Writing in the Irish Independent: 'Fear of the mob's public shaminng is silencing the voice of truth

Fear of the mob’s public shaming is silencing the voice of truth

Stella O'Malley

Rebekah Vardy leaves the Royal Courts of Justice in London. Photo: Henry Nicholls

For most people there’s a certain delight in witnessing the “Wagatha Christie” trial. Commentators seem to be drunk with hilarity as the accusations are levelled and refuted.

There’s a delight to be found in the madness of the rich and famous, and the underlying humour of an absurd situation being writ large across social media. 

Or, a more sinister iteration: watching the Johnny Depp and Amber Heard trial unfold. While this is altogether more serious, with allegations of domestic violence, the same phenomenon occurs.

We are emboldened to prod our noses into the lives of others, safe in the knowledge we will pay no price for it. In front of us, we see exposed the dark underbelly of a world where the mob has been given the authority to judge, diagnose and condemn celebrities with impunity.

It’s great fun reading about seedy gossip among celebrities. The less admirable part of our psyche enjoys learning that they, too, can be petty and badly behaved. We seek out these tawdry stories because it humanises people who seem powerful, and makes us feel less small in turn.

But Heard and Depp are real people with real feelings, just like Rebekah Vardy and Coleen Rooney. We have no way to gauge the impact our collective attention might have on them.

The fear of trending on Twitter has become a sharp new way to shape others’ behaviour. This isn’t a new form of behavioural management. In other eras, a horrifying range of ritualistic humiliations also ensured social compliance.

In fact, the threat of public shaming is one of the oldest psychological phenomena we know.

Children were once forced to sit in corners wearing a dunce’s cap, adults were tarred and feathered when they transgressed the social norms. It was only in the 20th century when this cruelty fell out of favour.

Now, thanks to social media, public shaming is back with a bang. Online mobs roam around social media looking for impure thoughts — latter-day counterparts of the priests who used to pound through the country lanes of Ireland, searching for sin.

Today, if you break society’s rules, you won’t be condemned as a harlot from the pulpit, but insulted, mocked, lied about and derided by the Twitter mob.

Yet the result is the same: a feeling of intense shame. This is a devastatingly effective tool, as most of us cringe at the mere thought of attracting the mob’s attention, and pre-emptively self-censor to avoid it.

I recently had my own experience of public shaming, when the TD Mick Barry was given a manipulated and cherry-picked quote of mine to read out in the Dáil. He then posted it on his Twitter account for good measure.

The intention was clear: to strip away all context, and insinuate that I am transphobic.

Thankfully the vast majority of responses to Barry’s tweet pointed to the audio recording which shows that I was in fact defending my right to have empathy and sympathy for trans people.

In a move that will be familiar to many users of social media, my accuser sought to move on quickly. Like a rotten fish failing to hit its target in the stocks, a tweet that doesn’t generate the intended levels of shame can be quickly forgotten.

Nevertheless, the impact of seeing more than 60,000 views clock up because of an incorrect quote was really quite frightening. And I’ve watched enough witch-hunts to know that women receive a good deal more online vitriol than men.

I’m often asked why I speak out as I do on gender issues, as everybody knows it makes me vulnerable to cancellation. I’m a psychotherapist with a few books out on mental health and I’m most comfortable within the realms of general mental health.

I certainly don’t need to speak out about such a specific and contentious issue.

The answer is simple and perhaps a little solipsistic: I had my own intense experience of gender distress as a child. I know what it’s like to feel disturbed that I was born a girl while being wholly determined to be acknowledged and accepted as a boy. I was completely alienated from my body and I have the utmost sympathy for everybody who feels like this.

In my book Bully-Proof Kids I explored the issue of the “provocative target” and came to the conclusion that this described me.

Some people seem to have an inner sense that drives them to speak up when they believe it is right to do so. You probably know one or two provocative targets among your family and friends.

We can be annoying company and this is perhaps why provocative targets are often bullied. But it seldom stops us. We simply feel compelled to continue speaking the truth as we see it.

Even when the targets of pile-ons have not behaved badly, the puffed-up morality of the mob induces in them feelings of shame. Perhaps most worryingly, the evidence suggests public shamings are not actually producing better-behaved citizens.

Rather, the net result is that most people are afraid to say anything at all in the public square for fear of being attacked, decimating the number of people who are willing to engage in meaningful debate.

Online chat shows have become bland places where jokes are often considered dangerous. Pundits prefer to make safe but insipid statements that make everybody feel comfortable, just like pleasant background music.

Thought-provoking, love-em-or-hate-em characters such as Vincent Browne or Eamon Dunphy are no longer heard on TV or radio. They have not been replaced by young firebrands, but by the easy-listening type of analyst.

On the rare occasions that they come dangerously close to opinions, they quickly retreat into polished, pleasant and vague sentiments which say very little of value.

Everyone with a difficult opinion has drifted off to podcasts, where they can happily bleat away to a self-selected audience without much risk of major backlash.

The knock-on effect of this is that many of us are living in echo chambers. We only hear content with which we agree, and we are seldom given any pause to challenge our well-worn thoughts and beliefs.

But the only way to build a better society is to encourage constructive — and even challenging — discussion.

Often based upon anonymity, social media encourages us to unleash our inner, rageful Mr Hyde, rather than presenting the more civilised and cheerful Dr Jekyll. I’m old enough to remember when the anonymous letter writer was almost always presumed to be a toxic and bitter person.

These days the online mob, infused by a heady and dangerous mix of self-righteousness, power and excitement, can apparently subject anybody to a breathtaking level of public shaming.

Meanwhile, the Wagatha Christie scandal rolls on, with incredulity aplenty to be had. For my part, I’ll be wishing all parties the best possible outcome, and averting my eyes from the latest revelations. Social media isn’t helping us, but we can always help ourselves.