Cognitive Dissonance And Picking On People

I was listening to an interview with Jon Ronson who wrote the book So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed which looks at cases like Justine Sacco who tweeted a bad “joke” about going to Africa and not getting AIDS because she’s white and then her entire life was ruined. More than getting fired (which happened) – there were death threats and a permanently tarnished name and emotional destruction etc. (There’s an excerpt from the book here.) Someone of no real consequence says something dumb and the entire internet gangs up on them and takes them down for it. The part though that I find interesting is that Ronson interviewed people who seemed to be really into to the “take down” part of Sacco’s situation and he asked them how they think she’s doing and they ALL SAID, “Eh, I’m sure she’s fine.” She was not fine.

In the interview Ronson then told a story about a guy in another country who just recently killed himself after being publicly shamed for being a racist when he didn’t even say the thing he was attributed for saying. Obviously, that guy is not fine.

So, the Cognitive Dissonance part of it is that “we” – the collective internet – tend to say things about other people we know NOTHING ABOUT without worrying about the consequences because “we” basically think our words are not significant and won’t have any lasting effect. He brought up the point that – because the internet “we” is a huge organism with lots of power – it DOES have lasting effect and any person who is a part of that collective “we” who joins in on this type of public shaming needs to realize that. And I have a lot to say about that in a future entry.

BUT – for this entry – I got to thinking about this type of of cognitive dissonance and how it relates to my favorite subject: Picking on people you don’t know. I tend to be that annoying kid in class that doesn’t want anyone to have fun, in the sense that I sometimes write on my Facebook page or in response on other people’s Facebook pages when I feel like a stranger may be being picked on. I guess I’m the defender of the person wearing the bad outfit or saying/doing the dumb thing that you post about in your status. Mainly because I’m often wearing bad outfits (I went to Whole Foods for the first time last night in knee-high striped santa socks and a santa hat) or saying dumb things (Oh, man. I said something SUPER dumb this week that I’ll share in another entry once the embarrassment fades a bit). But I often like to point out that maybe the target of the status would have their feelings hurt a bit if they saw the status about them.

And a few times when I’ve done this kinda directly? I’ve gotten responses like, “Eh – they wouldn’t care. They wear that kind of thing knowing they’re going to get made fun of.” Or, “Eh, they would know I was just being silly and didn’t mean any actual harm.” And those type of statements always kinda sat weird with me and I couldn’t figure out why and now I see what they are – a type of cognitive dissonance. We all know deep down that our words could hurt someone, but we also know they’re damn funny and we want to say them anyway so we just kinda justify it by hoping/believing the words wouldn’t hurt anyone.

I do believe there are people who could see that their picture was being used in a mocking way and not get their feelings hurt. But I think we tend to assume that’s the majority of people when we want to do the mocking, when in reality I don’t believe it is. I think the average person would be happy knowing no one was making fun of them ever, but we’ve all seen our friends on Facebook post statuses making fun of the 40-year old lady wearing leggings as pants and how SHE IS TOO OLD FOR THAT SHIT.

(I’m a 40-year old lady who wore leggings as pants yesterday.)

I know the world is not as sensitive as I am, but I also know that there are enough sensitive people in the world that could read your status or see your picture making fun of someone and be wounded by it in some way. And I don’t believe people are honestly unaware of that. Acting like poking fun of people on Facebook is a victimless crime, has to be a form of cognitive dissonance because we all are aware that sometimes people get their feelings hurt. Even if the subject of your ridicule never sees the words, one of your friends or family members may be able to easily see themselves in that person your making fun of and then just look at you differently. While the leggings are a good example, but so are things like – when you post that status making fun of the girl at Wal-Mart with the gross feet who should NOT be allowed to wear sandals. Or when you make some sort of snarky comment about how people should take care of their eyebrows. I’ve seen ALL of these and they ALL resonate with me directly. I have black toenails and sometimes am missing them all together. My eyebrows are out of control. Sometimes I mix up my “your/you’re” or my “there/they’re/their” – NOT BECAUSE I DON’T KNOW WHICH IS WHICH – but because I don’t always proofread well.

But in order to post our funny statuses about strangers we have to convince ourselves that they’re not mean because A) That person will never see the status or B) People aren’t that sensitive and wouldn’t really get their feelings hurt.

I know people who often make fun of strangers; not necessarily in super-mean ways, but in snarky enough ways that I find myself forever paranoid around them. I mean, if they write about strangers on their Facebook page do that make fun of me when I’m not around? I’ve also seen people who point and laugh when we’re in groups and then I find myself wondering if someone is pointing and laughing at me from another group. A perfect example is – I was at a 5K once with my daughter and some “experienced runners” I guess were making fun of someone wearing their hydration pack to a 5K. I do that ALL THE TIME and now I’m forever paranoid someone is making fun of me assuming I’m rookie. I AM NOT A ROOKIE, I JUST LIKE BEING PREPARED OKAY?

Untitled-1Our words have power no matter how much we try to tell ourselves they don’t. Yes, maybe a lot of people in the world aren’t as sensitive as I am, but I promise you enough are (because I am blessed with kind friends and we discuss this a lot) that your words WILL pack a punch in some way whether you intend it or not. I believe we all know that, deep down. That words matter. And I believe that we all know deep down that the ego boost from writing a status where people are all “LOL! YOU’RE SO FUNNY!” is probably not worth it if someone honestly got their feelings hurt. But we like that ego boost too much to allow ourselves to think about other people’s feelings. And if they get their feelings hurt? THAT IS ON THEM, DAMMIT.

Yep. It’s on me alright. On me to never allow myself to get too close to someone who picks on people for sport.

7 Comments

  • Colleen

    I agree! I think being picked on hurts most people. I worry sometimes that I’m the one being made fun of behind my back, because I wear clothes that are definitely old and out of style sometimes and probably challenge what a 46 year old should wear, but I like them and I hate to shop. I also worry sometimes that something I said might be perceived as making fun when I don’t mean it that way – like I said something about running in jeans, because i think it is really cool and unique that our friend does that, but afterwards I worried that it didn’t come across how I meant it. He wasn’t there, so I hope it didn’t get back to him differently than I intended it.

  • Susan

    I read that book, too. A very good read. I have to say, I didn’t think about this issue that much before I read the book, but now that I have, every instance of “internet ganging up” that I see makes me wince. We never know the full story in these situations. I try to be a voice of reason, but I’m not sure how much it really helps.

    But thanks for writing about this! I really enjoy your posts and your point of view!

  • Rayne of Terror

    Twitter has made me much more aware of how judgmental people are. I lived the first 30 years of my life assuming people did not care that much about what other people did that had no impact on them personally. I also follow a lot of local people on Twitter and I see their snarking and when it comes to snarking on fat people at the gym, it made me quit going to my gym for all of 2014 even though I paid my family membership the while time because I would feel panicky. I forced myself to go to a Saturday morning class for most of 2015 but after overhearing snarky comments and being the least fit person in the class, i started getting panicky again and quit. I would love to have a fitness group where I fit in and had fun, but for now I’m swimming & walking by myself. I’m overwhelmed & exhausted by all the crap one has to do to fit into a narrow scope of acceptable living with adult women in a conservative rural area. I’ll just be at home obsessing about Hamilton with my online friends.

  • MrsDragon

    I agree 110%. Anytime someone says “oh, I love people of Wal-Mart!” I just back away slowly. The entire site is predicated on being mean/rude AND taking/posting photos without the subject’s consent and it makes me feel so icky. I don’t see the appeal.

  • Jenylynn

    I can not even begin to tell you much much I agree with this post!!! Thank you for being honest about yourself, and sharing your thoughts!!! I really enjoy hearing your point of view!!!

  • Grace

    Thanks for your lovely post. I’m another who tends to stick up for folks being picked on. I found a high school classmate on FB, and asked to be his friend there, he wrote back to me with the kindest note: “I remember you! You were always so nice to EVERYONE!”

    Validation, 20 years later.