The Lena Dunham Approach to Twitter Call-Outs

There are better ways to work toward a more just society in the connected era.

Andrew Kelly / Reuters

On Wednesday, Lena Dunham, the director, writer, and actor best known for the HBO series Girls, used her celebrity to draw attention to an exchange that offended her. In her telling, she was in the terminal at JFK airport in New York City, when she overheard two uniformed flight attendants engaging in a private conversation. “Not gonna call out the airline who delayed cuz shit happens BUT I did just overhear 2 @AmericanAir attendants having a transphobic talk,” she Tweeted to her 5.5 million followers. “At this moment in history we should be teaching our employees about love and inclusivity @AmericanAir. That was worst part of this night.”

The social media team at American Airlines responded, asking for more specific information, and Dunham proceeded to identify the gate where the event transpired. She then published a series of direct messages that she sent to the airline. “Hi!” she wrote. “I heard two female attendants walking talking about how trans kids are a trend they’d never accept a trans child and transness is gross. I think it reflects badly on uniformed employees of your company to have that kind of dialogue going on. What if a trans teen was walking behind them? Awareness starts at home but jobs can set standards of practice. Thanks for your consideration!”

Because Dunham is a celebrity who some love and others love to hate, many people reacted to those Twitter posts by amplifying them while praising or denouncing their author. Neither course interests me, but this question does: Should others follow her example? After all, the social-media era has just begun; its norms are still evolving; and thinking through controversies like this, where a Twitter complaint sparks national headlines, is one way to refine those norms. As I write, an American Airlines representative has told Fox News, “We always look into complaints from customers, but at this time, we are unable to substantiate these allegations.”

Perhaps Dunham holds beliefs that I share: that trans people in the United States are on the receiving end of a lot of sadistic hate, violence, bullying, stereotyping, and discrimination in employment and housing; and that speaking out against bigotry and prejudice is important. Rejecting one’s own child because they are trans is both repugnant and illustrative of the heartbreaking harm that stigma against this community causes.

What’s more, as a general matter, I would like to think that I’d speak up, in polite but firm disagreement, if I heard anyone declare in public that any large group of people is gross. Had a bystander’s video surfaced of Dunham doing that I’d have praised her. But even as a public figure orders of magnitude less influential than Dunham, I would not have posted as she did on social media. My own notion of the norms that ought to prevail in this connected era, where I reach just 43,000 Twitter followers, are very different from hers, even when our ultimate goals are in harmony.

My starting point, as someone who believes in critical engagement on social media, is to engage relatively freely with material that is voluntarily introduced on a platform, but to apply the highest level of restraint before taking to Twitter or Facebook to introduce discreditable offline words or behavior of a non-public figure.

Two insights inform that reticence.

One reached me through Megan McArdle’s column-length meditation on shaming. She acknowledges the benefits that shaming has brought humanity, creating a powerful incentive for people to behave well in their communities and enabling high degrees of trust. “In the small groups we evolved to live in, shame is tempered by love and forgiveness,” she wrote. “People are shamed for some transgression, then they are restored to the group. Ultimately, the shamed person is not an enemy; he or she is someone you need and want to get along with. This is how you make up with your spouse after one or both of you has done or said something terrible.”

But on the Internet, she added, “when all the social context is stripped away and you don't even have to look at the face of the person you're being mean to, shame loses its social, restorative function. Shame-storming isn't punishment. It's a weapon. And weapons aren't supposed to be used against people in your community; they're for strangers, people in some other group that you don't like very much.” Criticizing a stranger’s actions on social media needn’t imply a desire to see them shamed in that fashion; but certain kinds of criticism predictably stoke shame-stormings. If those advance social justice in any way I have not yet witnessed it; in fact, I fear that such counterproductive tactics have spawned a terrible backlash, as people feel as though everything they do is under surveillance, conclude that anyone could find himself or herself on the receiving end of a shame-storm, and respond by ceasing to stigmatize even the most deplorable kinds of behavior.

Now, the second insight.

“In the Bad Old Days,” the philosopher Derek Parfit once wrote, “each torturer inflicted severe pain on one victim,” but now, “each of the thousand torturers presses a button, thereby turning the switch once on each of the thousand instruments. The victims suffer the same severe pain. But none of the torturers makes any victim’s pain perceptibly worse.” An analogous phenomena plagues efforts to enforce social norms via social media. Each critic scolds a transgressor in ways that seem proportionate and reasonable, as if turning to a stranger at a supermarket and saying, “Excuse me, I heard what you just said, and I really think you got it wrong.”

What few critics fully realize is that thousands of others are doing the same and much worse—that the cumulative effect is a digital equivalent of thousands of people gathering around a transgressor at the supermarket and angrily shouting insults for three hours. If that happened in offline space the mismatch of proportion would seem monstrous; when it occurs in the online space only the target typically notices.

My general aversion to shaming on social media is not absolute. I can conjure hypothetical examples where that tactic, however flawed, might be the best available option. But this particular case is not among them, or even a close call.

For starters, there were superior alternatives available; best of all, talking with the women in person. Appealing to bureaucratic third parties may be more comfortable than disagreeing with strangers in public, but I suspect informal human interaction is more constructive. And if, like Dunham, you ostensibly want American Airlines to better train its employees, relating the incident to management in a private forum would mitigate the risk that they would react by simply firing two service workers as a PR calculation, or that the identities of the two women will eventually be made public. There is still a real chance those women will suffer life-changing consequences over a conversation that they apparently intended to be private.

Meanwhile, I doubt that American Airlines needs to do anything to guard against the fear that Dunham named: that a trans teen might overhear two flight attendants denigrating trans people. There would seem to be long odds against that scenario happening. (Ironically, it isn’t clear that anyone would ever have become aware of the beliefs of the flight attendants if a celebrity hadn’t made them national news.)

I suppose it was theoretically conceivable that Dunham’s public complaint about insensitivity by low-level staffers would prompt the multinational airline to put the offending employees—or all employees—through training in “awareness” or “love and inclusivity.” But I am doubtful that it would be a good thing, on the whole, if corporations began punishing workers for what they say off-duty, or aggressively regulating or engineering not just how employees treat colleagues and customers, but their every belief. Corporations are institutions driven by profit, not moral rectitude; many often do what is good for shareholders and bad for employees or the public. Trusting them as a reliable mechanism for positive social change is short-sighted.

Not that I presume that even earnest, right-thinking corporate altruism would necessarily bear fruit. Think of your attitudes toward trans people. Would your employer be able to fundamentally change your views, whatever they are, with  compulsory education? I suspect the very people with animus of a sort that does harm would be least likely to be swayed and most likely to double down on their beliefs.

And in response to this incident, or a rising tide of working-class people being reported to corporate employers for expressing beliefs that a lurking celebrity or journalist calls out, I can imagine the imposition of new, onerous, generally applied restrictions on where uniformed flight attendants can socialize with one another in airports, or whether uniformed retail employees are allowed a quick cell-phone conversation inside the mall while on break. Asking myself who that new regime would most harm, the answer is marginalized people; pondering who would find it easiest to navigate, the answer is creative professionals like Lena Dunham and me; we attended colleges that prepared us to navigate the elite’s social norms, and we don’t wear uniforms in public that identify our corporate bosses to eavesdropping strangers.

Those are among the thoughts, beliefs and concerns that would prevent me from responding as Lena Dunham did to the two flight attendants at JFK; and if I encountered them tomorrow, I can imagine a dozen manners of engagement that would, I think, be more effective at changing their minds than a social media call-out, or a telephone call from human resources informing them of an internal investigation. In fact, what I might do, if they agreed to give me their email addresses, is to send them an article I commend to anyone who believes that trans people are gross, or that they would not accept a son or daughter who came out as trans.

It is here.