Narrative and Shame

Every once in a while the internet presents, on a silver platter, a new sacrificial victim for us to hate, and we tend to oblige. Sometimes, of course, the victim is offending* our demographic and it’s important to circle the wagons, but sometimes the victim is just behaving badly, and everyone can agree that this is the “worst person in the world.” It’s not my goal to reopen old wounds by trotting out expired links, but we probably all remember

  1. the aunt who sued her recently orphaned nephew,
  2. the drunk NYU student whose father owned lots of property, and (my favorite)
  3. the woman on the Metro North who kept telling the conductor, “Excuse me, do you know how well-educated I am?”

(I’m deliberately choosing old cases so it doesn’t feel like I’m adding fuel to a raging fire.)

Obviously I think we shame these people because of a free-floating animus that is desperate to latch onto any object to hurt,  but I don’t want to put all my eggs in one hoary old theory of a basket, so I’d like to present a complimentary interpretation. These theories are not mutually exclusive.

What is strange about some of these cases is how flimsy the basis for shame is. Donald Sterling not only made one racist phone call, he also seems to be a consistently horrible human being, objectively and over many years; shaming him, if we choose to do it, can be a repudiation of his entire misspent life. But in the three cases above all we know about these people comes from one brief action.

For cases #2 and #3: Who among us casting stones has lived a life free from stupid arguments where we behaved badly? Perhaps when we were dumb college kids there were fewer cameras around. We all decided these people were terrible people for something we have doubtless done ourselves. “I don’t hate rude people, I hate rude people who have been surreptitiously filmed,” is probably not a value we would explicitly state. And yet these “worst people” are no worse than the vast majority of us, just unluckier.

In case #1, as the inevitable but less-viral exoneration makes clear, the “worst aunt ever” was trapped in a legal wrangle with insurance companies. This countertheory was floated pretty early on in the witch hunt, but we chose to ignore it, focusing instead on the generally implausible theory of cartoonish supervillainy.

It could be that we’re just idiots, and it could be that we’re cartoonish in our supervillainy ourselves. But I think, to give humanity credit for a moment, that when we see someone behaving in a terrible (“excuse me! do you know how wealthy I am?”) way in the proverbial real life, we are more apt to roll our eyes and say, “Someone’s having a bad day.” We are more self aware and therefore more prone to see our own glass houses. Why is this?

Although this all may change and soon, we still have an atavistic tendency to view video as a storytelling medium; even news is so closely aligned with entertainment  (not a new, but scarcely a dwindling phenomenon) that it’s hard not to view a news story as a short story. The facts about the cases listed above were presented to us as narrative, of course, but they were not necessarily presented to us in  the form of fictional narrative; however, that doesn’t mean we did not consume them the same way we would consume a fiction.

And what fiction writer would introduce a character by having her do something completely uncharacteristic?

This is from the first appearance of Captain Ahab  in Moby Dick:

Captain Ahab stood erect, looking straight out beyond the ship’s ever-pitching prow. There was an infinity of firmest fortitude, a determinate, unsurrenderable wilfulness, in the fixed and fearless, forward dedication of that glance. Not a word he spoke; nor did his officers say aught to him; though by all their minutest gestures and expressions, they plainly showed the uneasy, if not painful, consciousness of being under a troubled master-eye. And not only that, but moody stricken Ahab stood before them with a crucifixion in his face; in all the nameless regal overbearing dignity of some mighty woe.

Ahab is going to reveal more about himself, but that’s a pretty good start, isn’t it? Certainly Melville wasn’t about to say, “Frisking onto the deck with a jolly smile and gifts for the sailors’ children came a merry Ahab,” and then retreat to the Ahab we know in future scenes. His first appearance is important. His first appearance gives us a basis to judge him on, and only an especially playful and subversive author would introduce a character in an uncharacteristic moment, even though we all have moments of such contrariness, even though a character always “on point” would be unbelievable and unendurable.

There’s probably one day in his life that a dyspeptic Bilbo Baggins said, “I hate food,” but it’s not going to happen in chapter one of The Hobbit.

(Of course, by the time Ahab appears several characters have gossiped about this “grand, ungodly, god-like man,” which is more context that we’re going to get about a stranger on the internet.)

#2 and 3 may not be horrible classist snobs, they may just be caught at a bad moment, or primed to misbehavior by events from before the cameras started. But that’s bad narrative! #1 is certainly a pawn in the legal machinations of insurance companies. But for this story to make sense, she should have been introduced breaking her arm, or even being a loving aunt before she breaks her arm; the fact that the story starts with her lawsuit means that she is a villain.

Therefore (we reason) these people are not schmucks who were unlucky; they are evil incarnate, fiends who doubtless do “this sort of thing” every day. Shame them, for they are, consistently and bone-deep, evil. They must be. This is how story works!

Only it’s not how life works, and maybe if we could remember that, our free-floating animus would be less successful on latching onto people.


*Here, although perhaps not everywhere, offending means specifically “violating a taboo of.”


  1. Notington Tinfoilhatter · · Reply

    Bread and circuses!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. And yet circuses have peanuts. It’s a strange world.


  2. Less circuses than the fundamental attribution error. It takes much effort to overcome this error, but saw a good example last week of people who were obviously aware of it and trying to avoid it. I was in a hospital cafe, and the guy in front of me was being a typical angry jerk customer, yelling at staff about the lack of a kind of bread. I was surprised that the staff were very patient and calm, until I realized that they must run into people every day that have just gotten a bad diagnosis, it lost a loved one, or learned that their child has but three months to live.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yeah, whenever I want to Kinski someone I head to the hospital.


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