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Nine Moons » Blog Archive : The Culture of Public Humiliation » The Culture of Public Humiliation

The Culture of Public Humiliation

Seth - March 5, 2007

We all have our painful memories. Personal moments that were just so intensely embarrassing that it hurts to even think about it. Care to share those with over 9 million people?

Well according to a discussion on NPR’s Talk of the Nation today, that’s exactly what happened to a portly 14 year-old boy who happened to film himself in private performing a variety of sword fighting and martial arts moves from the Star Wars movies. Apparently a (former) friend got a hold of the tape and posted it on YouTube. Almost 9 million hits later, the poor boy was being laughed at and ridiculed, not only at school, but by millions of people worldwide. Eventually, he had to drop out of school (he’s now being homeschooled) and get therapy. A Google search of his name almost immediately links him to video footage.

The incident highlights, for me, a disturbing turn our culture has taken in only the last several years. Ridicule, shame, and public enjoyment of shame are, of course, nothing new. Yet the scale has been altered. We aren’t just talking about Joey laughing with his friends at the local arcade about that stupid thing Martha saw Frank do. We’re talking about mass dissemination of private information fueled by widely available technology. No matter where you go, the chances are increasingly good that someone with a cell phone is filming you picking your nose and instantaneously forwarding it to the cell phones of three of four of their friends.

Sites like YouTube and MySpace amplify the ripple effect even further by providing a seemingly permanent point of reference for your candid moment, to which people can point and refer for weeks (or more). A resource like MySpace instantaneously allows any savvy teenager to wage an instant negative publicity campaign against selected individuals. It used to be that only wealthy politicians were capable of the sort of public smear campaigns that are now available to any 13 year old with a camera phone and a MySpace account. Online bullying has become a real problem in American high schools. Many school officials are seriously considering banning all camera phones from their campuses (and more power to them).

To make matters worse, popular mainstream media sources encourage this kind of behavior. Shows like Candid Camera and America’s Funniest Home Videos have been around for ages, but the shows today take things to a whole new level of meanness. From the untalented being ruthlessly demolished on American Idol, to the personal flaws of reality show participants, to aggressively targeted acts of emotional abuse on shows such as MTV’s “Punked,” Americans everywhere seem to be indulging in a sick fascination with watching the humiliation of others. Even mainstream news shows are increasingly tapping into this “hot market” of American neurosis by filming bystanders reactions to outrageous conduct and then criticizing the public inaction (the most recent example I saw was two actors playing an angry nursing home worker abusing an elderly man in a wheelchair in a public park).

Our kids are being raised to view public humiliation as “cool.” Little wonder that they act out on their friends and enemies at school. I find myself very worried that we are raising a generation of sadists. The question is whether today’s parents have either the inclination or the tech-savvy, to nip this problem in the bud.


  1. Seth,
    Did you not know about the Star Wars Kid before the NPR piece? That’s like four years old! Even Arrested Development brilliantly spoofed it a number of times.

    Comment by Rusty — March 5, 2007 @ 3:19 pm

  2. No Rusty, I’m not really plugged into these things. NPR was the first I heard about it. I think the real story is the aftermath for the kid. The issue of online bullying, and our voyeuristic culture, of course, has been growing on me for some time. The NPR conversation was simply motivation to finally post on it.

    Comment by Seth R. — March 5, 2007 @ 4:22 pm

  3. I think part of the whole thing is our desire to feel that we are better than someone else. When we see others do stupid things we feel smart, and we get a laugh out of it.

    It is scary what level this kind of humiliation has gone to with the internet and camera phones.

    I don’t see that it’s going to stop.

    Hopefully it won’t be the downfall of civilation any more than Dungeons and Dragons, .25 cent video arcades, Playboy magazine, Video games, online gaming and the whole internet!

    Comment by Don Clifton — March 5, 2007 @ 5:26 pm

  4. Thankfully, fame on the internet is just as fleeting as it has been anywhere else.

    Comment by Seth R. — March 5, 2007 @ 8:11 pm

  5. The kid’s “friend” and all others who do such things should be arrested (or sued, or whatever the appropriate legal response is) for invasion of privacy. No such content should be posted without the express, written consent of the people involved.

    Comment by Proud Daughter of Eve — March 6, 2007 @ 11:14 am

  6. Actually, it’s not entirely clear what’s legal and what isn’t in this area. It’s a developing area of copyright law, along with some free speech issues, and a dash of defamation and privacy laws.

    And of course, a lawsuit isn’t going to put the genie back in the bottle.

    Comment by Seth R. — March 6, 2007 @ 11:58 am

  7. I think in today’s world kids (and adults) need to be careful what they record or photograph themselves doing.

    A funny aside: I have a friend in a band who had his cellphone stolen. He told me the guy who stole it was trying to extort $5,000 for it. My friend is a drummer in a band that was very influential in a certain scene of music, but his band is not well known at all. I asked why on earth the guy thought he’d pay $5,000 to get a cellphone back. He said because there were naked photos of himself on it.

    I had to laugh. Like *anyone* would care about naked photos of my friend. Seriously. No one would.

    Comment by Susan M — March 6, 2007 @ 2:27 pm

  8. I think the problem swings both ways. America is fascinated with watching AND filming such events. I am more troubled with the latter. Like everyone has already said, we watch it, laugh at it, then forget about it or at least don’t use it as humiliation anymore. (I LOVE the Star Wars Kid! One of the biggest gutbusters I’ve seen off the internet) It disturbs me more that people feel the need to spread trash and filth about others so prevalent-ly (not a word, I know) abd to such an acute degree.

    However, an easy way to not be a target of such embarassment is to try to carry a little dignity with you at all times. The overwhelming amount of stuff that’s posted is of someone doing something they probebly shouldn’t be doing anyway. (like getting drunk or high and then making further stupid decisions, etc etc)

    Comment by Bret — March 7, 2007 @ 12:56 am

  9. Naked photos, swings both ways. Scary juxtaposition of responses!

    Never take pictures that you wouldn’t want publicized. Period.

    Comment by Space Chick — April 2, 2007 @ 12:22 pm

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