Calling out name-and-shame tactics on ‘the dirty normal’

Aaron Sorkin, in a recent speech to new graduates at his alma mater, said this:

[M]ake no mistake about it, you are dumb. You’re a group of incredibly well-educated dumb people. I was there. We all were there. You’re barely functional. There are some screw-ups headed your way. I wish I could tell you that there was a trick to avoiding the screw-ups, but the screw-ups, they’re a-coming for ya. It’s a combination of life being unpredictable, and you being super dumb.

This is excellent advice.  The screw-ups are painful as hell but you live through them and learn from them, if you’re lucky.  My job, as I see it, is to help people live through the dumb years and survive their screw-ups without accumulating lifelong consequences like unplanned pregnancy, blood borne viruses, and infertility from untreated infections.

New technologies have created new kinds of consequences.  Fifteen years ago, we all used dialup and cellphones didn’t have cameras, so we didn’t have to worry about teenagers taking naked self-pics and videos and sending them to others or posting them online. It’s hard to see the harm if it’s all consensual and confidential, but there’s the rub: things change quickly in teenage relationships, and something bestowed in trust may be forwarded in anger or just plain old adolescent cruelty.

For digital natives, kids who’ve grown up online, there’s another more subtle kind of consequence to consider.  I’m born in 1981 and my generation got lucky: we posted our juvenile shit under opaque nicknames on OpenDiary, Friendster and MySpace — sites that, if not defunct, certainly don’t appear in Google search listings. Someone born in 1991 probably has all their highschool classmates on Facebook, and they’ve been posting their teenage wit and wisdom under their real names; not just on Facebook but on all the other sites that use Facebook accounts for login.

Five years from now, their employers will be searching their names and turning up comments they made at 16yo.  It’s a problem serious enough that online privacy experts have proposed letting people scrub their results from Google or even change their names at thirty — to escape from all the ill-advised stuff they said in their teenage years and twenties.  Any educator who isn’t thinking about this kind of problem for young people isn’t paying attention.

Suddenly, a wild tray of cupcakes!

I actually looked this image up at work (after asking my colleagues’ permission, of course) during a discussion about how we talk about genital diversity and female circumcision.

It’s one thing to tell people in a session that everyone’s bits are different, but nobody ever believes you; they still secretly fear ‘mine aren’t normal’.  The most effective form of reassurance is to show them that everyone is different and therefore difference is the norm.  As an educator, when you take this approach, you need to be prepared, because everyone has a reaction.  Here’s Dawn French reacting to one of those cupcakes:




Good educators let their participants react, and just as genitals are diverse, so are reactions.  In an educational session, we’d normally cover this material in single-gender groups, because boys can overdo the hilarity and say hurtful stuff to get a laugh out of their mates.  (Pro-tip, straight guys: the evolutionary purpose of sexist humour is signalling to girls that you’re not ready for sex.)  Even in female-only groups, however, participants can react in ways others find hurtful or that jar against our personal values and politics.

In an earlier post I talked about Habermas’ concept of ideal speech situations.  Thinkers like Paolo Friere and Ron Labonte suggest the goal of an educator is to create this kind of discursive environment so that the group itself can discuss and redress problematic remarks.

This calls for active facilitation on the educator’s part to create spaces where participants can gather their thoughts, consider their feelings, give an honest response, and be heard.  The strategy is to get participants thinking about how different ways of expressing their reactions impact differently on others around them. Then you’re having a discussion about the values and attitudes and cultural norms that surfaced in that unguarded moment of reaction, and that is a million times more useful than using your power as an educator to shame and silence someone.

The shame researcher Brene Brown has argued you can’t use shame to get someone to change their behaviour.  She defines shame as “the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing we are flawed and therefore unworthy of acceptance and belonging.”  Shame is affective and bodily but also social, concerned with the thought of our flaws being visible to others and them judging us. Understandably, in this light, intensified shame and anxiety about surveillance are two of the lifelong consequences of growing up online.

Imagine, now, that the Vulva Cupcakes discussion happens far, far away from the active facilitation of a sex education session: in the comments on an image visible to all on Facebook.  As it happens, you don’t have to imagine, because it did happen there, and the Director of Student Wellness Programs at Smith College in Northampton, Emily Nagoski Ph.D., helpfully reprinted it in a post on her personal blog about sexual health,’The Dirty Normal’.

In fact, Nagoski reprinted all the comments longer than “LOL”, complete with the commenters’ full names and links back to their Facebook profiles.

I’m not linking to the post or her site, for reasons I hope will become obvious.

Comments on the post are closed, so I expressed my concern to Nagoski via Twitter (@enagoski) where she said she was ‘giving CREDIT’ and disagreed that it violated any practice norm, whether from research, journalism or health education.

The ‘giving credit’ explanation is dishonest on its face: you don’t give people ‘credit’ for things you disagree with.

And I am staggered that someone can earn so many qualifications and yet remain so ignorant and unreflective about practice ethics. When you’re a sex educator, publishing the names and Facebook profile links for young people who say dumb shit about sex is perpetuating the kind of lifelong consequences we do our jobs to prevent.

Including the names adds nothing to the post — other than gender, which could easily be specified in brackets beside the comments.  It’s this lack of any other benefit that leaves me convinced Nagoski’s purpose is to name and shame.

This is not like quoting someone who’s placed themselves in public life, like a politician or another blogger; this is more like overhearing someone saying something stupid in a public place, and because you happen to know their name, you quote and name them on your blog.

When users of well-moderated online communities like post the stupid things others say on Facebook, there’s an incredibly clear norm against identifying them by name.  There is a sub-Reddit devoted entirely to the stupid stuff our friends and acquaintances say on Facebook: it’s called r/FacePalm (hurr hurr).  Here’s an image I picked at random.  Notice the redactions?

Here’s what the moderators say about identification:

  • Completely black out all personal info. This includes but is not limited to profile pictures, first and last names, links to other profiles, location data, and anything else that could be personally identifiable.
  • Do not post links to profiles or any other personal info. This will get you banned immediately.

Unfortunately there’s no moderator to appeal to, in this case, other than Nagoski herself, who has not proved receptive.  I can only call upon her to redact the names and Facebook profile links on her post.  If you agree with my concerns, you could perhaps (politely, please) add your voice to mine and express them on Twitter (@enagoski).