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.

“We Respect Your Privacy (But We Can’t Guarantee It)”

This morning, I visited the dentist, which involved filling in a lengthy and deeply personal intake form. It demanded extensive sensitive information, and there was no way to guarantee my privacy. You see, these forms are still in hard copy, which makes sense for most people, but this meant I had to ask a hygienist to help. I had to tell her everything: my full medical history; the medications I was taking (which reveal a lot about me, I assure you); whether I was pregnant; whether I had an alcohol or drug dependency. On and on it went, and while I was certain the hygienist would respect my privacy, it was still uncomfortable to expose so much about myself. Luckily, I don’t have all that much to hide, but there are certainly a few things I did not relish discussing. To make it all worse, a relative works at the same office, and could easily have heard me. Yes, we were in a room by ourselves, but the door was wide open and I wasn’t exactly whispering.

It’s nobody’s fault, really, but I feel sure there is a practical way to design accessible alternatives in most contexts. Privacy was often a luxury I did not enjoy, especially a few years ago when almost everything was done on paper. In school, I took many surveys asking sensitive questions about the way staff treated me. I was expected to provide details about how safe I felt at school and whether I’d suffered any abuse. The survey was anonymous, but I did not have the opportunity to benefit from that. A member of staff was forced to fill in the survey for me, so was privy to everything I said. While I was generally quite satisfied with how school staff treated me, there were a couple of exceptions and I did not feel I could mention them. My educational assistant was usually the one who assisted me, so I trusted her to keep what I’d said confidential. Even so, it bothered me more than I thought it should.

I’ve already discussed the effects of inaccessible debit machines, and how they require blind people to reveal their pin numbers to complete strangers. I’m not a distrustful person by nature, and I believe that most people are trustworthy. This does not justify the risks, though, and it’s time we figured out how to keep this from happening.

Aside from privacy risks, it’s common to encounter inaccessible forms, even in places where there is very little excuse. For instance, some customs forms at airports are filled out via a computer that is not equipped with any assistive technology, and many others are still in hard copy. So, we have to enlist a customs agent or flight attendant to do it for us, and this should not be part of their job. While I’m quite at peace with sharing information about why I was visiting the U.S. and whether I’ve frolicked with any livestock recently, it’s an outdated system that does not belong in 2016.

Most likely, the solution will have to come from blind people themselves. We know our needs best and our in a position to lobby for better systems. I hope someone finds a solution; right now, I’m fresh out of ideas.

Dear Parents: Think Before You Share

If you’ve ever googled any specific disability, you’ll find public Facebook and Instagram profiles, blogs, biographies, anthologies, and videos about what it’s like to parent a disabled child. The angle might change a little. Some parents want to tell you that it’s all roses; others want to point out that it’s occasionally rather awful; some want to assert that it’s somewhere in between. Whichever angle they take, though, their actions amount to the same thing. They are constructing, however unwittingly, a publicly accessible wealth of data about their children, often in the absence of knowledge or consent. Your blind toddler is too young to tell you whether he wants his pictures posted publicly. Your twenty-year-old mentally disabled daughter may be incapable of consenting, even if she does know you’re uploading pictures of her for the world to see.

I never really gave much thought to the activities of parents on social media until the advent of the #FreeTheNipple campaign. Facebook got in trouble for removing pictures of breastfeeding mothers, and there was, predictably enough, mass outrage. People assumed that the removal was due to an inability to tolerate a naked nipple. Breastfeeding isn’t gross or shameful, said protesters, and there is no reason to take down such photos when equally explicit ones are shown elsewhere in much less innocent contexts. Amid all the righteous anger, though, nobody seemed to be considering the rights of the children in question. Everyone was fixated on the woman’s right to display her breasts, while failing to analyze whether the children should be in full public view before they are old enough to know what Facebook is, let alone give informed consent. This isn’t 1990. Photo albums aren’t locked up in a dusty closet. Long after your friends are done cooing over your little one, the pictures remain easy to find, especially if your privacy settings aren’t as airtight as they ought to be.

I suppose one might say I’m fear-mongering; what’s the harm in showing cute pictures of your kids, after all? I really think that the game changes when it comes to disabled children. Many of the blogs and public profiles dedicated to parenting contain details of bad days as well as good days. The indignities of life with, say, autism are often described in full detail right alongside the joys of parenting these children. It’s one thing to post a cute picture of your daughter using her first cane, but quite another to go on at length about your autistic daughter’s most recent meltdown. I don’t know about you, but I wouldn’t appreciate having that plastered all over the internet for everyone to…what, sympathize? Gawk? Cluck their tongues in pity? Hail my mother as a martyr? None of these reasons seems adequate to me.

I get it: parenting a disabled child is sometimes exhausting, lonely work. It can be therapeutic to post your struggles online, where you may seek support from informed strangers outside your immediate social circle. It’s comforting to find a network of parents just like you, who can offer advice and guidance. While you are enjoying all this support, though, I urge you to take a moment to consider the focal point: your child. To what extent are you sacrificing their personal privacy for public solidarity? Are you surrendering too much detail about their lives where anyone at all can see it (including future employers, peers and so on)? Are you exposing potentially sensitive information that they may one day be upset by? The blogosphere can be a dangerous place to express unpopular opinions which may be why so few voices are countering the main viewpoint.

It’s one thing to blog about yourself. While I am relatively circumspect about what I discuss, I do write with intentional frankness. As someone once described it, my writing “goes there” and I’m proud of that. I do mention others and explore universal themes, but the blog will always have its roots in my personal experiences. Privacy, it seems, is a human right that is cherished less and less. If you’re going to endanger privacy, let it be your own.

When it comes to your disabled child, though, you should be as careful and thoughtful about your posting habits as you can. Ideally, you should remain anonymous, but if you can’t (or won’t), at least be cognizant of your actions’ potential impact. Maybe it feels liberating to hammer out a post after a long day of dealing with hardship. Maybe it gives you pride to compose a detailed article about how your blind daughter has finally figured out how to, say, navigate her first school independently. It feels great to share these things, I know. Our natural human desire to share everything that matters to us is what keeps Facebook and Instagram in business, after all. Just remember, as you fulfill this desire, that it’s not all about you.

It is not necessarily selfish of you to blog and share photos and other media about your child publicly. It’s not inherently wrong. In the context of an anthology or other formal document, it might even be a good thing, because you are bringing to light different facets of parenting (under your editor and publisher’s watchful eyes). One of my editing projects centred on just such an anthology, so I’m the last person to say none of this information should be available.

Do hear me out, though: it becomes risky, whether you’re doing it for support, or to raise awareness, or to encourage others. I’ll put it very bluntly: your need to feel the warm fuzzies with every careless post is far less important than your child’s right to privacy. Don’t use good intentions as your escape hatch. Once you release personal information, it can’t be recovered. We’ve all heard the lectures. If your physically disabled infant is too young to consent, you should be very strict about what you share. If your mentally disabled daughter is incapable of giving informed consent, you have to be even more respectful of her rights.

Parenthood is not ownership. You are raising people who may be able to view the material you exposed when they were too young (or otherwise unable) to say no. These children are not walking, talking sources of validation. They should not be used as a “like” generator. They do not exist to promote your worth as a parent and you should never treat parenting as reasonable justification for playing the martyr. Most of you would never do any of this, but you still need to put your child first. So please, think before you share. Children have rights, too.