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.