Earlier this year, I had a very weird experience. It wasn’t something I ever expected to happen to me or to anyone I know in real life. I’m referring to real life, because the experience was online. I became the victim of a “name and shame” witch hunt on the internet.
I wasn’t guilty (if that is the right word) of the thing I was accused of doing. But that didn’t mean a thing to those hunting me. Hunting is the correct term to use, because that’s exactly what it felt like.
My hunter isn’t very well, or so I’m given to understand; they have issues. My hunter made something up about me, it wasn’t true and no matter how many times they repeat it, it still won’t be true. But that makes no difference at all, no smoke without fire and all that.
“Naming and shaming” in itself is problematic and makes no sense. “Shaming” someone is impossible. You can’t be ashamed of something you haven’t done. You’re in your perfect rights to refuse to feel ashamed. No one can make us feel something no matter how they want us to. It’s a bit like trying to make someone love you. If the warm mushy feeling isn’t there it ain’t gonna happen. And if guilt is absent, then try all you want, there’s no embarrassment here.
We can laugh at the naiveté of old films where the evil lord or nasty sheriff kidnaps the beautiful girl and forces her to marry him (the path to true love is never smooth, is it?), but naming and shaming is not far off exactly that, both a ridiculous scenario. You might believe someone should think your way, but it doesn’t mean they’ll fall into line and do your bidding. And nor should they have to.
Naming and shaming is the modern day equivalent of the village stocks. It’s bullying, achieves nothing and it’s pathetic.
And yet, naming and shaming has become a national pastime. My hunter galvanised quite a following for her cause, turns out there are more naming and shaming hobbyists than I ever imagined. My hunter had hundreds of followers cheering her on. I know because I received messages from lots of them. And there’s only so many messages from complete strangers calling you a “f*cking c*nt” you can put up with before you start thinking about doing something about it.
I was invited by the admin on these groups to account for my actions, to defend the charges against me (their language, not mine), in a Kafkaesque kangaroo court. I told the admin the accusations were not true, what’s more they are and were defamatory. Makes no difference, they said. You have been accused.
I didn’t defend myself because I don’t think I should have to, but all of a sudden I’m seventeen again and studying Arthur Miller’s The Crucible for my A Levels. Only now I’m the witch and people want to burn me.
I reported these groups to the social media provider, citing community guidelines, only to be told that the people threatening to hunt me down weren’t breaking any rules. I challenged the decision. Two weeks later, they took one of the groups down. The admin promptly started another group, which I reported, and guess what happened? Social media provider says no.
I went to the police. What I didn’t know then and what I do now is that people can say whatever they like about you on the internet – or in real life – and there’s nothing you can do about it. It’s a civil matter. No bobby on the beat would go and have a quiet word with my hunter and in any case, if they have issues then it will only make it worse.
Things have moved on since all this happened. My hunter’s main cheerleader has realised that she’s been had, sent me an apology via another channel. It was nice to get, but a little late. One “Sorry Cath, my mistake. Bygones!” versus so many “you’re a f*ckin c*nt”s doesn’t really balance itself out too well.
The people threatening me were more varied occupation and background-wise than I originally thought. I imagined each of them to be dossers and layabouts with too much time on their hands. The truth was exactly the opposite. A businesswoman who runs her own successful catering business and a NHS mental health worker were two of the main instigators in encouraging people to contact and abuse me. The majority of my hunter’s followers would get up in the morning, do a day’s work, have their tea, put the kids to bed then go on the internet and send me abusive messages, every night.
I’m talking in the past tense now, because all the people who were fuming and unable to sleep of a night time because they hated me so much have moved on. Found other people to target maybe or, as they put it, “shame”. Maybe Katie Hopkins came out with one of her classics. Whoever it is that’s the target of their ire this week, I wish I could thank them.
Every time I see the phrase “name and shame” now, I go cold. It gets bandied about so much. If a cashier at the supermarket doesn’t kiss sufficient customer arse, a delivery driver is ten minutes late, a kid’s teacher has the cheek not to give little Amelia a gold star, it’s…NAME AND SHAME. THEY MUST BE PUNISHED. GET IT ON FACEBOOK. NOW. RT PLEASE.
Fact is, if you name and shame, you are a bully.
If you share a photograph of some random person with an equally random accusation attached, you’re a bully.
If you get offended by a minor infraction or imagine a slight from someone and go on the internet to slag them off, you’re a bully.
If you make something up about someone and encourage the world to pile on, you’re a bully.
If you encourage bullying, you’re a bully.
(That last point is very important.)
I have a short story in “What I Remember”, a collection of short fiction to raise money for the organisation Everyday Victim Blaming. You can buy the book in both e-book and physical book formats here.