After a lifetime of impeccably correct opinions, Ian Buruma found himself on the wrong side of the liberal consensus in September 2018, when he was forced to resign as editor of the New York Review of Books for having commissioned a piece called “Reflections from a Hashtag” from the disgraced Canadian broadcaster Jian Ghomeshi. One does not get to be editor of the NYRB without having filament-like sensitivity to the boundaries of acceptable opinion. Buruma’s virtuosic handling in 2007 of the controversy over his New York Times Magazine profile of Tariq Ramadan, in which he wrote indulgently of his subject’s radical Islamic views—and scathingly of Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s secularist opposition to them—was a model of politically correct equipoise. If Buruma was caught flat-footed this time, it must be the times that have changed.
Unlike Leon Wieseltier, Lorin Stein, Garrison Keillor, John Hockenberry, Ryan Lizza, or any of the other editors and journalists who have lost their jobs in the last twelve months due to the movement known as #MeToo, Buruma was not accused of any sexual misconduct. His crime was to give space in his magazine to a man who had been accused (but not, in any of four court cases, convicted) of sexual harassment and non-consensual roughness during sex. Buruma told Slate in an interview five days before his resignation, “I think nobody has quite figured out what should happen in cases like his, where you have been legally acquitted but you are still judged as undesirable in public opinion, and how far that should go, how long that should last.”
Too true, as Buruma found out to his cost. No one has yet figured out what rules should govern the new frontiers of public shaming that the Internet has opened. New rules are obviously required. Shame is now both global and permanent, to a degree unprecedented in human history. No more moving to the next town to escape your bad name. However far you go and however long you wait, your disgrace is only ever a Google search away. Getting a humiliating story into the papers used to require convincing an editor to run it, which meant passing their standards of newsworthiness and corroborating evidence. Those gatekeepers are now gone. Most attempts so far to devise new rules have taken ideology as their starting point: Shaming is okay as long as it’s directed at men by women, the powerless against the powerful. But that doesn’t address what to do afterward, if someone is found to have been wrongfully shamed, or when someone rightfully shamed wants to put his life back together.
In the essay that got Buruma fired, Ghomeshi claims to have been a pioneer in online shaming. “There are lots of guys more hated than me now. But I was the guy everyone hated first.” Actually, a better candidate for original victim is Justine Sacco, the PR executive who tweeted to her 170 Twitter followers before getting on a plane to Cape Town, “Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding. I’m white!” It was during the Christmas holidays when news is always slow, so a Gawker post about the tweet quickly went viral. People around the world were soon enjoying the suspense of knowing Sacco was on a plane with no Internet access and no way to know that she had become an object of global ridicule. That was in December 2013, almost a year before the Ghomeshi story broke.
And before that, in the Precambrian era of online shaming, there was me.
In October 2010, I appeared on a panel to promote a book of essays by young conservatives, Proud to Be Right: Voices of the Next Conservative Generation. The moderator was Jonah Goldberg. One of the other panelists was my ex-boyfriend Todd Seavey. During the Q&A, Todd launched into a rant about my personal failings. He accused me of opposing Obamacare on the grounds that it would diminish human suffering, which allegedly I preferred to increase; of wanting to repeal laws against fistfights for the same reason; of being a sadistic and scheming heartbreaker in my personal life; and of generally living according to a “disturbing” and “brutal” set of values. For three minutes and forty-five seconds, which, unfortunately for me, were captured on film for broadcast two weeks later on C-SPAN2, he made an impassioned case that I was a sociopath.
Todd is not a psychologist, but a psychologist with no evidence to go on except my treatment of Todd might well have arrived at the same conclusion. I treated him awfully. I can only plead in mitigation that I was twenty-two. Todd is from Connecticut and has that charming New England stolidity, and I behaved as if his patience, which seemed so infinite when we were dating, really had no limits. The bit about opposing Obamacare because I favored human suffering was outlandish, and other parts of his rant were not quite how I remembered things, but everything he said, he really believed, and he had arrived at those beliefs by a hard road.
I braced myself for the broadcast. Maybe no one would notice? Within minutes, the offending clip had been posted on YouTube, where it got half a million hits in the first forty-eight hours. It made the evening news on Washington’s Fox affiliate. Greg Gutfeld did a segment about it on RedEye. It was written up in Gawker, the Washington Post, Talking Points Memo, and a hundred lesser sites, and then written up again when Todd expanded his remarks about me into a series of blog posts on his personal website. My inbox exploded with media inquiries, none of which I answered, except to give a short statement to Mary Katharine Ham at the Daily Caller:
I wish I could say it was all a plan hatched by our new media consultant, who told us we had to “think outside the box” to make our C-SPAN panel “go viral,” but no, it is exactly what it looks like.
As a matter of policy, I don’t comment on my personal life in public, but I will clarify that his tirade thoroughly mischaracterizes my political views. For instance, I do not believe that laws against assault should be repealed—nor do I think there should be an exception in cases when one’s ex-boyfriend behaves unacceptably on national television, though I admit that’s a tougher question. Nor do I oppose Obamacare for the contorted reason he states—I oppose it for the usual reasons.
To the personal friends who emailed commiserations, I replied with an old Aaron Sorkin line about bad publicity: “It’s like seasickness. You think you’re gonna die, and everyone else just thinks it’s funny.”
That, it turned out, was overly optimistic. Everyone at work was supportive (“if you want us to form the committee to horsewhip todd seavey, just say the word,” one colleague emailed, bless him), but no amount of support could counteract the paranoia that settled in over the next weeks and months. My colleagues probably didn’t believe the woman they worked alongside was secretly a comic-book villain—but surely the suspicion had been planted? I never knew whether someone on the subway was giving me a second glance because he knew me, or because he recognized me from the video. Fellow journalists reported back to me from conferences where Todd expatiated on my depravity at length—in one case, before an audience that included my boss. An old friend called to say he had posted a supportive comment about me at the New Republic and shortly after received an email from Todd, who had guessed his identity from his screen name, explaining all the reasons I did not deserve to be defended. I wondered how many such incidents I never heard about.
I tried to process the experience intellectually. I read Lord Jim and The House of Mirth. No grand lesson presented itself, which, in a way, was lucky. It meant there was no ideological interpretation I could superimpose on my experience, which would have slowed my progress toward acceptance by allowing me to indulge in resentment and indignation. I couldn’t tell myself it had happened because I was a woman. Had the genders been reversed, I probably would have received less sympathy than I did. I could not blame society, or C-SPAN, or Jonah Goldberg. A year and a half later, when I was looking for a new job, I could not even blame the prospective employers who demonstrated a marked reluctance to bring me in for interviews. If I had to choose between a candidate whom no one had ever called a sociopath on national television, and one who probably wasn’t a psycho but might be, I would play it safe, too, even if the probability was only a fraction of a percent.
In 2012, I decided I would rather be Lord Jim than Lily Bart, so I accepted an offer from my boyfriend (now husband) to move with him to Australia—the best decision I ever made. On my last night in New York, in a burst of either sentimentality or bravado, I called Todd. We met in Midtown for a drink, and I found, to my surprise, that there was nothing I particularly wanted to say to him. If I was looking for some kind of closure, I wasn’t ready for it yet. In the end I had only one question for him: When we were chatting in the courtyard before the panel, was it some kind of deliberate foreshadowing when he mentioned how much he always liked Pink Floyd’s The Wall and started singing a song from the album that goes, “Since, my friend, you have revealed your deepest fear, I sentence you to be exposed before your peers”? He said it was just a coincidence.
Moving to the other side of the world did not diminish the video’s place in my life as much as I thought it would. It was still the first result when you Googled my name, which presumably is one reason I couldn’t find a job for the first eighteen months. Eventually, I found a position at a think tank. When I released my first report, an Australian MP tweeted a link to the video and asked why anyone should care about this nutcase’s opinions on regulation. Even after I got married and took my husband’s last name, the video still popped up on social media when I did a TV appearance or had an op-ed in the paper. In 2017, when I moved back to Washington, D.C., and started meeting some of the younger writers in town, it took them less than a week to find the clip and ask me about it. Most of them had been in high school when it happened.
In a funny coincidence, the day I began writing this essay, my husband was attending a conference of free-market activists when his lunch table started talking about bad breakups in the conservative movement. One man pulled out his iPhone and said, “If you want to talk about bad conservative breakups, you have to see this.” He put the phone away when Tim told him that the woman in the video was his wife. That was eight years and twenty-one days since the broadcast first aired.
There is a celebrity fashion blog called Go Fug Yourself that specializes—or specialized back in 2011, the one and only time I visited the site—in unflattering paparazzi shots and red carpet disasters. The odd thing about Go Fug Yourself, I discovered, was that all its nastiest posts featured the same tic. After unloading whatever brutal snark she had for Jennifer Lawrence or whomever, the writer would always include the same disclaimer: A celebrity has one job, and that’s to look glamorous, so if you can’t manage the one thing you owe us in exchange for all the money and fame, then find another line of work, and until then lay off the cheeseburgers and hire a decent stylist. This dime-store Joan Rivers can’t think she’s fooling anyone, I thought as I scrolled through the archives to see if every post really included this lame moral alibi. Her motivation has nothing to do with celebrities falling short of their duty to the public. She’s making fun of ugliness for the same reason anyone does: It stimulates our lizard brains.
People who read the Atlantic are smarter than the readers of Go Fug Yourself, but sometimes smarter people don’t make better decisions; they just come up with better excuses. Kevin Williamson was fired by the Atlantic in April 2018 over an unearthed audio recording in which he said that abortion was a form of murder and should carry the same punishment, up to and including the death penalty. The aspect of the resulting Twitter storm that surprised me was not the way his statement was warped out of context into a defense of lynch justice for pregnant teenagers but the purported concern for his female coworkers. “How can you say that you want a workplace that values women when you hire someone who wants 25% of those women dead?” asked feminist Jessica Valenti. When Williamson’s firing was announced, in a memo that made delicate reference to “the values of our workplace,” Valenti responded, “I am very relieved for the women who work at the magazine.”
At the risk of insulting the reader: No one actually believed Williamson was a threat to his female colleagues. It was only a pretext for what was really an exercise in raw power. People made the same kind of excuses when it was my turn in the dunk tank. Again and again, I read commenters insisting that what might at first glance appear to be prurient gossip was, in fact, fair political commentary, because I was a family-values scold and thus open to charges of hypocrisy, or because I was a hard-core Randian who needed a lesson in the dog-eat-dog heartlessness advocated by my idol. As far as I can tell, these characterizations were extrapolated from the fact that I worked at National Review. Certainly, they had no basis in anything I’d written (an Objectivist, really?).
The more online shame cycles you observe, the more obvious the pattern becomes: Everyone comes up with a principled-sounding pretext that serves as a barrier against admitting to themselves that, in fact, all they have really done is joined a mob. Once that barrier is erected, all rules of decency go out the window, but the pretext is almost always a lie. Matthew Yglesias once claimed that the reason he mocked David Brooks for his divorce was because Brooks had written columns about the social value of marriage, but I do not believe him. He did it because it’s fun to humiliate your political opponents. Moira Donegan claims that she created the Shitty Media Men List—a clearinghouse of anonymous accusations optimally parked for maximum dissemination in the Google Spreadsheet cloud—for altruistic reasons and with no thought of its being used to hurt anyone, but I do not believe her. If it was about protecting women in media from harassment, then why no attempt to sort the true accusations from the false? Why the coy protestations that “I thought that the document would not be made public,” when of course she knew that it would be spread far and wide, or she wouldn’t have bothered creating it?
Donegan’s defenders do not behave like people interested in finding the truth. They stirred up a Twitter mob against Katie Roiphe before her Harper’s piece about the Shitty Media Men List was even published. Claims to be motivated by concern about possible backlash against Donegan, if Roiphe revealed her as the creator of the list, were more than a little disingenuous. Since being outed, Donegan has gotten a book deal with Simon & Schuster and a regular column in the Guardian, which is precisely what anyone could have predicted. When John Hockenberry, also in Harper’s, wrote about his experience being #MeToo’d out of his job at NPR, admitting some charges and explaining why he thought others were bogus, his detractors did not bother refuting his case. They simply ridiculed him. And no one has offered him a book deal.
In Trust Me, I’m Lying: Confessions of a Media Manipulator, Ryan Holiday’s memoir of his years as a PR consultant, he describes a roundtable meeting at the Huffington Post where the editors discussed how a certain big company should have handled its recent PR crisis. The editors offered the usual bromides: “Transparency is critical.” “Be proactive.” “Get out in front of it.” Holiday replied, “None of you know what you’re talking about.” The old rules don’t apply in the free-for-all world of online journalism, and they especially don’t work when the figure at the center of the controversy is one lonely individual. If a client came to him because he was being called a racist or sexist on Twitter, Holiday says (pardon the vulgarity), “I would tell him to bend over and take it. And then I’d apologize. I’d tell him the whole system is broken and evil, and I’m sorry it’s attacking him. But there’s nothing that can be done.”
Any attempt to defend yourself or clarify your original remarks is “the equivalent of a squeaky cry of, ‘Why is everyone making fun of me?!’ on the playground,” Holiday says. “Whether it happens in front of snarky blogs or a real-life bully, the result is the same: Everyone makes fun of you even more.” The idea that online shaming is a form of debate—or in any way oriented toward finding the truth—is a delusion. Dialogue is not the point. The day Brett Kavanaugh and Christine Blasey Ford testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee, the New Yorker—not Gawker, but the New Yorker—ran thirty-two Kavanaugh headlines in twenty-four hours, many of them on the subject of the nominee’s supposed whininess: “The Tears of Brett Kavanaugh”; “An Angry, Tearful Opening”; “Brett Kavanaugh’s Damaging, Revealing Partisan Bitterness”; “A Grotesque Display of Patriarchal Resentment.” The man had been accused of being a brutal rapist, and the most prestigious magazine in America ridiculed him for responding to the allegation as any innocent man would have. No, dialogue is not the point.
When I was debating whether or not to write this essay, which, after all, revisits an unpleasant incident that has long been at least semi-dormant, if not quite forgotten, I saw a headline in the New York Times: “His Body Was Behind the Wheel a Week Before It Was Discovered.” The man, Geoffrey Corbis, had committed suicide in a parked car in the East Village. Only his name wasn’t really Geoffrey Corbis, the Times explained. He had been born Geoffrey Weglarz. He changed it after an incident in 2013 at a McDonald’s near his home in Connecticut, when he threw a sandwich at a pregnant server who had given him the wrong order. Newspaper coverage of this funny local fracas did not mention Weglarz’s recent divorce or long-term unemployment after leaving his job as a computer programmer at Dell. He couldn’t find work with the McDonald’s story at the top of his Google results, hence the attempt at a fresh start as Geoffrey Corbis.
It happens more often than you would think. At least half a dozen cases mentioned in Laws of Image: Privacy and Publicity in America, Samantha Barbas’s 2015 history of shame and libel, end with suicides. Jon Ronson’s So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed describes an English chef, living in France, who killed himself after his wife-swapping hobby was revealed by the News of the World. It also tells of a rural Welsh preacher who found himself the subject of a photo spread in the same publication for hosting an orgy in his caravan—after which he, too, killed himself. Most victims of public shaming aren’t nationally famous editors like Ian Buruma. They are ordinary folks like “ID Adam,” who lost his job at a box assembly company in Winston-Salem after reports that he racially profiled a black woman at a community pool. It turned out that he, as the pool chair on duty, had asked to see her ID, because, when signing in, she had given an address on a street in the neighborhood where no houses had yet been built. It took him days to get his side of the story into the papers, and it didn’t make him any less fired.
An essay about public shaming should have advice for those people, I thought. When I couldn’t think of any, I called Todd. He had, after all, suffered quite as much from the C-SPAN2 fallout as I had. He left his job at Fox—not right away, but after three months, when he refused to sign a statement from HR saying that such TV appearances were a violation of their “outside media” policy, even though they had never expressed a problem with his extracurricular projects before. Four years later, he returned to the NewsCorp building to film a segment on the Kennedy show, only to be stopped in the lobby by security and told he was on a no-admit list. He makes a living as a ghostwriter now, and his book Libertarianism for Beginners was published to positive reviews in 2016. When I asked if he would do it over again if he had the choice, he said he is now a believer in handling things privately. “In the future, if I get married, if my wife stabs me, you won’t hear me shouting in public about it.”
“Things really can get so much bigger than you and your own efforts that you just kind of have to ride the wave,” Todd said. “I was obscure enough before that any public attention I got was the result of me trying really hard.” He told me he never expected the clip to go as viral as it did, “far beyond my ability to control or even monitor,” which sounded implausible—until I remembered just how unfamiliar these online shame cycles were in the years before Justine Sacco’s tweet. Todd thought he would say his piece—which, in his mind, was not just that I was a bad girlfriend, but that I had a “cruelty-based worldview” that future editors and employers should be warned against unwittingly promoting by giving me work—and that would be that.
Todd’s advice for our fellow-shamed was no better than mine. “When a tsunami is heading for your house, at a certain point you have to say, ‘I’m just gonna stand here and hold this piece of plywood and see what’s left standing when it’s all over.’” Arguing back is no use. “If you’re tweeting, you’re losing.” Even in the immediate aftermath of the C-SPAN2 incident, when Todd, on his blog, attempted to make his case at length against my evil beliefs, he saw his arguments get lost in the maelstrom—equally ignored by both supporters and detractors. If we had a breakthrough in our conversation, that was it: There is no content to a shame storm. It is mindless by its very nature. It is indifferent to truth, even in cases where the truth could possibly be determined. Therefore, like the Ring, it cannot be used for good.
The solution, then, is not to try to make shame storms well targeted, but to make it so they happen as infrequently as possible. Editors should refuse to run stories that have no value except humiliation, and readers should refuse to click on them. It is, after all, the moral equivalent of contributing your rock to a public stoning. We should all develop a robust sense of what is and is not any of our business. Shame can be useful—and even necessary—but it is toxic unless a relationship exists between two people first. A Twitter mob is no more a basis for salutary shaming than an actual mob is for reasoned discussion. That would be true even if the shaming’s relics were not preserved forever by Google, making any kind of rehabilitation impossible.
If Stephen Elliott has his way, would-be shamers will have to consult more than just their consciences. He is suing Moira Donegan for defamation over her media men list, in which his entry reads: “Rape accusations, sexual harassment, coercion, unsolicited invitations to his apartment, a dude who snuck into Binders???” (Binders is a Facebook group for women writers.) What it means to be accused of “rape accusations” will doubtless be clarified at trial. It sounds like the person who wrote this was speaking from rumor herself, which proves how cavalierly career-ending allegations of sexual assault are now thrown around. I have no legal opinion on whether Elliott’s lawsuit will be for #MeToo what Peter Thiel and Hulk Hogan’s heroic lawsuit was for Gawker, but, unless we all begin to respond more responsibly to public shaming, we can expect to see more attempts to (as President Trump put it) “open up our libel laws.”
As for the people who find themselves at the center of an online shaming, I can only report how I made peace with mine. Ironically, the disagreement that gave Todd the idea that I had a “cruelty-based worldview” was over my belief that suffering is sometimes necessary for personal growth, and an essential part of God’s plan for our salvation—a belief that, as a strict utilitarian, Todd completely rejects. We had a dozen fights about it. The irony, of course, is that there is no belief my brush with online shaming confirmed more. I had heard the maxim that there is no humility without humiliation—how true it proved. My first reaction to the video was to feel aggrieved, thinking that I did not deserve what was happening to me, but on the Day of Judgment all my sins will be shouted from the housetops, and Todd’s rant will sound like a retirement luncheon toast in comparison. Of course I deserved it, and worse; most of us poor sinners do.
Of all history’s martyrs to shame, the one whose example consoled me most was Oscar Wilde. He is remembered today as a gay rights pioneer, but, in the letters he wrote after his release from prison, he never rails against the injustice of the law that put him away. He did not think it was a good law, he simply believed that the justice or injustice of the charge against him was irrelevant. What mattered was that he had been rescued from his own pride and selfishness by his experience, when he could not have been saved by any gentler medicine. This lesson, which produced “The Ballad of Reading Gaol” (“I know not whether Laws be right, / Or whether Laws be wrong”), he put into plain prose in a letter written during his exile in July 1897. Sporus was the slave boy that emperor Nero freed and “married”:
To me, suffering seems now a sacramental thing, that makes those whom it touches holy. I think I am in many respects a much better fellow than I was, and I now make no more exorbitant claims on life: I accept everything. I am sure it is all right. I was living a life unworthy of an artist, and though I do not hold with the British view of morals that sets Messalina above Sporus, I see that any materialism in life coarsens the soul, and that the hunger of the body and the appetites of the flesh desecrate always, and often destroy. . . . I learnt many things in prison that were terrible to learn, but I learnt some good lessons that I needed.
The man to whom this letter was addressed was Carlos Blacker, who himself had fled England for France in 1890, when he was accused of being a card cheat. The charge against Blacker happened to be false, just as the charge against Wilde happened to be true, but that made no difference in the two men’s experiences. The truth that Wilde came to understand, which he shared with his fellow exile, was that they should accept their chastening in a spirit of gratitude. Nothing had been taken from them that would not be restored a hundredfold if they allowed their experience to do its redemptive work.
Helen Andrews is a Robert Novak Journalism Fellow.