Pack Animals Note:
All Talk
21 April 2015

Like everyone else, I’ve been reading about the modern revival of shaming. Jon Ronson’s So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed seems to have been reviewed everywhere, and the reviews themselves have been more than usually interesting, at least to me, because there seem to be two disconnected outcomes to the shaming experience. You can be shameless, like Max Mosley. (Mosley lost his job as Formula I boss when photos surfaced in which he was shown being “tortured” by babes in military drag that, he argued, was not Nazi — so what’s the problem? That Mosley’s parents had been married in the apartment of Joseph Goebbels was just a coinky-dink.) Or you can be hounded into reclusion, or driven to suicide, as so many female victims of shaming have been. You can, in short, be a heterosexual male or a something else. As a straight man, you’ll be allowed, eventually, to brush it off. As a something else, you’ll suffer death threats and monstrous insults. The initial impulse behind shaming appears to be unvarying, no matter who gives offense, but the sexual identity of the shamee quickly determines which of the divergent courses the onslaught will take.

Well, duh, I suppose. What is surprising about this?

What’s surprising is the ending of Choire Sicha’s review, in The New York Times Book Review.

The experience of women online is the great link between speech and violence, between offense and abuse. For women — and for all gender offenders, from gays to trans people — insult and the threat of murder are issued simultaneously. Like almost every other book, then, So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed would probably have been handled better by a woman. Often we send a married, middle-aged man who makes $250,000 a year (half a million in a good year, apparently) to do the job. It’s fine! Ronson is a sweet and particularly talented man. But the actual problem with the Internet isn’t us hastily tweeting off about foolish people. The actual problem is that none of the men running those bazillion-dollar Internet companies can think of one single thing to do about all the men who send women death threats.

That’s exactly where the discussion of this issue ought to go: to the question, why civil men, who are almost certainly the vast majority of men, can’t think of a way to rein in the nutcases. This question rarely slipped from consciousness while I watched, yesterday afternoon, a DVD of Boyhood.

Boyhood is an extraordinary movie that was made, as everybody knows, in snatches, over a twelve-year period. It is cut so seamlessly that the passage of time is signaled almost entirely by haircuts. Mason Evans, Jr, the boy of Boyhood, proceeds from the beginning of elementary school to the end of high school and the first day of college. Boyhood is ostensibly about the ups and downs of family life for the two children of a smart woman who is unfortunately attracted to abusive men — a story that has been told so many times in American film that it doesn’t get in the way of the true subject, which is the growth, right before your eyes, of Ellar Coltrane’s body, from child to man, in the space of two and a half hours.

Mason is a thoroughly decent kid. By the time he gets to college, he is a gifted photographer who is puzzled by the challenge of living without a script. It is clear that his meaningful life is going to be conducted in the company of women. Men, throughout the movie, are either feckless, like his father (Ethan Hawke), or disciplinarians. They serve Mason primarily as models of what to avoid. Except to his girlfriend, Mason speaks not one unnecessary word, and his dislike of confrontation is visceral. You know that he is never going to send anonymous insults or death threats to anyone. But you also know that he is not going to be in a position to stop anybody else from sending them. Like most “sensitive” young men, Mason opts out of the pack system.

Because I already had Choire Sicha’s insight on my mind, I was perhaps a bit harsher with Mason during a troubling scene than I might have been. Mason, by now in the eighth grade, has been invited by a chum to “camp out” at a house that’s under construction (and therefore empty on the weekends). It’s the chum’s older brother who has access to the house, and the brother’s blowhard friend is there, too. Rounding things out is a very slight classmate of Mason’s, a small boy of South Asian background, I should say. The high school boys bully this kid in a more or less amiable way. They pressure him to drink beer, interrogate him about his sexual experience, and decide, bluffly, that it’s all right if he’s gay. The little fellow is no dummy; he gets in a good line, wondering why the older boys want to spend time with eighth-graders. But I winced, wanting to spirit him out of the house. And I was disappointed that Mason just kept his head down.

I’d have done the same thing, if I’d been there at all. I’d have learned that I didn’t enjoy this kind of camping, and I’d never be tempted to do it again.

There’s no doubt in my mind that men who send anonymous threats are proving to themselves — not just trying but actually succeeding — that they are worthy of a place in the pack. Having dispatched their loathsome missives — having dared to be loathsome! — they stand a little taller, speak a little firmer, and look other guys in the eye. Anyone who wonders why they don’t feel ashamed of themselves is completely missing the point, which is that these men have not outgrown the need to belong to something without actually doing much of anything. You can root for a team with your pals at the tavern. You can engage in re-enactments of Civil War battles. Beyond activities of this type, however, which give hanging around an air of purpose, men get together to demonstrate real skills. They play golf, or they build model railroads. If you do these things, you’re supposed to do them well; your skill establishes your standing in the group.

Not so with the pack. The pack is all talk. And poison pens.