Brenna Ehrlich spoke with Leila Sales about the nuances of public shaming, how the digital age creates access to anyone’s experience and why the reality behind apparent malice is usually more banal.
What do you do when hundreds of thousands of people are saying you’re a bad person? How do you not believe them?
Your book If You Don’t Have Anything Nice to Say is so timely because we’re in the middle of this huge “callout culture” situation. I haven’t seen evidence of this, but has this happened to you? Or conversely, have you found yourself getting carried away in calling somebody else out?
Fortunately, this has not happened to me in my adult life or to the extent that it can happen to people. I had a much smaller version of this when I was a teenager, and it was the early days of blogs. My friends and I started a blog which offended some of our classmates and we got called out for that. It was a huge scandal at the time within the confines of my high school. It was very upsetting for me at the time. There was a sense of thinking I was just writing something funny, or whatever, but now I’m being told that I’m a bad person because I said or wrote this bad thing that I shouldn’t have said.
Fortunately, this was a long time ago and social media didn’t exist. This was constrained to the people who went to my high school, so it eventually went away because I didn’t spend the rest of my life in that high school. But the influence it had on me was really outsized, so I was thinking about what you do when that happens to you and it’s not just your high school that knows about it. It’s everybody in the world, and then it’s there forever. It’s part of your permanent record, there’s no escaping it and it comes to define who you are. One of the things that Winter experiences in the book is this sense that she must be a bad person, because everyone’s telling her that she is. That was something I had experienced at the time in high school.
But that was just a few dozen people telling me I was a bad person, you know? It’s like, what do you do when it’s hundreds of thousands of people are saying you’re a bad person? How do you not believe them?
How do you think people can actually deal with these situations like Winter? Where maybe you said something stupid, and then you lose your job? Sometimes you’ll find instances of someone finding a fast food employee with a Nazi tattoo, tweeting their personal info, calling the manager and getting them fired. What do we do with people who fuck up, I guess?
No, totally. You say this, and of course, the caveat is not that he should have the Nazi tattoo. We have to take that as a given, right? He shouldn’t have a Nazi tattoo, and Winter shouldn’t have posted that thing she posted. Someone who makes a homophobic comment online should not make that comment and should not be having homophobic thoughts. All that we should take as true. But then the question remains: given that people make mistakes, how do we proceed from there? Is the only option that we have available to us to banish someone from society forever?
Exactly. You don’t get to have a job. In Winter’s case, she doesn’t get to go to the college she wanted to go to. Which is such an outsized reaction, in some cases. If she hadn’t said it, she would have realized as she grew that that’s something she shouldn’t say.
I’m so glad I didn’t grow up in the era of social media, because I was naive and ignorant about some things and I didn’t have a lot of life experience yet. The way you learn these things about what is or isn’t okay, or what’s hurtful, is when we say something like what Winter would say to a friend, and the friend says “Hey, that’s not cool. That hurts my feelings. Don’t say that.” Then, you feel bad, say sorry and know going forward not to say it. When the first time you say that is to an infinitely large audience, there’s no opportunity for learning, really.
I think we need to figure out a way as a society to allow for the fact that there can be good people who make mistakes.
There’s a lot more diversity in YA than ever before, which is a wonderful things. But it also seems like teens are expected, especially in literature, to be “woke,” for lack of a better word, more than normal people might be. There are dumb things I said as a teenager, of which I was later like, “Yeah, okay…” Do you think teenagers are not given room to do what Winter did?
At this point, I don’t think in our society that anyone is really given the room to fuck up. But I think that’s more problematic when you’re talking about teenagers, because I think there’s more of an argument to be made about how adults should know better by now. But even then, I think we need to figure out a way as a society to allow for the fact that there can be good people who make mistakes. Definitely moreso for teenagers.
I do think that most teens are more “woke” today than we were when we were their age. That’s what I gather from my interactions with teens when I go into schools and talk to them. Which is great. But at the same time, you can’t know everything when you’re 15. You can’t ever know everything, but you definitely can’t when you’re 15.
Well, they have the luxury of having the Internet and exposure to all sorts of other people and cultures, which we didn’t as kids. I don’t think anyone was out at my high school. It was just like, “Oh, there are no gay kids in Connecticut.” Which wasn’t true, but that’s what it felt like.
Absolutely. That’s the positive thing about the Internet, and I think the book focuses on the really bad things about the Internet. The good thing about it is that if you want to know about different people’s experiences, you can just find that. It’s all out there. In a way, it becomes less excusable to not look into what someone’s experiences are, because it’s not like you’d have to do deep research or travel very far in order to find out that information. You can just go watch someone’s YouTube channel and they’ll tell you what it’s like being them.
That was something I was thinking about. It would be so hard for me to write the characters as I do if I didn’t have the Internet as a research tool. Writing a character who uses a wheelchair in the book, because I’m not in a wheelchair and am not close to anybody who is, took a lot of watching peoples’ YouTube videos and reading long essays that people have written on Medium about what their daily life is like, how they take a shower, how they get on buses, so on and so forth. That information is all out there. If you want to know how someone else is living, it’s right there for you to see.
You mentioned Jon Ronson’s book So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed in the acknowledgements. Did you talk to or meet any people who have gone through this situation while writing your book?
I didn’t speak directly to anyone who had gone through this experience. I mostly went back through my own feelings at school and thought about what it would look like to magnify it a hundredfold. But since publishing it, I’ve heard from some people who have gone through similar experiences. I had this really cool opportunity to do my Boston book launch with this social psychologist named Amy Cuddy. She was the subject of this big New York Times piece last fall about how she was called out in her field by her colleagues who questioned her results. She got dragged and taken down in this way.
She agreed to do the launch with me, which was so amazing because she’d gone through it in her professional career. All of her research and identity and career and colleagues and her whole life was wrapped up in this work she had done. She was famous all around the world for this research, but then people were like, “This isn’t real. She made up her results.” And even if you go on the TED Talk website, there’s a line under it being like, “Take this TED Talk with a grain of salt,” or something like that. “This may not be real research.”
But talking with her was so amazing, because she read the book and that was exactly what she went through. She’s not a 17-year-old girl and didn’t throw up one offhanded comment on Twitter, and there were no racial connotations to it, so the situation is very different. But the process of having her entire identity ripped from her with nothing she can do about it is the same. Even her husband said that everything I put in the book was exactly what happened to her. That made me feel like I’d done it right.
We attribute everyone’s reasons for the stuff that they do to malice, but usually, the reason is not malice. It’s often just ignorance or laziness.
What do you think of people who say that those who do these things don’t deserve pity, or to be able to tell their own story? What would you say to that?
That’s probably a perspective I’ve heard. I think about when I first was reading Jon Ronson’s book and I heard the Justine Sacco story. I told my boyfriend about it. To me, it was so clearly like, “This poor woman.” And he was like, “Nope, I don’t feel bad for her. She was making fun of people with AIDS in Africa and I feel worse for them than I do for her.” I was like, “Sure, but it’s not a zero-sum game. Can’t we feel bad for everyone here? Does feeling bad for the woman who’s lost her job and gone viral for saying something dumb on Twitter negate our feeling bad for people who are suffering from HIV/AIDS in Africa?”
I guess I just want people to know that everyone’s a human being. That’s kind of what I’m trying to achieve in the book: the idea that you don’t know what’s going on inside other people’s lives and you don’t know their backstories that have led them to this moment. You don’t know the positive things they’ve done or what they themselves may have been victims of. Obviously, you don’t know people’s intentions or what’s inside their head. It doesn’t mean you have to like what everybody does, but we attribute everyone’s reasons for the stuff that they do to malice, but usually, the reason is not malice. It’s usually just ignorance or laziness.
I think that’s what’s good about your book. Obviously, if we see someone tweeting something racist, our first thought is, “This person is a monster; they’re evil.” There’s no other dialogue there. Even wanting to go beyond it to see why somebody did it is considered taboo. Like, why do you want to know? Obviously they’re evil!
Right, and if you even suggest the idea that they’re not evil, then you become a bad guy too, because you’re taking their side. If this happens to you, if you’re the person who says or does the dumb thing, then you have all these people telling you you’re a monster. And while there are presumably people out there who don’t believe you’re a monster, it sounds like people like me and you who probably understand there are mitigating factors or that you don’t know what was going through their head — those people aren’t speaking up.
I’m not going on Twitter being like, “I don’t know! This person might be fine!” I also think these are sort of a case-by-case basis. I also think a lot of that depends on the information I have about that person. There was that one a few weeks ago about that lawyer who went on a racist rant. And then people were retaliating by doxxing him, and even doing silly things like sending a mariachi band to his office, stuff like that.
Just hearing this story from the perspective of writing this book, my default position was like, “There are two sides to every story!” or whatever. Then I watched the video of him actually going on this racist rant, and I was like, “Honestly, this dude seems like an asshole.” That’s not a misguided comment, like he was trying to be funny but the joke didn’t land. That’s just like real, aggressive racism. He was targeting a specific individual and setting out with intention to make that person stop being themselves and get out of his sight. To me, that’s really different. I guess I don’t know his intentions and I don’t know his backstory, but also, I don’t really want to.
He’s also a repeat offender. There are multiple videos of him doing that. It wasn’t a one-time situation in which he was having a bad day. He was actively going out and taking out his aggression on immigrants.
That also makes a difference. That’s fucked up. I think there are a lot of different things you have to consider when deciding how guilty somebody actually is. Is this repeat behavior or an aberration of their behavior? Then there are other things to consider, like how old somebody is and what sort of audience they expected they were going to have when they said this thing.
That’s how the legal system works, in a way. Juvenile offenders get off easier and repeat offenders get larger sentences.
Right. There’s a difference between planned murder and heat-of-the-moment manslaughter. All of those variables go into sentencing for actual crimes. It’s just that we don’t have a formal trial or sentencing process for moral crimes, so we always go to the furthest possible end for everybody, even though moral crimes do exist on a spectrum just as real crimes do.
Guilty until proven innocent, instead of the other way around.
Curated by: Brenna Ehrlich
Conducted by: Phone
Transcribed by: Morgan Enos
Published: June 21, 2018
Total questions: 11
Word count: 2325
Reading time: Eight minutes
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About the guest curator
Brenna Ehrlich aspires to write a novel that’s a classic album. She enjoys taking solitary trips to distant locations and scoring the whole experience with the perfect book, record and restaurant. She often dreams (literally, while sleeping) of getting lost in unforgiving locales sans shoes or socks.
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