Social media shaming can last long after acts of repentance and forgiveness – Karyn McCluskey

Amy Winehouse was mocked by some as she struggled with addiction (Picture: Gareth Cattermole/Getty Images)Amy Winehouse was mocked by some as she struggled with addiction (Picture: Gareth Cattermole/Getty Images)
Amy Winehouse was mocked by some as she struggled with addiction (Picture: Gareth Cattermole/Getty Images)
Think about the most embarrassing thing you have done. The one that elicits deep burning shame and regret.

All of us have these experiences and sometimes our responses are out of kilter with what happened.

If we are brave enough to share the experience with friends, they will downplay it and tell us to move on. What if that event was filmed, uploaded online and replayed endlessly, shared, commented on for years after, as if it happened the day before? What then?

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Surveillance is widespread. Not just public and private CCTV, but from our fellow humans, who have cameras almost surgically attached to their hands. But mobile phones are not a force for evil. I wonder if some of the injustices around the murder of African American men would have reached the justice system and galvanised people about the toxic racism many people endure on a daily basis, had they not been filmed.

The other side is less salubrious. The footage of Britney Spears shaving her head, Amy Winehouse staggering from a flat, Charles Kennedy intoxicated and confused on Question Time are high profile examples.

As time has passed, knowledge makes us better people. Maybe. Spears was in a mental health crisis, Winehouse in the depths of addiction as was Kennedy. People laughed, mocked. Maybe we believe it’s okay as these are people in the public eye, wealthy. It makes us feel better about ourselves because we are not them.

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What if you’re not well off? What if you are vulnerable, abused, unwell and someone records your most shameful moment? What if you atone (if harm has been caused), address some of the harming behaviours that might have led you to that point? What if you want to move on but the worst version of you is brought up daily and shared? You will always be ‘that woman’, never allowed to forget, forever stuck in the tar pit of YouTube or Facebook.

People talk about how you look, how promiscuous you probably are, whether they ‘would’. If you have low self-esteem at the start, at the end you will be in negative balance and who knows where that could end.

I met a woman to whom this had happened. I resisted looking at the video, but read the comments; mostly men but some women too felt compelled to pass judgement, without context or compassion.

The event happened, an offence committed, harm was caused, repair was made. But there is no opportunity to be forgotten, no chance at crafting a new life when there is an inescapable bungee pulling you and your family right back to that moment.

Despite having transformed herself, worked hard, full of potential and understanding, she is ‘stuck’ in that time and place in an endless loop of shame and remorse that welds her character to who she was then.

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Most of us want to forget aspects of our lives, to escape the shame. Facing up to events and redress can help and spark change or intervention.

The right to be forgotten is enshrined in data-protection regulations, but how can we forget when it never goes away? More importantly from the justice perspective, how can we forgive if we keep going back and replaying the hurt over and over?

Karyn McCluskey is Community Justice Scotland’s chief executive

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