Barack Obama used drugs. Bill Clinton had an affair while he was president, and he lied about it. Hilary Clinton has a history of pseudo scandals, and Oprah used hard drugs when she was younger. They’ve all messed up one way or another, and they are all listed on 2014’s Top Ten Most Admired Lists of Men and Women by Gallup. It seems, Shane Snow argues, that those we adulate most in the mass media, have been forgiven despite hitting rock bottom at some point in their lives. Why can’t we offer a similar grace to those who mess up online? And how we can help our students become quicker to forgive than they are to shame?
Most great stories involve “The Hero’s Journey”, as Snow recalls.
The protagonist leaves home, encounters challenges and struggle and failure… and returns home a changed person. There’s always a turning point for the hero as they arise from “the abyss”. While we believe in and long for redemption IRL, it seems there is a glaring inconsistency in our ability to forgive shameful choices online. Like Jon Ronson, Snow points to the damage permanent scars left on lives because of online shaming. A short tweet can ruin a life, it seems, as evidenced in the story of Justine Sacco. The amplifying nature of the online world can destroy a person’s digital identity in minutes.
Snow suggests the need for understanding one another in context, similarly articulated by Alec Couros and Katia Hildebrandt. This is no different than trying to understand a person’s words and actions IRL but may require greater intentionality. It is much easier to jump to quick assumptions in online spaces. When working with students, my first thoughts turn to the context of that particular student’s life. What’s happening at home? What happened on the weekend? How did their day begin? It’s hard to read between the lines online. I think the first step on the road to empathy is truly “seeing” the other as a human: a human being with dimensions and stories and a heart… and a future. This was powerfully expressed by Monica Lewinsky in her TED talk “The Price of Shame”. Snow also encourages readers to separate the actions of the person from who they are, and who they can become in the future. I agree with Snow: we need to find ways to forgive our peers as we appear to have forgiven those we say we admire most.
As teachers, we need to find practical ways to help our students develop empathy and understanding- in every space of their lives. Yes, our students need to understand the permanence of our digital footprint and the sobering reality that we live in a world that doesn’t forget. We also need to be intentional about teaching our students how to respond when others fall into “the online abyss”. As a teacher at a Jesuit Academy, I’m drawn to finding ways to use stories of Jesus to teach empathy and forgiveness. A future post will explore these connections in lesson plan format. There are so many rich stories where Jesus addresses issues of judgment, hypocrisy and the need to “forgive others as you have been forgiven”. In my classroom, we often spend time reflecting on precepts of Mother Teresa. Last week’s precept reminded us that “If we really want to love, we must learn to forgive”. A great thought to meditate on! I often tie our precepts to music to strengthen the connection and to also spark conversation in the classroom. This particular precept is tied to Toby Mac’s song, “Forgiveness”.
There are other ways we can draw analogies to bring these ideas to life in our classrooms. We’ve been reading about totem poles in my classroom lately. I had never heard of a “shame pole” until I read this basic article from Wonderopolis. A shame pole is sometimes used to ridicule or shame those who have unpaid debts or promises. It is left standing until the debt is paid. It can also be used to call powerful people to action, like in the case of Mike Weber, who created a shame pole to address the oil spill catastrophe in Alaska. Weber’s shame pole called Exxon to accountability for broken promises and unpaid debts. I think online shaming can become something like a “shame pole”, but unlike a totem, the online shame pole can’t be taken down so easily once the debt has been paid.
Is it possible to shift the online shaming culture to one of empathy and forgiveness? Intentional teaching of (digital) citizenship skills certainly has the potential to create change, but it’s a long road ahead. With intentional teaching, hard work and steady dedication to loving, student-centered relationships, we can help our students become grace-filled citizens.