Treating Insensitivity with Compassion

This post was written by Jennifer Bown, Department of German and Slavic Languages, HC Fellow

Just last week, a flyer created by a BYU undergraduate student went viral, becoming the object of much derision. A female student organized an event dedicated to Women in Math, publicizing the event with a flyer containing the pictures of four male faculty speakers. The flyer went viral after another BYU student tweeted an image of it, asking, “…is this satire?” That tweet received over 9,000 retweets and 24,000 likes within the afternoon. The story was soon picked up by a variety of media outlets, including the Huffington Post and CNET, who ridiculed the “hilarious (and cringeworthy)” flyer.

Though this particular event hits close to home, similar incidents happen every day. In his book, So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, Jon Ronson details several stories of private individuals whose innocent, if ill-advised, activities have garnered public outrage. These individuals lost their jobs, took hits to their ego, and saw their lives ruined, at least for a time. Ronson’s book reminds us, as he put it in an interview with Vox, that people are “dimensional, and they’re not the worst thing that they ever did.”

That last reminder, that people are more than the “worst thing that they ever did” is even more important when people are attacked for acts that occurred twenty- to thirty-years in their past. In 2017, Father William Aitcheson resigned from his post as a Catholic priest in Arlington, VA, after it came out that he had once been a member of the Ku Klux Klan. At some point in his youth, he had come back to his Catholic faith, repudiated those actions, and embraced a doctrine of love and acceptance. Perhaps Aitcheson’s crimes were too great for him to continue his service in the clergy. But should his whole life be defined by his ugliest moment? Should anyone’s?

In the same year that So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed was published, Monica Lewinsky, who, in her words is “the first person to have their reputation completely destroyed worldwide via the Internet” broke her silence, addressing the “culture of humiliation” that has grown up on the Internet and that has been proliferated by the advent of social media. Her story reminds us of the very real human costs of online vitriol associated with the “pile on” culture.

Of course, public shaming is not new. But, Ronson, in tracing the history, discovered that it was abandoned as formal punishment in the 1830s and 1840s. Even the Puritans, it seems, found public shaming to be cruel and unusual punishment.

There are times for outrage and times for individuals to speak out. Twitter and other social media platforms offer a voice to those whose voices may have too long been silenced. But before posting on Twitter or Facebook, perhaps we should think before we click—think about the people behind the actions that aroused our ire. In the case of the viral flyer on Women in Math, might a conversation with the Math department or an email to the President of the club have been more productive than the tweet?

Lewinsky closes her first public speech with the words of Oscar Wilde: “I have said that behind sorrow there is always sorrow. It were wiser still to say that behind sorrow there is always a soul. And to mock at a soul in pain is a dreadful thing.”

Dostoevsky’s great novel, The Brothers Karamazov, teaches the value of compassion. Father Zosima, one of the moral centers in the novel, espouses the idea that “each of us is guilty in everything before everyone” (289) and that we must “make [ourselves] responsible for all the sins of men” (320). My colleague, Michael Kelly, wrote about Lovingkindness and Compassion in the works of Dostoevsky for an issue of Humanities at BYU. As Michael describes the central message of The Brothers Karamazov is that “we cannot retreat into an insular world of individual righteousness, for we bear responsibility for emanating light through our compassion and lovingkindness toward concrete individuals” (11).  The messages of Oscar Wilde and Fyodor Dostoevsky are desperately needed in a world that increasingly revels in Schadenfreude.

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