Is There Room for Personal Growth in the Age of Digital Shaming?

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There is a great sense of unease lingering in the air these days. Nearly everyone—celebrities, politicians, and regular people—are worried that they are just one old tweet away from having their reputations completely ruined. And in today’s political climate, it doesn’t take much to offend the public, making each of us fair game for scrutiny.

Over the last decade, social media broke down barriers and created unprecedented global interconnectivity. But with this privilege came the burden of having our pasts documented, archived, and always just one click away from being resurrected and shared with the public. As fallible beings, most of us have experienced moments of weakness where we have made statements that did not reflect well on our personal characters. Most of us have also, at some point in our lives, subscribed to beliefs we no longer support. But should we be eternally shamed for our past thoughts and actions?

In the past, society was more forgiving and at least let individuals explain themselves when something they said in their past came back to haunt them. But social media has accelerated the process of public shaming. And instead of fostering an environment where we can have open discourse and encourage personal reflection and growth, we crucify individual reputations as quickly as you can hit “retweet.”

Today’s society has given birth to an entirely new cultural phenomenon where no one can escape their former selves. But by constantly rubbing people’s faces in their past blunders, we inhibit the process of personal transformation—a concept so deeply rooted in our culture we would be remiss to let it slip away.

When Old Tweets Come Back to Haunt You

The downside of living in the social media era is that our old posts never really go away. And even if you have the good sense to delete any questionable posts, the odds are high that someone still nabbed a screenshot.

This summer, Disney fired Guardians of the Galaxy director James Gunn after some of his old tweets resurfaced. As is the new normal, immediately after the tweets began making the rounds, the Twittersphere was all over Gunn, demanding his head on a platter, so to speak.

While many of the jokes he tweeted in the past were admittedly gross and in poor taste, the same could be said of the majority of stand-up comedy material. And the situation did not warrant the massive shunning he received from the rest of society. No matter how much he tried to apologize, the public only seemed interested in his condemnation, not his potential redemption. And Gunn was hardly an isolated instance.

Occurrences like this seem to be happening almost daily in our current political climate, making it virtually impossible to move forward in life when the public is keeping you trapped in your past. And while some comments are more egregious than others, by joining the mob and mercilessly condemning others for their past, we put a damper on personal transformation.

The Role of Personal Transformation

Our culture is fascinated by the concept of personal transformation. It is what gives us our love of what mythologist Joseph Campbell called “the monomyth”—the hero’s journey that sets the basis for every great story ever told, whether it be cinematic, literary, or otherwise. We love watching characters overcome outside adversity and conquer their own flaws to be reborn into heroic versions of themselves. These stories give us hope that the same redemption is possible for ourselves. It’s peculiar, then, that while we each hope to experience our own personal transformations, as a society, we seem almost hellbent on not letting our fellow human beings do the same.

One of the most unpleasant realities to face is the idea that we are all actually quite awful. This is not meant to be rude, after all, being naturally terrible is an essential element of the human condition. But just because we are born prone to error does not mean we have to accept it. It also does not mean that we consume our time focusing on how we fall short—or, even worse, spending time making sure other people dwell on their own shortcomings. But it does mean that we should always strive to be better.

When our children make a mistake, we tell them that in order to feel better they must correct the behavior and move on. If their actions harmed someone else, we ask them to apologize and offer restitution. But few people would ever tell a child that they should be reminded of that mistake every single day and that it should follow them around for the rest of their lives. Yet that is exactly what is happening today online.

Life is already hard enough on its own, but imagine how difficult it would be to get out of bed each day knowing that you could never overcome your past. What a truly bleak existence. If we want to be able to grow from our mistakes and transform into better people, we have to be willing to let others do the same. We are all struggling with our own unique life situations, and we would benefit greatly from exhibiting more empathy by being more sympathetic to both ourselves and to others.

As psychologist Dr. Jordan B. Peterson writes in his book, 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos:

We deserve some respect. You deserve some respect. You are important to other people, as much as to yourself. You have some vital role to play in the unfolding destiny of the world. You are, therefore, morally obliged to take care of yourself. You should take care of, help and be good to yourself the same way you would take care of, help and be good to someone you loved and valued. You may therefore have to conduct yourself habitually in a manner that allows you some respect for your own Being—and fair enough. But every person is deeply flawed. Everyone falls short of the glory of God. If that stark fact meant, however, that we had no responsibility to care, for ourselves as much as others, everyone would be brutally punished all the time. That would not be good. That would make the shortcomings of the world, which can make everyone who thinks honestly question the very propriety of the world, worse in every way. That simply cannot be the proper path forward.

The Benefits of Productive "Shaming"

To be sure, shame does play a role in society. It is how we determine what behavior is deemed acceptable in our communities and in the broader society. Since most of us would rather live with others in society than as hermits isolated in the mountains, these social norms do matter. And by “shaming,” or pointing out why a certain behavior is wrong, we nudge others in the right direction.

If someone makes an outlandishly racist or hateful comment we should absolutely do what we can to encourage them to reflect on this behavior and consider adopting a new opinion, but we have to at least give them the space to learn and grow. When we aggressively pile on and focus all of our energy on humiliating and ostracizing the person making the comments, we rob them of the opportunity to learn and grow. When we actually allow people to learn from their mistakes and grow as individuals, the whole of society is changed for the better.