‘I am not prone to anxiety,” historian Niall Ferguson wrote in the Times of London on April 22.
“Last week, however, for the first time since I went through the emotional trauma of divorce, I experienced an uncontrollable panic attack.”
The cause? “A few intemperate emails, inadvertently forwarded to unintended recipients,” paired with the “vicious atmosphere” of today’s online age. Ours is a world, after all, where capricious digital mobs reign supreme, and where a single slip-up can trigger an excoriating bout of public humiliation. For many, online life feels increasingly precarious, and, as Ferguson notes, “It’s now a very short way to the bottom.”
It’s striking to see someone like Ferguson — a prominent writer who has lived through his fair share of public dust-ups and claims a significantly “thickened” skin as a result — admit to sheer panic in the face of public scrutiny. But the world is different than it was 20 years ago, as he notes. If you’re in the business of expressing opinions or exploring ideas of any sort, the age of unrelenting social media is also an age of constant low-level terror.
There’s a certain irony here, given that a “central theme” of Ferguson’s new book — The Square and the Tower: Networks and Power from the Freemasons to Facebook — is that “the internet, especially since the advent of social media, has exacerbated political polarization.” It is true that Ferguson frequently wades into fractious political debates; it is also true that criticism comes with that territory. But we’re not talking about simple criticism; we’re talking about a relentless online mob that materializes with alarming frequency — and Ferguson is not alone in his apprehension.
Both routine digitized shaming and the resulting self-censorship feed a toxic dynamic in which only the very strident — or the very boring and conformist — can survive the public square.
Take best-selling author Lionel Shriver, who earned her own public shaming by daring to question the concept of “cultural appropriation” at the Brisbane Writers’ Festival in 2016. Even more horrifying, if I understand the reports of the incident correctly, is that she did so while wearing a sombrero — an act, in the words of a review of her latest book in the Financial Times, that served as “an ill-judged provocation.” (Shriver’s Brisbane affair also prompted an essay in the New York Review of Books entitled, “The Trouble with Sombreros,” if you’re interested in further details.)
For the most part, Shriver is known for her works of fiction; today, however, she worries that writers are too afraid to tell any sort of genuine story at all. “I’m not a natural activist, and I’m reluctant to embrace this role,” she told The Guardian in mid-April. “But I am also dismayed by how few writers with any serious reputation are willing to put themselves on the line for free speech. I’m very unhappy that writers and editors are exercising self-censorship. . . . If we follow this through, it will be the end of story.”
It will be the end of more than that, of course: Both routine digitized shaming and the resulting self-censorship feed a toxic dynamic in which only the very strident — or the very boring and conformist — can survive the public square.
“Public life in any form these days is essentially inseparable from a cascade of abuse,” Ferguson noted in 2015, three full years before his Internet-related panic attack. Sadly, if trends continue, public figures in the realm of ideas might simply have to accept such abuse as part of the gig.
This is good for no one, but it is where the current reign of digitized shame mobs naturally leads. You might scoff, given our fame-obsessed culture — you know, the one in which actual newspapers run stories on “How to Make Your Pet Instagram Famous” — but trust me: If the current climate ramps up, more and more interesting people might simply decide to hide.
That’s a big “if,” of course: Backlashes happen, and cultures shift all the time. In the world of social media, there are certainly quiet pockets of grace, forgiveness, and understanding. Much louder, unfortunately, is that shrill, nonstop, ever-censorious, and oh-so-familiar “how dare you” drone.
So here’s an idea, albeit an old-fashioned one: Let’s all simmer down a bit. If you’re offended, it might not be the end of the world. Are you tempted to take part in a good old-fashioned Internet shaming? Consider the vicious cycle you might be perpetuating! Even better, imagine, for a moment, that churning avalanche of rage coming after you. Yes, yes, I know the person you are shaming is supposedly a terrible person with terrible ideas who totally deserves it, and so on and so forth, but stretch your mind to the limits if you can. It’s more liberating than you might think.