End of the Indiana drought, August 2012
End of the Indiana drought, August 2012

A CBS infographic about celebrity water use in drought-addled California popped up in my Facebook news feed today, and I clicked through it. The piece originally appeared at the beginning of summer, I believe. But like so many things, it has apparently found a new life on Facebook.

I got curious about the infographic, with its gargantuan homes and its lush green lawns, and I discovered that “drought shaming” is actually a “thing” – a thing with its own hashtag, even.

I understand the outrage around water greed in a time of drought – especially when that occurs in a context of increasing economic inequality. When there are people in California who cannot access a drop of potable water in their households, seeing a wealthy celebrity gorge themselves on a scarce resource, solely for the view out their window, is shocking. It reminds me a bit of the outrage around the killing of Cecil the Lion; Cecil was beloved by many near his home in the refuge, and when one American trophy hunter cut him down in the manner he did, there was a sense that one greedy person had taken for himself what belonged to many – and for little reason other than his own ego. Acts like this cry for community feedback. Many of us don’t want that behavior in our world, and forcefully reject it.

But here is the conundrum. Although people who commit acts of appalling greed at the cost of the larger community ought to be publicly outed and subjected to the opinions of that community, the act of shaming can be a deeply corrosive activity for those who undertake it.

Shaming others is a seductive act, and let’s be honest: it feels really good. Because when we are righteously galloping on our war horse against the outrages committed by others, our own failures and deficiencies evaporate into the mist. How nice, for a moment, that we get to focus on others’ faults instead of our own. For that reason, mass shaming has its own energy, and it builds on itself. So the movement can pick up speed in an alarmingly short time. And suddenly, there is a human phenomenon afoot as dark and troubling as the event that precipitated it. Accuracy takes a backseat to outrage, and perspective takes flight. A vigorous public shaming can even awaken the fringe elements, those who are easily stirred to threats and violence.

Consider that many photos accompanying drought-shaming posts are often misleading or erroneous; for example, sometimes the photos are older than the drought, thus lending a false impression that some wealthy person or celebrity is keeping a green lawn in the face of today’s horrid water shortage, when in fact there’s no evidence of that at all. Some may be dead on, of course. But who knows? The process of click and shame has begun.

It has always seemed to me that public shamings are most potent in situations in which reasonable accountability is unlikely or impossible. Shaming and humiliation are forms of power, and when people have no other avenues to accountability, they will reach for whatever is available. So public shamings seem suffused with the anger of the powerless. This was the case with Cecil the Lion’s killing; no charges were ever brought against the trophy hunter who took his life, but he was forced to close his dental practice for several weeks, and he and his family received threats of violence.

It’s further the case with the California drought: one homeowner, who claims his sprinkler malfunctioned, got slapped with a $600 fine for watering on the wrong day of the week and his name appeared in the newspaper as a drought violator. Meanwhile, the city refuses to identify the one Bel Air individual who used more than eleven million gallons of water – enough to supply ninety households — that year.  Nor will it identify the other 19 Bel Air customers who consumed more than 2.8 million gallons that year.

That kind of greed is a violation of the social compact, and warrants community disapproval. The only problem is that the invitation to shame – often dangled cynically before the injured by large media companies who make money from that kind of thing – isn’t good for the soul or the spirit. So when some asshole pokes the community in its collective eye or moons the social compact, what can we do to offer public feedback in a way that doesn’t kill our own souls, or turn us into pitchfork wielding vigilantes? I have a few ideas, but I’m interested in hearing others’ ideas.

  1. When criticizing a shaming, don’t be a hypocrite and shame the shamers. Any critique of a mass shaming that does not focus on the underlying injustice is salt in a wound, and only inflames existing injuries. I’m also reflexively suspicious that what’s going on with this kind of “outcry against the outcry” is not concern for the corrosive effects of shaming campaigns, but an antipathy toward the reactions of the disempowered. I see it a lot, for example, when a man takes shit for something sexist he’s said on the internet. There is often a protest that the reaction was disproportionate, that the feminists have once again picked up their pitchforks and aimed them at some hapless dude. But it’s always troubling to me to read someone lecturing shamers for lacking empathy for the shamed, when that lecture contains no genuine empathy for the injuries that precipitated the reaction in the first place. Events like this are not just masses of people being terrible; they’re far more systemic than that, and usually grounded in real injustice.
  1. Focus on the act and not the human. I often wonder what would happen if we could resist labeling people on the basis of an offensive act they’ve committed — you are a racist/misogynist/animal abuser/angry/hostile/negative person  – and yet still focus on something someone has done and the effects of that act on others.  The personalization of judgment, it seems to me, is where shaming starts to feel a little too satisfying, righteousness starts to pick up steam, and the entire enterprise turns corrosive.
  1. Be skeptical. If you are being swept along in the feel-good vibe of a mass condemnation, you are not going to stop to wonder whether that photo of Celebrity XYZ’s home is 1) current; 2) accurately depicted; or 3) misleading for other reasons. If you feel no curiosity about the outrage-inducing information you are being served, you are in the red zone. Be careful.
  1. Where possible, direct attention to official channels for correcting the problem. Sometimes the “official channels” are the problem, but when there is a realistic avenue to address an issue other than public censure, take it. The Gizmodo article linked above makes a good point on how to address water hogs: “Stick it to them the way that those 22,000 snitches did in April: Report actual water abuses directly to the city. Most cities have a hotline to call or a 311 service you can use.”

Public censure is sometimes both necessary and effective for changing behaviors. But pitchforks are for hay – and for fun parodies of American Gothic. So the more I think about it, the more I think that the only people who should engage in these things are those who are troubled by them, on some level. They at least understand the dangers of it.

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4 thoughts on “Pitchforks and water hogs

  1. You, my friend, are way more optimistic about this topic than I am. I’d like to believe that shaming stems from the outrage of impotence or the pain of victimization—but I just don’t. I’ve seen far too much of this behavior directed at people who have already been arrested, expelled, or lost jobs. The system is working just as it should to address their transgressions, but for some reason there is still a compulsion to “make them famous.” There is an equal compulsion to inflict shame on people or issues that may have nothing to do with the accusers’ own life circumstances, but that doesn’t prevent them from joining the online mob. What I see play out online is much closer to Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery,” than anything else. People pick up rocks and start hurling them just because others got the ball rolling and the game is on. And I think this has far more to do with the inherent anonymity of social media than anything else. It’s, sadly, a formula that brings out the worst impulses in the worst people.

    1. One example in which I agree with you is when I see our local paper put up mug shots of neglectful/abusive parents. Cue shaming comments, almost uniformly. But I do see that as a more localized phenomenon with less staying power. I’m also certainly open to the idea that there are some mass shamings that don’t fit my formula. But of the ones of the drought/Walter Palmer/social justice outrage variety, I still think my formula holds true.

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