As a culture, we tend to gawk gratuitously, enabled by our panopticonic environment and social media. If someone in Detroit throws up at a bar or walks into a stop sign, the embarrassing moment could be blasted immediately outside his local bubble, beamed onto the feeds of millions of people around the world.
Sometimes this process yields wonderful results like the dancing sloth Barstool posted to Instagram this week. Sometimes it ruins lives. We’ve largely charged full-steam ahead on this new hourly ritual of mass international public shaming without pausing much to ponder the ethics of our clicks.
That’s predictably human. In the scheme of human existence, we’re extremely early in our adjustment to smartphones and social media. We’re also increasingly running a cost-benefit-analysis on this technology’s positive and negative impacts on society.
And so it came to be, a camera was focused on Jeffrey Toobin’s genitals when he started masturbating on a work call. The unthinkably embarrassing incident, as they say, couldn’t have happened to a nicer guy. Actually, no. Toobin’s checkered past fueled his public flogging.
That flogging, by the way, came not because we’re increasingly conditioned to feast on others’ mistakes, as Kevin Williamson contended in the esteemed pages of National Review. (For a better take from Buckley’s magazine, read Dan McLaughlin.) As a powerful public figure, Toobin did something newsworthy, exposing people to a shockingly inappropriate live image of their colleague pleasuring himself. (Joan Rivers often convincingly argued the price of celebrity was public ridicule.)
Further, Toobin has not been fired when we all know most people without the privilege of his media credentials would be let go immediately, and rightfully so. What’s more, he’s a sanctimonious moralizer who preens in the pages of New Yorker and on the airwaves of CNN, claiming a moral high-ground of which none of us are worthy.
But was it gratuitous? It’s true, life comes at you fast. Because we’re almost constantly monitored by cameras, publicly and privately, our worst moments and most thoughtless errors will be increasingly caught on tape. (Heartwarming moments will be too, but that gets back to the cost-benefit-analysis.)
Toobin’s misfortune finally elevated this conversation to another level of visibility among media types. For all the reasons listed above, I’m not sure his case-study is the best example. The absurdity of his error presented an irresistible shiny object, one with legitimate reasons for discussion, and one so absurd that mockery couldn’t possibly be contained even by responsible coverage.
Gratuitous mockery, objectionable as it may be, is probably unavoidable in a case like this. The best we can do is think twice before tweeting something exceptionally uncharitable. Maybe I’m punting on this example, but I’m okay with that because the majority of case studies are clearer cut.
We would do well to reflect on the argument that social media is numbing us to the victims of viral mockery and conditioning us to discard grace as a virtue. Humans are sinful creatures who will react sinfully in large numbers wherever the opportunity presents itself, and some subjects of viral mockery are thoroughly unsympathetic. But social media also strips our lives out of their local contexts, where humans have long dealt with their achievements and mistakes, benefitting from heightened good-faith and a greater sense of accountability to community.
We’re guinea pigs in uncharted waters. It’s now our job to accept that reality while refusing to let the experiment fail.