When are conversations private?

Social media allow others to publish our private words and actions online.

Trent M. Kays

In Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “The Scarlet Letter,” Hester Prynne has an affair and births a child. As a result, she must wear a large red “A” on her clothing so that all will know of her adultery. Hawthorne’s work is an excellent commentary on the role of shaming in society.

In “The Scarlet Letter,” a community comes together to shame a woman for her non-normative behavior. Today, social media does the same thing at lightning speed for a global audience.

On Thanksgiving, “The Bachelor” producer Elan Gale live-tweeted a war of words between him and an airline passenger named Diane.

Gale felt inspired to initiate the passive-aggressive debate because a flight delay exasperated Diane.

The conversation made national headlines — from publications of the Huffington Post to the U.K. newspaper The Daily Mail.

Gale tweeted out every message he sent Diane and showed the responses he received. Gale’s behavior toward Diane was far from polite.

Gale’s act of shaming Diane is problematic. Did Gale have the right to tweet what he heard and saw on an airplane to his more than 160,000 followers?

I would say he did. There is no expectation of privacy on an airplane, and if Diane was being obnoxious, Gale could share what he heard.

However, Gale’s actions cloud any potential for understanding this event positively. Instead, Gale’s actions teach us that prigs can have the loudest mouths.

Social media shaming and the dilemma of public versus private continue to codify public behavior.

Despite the perceived justice Gale served through his tweets, social media’s prevalence shouldn’t mean more public shaming.

In many ways, it is a classic computer-mediated communication problem: Some social media users forget that real humans exist and that those real humans communicate with other real humans via a network. If the person isn’t in front of us, we often have trouble empathizing with them.

Even children aren’t immune from social media shaming.

Early in November, a mother discovered a Facebook group that existed solely for the purpose of posting pictures of ugly babies. Adults posted comments on pictures of infants, chastising children for being ugly.

Babies have no control over their appearance, and adults should know better than to deride the helpless.

This means there are some people so degraded that they consider mocking a baby an acceptable behavior. These people clearly have the right to free speech; however, even if we choose to shame people unable to feel offense, our actions can still hurt others. Some, like the media and parenting blogs, for example, retaliated against the Facebook group.

Once again, these acts took place in a public space, and thus, the baby-shaming adults’ speech is worthy of critique. They are entitled to free speech, but those who would call out their behavior are equally entitled.

Still, I struggle to understand how any person could make fun of an innocent child. It almost pains me to know that such people exist and took pleasure in their acts.

Of course, we see the public nature of some conversation as a good thing, even if conversing may have a shaming effect.

In October, former Huffington Post reporter Tom Matzzie tweeted a phone conversation he heard former NSA Director Michael Hayden having on a train. Instead of criticizing his actions, readers and commenters praised them. Is it OK because Matzzie gave a Hayden a taste of his own medicine? Would it have been OK if it were someone who wasn’t a public figure?

The dichotomy of public versus private is a tired subject. Gale’s shaming of Diane, social media users’ shaming of ugly babies and Matzzie’s potential shaming of Hayden all happened in public social media spaces, yet some still argue that we should respect each other’s privacy. Why?

When did we start accepting the privacy of conversation in public? If you wish to have an exclusively private conversation these days, you shouldn’t converse in a public space.

I doubt that true privacy actually exists. The act of shaming transcends the public-private binary. For example, even our intimate conversations between family members in public spaces could lead to shaming. However, like the cases in this column, shaming in public often occurs between people who don’t know each other. As with the case of “The Scarlet Letter,” public shaming is problematic and powerful. With social media in our hands, we have the power to shame each other in unethical ways.

Just like Hester Prynne, Diane and others don’t always deserve to be singled out for their behavior. Instead, we should understand how social media can limit our empathy, and we should choose not to publically shame others.