Jen Polachek

On Shame and the Internet


Some people need to be silent. Because they are bad people. Like this person. We don’t need to dialogue with her. We don’t need to challenge her. We don’t need to encourage her to continue to “reflect.” We just need her to shut up.

—Gawker article comment by gretagarboshandbag,
upvoted by 388 people

1. I wrote an essay (essay: from French essayer, to attempt or endeavor; to try) about feeling complicit in racism. I hadn’t put enough thought into the roles that people of privilege can or cannot play in the dismantling of racist structures. I didn’t consider that giving voice to the problem might just affirm the problem and inflict more pain, rather than aid in the problem’s resolution (and in my own absolution). I knew many had had experiences like mine and I thought we might guide one another. I wrote about the shame of inhabiting my own privilege, and I thought that was enough to exonerate me from more shame. I was unthinkingly naïve. I assumed—wishfully, maybe—that no one would read it.

Everyone read it. Millions of clicks, thousands of comments, hundreds of blog posts, and many threats. I received a few dozen emails expressing empathy with what I wrote, privately. Not that that absolves me.

2. The feeling you get when you’re a little kid and for the first time you’re allowed to go swimming in the ocean without strict adult supervision. You go out farther than you should, a wave hits, and you’re sucked under, down, and out. You feel your whole body caught inside something so huge that it’s without locus, so powerful that it’s without agency: something that is completely indifferent to you. You lose sight of up or down or even where your limbs are, where your brain is. Only sand, salt, and noise, coming down on you through your ears and nostrils and eyes and mouth, chipping away at your skin and teeth. And then it’s over, and you creep back to shore, and the silence is nauseating, but you know it happened because your knees are rattling and your veins are engorged with adrenaline.

The Internet is insurmountable. You feel it hammering down around you, but it’s completely decentralized. Your IRL is unscathed: everyone actively hates you, but nobody notices you. They spew at you in a safe, anonymous space, but when they serve you dinner in a restaurant or stand behind you in line at a bodega they don’t give you a second glance. You can’t touch it or even point at where it is, but it’s completely rearranged everything, somewhere.

3. I can’t object to the anger of those whom I have directly injured with my insensitivity. All those variants of anger, short of harassment, are irrefutable—they are grounded in centuries of history and lifetimes of experience. Nor do I expect anyone whom I’ve offended to engage me in dialogue or guide me out of my ignorance. But I’m struck by the fact that the responses from allies seemed significantly more numerous and more pointedly ad hominem than the responses from persons of color. Is it possible for both of these perspectives to coexist, and should one necessarily be louder than the other? The existence of ally anger was less surprising than its voracity: why did this piece provoke so many bystanders on such a phenomenal scale? This is of particular interest because part of my wrongdoing was rooted in the attempt to traffic in what I (perhaps wrongly) perceived to be someone else’s victimhood. When is it acceptable to try to empathize with someone else’s experience?

It goes without saying that advocacy can be a good thing, and that no one should be excluded from supporting another party. With that in mind, however, it seems obvious that self-congratulatory derision of ignorance doesn’t disqualify you from ignorant behavior, nor does it ease the anger and pain generated by an already-broadcasted ignorance. Using someone else as a platform upon which you can take a stand and announce, “I am not you, and therefore I am good” is lazy and dangerous. It’s a modern anger, sterile and disposable. It’s a condom. It’s a button you can push and then walk away. Consider your demons exorcised.

4. It’s easy to forget that taboos still exist on the Internet. We think of this space as so saturated with shock value and so overridden with every kind of exploitation imaginable that it would be nearly impossible to make waves. Think of it—every day people explore their forbidden desires and darkest shames online under a heavy veil of anonymity, and their sheer numbers make them so dense and so slippery that no one person is worth exposing, or “doxing.” They are the unidentifiable mob, and there’s safety in numbers, in non-specificity. Thousands of faceless chat room perverts are not people into whom we can easily sink our claws.

But taboos are still alive and well, and they straddle a very particular transgression of public and private spaces. Taboos don’t function to deny the existence of ugly behavior, but rather to regulate the ways in which we engage with ugliness—they moderate the acceptable expressions of the behavior. My piece made me an easy target because I handed something ugly to the public that should have stayed private, and I became the poster child for a greater cultural problem. I have a face. People can share stories on comment boards of having “partied” with me, they can pass around links to my Facebook profile and swap snark about where I went to college. I am real, and to expose me is all the more pleasurable because I clearly wanted to hide.

I had to be punished because I am a seemingly “liberal, educated” person who was writing under the pretense of “goodness.” In doing so I revealed racism with which many people identified. (I can’t deny the racism of my actions, nor am I suggesting that implicating others in my anxieties should divert me of personal responsibility.) I had to be punished not because I violated a “taboo of racism,” but because I broke a code that dictates who is allowed to be racist and in what ways. Many more virulently racist things are published every day and don’t go viral: the tenuousness and the proximity of my racism made it threatening. I had to be punished because I am one of us, and I did something publicly that we don’t talk about doing.

5. “You should write about that.”

6. The Internet has told me that racist feelings exist and we can’t talk about them. It’s a conundrum: to stay silent is to construct a false consciousness; to discuss the issue publicly is to endow the oppressive structure with further power. I am told that it is better to stay silent. We need to explore these feelings thoroughly, unflinchingly, and in private.

But the Internet makes for a ruthless court: everyone present is already on trial, and unlike the traditional disciplinary model, the Internet is simultaneously the jury, judge, and executioner. Hacker groups and forum communities make for a genuinely thrilling prototype of extra-legal empowerment, a vigilantism that titillates us all: we feel validated when we learn that 4chan has ousted a kitten killer, that Anonymous has doxed Hunter Moore, that reddit has brought about the firing of a bad cop. “The Internet is good for something,” we think to ourselves. Everybody loves a public execution. I’ve watched too many episodes of To Catch a Predator. It’s an endlessly pleasurable self-exoneration.

What’s interesting about this brand of punishment is that, in my case, the sentence seemed to mirror the crime. I was punished for neurosis, and in turn the Internet has ensured an extreme continuity of that neurosis. I was punished for a confession, a transgression of public and private spaces: I exposed readers to personal thoughts that should have stayed private, and in turn, I am denied any remaining shroud of privacy, compulsorily overexposed. Public indecency.

7. Somebody named PhDiva needs me to know that I have an eating disorder.

8. I tried to speak to someone else’s experience. In doing so I dehumanized her, deeply offended other parties, and could potentially have silenced these voices. That’s where social justice steps in: by silencing me, the Internet can ensure that I can’t restrict anyone else’s right to self-expression. That seems fair from a numbers perspective—my one voice is not more important than the voices of many. What seems less clear, as far as the Internet is concerned, is the line between critique and punishment.

When should we be satisfied to vigorously disagree with someone, and when do we need to reach out and touch them—to rifle through their dirty laundry and their forgotten cyber scraps, to argue that they aren’t pretty enough to write about body privilege, to speculate about their daddy issues in the comments section?

It’s the impulse to weigh in. They can’t be satisfied by commenting and responding, but want to lay their grievances personally at your feet, on your doorstep. To make sure that you hear them. As if they could have anything to say that isn’t already echoing across millions, a perpetual neurotic chant. This desire extends far beyond critique, because it’s aggression without the intent to exchange ideas or to reform a wrongdoer. It’s vengeance. People seek you out through every channel, make profiles on unfamiliar forums that you’ve posted in so that they can direct message you, flood your defunct blog, your half-baked college art projects, your family. They want to feel as if they can make contact. Don’t we all, if the “point” of the Internet is indeed a massive delocalization? “Where is her Twitter?” they want to know—where can we pick through an extensive backlog of her unfiltered, self-indulgent drivel? And then they are surprised—appalled, even!—when you block those paths of communication, when you delete your Internet self. They don’t understand why you don’t accept a friend request that comes attached to a message reading “die racist cunt ☺.” You have robbed them of their mechanisms of release. You had no right.

9. Understand your own insignificance in the whole matter. That it is something you did, an action that you generated, that brought out an enormous aggression. The action has split cleanly from you, animated itself, picked up steam, gained momentum, and became something completely alien, something you can barely recognize as your own. In the eyes of others, your personhood is wholly superseded by your actions. [ You did something bad = you are bad. ] You aren’t human. People care about what you have to say. Nobody is interested in what you have to say. They turn on a dime. They don’t want to read your apology. They don’t remember.

I have lost the right to vocalize my own experience, because my error was already rooted in a problematic self-importance. I’m not allowed to speak of my anxiety. I made somebody else’s problem about myself, I tried to speak for someone else, and from here on out, anything “I” is a continuation of that arrogance. “I” doesn’t matter anymore.

Have I served you well?

10. Cycles of Internet shame unfold like witch hunts. You know this right from the start because you can feel them desperately scrabbling for any point of entry to you, into you. But the pursuit doesn’t end there—they can’t just say, “We hate this, and it is bad, and we are better than this.” In their desperation to be the most distanced from you, they cannibalize one another. Righteousness becomes athletic. Small fires ignite in dizzying chains. If you can comment and condemn without inadvertently revealing your own insecurities, you win. Throw some stones. It’s a trap.

11. When you are confronted by a global, systematic shame, you feel it imprinted in your body. You must hide. You can’t stand up straight, you can’t make eye contact, you can’t ask someone on the subway to move when they’re in your way. You are no longer owed anything, you don’t deserve anything, you can’t impose your physicality anywhere or on anyone. It’s a deeply self-important misery, all the more confusing because no one notices it. Can you signify anything outside of Internet spaces? You realize the irony, freshly stripped of some privileges. For shame.

12. To defend through lack, through avoidance: I delete myself, I commit Internet suicide, I preemptively sabotage, I sterilize potential avenues for further shaming. I (try to) avoid, and in doing so I abnegate. I erase everything that I’ve ever been proud of so that it doesn’t exist alongside Internet contamination. Where is the rest of me? Everything but shame is rendered invisible.

13. In reference to what I wrote, I heard it said that “the Internet exploded” or that I “broke the Internet.”

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