Unintended Consequences

When I was a growing up, I did some pretty stupid things. Childish things. Behaviours that came from a place of immaturity, emotional hijack, or just plain establish-my-independence rebellion. And, I survived them all. Most Marvelous Parents also survived this process, eventually sending me out into the world with the confidence that I would likely continue to morph into a mature, tax-paying adult (and who would eventually produce their just reward of grandchildren).

What my parents did not do was abuse their position of power and trust to shame me for childish behaviour. Discipline, yes. Shame, no. In our family, the consequences were generally relevant to the ‘behaviour,’ and on those rare occasions when outright rebellion was a factor, a trip behind the woodshed was sometimes undertaken. Not once, ever, did either of my parents treat me as if I were the sum of my childish, immature choices. Consequently, I am quite able, as an adult, to separate my behaviour from my sense of self. My perspective is that I, like others, have a mix of strengths and weaknesses, cognitive biases, and emotional imperfections which influence my choices and behaviours on any given day or circumstance. Sometimes I get it together, and peace and harmony is the result. Sometimes, I lose the plot, and conflict and chaos result. But in either situation, I have an inherent understanding that I – the person who is me – is not defined by either good or bad behaviour.

So…. enter the trending meme on social media these days. Child shaming.

Some father posted a picture of his 3 year old with a sign shaming her for a behaviour that is, well, pretty much normal for 3 year olds. Furthermore, whatever “lesson” that father was intending to convey to his daughter, missed the mark. Posting her photo on the Internet with a sign she can’t even read pretty much guarantees that someone will produce that same photo at her wedding. I’d call that the ultimate in humiliation – and she won’t even experience it until long after the incident that produced her father’s reaction.

A mother in Florida this past week forced her 12 year old son to walk up and down the street wearing a sign telling the world that he’d been disrespectful to his teacher. According to the report, the mom had made no effort to have her son speak to, and/or apologize to the teacher. Instead, she made him an object of ridicule to his peers (who, at 12 years old were quite ready to take advantage of the situation), and instead, chose to shame him. This hitherto ordinary 12 year old living his quiet life in his suburban neighbourhood is now humiliated globally. And he IS old enough to experience the full emotional impact of his mother’s abuse of power.

What message is conveyed to that 3 year old girl or that 12 year old boy? That they should never do/say that particular thing again? I don’t think so. The message that those children, (and any other children who experience such abuse at the hands of someone who is supposed to love them, protect them, cherish them, and caretake them into adulthood) are getting is one much more fundamental. It’s not about the behaviour, it’s a deeply wounding, traumatic perspective of self as flawed in ways they are helpless to change. This is who I am. Bad. Shameful. Flawed. Humiliated.

That this message is being perpetrated by the very person who is supposed to help filter those messages from the wider world is a betrayal of epic proportions. And for some children, an almost unrecoverable wounding. And now, thanks to the ability to post pictures on social media, the whole world unwittingly participates in the shaming and degradation of a child doing what children do.

Dr Steven Brownlow (@sgbrownlow – definitely worth following) tweeted recently, “Shame leads to secrecy, sneakiness, and manipulative behavior. Humiliation leads to violence.”  Marshal McLuhan, in his excellent essays predicting the cost that technology would have in our lives said,  “Violence as a form of quest for identity is one thing the people who have been ripped off feel the need of.” (Forward Through the Rearview Mirror – Reflections on and by Marshal McLuhan; Prentice-Hall; 1996)

Mr. McLuhan proposed in The Medium is the Message that refusing to acknowledge the paramount role any medium plays in shaping the end result, we are in danger of missing the real message. We are not really known through social media despite the vast number of friends/likes/followers we may have in cyberspace. This, paradoxically, creates a sense of anonymity, which when combined with shame and humiliation, often equals violence. McLuhan again;

This meaningless slaying around our streets is the work of people who have lost all identity and who have to kill in order to know if they’re real of if the other guy’s real. I suppose that one could even produce a theory of war to say that when a certain amount of technological change happens very quickly to a whole community, they are so lost about who they are that they want a basic war to find out.

The concept of relationship as created by social media has a dark side. In interacting with my Tweeps through the medium of cyberspace, the illusion is created emotionally and psychologically, that I have ‘relationships.’ And I do. Sort of. But this relationship is enacted through the medium of the laptop/computer/iPad/device that I control. The form of relationship facilitated by the box in front of me is but a shadow of the possibilities inherent in personal, face-to-face interaction. But of course, in that personal interaction, I lose control of the situation, having only the power to manage myself, not the other. In front of my computer, I manage not only myself but I control others. Don’t want to engage with so-and-so? Delete. Don’t like what @ABC123 said on his blog? Flame him under an “Anonymous” tag. Feeling mean and cranky?

Use my secret avatar and randomly troll members in my regular forum. Try those things in a  face-to-face relationship and there would be real-time, real world consequences.

Mr. McLuhan was speculating about the changes technology would bring …in the 1960s. He wasn’t necessarily right in all he thought or predicted, but there is much about his speculations and philosophy that is worth considering in the light of our reality in 2013.

If the medium truly IS the message (and I believe it is) these parents are perpetrating a form of emotional and psychological abuse on their children that will rival anything anyone could ever do to them physically. I cringe for those children and their families, and I wonder where this trend of shaming children will take us as a global village. Can’t be anywhere good.

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3 thoughts on “Unintended Consequences

  1. “Shame leads to secrecy, sneakiness, and manipulative behavior. Humiliation leads to violence.”
    How very true. The preservation of selfhood must needs find a way of expression, legitimately or by all possible means.

  2. Dear parents please condemn the behavior , punish the behavior not the child. Such labels and posters are imprinted on their mind and heart and dampens their self- esteem and self confidence. I remember seeing one boy, named Sinan , who used to call himself “SIN” . When I asked him the reason he told me that he is often called by his parents , for not getting good grades like his other siblings . His mother refused to talk about him to her friends in order not to get embarrassed. As if his identity is nothing besides a student. He was so deeply wounded that it was very hard for him to see any positive shade in his personality.

    1. You are right, Siddiqa. This is a so damaging to children whose concept of self is still being formed in response to their interactions with their primary caregivers. (Shaming is toxic to adults!) The sad reality is no matter how many people condemn the actions of these parents in posting these intrusive, exploitive photos of their children, it’s too late. The gaping pit of hell that is the “out there” of cyberspace has swallowed up those pictures, making them readily available to anyone, anywhere, any time. Sickening, really.

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