One of the disturbing uses of social media these days appears to be ‘shaming’ – picking on strangers over some superficial issue the ‘shamers’ demonise, in ignorance of context and circumstance. The fact that ‘shaming’ is so judgemental underscores what it actually is – bullying.
History, alas, tells us that this sort of behaviour is part of the human condition. It’s far from new. There’s a story from my own family that highlights the point. Back in the First World War there was a widespread movement among women to ‘shame’ men for not being at the front by issuing any man who wasn’t in uniform with a white feather.
The terms were of their time: if the man didn’t appear to be serving via the up-front evidence of a uniform it was because he was a coward. This was pure false-premise logic. But it gained ground on the more jingoistic moods of the day, even as casualty rates spiralled and the true horror of war came home to everyday families. With hindsight it is intriguing how people find ways to validate themselves.
My grandfather ran into ‘white feather’ activists in London in 1916. He was sitting on a bus, in civvies. A woman handed him a white feather. He politely took it, and when the bus stopped, picked up his crutches and painfully made his way off the vehicle.
The context? My grandfather was a long-standing professional soldier with the British Army. He joined in 1906 and served, among other places, in South Africa and Hong Kong. The standard and breadth of professional training these soldiers received is seldom matched even today. When the First World War broke out, my grandfather was in Hong Kong. His unit – the Second Battalion of the Duke of Cornwall’s Light Infantry – was ordered home as the Western Front unfolded. By early 1915 he was in France, one of the last career soldiers the British had left.
During the Second Battle of Ypres in April 1915, his unit was ordered to hold a line near St Eloi. It was night, and they came under heavy shellfire which dislodged the sandbags helping protect their position. My grandfather had command of his section and wouldn’t send anybody to do something he wouldn’t do himself, so he personally led a small force out under enemy fire to reposition the defenses, timing their movements to escape being illuminated by star-shells. Unfortunately they were caught by the light and sprayed with machine-gun fire.
My grandfather was hit six times by .303 bullets, some of which fragmented, and was thrown by the impacts into a cess-pit. The period term for the way men were kicked by a spray of bullets was ‘Spandau ballet’. It happened to my grandfather. He was rescued by people who risked their own lives in no man’s land to find the wounded – something all these professional soldiers did as required, because they did not abandon those who needed help – and spent the next year in hospital. Some of the shrapnel remained in his body to the day he died. He was so severely wounded that he was not allowed to return to service and was still in huge pain, relying on crutches, well over a year after being machine-gunned. That was why he was on the bus in London, in civvies. And that was when the ‘white feather’ shamer tackled him, crutches and all.
‘Shamers’ are still doing that today in their own terms and context, but it’s no different. It’s pure bullying. They do it, I suppose, to make themselves feel virtuous and raise their status with like-minded ‘shamers’, but it is at the expense of their target. The fact that the ‘shamers’ judge strangers, in ignorance, underscores the moral void of such conduct. Alas, social media improves the visibility of behaviour that should never be displayed in the first place.
There’s a coda to my family story. Soon after the First World War, my grandfather settled in Napier, New Zealand, which was devastated in 1931 by a massive earthquake. He was at work on Napier’s hill when the disaster struck, began making his way home to check on his family, and found a panicked woman who had fled a house left teetering on a cliff-side. Her baby was inside. My grandfather immediately went into the collapsing building and rescued the infant. His route home then took him into the town’s business district where he spent most of the rest of the day rescuing the injured, people in pain who needed immediate succour. He did not get home until evening.
All of this may sound like ideation. It isn’t. It happened. Sometimes, you see, there are things that have to be done for the benefit of strangers, even to our personal cost. We all have a duty of care to each other.
As for ‘shaming’? Speaks for itself. Doesn’t it. Thoughts?
Copyright © Matthew Wright 2015