocking the “gook” that won America’s Got Talent (dancer Kenichi Ebina), my reactions were mixed. On one hand, I’m glad that racism against Asian-Americans is made so visible. These posts are evidence of the struggles people of color continue to face. They inspire solidarity and commiseration. On the other hand, these articles are deeply upsetting, because they offer no solution. The only thing I learn from them is that there are more ignorant people than I thought there were.

Many people envision the internet as an amazing public forum, the ultimate embodiment of democracy. Anyone can make a website. Anyone can have a Twitter or Facebook or YouTube account. Theoretically, in this open, free space, we are exposed to perspectives unlike our own, and can use this knowledge to refine our opinions, and throw them back into the public sphere where they can also be commented on and further refined.

But we do on the internet exactly what we do IRL: surround ourselves with people who act and think like us. We think the internet is diversifying our world, but really, it creates yet another echo chamber. Hence: the shock of encountering random Tweets containing opinions vastly different from our own.

Living in an echo chamber isn’t the problem. It would suck to be forced to constantly socialize with people with whom we fundamentally disagree (i.e. my entire high school experience). The real problem begins when we forget how to talk about—and across—differences in opinion.

When I engage in debates, I consider three types of audiences: 1. Those who agree with me already. 2. Those who disagree or don’t care but can be convinced to agree or care. 3. Those who will never agree no matter what I say.

Articles like the one about Miss America and the blog “Public Shaming” are aimed only towards Audience #1. They are not constructive, because they do not persuade a racist to not be racist. In fact, I’d imagine they mostly delude less blatant racists into thinking they’re not racist at all. (e.g. “I told that Asian girl she’s really exotic and pretty and that I wished my eyes were almond-shaped too! But I’m not a real racist because I don’t make racist jokes on Twitter!”)

Instead, these articles function as mere exposés of unpleasant opinions. This leads to a chain of useless results: Angry readers respond to the racist tweets with condemnation. Original tweeters either ignore this opposition or delete their tweets.

And what else should we expect from 140-character, semi-anonymous exchanges? What racist is going to reexamine their beliefs because of angry tweets from random strangers? These articles do not inspire productive change. They only result in finger-pointing and useless feelings of superiority.

I do agree that anger is a legitimate part of social justice movements, and we should not always meet hatred with empathy. As Judit Moschkovich famously wrote, it is not the duty of the oppressed to educate the oppressor. But I’d rather see journalism about important social issues be aimed at Audience #2. Otherwise, we are merely shocked by displays of ignorance. We feel self-righteous—and condescension is never a good place from which to be persuasive. These articles, though ostensibly written to decrease racism, actually make us less likely to convince racists not to be racist.

October 4, 2013

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