I drive food delivery for an online app to make rent and support myself and my young family. This is my new life. I once had a well paid job in what might be described as the social justice industry. Then I upset the wrong person, and within a short window of time, I was considered too toxic for my employer’s taste. I was publicly shamed, mobbed, and reduced to a symbol of male privilege. I was cast out of my career and my professional community. Writing anything under my own byline now would invite a renewal of this mobbing—which is why, with my editor’s permission, I am writing this under a pseudonym. He knows who I am.
In my previous life, I was a self-righteous social justice crusader. I would use my mid-sized Twitter and Facebook platforms to signal my wokeness on topics such as LGBT rights, rape culture, and racial injustice. Many of the opinions I held then are still opinions that I hold today. But I now realize that my social-media hyperactivity was, in reality, doing more harm than good.
Within the world created by the various apps I used, I got plenty of shares and retweets. But this masked how ineffective I had become outside, in the real world. The only causes I was actually contributing to were the causes of mobbing and public shaming. Real change does not stem from these tactics. They only cause division, alienation, and bitterness.
How did I become that person? It happened because it was exhilarating. Every time I would call someone racist or sexist, I would get a rush. That rush would then be reaffirmed and sustained by the stars, hearts, and thumbs-up that constitute the nickels and dimes of social media validation. The people giving me these stars, hearts, and thumbs-up were engaging in their own cynical game: A fear of being targeted by the mob induces us to signal publicly that we are part of it.
Just a few years ago, many of my friends and peers who self-identify as liberals or progressives were open fans of provocative standup comedians such as Sarah Silverman, and shows like South Park. Today, such material is seen as deeply “problematic,” or even labeled as hate speech. I went from minding my own business when people told risqué jokes to practically fainting when they used the wrong pronoun or expressed a right-of-center view. I went from making fun of the guy who took edgy jokes too seriously, to becoming that guy.
When my callouts were met with approval and admiration, I was lavished with praise: “Thank you so much for speaking out!” “You’re so brave!” “We need more men like you!”
Then one day, suddenly, I was accused of some of the very transgressions I’d called out in others. I was guilty, of course: There’s no such thing as due process in this world. And once judgment has been rendered against you, the mob starts combing through your past, looking for similar transgressions that might have been missed at the time. I was now told that I’d been creating a toxic environment for years at my workplace; that I’d been making the space around me unsafe through microaggressions and macroaggressions alike.
Social justice is a surveillance culture, a snitch culture. The constant vigilance on the part of my colleagues and friends did me in. That’s why I’m delivering sushi and pizza. Not that I’m complaining. It’s honest work, and it’s led me to rediscover how to interact with people in the real world. I am a kinder and more respectful person now that I’m not regularly on social media attacking people for not being “kind” and “respectful.”
I mobbed and shamed people for incidents that became front page news. But when they were vindicated or exonerated by some real-world investigation, it was treated as a footnote by my online community. If someone survives a social justice callout, it simply means that the mob has moved on to someone new. No one ever apologizes for a false accusation, and everyone has a selective memory regarding what they’ve done.
Upon reading Jon Ronson’s 2015 book, So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, I recently went back into my Twitter archives to study my own behavior. I was shocked to discover that I had actually participated quite enthusiastically in the public shaming of Justine Sacco, whose 2013 saga following a bad AIDS joke on Twitter forms one of the book’s central case studies.
My memory had told me different. In my mind, I didn’t really participate. It was others who took things too far. In reality, the evidence showed that I was among the most vicious of Sacco’s mobbers. Ronson describes a central problem with Twitter shaming: There is a “disconnect between the severity of the crime and the gleeful savagery of the punishment.” For years, I was blind to my own gleeful savagery.
I recently had a dream that played out in the cartoon universe of my food-delivery app, the dashboard software that guides my daily work life. The dream turned my workaday drive into a third-person video game, with my cartoon car standing in for me as protagonist. At some point, I started missing some of the streets, and the little line that marks my trail with blue pixels indicated where I’d gone off-road. My path got erratic, and the dream became other-worldly, as dreams eventually do. I drove over cartoon sidewalks, through cartoon buildings and cartoon parks. It’s a two-dimensional world in the app, so everything was flat. Through the unique logic of dreams, I survived all of this, all the while picking up and dropping off deliveries and making money. In my dream, I was making progress.
As my REM cycle intensified, my dream concluded. I was jolted from my two-dimensional app world and thrust back into the reality of the living world—where I could understand the suffering, carnage and death I would have caused by my in-app actions. There were bodies strewn along the streets, screaming bystanders, destroyed lives, chaos. My car, by contrast, was indestructible while I was living in the app.
The social justice vigilantism I was living on Twitter and Facebook was like the app in my dream. Aggressive online virtue signaling is a fundamentally two-dimensional act. It has no human depth. It’s only when we snap out of it, see the world as it really is, and people as they really are, that we appreciate the destruction and human suffering we caused when we were trapped inside.
The author delivers food for a living. He tries not to be on social media. ‘Barrett Wilson’ is a pseudonym.