On Shaming

Yesterday I saw an infographic that was getting passed around Facebook that was a photo of an overweight man who had fallen off his motorized scooter in the soda aisle of a grocery store and was clinging to one of the shelves, seemingly trying to right himself. It’s unclear from the photo which store this happened at, but superimposed over it are the words “Meanwhile At Wal-Mart,” so presumably that’s where it happened. “Meanwhile At Wal-Mart” is apparently a well-established meme for the purpose of mocking that chain’s employees and clientele.

I won’t share the infographic here. I’m confident my readers are savvy enough to find it on their own, if they’re interested, and I don’t want to be guilty of directly contributing to its hit count. It’s a cruel, disgusting photograph, compounded by the knowledge that the photographer’s first thought was to take the photo instead of running over to help the unfortunate man.

I was bewildered when someone shared that picture in my Facebook feed, because I didn’t think I was Friends with anyone who would have shared it. When I called him out, he defended the share by saying the person isn’t disabled, eats excess calories, and doesn’t exercise. He was surprised I didn’t want to join in the fun, since, as I’ve mentioned here before, I run every day. He thought my demonstrated ability to keep to a fitness regimen meant I would share in his ridicule of someone who lacked that ability.

My erstwhile friend believed it was okay to be cruel to this individual, because he was using a scooter despite not being disabled, because he was buying sweetened soda despite already being morbidly obese, and because the person has clearly “given up” and is doing nothing to improve his health.

I love the Internet, and mostly believe it makes us better people, but it brings out the worst in some. The Internet enables that kind of shaming because it keeps us anonymous, and shields us from the reality that the victim is someone else’s father, husband, brother, or son. It’s a medium that mitigates against compassion and encourages low-information judgments. Consider:

We don’t know the person is not disabled. It is just as likely he is overweight because he can’t walk and therefore can’t get enough exercise. It’s a chicken or egg thing. And even if he’s using the scooter “merely” because of his obesity, it’s not a reason to make fun of him for his weight.

We don’t know that he consumes excessive calories. He may be shopping for someone else. He may be getting diet soda or tea. Or maybe he’s on a diet and has already lost fifty pounds, and is rewarding himself with the first sweet calories he’s had in a month. There’s no way to know any of these things. But even if he drinks a twelve-pack of high-calorie soda every day, and injects another ounce of chocolate syrup into each can, it’s not a reason to make fun of him for his weight.

We don’t know that he has “given up,” or is content to be the size he is or to have limited mobility. Again, he could well be days or weeks into a vigorous exercise regimen that has already delivered results obvious to everyone who knows him. All we know from the photo is that he experienced one very bad moment in a public place. But even if he has “given up” and stopped trying to improve himself, and lives a life of daily despair, it’s even more reason not to make fun of him for his weight.

The only thing we know for certain is that the man, like all people, deserves to be treated with dignity and compassion. Would my former friend point and laugh if he saw this man in real-time at that grocery store? Of course, he wouldn’t. No one would. People tend to assume the subjects of such memes are not really out there in the world, living ordinary lives and reading the Internet like everyone else. That’s not the case. Consider what happened to Caitlin Seida when she responded to the haters:

The most common response was not remorse or defensiveness but surprise. They were startled that I could hear what they’d been saying.

Shame is a powerful weapon in society, and it can be used for good, as I think it (mostly) was in the cases of Taylor Chapman and the “deranged sorority girl” (and apropos of nothing, that latter became the inspiration for Michael Shannon’s current career pinnacle). When shame is wielded against people who have done nothing to afflict others and are just living their lives, I despair for our species.

I face many difficulties myself, and I deal with them with varying degrees of success. I’m lucky that none of my difficulties are obvious to people who see me out in public. This isn’t true for many trans people, and it hasn’t always been true for me.

Every grown-up should be morally advanced enough not to make other people’s lives harder than they have to be. I kind of hate it that I felt the need to write this post.