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Two minutes of shame

July 8, 2020

Two minutes of shame can lead to a lifetime in purgatory.

A man in a Florida store is caught on camera in a state of rage after being asked to wear a face-mask. He advances on the person who is filming him with his phone, saying that he feels threatened. He screams “back off”. Eventually he walks away. The video goes viral on Twitter. Is he a policeman, ex-military? Somebody identifies him and posts his name and the company he works for. Apparently he’s a salesperson.

Two other videos have appeared on Twitter over the past week showing women seemingly throwing tantrums in stores after being asked to wear face-masks. In both cases the women let loose a stream of invective, throw the contents of their shopping trolleys on the floor and head for the exit. In a third, a woman rips face-masks from the shelves and chucks them on the floor.

A man in Carmel, California (above), is sitting alone in a restaurant. He racially abuses an ethnic Asian family. They video the tirade. We don’t see the abused family. Again, the man is identified as the video goes viral. Turns out he’s a British guy who is the CEO of a tech company. Was he really alone? There were four wine glasses at his table. Where were the other three people? Various other allegations surface about him, and a tweet, seemingly from him, repeats the racist insult and reads like a death threat.

A bunch of white guys are in an argument with a black guy in Bloomington, Indiana. They pin him to a tree, and, allegedly, someone shouts “get a noose”. This video has been contextualised and subtitled by a TV station. According to the person posting the tweet, the white guys are Trump supporters, though there’s no evidence of that in the video. A police investigation is underway, according to the TV station.

In a video, allegedly from Tatarstan in the Russian Federation, a man walks up behind a woman in a niqab who is making her way down a street with her young family. The man kicks her to the floor. There’s then a break in the video, and in the next shot the guy is kicking her on the pavement.

In yet another video, allegedly from India, a group of young men appear to be verbally abusing and mocking a woman in a black niqab. They crowd round her as she adopts a defensive posture. We don’t see what, if anything, happens next. The last two videos are tweeted with a commentary about the persecution of Muslims.

Let me be clear about one thing. I don’t subscribe to Twitter because I have a liking for video nasties. These clips go viral, and they are eventually re-tweeted by someone I follow for other reasons.

It is, I admit, strangely compelling to watch casual acts of racism, outbursts of rage or acts of violence. But what I find disturbing is that the only context is provided by those tweeting or retweeting the videos. He’s a Brit. He’s a salesperson. His name is X. They’re Trump supporters. The women are Karens (a popular label on the social media for white, entitled, angry women). And so on.

Beyond being nudged in one direction or another, we’re left to come to our own conclusions about what we’re seeing. What becomes clear is that those who have been identified will find their careers damaged or possibly destroyed, at least for a while. The white guys in Indiana may well be prosecuted.

But again, I find myself looking for context that simply isn’t there, or at least can’t be relied upon. Who, for example, thought to capture a guy walking down the street and then kicking a woman? Nothing about his behaviour as he approached her suggested an imminent act of violence. Was the scene caught on CCTV? Is CCTV prevalent in Tatarstan? If it’s not CCTV footage, was it a friend of the attacker? Or was it a pure accident that someone happened to be capturing a street scene?

Well-researched context usually emerges only if the video is seriously newsworthy, which is when TV stations or newspapers get hold of the story and fill it out. The killing of George Floyd is a good example. Not only was his death a major story, but the reaction to it was the story of the summer.

But some white guy freaking out in a Costco store, even if the consequence is catastrophic for the person concerned, is just so much entertainment for the Twitter audience, with the additional edge that it’s fuel for those who want to make a point about people ignoring advice on COVID (as discussed in my last post).

So we watch these videos and lament the racism, the anger, the stupidity and the malice on display. For many of us, they confirm a prejudice we already hold. If they didn’t, we would probably pass them by, just as we look out on uninteresting terrain from the windows of buses and trains.

What we don’t always think about is that stuff like this has gone on long before the advent of mobile phones and the social media. But now we’re exposed to the evidence, drip by drip, we think we’re looking at a new and depressing phenomenon.

When I was at school, at the age of thirteen I would cycle every day to and from the boarding house where I lived to the main school. In the winter that meant that I was cycling down an unlit road in the country, often on my own. Today, people might ask, why did the school and your parents let you do this? Weren’t they afraid that you might be attacked by a paedophile or worse?

To which I would respond that in all likelihood paedophilia in the 1960s and 1970s was just as prevalent as it is today. But nowadays it’s considered a big deal and widely reported whenever exposed. Back then, not so much. What we fear today we hardly even thought about fifty years ago.

So what’s the lesson in all of this? It’s not for me to tell you how to react to content you see on the social media. You will react according to your life experience. Perhaps the videos you see will become part of that experience, and further confirm views you already hold. Less likely, but still possible, they will change your mind about something.

But before you pass judgement on what you see, I suggest you look as hard as you can for context, and challenge the context, if any, that is being handed to you on a plate. You’ll notice that in my descriptions of the videos, I frequently use words like allegedly, apparently and seemingly. That’s deliberate. If you’re minded to add to the clamour, ask yourself whether you’re responding to facts, supposition or opinion.

Not always easy to do, but at least that way you can avoid being part of the herd.

From → Business, Media, Social, UK, USA

  1. deborah a moggio permalink

    One small comment on the Silicon Valley chap yelling at the Asian diners. After he is told to leave, he says something like “I already put money on the table”. He then appears to go and pick it all up before leaving.

    Now, of course, it could have just been the tip…

    • Unless he’s been taken on a pilgrimage to Mount Rushmore by a posse of armed Trump supporters, I suspect he’s hiding under his duvet right now. But who knows, perhaps he’s suffering from a mental health condition and about to go into rehab, which is the usual get out of jail card in these situations.

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