On Shaming People Online "For Their Own Good"

[Content note: online harassment and bullying]

Online vigilantism in general is nothing new, but lately I’ve been noticing a disturbing trend of people trying to teach others that they “should’ve known better” by posting “embarrassing” photos of them online, and/or doxing them based on photos of them that were already online.

Two examples I’ve come across:

1. A dude went to a Magic: The Gathering tournament, found as many players as he could whose butt cracks were exposed, and posed for photos next to them. And then put them online. Apparently this is “part funny, part social commentary, and part PSA.” From the Daily Dot:

Showing your ass in a convention of 4,000 people is “unacceptable,” he says. “There is no way (barring some sort of handicap) that they didn’t notice this. Not doing anything about it is lazy, gross and bad for the community. Some people won’t get into magic because of this type of stuff.

“I hope that people will see this and think ‘maybe I SHOULD pull my pants up.’”

2. A bunch of Reddit and 4chan dudes have apparently made it their personal mission to dox women whose photos end up online, whether intentionally or not, to, once again, “teach them a lesson.” Sometimes this means doxing women who purposefully upload sexy photos of themselves to subreddits like r/gonewild, and sometimes this means doxing women whose email accounts get hacked or who get photographed without their knowledge or consent.

The reason all this stuff has caught my attention isn’t just the sexism and body-shaming it often entails, but the circular reasoning of it–something I’ve noted about these types before. We’ll punish you for putting photos of yourself online because it’s a stupid thing to do. Putting photos of yourself online is a stupid thing to do because we’ll punish you for it. You shouldn’t wear ill-fitting clothing that exposes parts of your body that shouldn’t be exposed because then people have to look at it. People have to look at you wearing ill-fitting clothing that exposes parts of your body that shouldn’t be exposed because we just took a photo of you and put it on the internet. Women who put sexy photos online have no self-respect because putting sexy photos of yourself online is a bad thing to do because it shows you have no self-respect because putting sexy photos online is a bad thing to do because–at this point my ability to write words breaks down and I have nothing to say but WHAAAaaaaAAAAT A;LSDKFASLKDF;ASDFAJ;D?!

Whenever you find a silly self-justifying spiral like this, you know there’s something going on that people either can’t or won’t acknowledge.

I have some questions for these brave heroes. First, to Redditor OB1FBM, who posted the butt crack photos:

  • If this is really about making a “public service announcement,” why’d you post it to r/funny?
  • If you’re really worried that “some people won’t get into magic because of this type of stuff [butt cracks],” why aren’t you worried that people won’t get into Magic because the community apparently has creeps who go around taking photos of people’s asses?
  • If you really wanted to “spare the person the shame of being confronted in front of other people” (say, by tapping them on the shoulder and warning them that they need to pull their pants up), why the fuck did you post this on the internet?
  • If you really want to make MtG tournaments more comfortable for those who likewise find butt cracks “unacceptable,” why didn’t you talk to the organizers about implementing a dress code?
  • If you really want to make people change their behavior, why haven’t you considered the evidence that shaming isn’t an effective way to do that?

Next, for the men who think it’s their sacred mission to shame and terrify women for existing in photographic form:

  • WTF?
  • If you like looking at attractive women (and I know you do, or else why the fuck are you on r/gonewild), why are you making that astronomically less likely to happen by making them afraid for their lives?
  • WTF?
  • If your entire worthless thesis is that women shouldn’t let photos of themselves get online because look what can happen, why do you have to actually make that happen in order to make your argument? That’s like robbing someone’s apartment to “helpfully” point out that they need to keep their apartment locked so that shitheads like you don’t rob it.
  • WTF?
  • If these women are, as you claim, “looking for the attention” of having their full names, phone numbers, addresses, and social media accounts posted online and spread widely, why wouldn’t they do that themselves? It’s not difficult to post your own full name, phone number, address, and photos online. Shockingly, I don’t think they need your assistance with this task.
  • WTF?
  • Supposing posting a sexy photo of yourself online (or storing one in a private account that gets hacked, as it were) is really such a bad thing, is being threatened with rape and death, having one’s family threatened with rape and death, and never being able to get a legit job ever again really a reasonable punishment? Hell, even rapists don’t usually face such a strict penalty.
  • WTF?
  • Why are people who dox people on Reddit literally Hitler unless they’re doxing semi-naked women?
  • WTF?

And on and on it goes. I have more questions than answers here, really.

These two seemingly unrelated phenomena might not seem to have much in common at first: one involves “hot” women and the other involves “ugly” (or, at least, “gross” or “disgusting”) men, one involves doxing and the other does not, one involves shaming people for committing what most consider at least a faux pas and the other involves people simply existing and having bodies.

But there are a lot of similar themes, too: the self-righteous vigilantism, the use of shaming as a disciplinary tactic, the insistence that the targets “deserved” or “asked for” what they got, the creepy obsession with people’s bodies and what they do with those bodies, the indignation at something that’s frankly none of anyone’s business.

I’m sure someone’s going to comment here about how yeah well you shouldn’t have your butt crack showing. Yeah, I guess you shouldn’t, at least by our local norms of what should and should not be shown in public (remember that this is neither a universal nor a natural truth, but a social construction). There are a lot of things you generally should not do, such as speak rudely to strangers without provocation, take up more seats on the subway than you need, or leave too small a tip at a restaurant. Are we prepared, then, to publicly shame people who do these things as well? Where do we stop? Are we prepared to take photos of parts of strangers’ bodies that we know that would not want photographed and put those photos on public forums frequented by thousands of people? Is the sight of a human body that offensive?

OB1FBM claims rather unpersuasively that “it’s not about being fat,” but it is, in fact, exactly about that. In order to talk about why lots of people are so gosh-darn rude as to have their butt cracks visible when they’re sitting, you have to talk about the fact that mass-produced clothing fits very few body types well, and denim especially is not a fabric that’s great at molding to bodies as they move. Unfortunately, for whatever reason, denim is the normative fabric for pants in Western society.

Brian Kibler writes:

Here’s the thing. I was a fat kid growing up. I know the kind of treatment that many overweight people deal with. I was mercilessly mocked by other kids in school. My own brother told me that I would never get a girlfriend. Even to this day, I habitually tug on my shirts to keep them from hanging unflatteringly over my body. That feeling is something that never goes away – the sense that everything just fits wrong on you, and feeling like you’re never truly comfortable in your own skin. Public shaming was hardly a new and novel experience. It was often just what I felt from *being* in public. It certainly wasn’t going to be the catalyst for some sort of change in my behavior. And I’m sure my ass hung out of my pants from time to time.

Want to change the way people dress at Magic tournaments? Be a good example. I’ve made a point since I started playing again to always dress up for tournaments, and you know what? I’ve seen people emulating that. “Be the change you want to see in the world”, as they saying goes – not “Be the asshole who makes fun of other people because they aren’t how you want them to be.”

OB1FBM might not be trying to make it about being fat, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t. It’s about that, and it’s about people being engaged in a gaming competition and forgetting for a moment that they need to pull their pants up or their shirts down and thus committing what can at worst be considered a small and common faux pas.

I’m a little bewildered that I had so much trouble finding critical responses to this stunt when I googled it that I realized how necessary this blog post was. I am, and yet I’m not. The devaluation of consent, autonomy, and dignity in our society extends far beyond the usual culprits of sexual assault and harassment.

And speaking of that, while I’m stating the obvious. There is nothing a person can do that justifies having their personal information found out and posted to thousands of people online*. Taking naked photos of themselves and giving them to a partner doesn’t justify it. Taking naked photos of themselves and putting them in a password-protected online account doesn’t justify it. Taking naked photos of themselves and putting them on a forum meant for that purpose, without the personal information attached, doesn’t justify it. Existing in public where they can be photographed looking “sexy” doesn’t justify it. Being a sex worker doesn’t justify it. Making you uncomfortable because someone’s owning their body and sexuality who shouldn’t be doesn’t justify it. Being a woman doesn’t justify it.

If you knowingly, purposefully violate people’s privacy and consent in order to “teach them a lesson,” you are not offering up a “public service announcement” or doing your community some sort of act of kindness. You are a bully. You are every schoolyard bully who has ever beat up a kid to “teach them a lesson,” you are every workplace bully who has ever ostracized a coworker and sabotaged their work to “teach them a lesson,” you are every online bully who has sent anonymous violent threats to people you don’t like to “teach them a lesson.” You are every person who has committed violence and abuse against their partner to “teach them a lesson.”

What a proud tradition you carry on.


*As usual, a caveat! This blog post is discussing shaming people for behaviors that do not directly harm anyone. In a follow-up (hopefully), I’m going to talk about the murkier ethics of shaming people for behaviors that do directly harm others.

Thanks to this blog post for alerting me to the MtG thing.

On Shaming People Online "For Their Own Good"

28 thoughts on “On Shaming People Online "For Their Own Good"

  1. 2

    I hadn’t thought about the circularity of their arguments, great post Miri. Also, the harassers are essentially saying, “We are protecting you from ourselves.”

  2. 3

    Everything you said, but also, is sharing “Awkward Family Photos” really all that funny? Did these people sign releases so that their photographers could put them up on the web? I rather doubt it.

    More shaming and making fun of people for how they look. I imagine I sound like a concern troll on this,

  3. 4

    This reminds me of the troll Jason Fortuny, profiled in a New York Times article on trolls. He claimed that he was trolling because he wanted to teach people valuable lessons. In his “Craigslist Experiment”, he posed as a woman who was willing to satisfy certain heterosexual-male fantasies. He then doxed the responders to that ad. He claimed about it that it’s important to teach the lesson that people aren’t always who they seem to be online. He also posed as an acquaintance of someone who committed suicide because she was cyberbullied. He claimed that she deserved being cyberbullied, calling his blog on her “Megan Had It Coming”. He claimed that he did it to raise questions about the enforceability of laws against cyberharassment.

    That sort of defense of online nastiness seems like defending mugging by claiming that one is teaching that muggers are people to watch out for.

  4. 5

    Here’s a Tumblr called Bad Seattle Fashion devoted to shitting on people in Seattle for dressing in a way the blogger disapproves of. Which includes a lot of queer people hanging out in Seattle’s queer neighborhood, Capitol Hill. People like this guy, who seems fifty billion times nicer than the blogger. There’s even one entry showing a person in a My Little Pony costume at a comic book store. Oh, the horror: geeks being geeks in geek spaces.

    There are a lot of things you generally should not do, such as…take up more seats on the subway than you need…. Are we prepared, then, to publicly shame people who do these things as well?

    Ahem. Personally, I’m fine with public shaming at this level to combat attitudes of entitlement. I’ve had multiple guys on the bus whine at me for not giving up part of my seat to them. Not fat guys who, often enough, are conscientious about how much space they’re taking up and do what they can to avoid intruding on others, just average guys. They actually get offended if I fully occupy my seat—not encroaching on theirs, just not letting them take up part of mine. When people take their comfort at the expense of others, that’s a kind of harm, especially if they make direct pushback risky.

    1. 5.1

      As a long time Cap Hill resident (going on 20 years), I’ve seen Boe quite a bit. Met him, too; he struck me as an old-school hippy, odd but very sweet. There are still a few such characters around, and the world will be a dimmer, sadder place when they’re gone.

      As for that Tumblr space, it should be noted that Seattle has been a fashion trend setter, with Capitol Hill usually setting the pace: last week’s “bad Seattle fashion” will probably be sold for a premium in American Outfitters next week. Screw the haters, dance in the streets, and be true to your self.

  5. 6

    Why do I feel like the “omg lern2belt” crowd would probably be the first to complain about their freedom of expression being violated if there were a dress code for Magic tournaments?

  6. 7

    That sort of defense of online nastiness seems like defending mugging by claiming that one is teaching that muggers are people to watch out for.

    That’s a pretty accurate description of a lot of what passes for “hacking” in the computer security world. “Oh, look, I broke into your computer, to show you how important it is to keep people from breaking into your computer. Oh, and I told everyone how lame you are. Aren’t I clevurrrr?” Hmm…. Thank you for helping me recontextualize what’s been bothering me about that scene all along: it’s trolling.

    1. 7.1

      I was thinking about that a little when I was writing this. In fact, there seems to be some overlap with the doxing-naked-women crowd because they sometimes have to actually hack into people’s email accounts to do it.

      I wish they’d just admit that they find hacking fun and stop trying to tack on some sort of greater altruistic purpose to it.

      1. I wish they’d just admit that they find hacking fun and stop trying to tack on some sort of greater altruistic purpose to it.

        I’ve been fighting that particular battle since the 1990s. The bottom line is that a lot of the hackers are also incredibly glib sociopaths and they work the media brilliantly, so they get very very generous coverage. That’s why you can get someone like Adrian Lamo, who doesn’t even know what truth is cited by big name magazines and newspapers as a “security expert” — hacking is a weird weird world, and my assessment is the same as I understand yours to be: a thin veneer of justification on top of what they had already decided they were going to do to you.

  7. 8

    “I’m a little bewildered that I had so much trouble finding critical responses to this stunt when I googled it that I realized how necessary this blog post was. I am, and yet I’m not”
    I think the last part sums up my feelings for a lot of stupid stuff people do. It’s often just this big ball of incredulousness in my mind that someone can even think that way, coupled with the acceptance that, yes, people do think that way.

  8. 9

    I understand — and have myself done — publicly pointing out hypocrisy, creep behavior and the like, with an eye both to warn others and, maybe, to shame the offender into reform. But body shaming? Doxxing? There is no justification for that. I agree with you, Miri, that such are the acts of bullies.

  9. 11

    This reminds me of a boss that I once had, who thought he had to teach one of his employees a lesson. It was a freakishly cold day, and one kid had dressed for the usual conditions. The boss set him to work at the job that required an exhaust fan pulling cold air across him, and kept him there. I asked, and was told it was to teach the kid to always bring a coat.

    If someone isn’t paying you to teach lessons, you probably aren’t qualified.

  10. 12

    I did a short call out on the MtG dude on my FB, but hadn’t had the time to really delve into it. But both he and the Bad Seattle Fashion dude really chap my hide. For many, many reasons.

  11. 13

    The behavior and smugly hypocritical and cruel attitude you’re critiquing in this post reviles and infuriates me like few other things. Thanks for having the patience and fortitude to dissect its illogical and abusive character in such detail.

    1. 13.1

      Daniel, this is unrelated to the OP, but I wanted to speak at you while I had a chance. You wrote an article once how you didn’t want the word “stupid” used on your website “Camels with Hammers”. Not that you would care what I think (me being a former FtB troll) but as someone who was slammed with that word as a kid I still want to tell you “thank you” for that.

      Scott Morgan

  12. 14

    In a follow-up (hopefully), I’m going to talk about the murkier ethics of shaming people for behaviors that do directly harm others.

    Sounds interesting, especially if you go into methodology.

      1. Well, I’m not sure how you regard the ethics of shaming harming people yet. But, depending on your point of view, its possible you might venture into HOW to go about it.

        For all I know, you might write an interesting tactical OP.


        1. I meant to say “shaming HARMFUL people”. I came back to check if I added enough clarity for you, and I got confused by my own first sentence.

          Anyway, whatever you write on this matter, its a topic of interest and I hope it comes during one of my episodes where I’m reading at the FtB’s.

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