The Problem With Naming And Shaming

It’s hard to escape our culture’s love of the practice of naming and shaming. Social media has provided fertile ground for this urge, tempting many a person to call out specific people for their mistakes. Where once we would have contented ourselves with disgruntled grumblings over a consoling cup of tea, we now take to Facebook and Twitter to denounce what we perceive to be mistreatment, ignorance, offence, and disgraceful behavior.

It’s quite understandable, really, even if it does bring an unsavory part of our culture into stark relief. The steady stream of likes and comments (and maybe even a mention on someone’s blog) are irresistibly gratifying. They create a cozy echo chamber, and any who dare to disagree or at least express empathy for the other side are silenced. It’s considered rude and even foolish to chime in if you disagree, because you’re “asking for it.” This argument is akin to the belief that people deserve death threats when they speak about controversial issues. It should not be the norm to be attacked when contributing thoughtfully and respectfully to a conversation on social media, no matter how strong the opposition.

This practice has dire consequences—consequences few people actually understand or even know about. When you name and shame a specific person, do you consider how this might affect their lives? More than once, a person’s life has been effectively ruined by some careless mistake they made, even when they have explained themselves. Can you imagine how you’d feel if you made an honest mistake and found yourself being torn to pieces for all to see? Serious offences, especially when committed knowingly, might merit this treatment (and it must be done judiciously even then) but sometimes we need to move on, if not forgive. Calling out a business, institution, or politician is one thing, especially when dealing with discrimination; calling out the average Joe for something they did to offend you is another. These people have feelings, and reputations, and a right to dignity. Even if you are deeply hurt and on fire with rage, think before you spew that invective on social media.

Yes, it’s frustrating when someone pets your service dog. Yes, it’s infuriating when someone treats you like a child. Yes, it’s demoralizing when someone grabs you without permission while you walk down the street. Yes, you have every right to be angry and, yes, you have every right to post about it. Goodness knows I do. No matter how upset you are, though, you still need to think carefully about consequences before you call someone out by name.

Don’t be lulled into a false sense of security because your privacy settings limit visibility, either. People get in trouble for shaming coworkers all the time, because all it takes is one person sharing screenshots of your post for your actions to become public knowledge. I think most of us have either done this or at least felt the pull—I know I have—but it’s time we gave this more thought. Sure, some people exhibit irritating and dangerous behaviour, and we should definitely shame that behavior in general, but is eviscerating the person on social media going to accomplish much beyond catharsis?

I do not think we should all remain silent when oppressed or genuinely hurt. I also think it’s reasonable to discuss bad behavior without naming specific perpetrators, as I do on this blog with regularity. However, we’d do well not to get too comfortable in our snug little echo chambers, even though they make us feel vindicated. If you want validation, call a friend you trust. Talk to a counsellor. Vent in safe spaces. Don’t use a public (or potentially public) platform to vent your spleen. In an age where everything we reveal online is preserved indefinitely, for anyone to stumble upon and bring to the fore even decades later, impulse control is more important than ever. If self-preservation isn’t enough for you to think twice, at least consider the impact your emotion-fueled condemnation will have on another human being—a human who wronged you, but who has a right not to be dog-piled by an angry mob.

So, think before you name and shame on social media. You never know what the long-term consequences might be.

If I Had A Million Dollars…

When I become a rich and famous copyeditor (stop laughing, damn it), I know exactly what I will do. Forget the posh beach vacations and the shopping sprees and the sumptuous dinners (okay, I’m keeping the dinners). When (not if) I have a million dollars at my disposal, I’m going to get … a personal assistant.
That’s it.

Just imagine it, friends: I could say to this assistant, “I have a job interview. I don’t want to be late. Could you drive me please?” (Naturally I’d ask, because Canadians do things like that). I could say to this assistant, “I don’t understand what this bizarre Facebook video even means. Help!” and they’d describe it to me. I could say to this assistant, “Does this outfit work?” and they’d say “…it does, but you might want to turn that top right side out…” and I’d skip off, safe in the knowledge that a crisis was averted. (Just kidding, guys! That never happens. Never ever.)
I can just feel the heavy weight of blind-person frowns. I can hear the mutterings: “Meagan, you are perfectly capable of coordinating your own clothing, and calling a cab or taking public transport. What do you need an assistant for? Aren’t you a strong, capable, independent blind woman?” (I’ve fooled you all so well, ha ha!)
To this I answer, yes. Yes, I am capable of calling a friend and asking for a description of a confusing video. Yes, I’m capable of jumping on the bus or calling a taxi. Yes, I’m capable of going through the store with a customer service agent and collecting what I need. Yes, I’m *capable*. But…

But what if I don’t wanna?
That’s right, I said it. What if I don’t feel like calling the Edmonton Transit Service and trying to figure out which bus goes where, while dealing with fuzzy directions and confusion on both sides? What if I don’t know quite what I want in the grocery store, and just want to browse? What if I don’t want to wait around for a kind friend to describe that video? What if, like any sighted person, I just want to get something done–quickly, efficiently, and without fuss? What if?

Yes, you’re still frowning at me, I know. Most of the time I prefer to get things done on my own, it’s true, even if it’s not always quite as efficient as it might otherwise be. Still, I don’t think customer service workers at the local grocery store would appreciate me asking them to read every single tea they carry so I can choose just one. It would be so lovely to know that someone was being paid specifically to walk around with me and tell me what they see. If a sighted person can hire someone to wash their floors and book their plane tickets—all things they could do themselves but choose not to—surely I can pay someone to be my eyes for a while?

I used to judge, too. Even a couple of years ago, when meeting someone with a PA for simple shopping and traveling, I might have frowned nice and deep, and said, “Don’t they value their independence?” (Judge judge judge.)
Then I did a little more living in this fast-paced world of ours, and I realized that this PA thing? It’s damn handy.

So, I will continue to get things done on my own, usually as efficiently as any sighted person, but not always. I will not waste my precious coin on personal assistants, spending it instead on the necessities of life, such as tea and books. (What are you frowning about now? Stop that!)

But a girl can dream.

It’s All Relative

As I’ve covered over and over, people treat blindness like a life sentence, complete with misery and woe. It’s not an easy life, there’s no doubt, but it’s not a sea of bitter suffering, either. The misconception that my life really is that burdensome, though, tends to dissuade people from sharing their own suffering with me, as though my disability renders their own struggles meaningless by comparison. Even those who are close to me, and know full well that my life is mostly happy, need occasional reminders that they are free to share their problems with me, no matter how minor they might seem next to mine. Just the other day, my sister was about to tell me about something that was troubling her, when she stopped mid-sentence: “I feel so guilty! My life’s so easy. You have it so much harder. What am I doing complaining?” I took that opportunity to reiterate that everyone’s situation is different, and that pain is relative.

We all have unique issues to deal with, and what might be an insufferable load to carry for one person is but a light affliction for others. A problematic work situation might bother me less than someone else because I’m so grateful just to have a job in the first place. Chronic pain, however, is a thorn in my side, while others handle it with grace and pluck.

I, like so many others, had to learn the hard way that those with the hardest lives are the most willing to listen to my own difficulties. They give the best advice, and often provide welcoming ears and broad shoulders. Since I am so well acquainted with trials and tribulations, the last thing I’d do is devalue someone else’s. I’d look with shame and scorn on someone who tried to use blindness—or any disability, really—as a way to dismiss and silence another’s feelings. No amount of personal pain should make light of another’s. It’s worth knowing our limits, and being candid when we cannot be there for someone else right at that moment, but we must keep life in perspective. We are here to support one another, after all, and insisting that my blindness, mental illness, and chronic pain somehow invalidate the complaints of others is not only ludicrous—it’s dangerous and supremely selfish.

So, if you ever find yourself shying away from unburdening yourself on my shoulder, remember that it’s all relative, and that my pain has nothing whatever to do with yours. All it ought to do is create deeper understanding between us, and it demands that I show the same compassion as others have shown to me. Unburden away!

Accessibility: What It Is And What It Isn’t

I’d be hard pressed to overstate the importance of accessible technology. The world leans so heavily on it that excluding any group from its use borders on injustice and is, at best, an unwise move. Accessibility makes good business sense. It widens audiences. It generates glowing publicity. It raises awareness. In short, it’s a win-win for basically everyone.

Unfortunately, it appears that some people with disabilities, and blind people in particular—the population I know best—have lost perspective. Accessibility is, at its core, a goal that demands that products be designed with as many people in mind as possible. Ideally, a blind person playing with, say, a new feature of Facebook should be capable of accessing it. Put another way, accessibility simply means that every button is labeled, every graphic is described, at least in simple terms, every link is clickable, and every menu is navigable via means other than the mouse. This does not even begin to scratch the surface of accessibility for all populations, but it’s a fairly comprehensive list of the things blind people hope for and expect from technology. The cost of inaccessible software alone can be devastating. It’s a real slog to mess with vital services that are inaccessible, like government websites and debit machines.

All this being said, accessibility is not inherently synonymous with ease of use. Obviously it is in everyone’s best interest that products be easy to use; user-friendly products make good sense, after all, in a world so driven by productivity. However, an app or website does not need to be a dream to use in order to be accessible. An app might be a little difficult to figure out at first, because it has an unfamiliar interface or a button whose function is not immediately and glaringly obvious. Maybe the documentation is low-quality and support lacking.

Even so, this does not mean the app or website is universally impossible to access. There are many programs I use often that other blind people consider partially or totally inaccessible, not because they are, but because it takes a little fiddling to get them to work. Unfamiliar interfaces are not inaccessible by default. User-unfriendly apps are not inaccessible by default. The world certainly owes all disabled populations a reasonably accessible environment, but it does not owe them a perfect, effortless experience. We fight so many legitimate battles over accessibility, so we cannot waste energy screaming over features that are merely tricky or troublesome, not inaccessible outright. I don’t believe that we ought to shut up and be grateful, but it is worth taking a few steps back, and remembering what accessibility is (and what it isn’t).