Shaming, Pax Dickinson, and Dickwolves: The State of Online Discourse

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Shaming has been a hot topic this week. Between Cathy’s pot-stirring post, the public shaming and subsequent firing of Business Insider CTO Pax Dickinson, and the reappearance of the Penny Arcade Dickwolf Controversy, there’s been a lot of blogular thoughts given to the practice of shaming to absorb.

But while SlutWalk activists took to the streets of DC last month to both protest slut-shaming cops and celebrate their rights to make poor sartorial choices, there’s another aspect to the shaming debate that can’t be ignored: its damaging impact on discourse and basic civility in the Internet age.

Thanks to the choices we as consumers have made over the last two decades, we now live with an un-erasable record of everything we do and say, and those records are increasingly catalogued under our real-world identities. In the 90s, you could be a loathsome, foaming-at-the-mouth racist in your activities online, and the old adage of “nobody knows you’re a dog” still held up because everybody was using anonymous screen names. Then MySpace, later Facebook, came along and somehow, against all logic, convinced us to give up our identities in exchange for first fake popularity and “pimped out” profiles, later for “super walls” and self-promotion. Today Google, the Internet’s biggest archivist and reference librarian, won’t deal with you if you don’t give them some reference to your meatspace identity.

Today, when someone like Pax Dickinson uses his public Twitter profile to broadcast either his odious thoughts about women, thoughts that might have once been tied to a forum user handle like Dudester_6969 are now catalogued statements that have real-world consequences. Dickinson was quickly fired, joining the ranks of Jack Hunter, Adria Richards and anonymous Dongle Joke Guy, the entitled food truck kid, and countless others who’d mistaken their Twitter followers for an army of supporters for their own petty ideological battles. They were involved in shaming and counter-shaming ops, and they all apparently believed that what they said publicly didn’t reflect on them personally or their associates. And they were all wrong. Public shaming at the scale the Internet allows is a new reality that it seems we’re still figuring out how to navigate.

Even worse: the unvirtuous cycle of self-righteousness and self-aggrandizement that usually sustains these pathetic dustups. The Internet’s noxious call-out culture not only incites massive-scale public participation, it also draws out the shamee’s(?) lackeys. When the shamee can crowd-source his defensive posturing, he expands his ego and sense of self-righteousness, creating a cycle of trolling, ego-puffery, and overwrought condemnation. To wit: no apology has come from Pax Dickinson, and he appears to have has doubled-down, claiming victim status and continuing to act boorishly on Twitter. The Penny-Arcade/Shakesville imbroglio of 2010-2012 has sprung up in the news again recently, demonstrating people’s inability to just leave it the fuck alone already

I wish I had an answer other than another glass of wine to this facet of life in the 21st century. The democratization of media, the establishment of a permanent record for everyone, and the population’s resistance to just checking themselves before they vomit out another “clever” bon mot every six minutes has me bearish on the future of the information age.

On Twitter, I see the media class alternately bickering and circle-jerking. If anything of value has ever been posted to a blog ending in .tumblr.com, I’ve yet to see it. There are still some great bloggers out there who predate Facebook, and doubtless there are many small-time bloggers who contribute to public discourse, but you’ll be hard-pressed to find them in the first pages of a Google search.

On the bright side, comedian Jim Norton and Jezebel blogger Lindy West did it right and showed that it’s possible to civilly discuss an ideological disagreement and not retreat into defensive name-calling or other jackassery. West has written several pieces against comics using rape jokes. Norton, a coarse comic who’s not above employing rape jokes, debated West and managed to not be a dick about it. Was it less sexy than a “hostility toward female comics” or a “humorless feminist trying to trample free speech?” Of course; but it was also substantive and informative for both sides, and their debate, not the fight about rape jokes, became the story. Now if only we could have every other national conversation that “needs to be had”  face-to-face, instead of in 140-character increments.

To PA’s credit, they finally apologized, three years later.