Public Shaming and the Power of Employers

Adria Richards' Photo of 'Hank' and FriendI just read Jon Ronson’s excellent new book, So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed. I will probably write about it later in a general sense. But I wanted to highlight of the cases that Ronson discusses in his sixth chapter, “Doing Something Good.” It tells the story of a guy named “Hank” who was at a tech conference. He and a friend were making jokes involving sexual innuendo to each other. It bothered another conference attendee, Adria Richards. So she snapped a picture of the two and posted it on Twitter. This lead to “Hank” losing his job. When “Hank” posted a comment on a tech website about getting fire, all hell broke lose on Richards, who ended up getting fired as a result.

This incident is presented in the book in as objective a way as it probably can be. It’s easy to look down on Richards, but her basic critique of the situation as privileged white guys misbehaving without consequence is borne out by the end result of the whole thing. “Hank” got a new job almost immediately. As of the writing of the book, Richards still hadn’t been able to find another job. But to look at this whole episode as an incident between two people is wrong.

Imagine what would have happened in this situation if neither “Hank” nor Richards had to fear for their jobs. “Hank” would have been a little shamed and would have been more careful about what he said in public. Richards would have felt that she had made the world a slightly better place. And that would have been the end of it. It was “Hank’s” employer who decided that he needed to be fired. This was not some big publicity hit to the company. Both the primary people in this incident were unknowns and very few people were even aware of the incident. “Hank’s” friend, as far as I know, was not fired.

Richards’ firing makes more sense as a result of business thinking. Because of the backlash against her, a DoS attack was launched against her company, crippling its website. But given the situation, this firing is even more outrageous. The company showed absolutely no backbone and no loyalty. It reminds me of something I hear constantly from employers, “Workers aren’t loyal anymore!” The history of this is pretty clear: it was employers who first stopped being loyal. But those involved in the DoS got what they wanted: the firing of Richards. Why was that their target?

Neither Richards nor “Hank” are powerful people, although clearly “Hank” is part of the bourgeois whereas Richards is not. But these kinds of fights have got to thrill the power elite. As long as the lower classes are fighting amongst themselves, the truly powerful have nothing to fear. This is, of course, the purpose of the bourgeois as laid out in Chris Hedges’ Death of the Liberal Class. As a result, maybe we should be attacking the “Hanks” of the world. I really don’t know. But I do know that the more direct target is the system itself, and it exists at the pleasure of the power elite. No amount of interpersonal understanding is a substitute for direct organizing for the purpose of economic change.

Afterword

Obviously, I don’t know Adria Richards. But based upon her Twitter feed, she’s a smart, articulate, and capable person. Why hasn’t anyone in the tech industry hired her? I probably know the answer: it is an incredibly insular and petty industry that nonetheless pats itself on the back (Constantly!) about how open-minded and “diverse” it is. (Look at all the diversity in the photo above!) Silicon Valley should be ashamed. But I think it lost the ability long ago.

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About Frank Moraes

Frank Moraes is a freelance writer and editor online and in print. He is educated as a scientist with a PhD in Atmospheric Physics. He has worked in climate science, remote sensing, throughout the computer industry, and as a college physics instructor. Find out more at About Frank Moraes.

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