Social Media is the Modern Day Pillory

pilloryThe pillory was the favourite method of punishing unpopular speech in eighteenth-century England. It has been said that only Daniel Defoe was able to recover from the shame of being pilloried and redeem himself as a writer in the eyes of Englishmen. Not that Defoe had it easy. He was jailed, lost his money, his business and never could just shrug off his past. He became a kind of running joke. His unfortunate role in the Shortest Way affair, as it is known after his Shortest Way with the Dissenters (1702), made him a household name. He was able to capitalize on his fame later on, but it would be a stretch to say that he was glad to have been publicly shamed after his failed satire.

Jon Ronson published an interesting article in The New York Times about our modern day pillory. In it, he discusses the role of social media as an instrument of public shaming. He focuses on the case of Justine Sacco, whose life was turned upside down after she made an incredibly stupid tweet about AIDS before hopping on a plane to Africa. I’m sure most people remember the case. Sacco’s tweet blew up on social media as she was still on the plane and cost her her job. The joke was too good to pass up: she worked in PR and should have known better, she was oblivious to the incredible attention her tasteless tweet generated while she was traveling, her name was Sacco (of course she had to be fired). Few of us can imagine the incredible shame she had to go through, but most of us watched the case unfold with amazement and often cynical pleasure. It’s not a coincidence that Ronson is also the author of The Psychopath Test, because he does have a keen eye for the savagery of the punishment Sacco received for her tasteless joke.

There’s no way of defending her words, but it was interesting that she pointed out that they would have been acceptable on South Park. The tweet was very Eric Cartmanesque. Whatever we think about the case, it makes it clear that free speech in the digital age outside South Park is a complex issue. We are free to say stupid things in public and others are free to judge us. This is not unlike what happened in Defoe’s time. The Earl of Shaftesbury, for example, was all for the free exchange of ideas in the public sphere. When satire was bad, he thought, more satire would correct the words of the perpetrator. We live in a world that looks very much like Shaftesbury’s ideal society. It’s an Enlightenment ideal that has become true thanks to technology. It’s transparent and everyone has a voice. The trouble with it is that we have come to see that with transparency and democratizing communications technology, we seem pretty ugly as a society. At times we look like a pack of hyenas. We see ourselves mirrored in the fantasy land of the Internet as bitter, angry and hateful bullies. And we do seem to love it.

1 Response to “Social Media is the Modern Day Pillory”


  1. 1 nonvisedvoce February 13, 2015 at 23:59

    I didn’t want to end this post with a sour note, so here’s a Valentine Day’s letter from Mister Rogers courtesy of the Paris Review.


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