You’ve probably read stories about the copious amounts of abuse piled on Walter Palmer, the Minnesota dentist who admitted to killing famed lion Cecil on a hunting trip to Zimbabwe.
You probably didn’t hear of the kerfuffle in a private Facebook group strictly for female writers of young adult literature, to which I belong to but won’t name here. You see, part of the appeal of this group is that it’s a “safe space,” where writers can vent about the frustrations of a crazy publishing industry. Agent switches are mulled over and discussed, secret hatreds of book covers are aired. It’s great to be able to connect with other writers over issues that otherwise feel pretty isolating and scary. The sanctity of the privacy is one of the things that make the group so special.
I have very little sympathy for Walter Palmer and the fate that’s befallen him. Good, old-fashioned shaming has been a human tool for millenia, a way of making people adhere to the mores of society. The internet can be surprisingly effective that way. For all the talk of anonymity and disconnect, the internet can also be a tool for bringing to light things that otherwise might not get attention. Things like the public unmasking of the allegations against Bill Cosby, for example, probably wouldn’t have happened without social media and the internet.
But there can also be a wolf pack mentality that drives the reaction online. The page for Walter Palmer’s dentistry office on Yelp is being inundated with one-star reviews and you only have to scroll a page or two on Twitter results to find his address and phone number. There is a lot of talk about how he should die the way Cecil did. There’s no doubt that his life and livelihood will be severely impacted, perhaps permanently, as many targets of online social shaming have been before him.
I’ll refrain from opining on that, since I too feel a lot of anger about what he did and what it means about his worldview, disrespect for life and sense of entitlement.
What I will comment on is the lack of scale and sensitivity in our reactions to “scandals” online. In that regard, the small, private issue that came up in my small group is perhaps more troubling. When this breach was revealed we got no information about what, exactly, was shared with someone outside the group. We don’t know who did it. (As it should be. There was no reason to reveal this information). In the continuum of how bad it might have been, it could have gone all the way from totally benign, ill-informed, “Here’s a screenshot of that comment I was telling you about – isn’t it funny?” from someone who didn’t realize they were breaking the rules all the way to the malicious and nuclear, “Hey, your author is complaining about your editing on a Facebook page and I thought you should know.” We just don’t know exactly what happened.
A lack of information didn’t stop the group from piling on in a way that most likely made the person who did it feel very small. No one stopped to say, “Hey, this is one of us, people make mistakes.” The group went from zero to “lion killer” in 6.5 seconds. The internet makes it easy to do that. Mob mentality is alive and well and living on the internet and social media.
No one raised her hand to say, “Hey, let’s slow it down and show some compassion.” Not even me. I cherish belonging to this group and I was afraid to be shouted down. (I’ve already had one very unpleasant private exchange with a mod for sharing an opinion that was outside the tide of the norm and I had no interest in repeating the experience). I’m apprehensive to even write this here. But this was a troubling reminder of how groupthink can take over even the most enlightened and compassionate among us. It’s so easy to forget the people we’re vilifying are just people, even when they do heinous things. When the things they do don’t rise to the level of heinous and pre-meditated, like what Walter Palmer did, but linger somewhere in the vicinity of “oops” and “I’m just not how sure how bad it was,” internet outrage is even scarier.
What to do? Keep being an independent thinker, I suppose. When you see people piling on in Facebook comments or on Twitter, ask yourself, “Would I say the thing I’m about to type while looking into the eyes of the person I’m saying it about?” If the answer to that is no, then it’s time to hit the delete key. Let’s be ourselves equally, everywhere, and not be emboldened by the acts of the group and the anonymity of the digital space.