true crime

Two wrongs don’t make a right…

G.O.M.N! Get out of my neighborhood!

A few days ago, I read about Sergeant First Class Johnathan Pentland and his wife, Cassie, confronting a young Black man who was in their neighborhood, near Columbia, South Carolina. I was interested, not just because Pentland is in the Army, but also because I used to live in Columbia. In fact, I used to work at a country club located near the area where Pentland’s home is, so I am familiar with the area. And yet again, someone caught a middle-aged White person on film, behaving badly, and put it on Twitter for the world to see and judge.

The video coverage of Pentland looks terrible. He’s talking to the young man as if he was on duty as the drill sergeant he is… (or was). He’s clearly being physically aggressive, trying to intimidate the young man. I don’t condone Johnathan Pentland’s conduct or behavior, although I also don’t know what led up to it before the camera started rolling. I hear him demanding that the guy leave his neighborhood, cursing at him, and looking like he’s about to beat on the much younger and smaller Black man. Given that the younger guy is on the sidewalk and not on Pentland’s property, I figure he has a right to be where he is, although I don’t know why the guy is hanging around instead of walking away. I figure common sense would dictate moving on to a different location rather than engaging someone who is obviously threatening, especially when one is standing outside of a homeowner’s house. But, that’s just me.

Someone called the police, and the officer who initially responded said, at the time, that he could only ticket Pentland for destroying the young man’s phone. Pentland had apparently broken it while confronting the guy. But then later, after an outcry on the Internet, Pentland was arrested and booked for third degree assault and battery. If he is convicted, he could be forced to pay a $500 fine and spend up to thirty days in jail. Based on what I saw in the video, I would agree that those charges are certainly justified. However, I don’t agree with what came next.

Pentland and his family, which includes two children, have had to be relocated from their home. Massive protests took place there, with large groups of people congregating outside of Pentland’s home with bullhorns. The home was vandalized, and people are demanding that Pentland be fired. I’m sure there have also been death threats issued.

This cop reminds me of being at home. I kind of miss America sometimes…

I absolutely agree that Pentland should be held fully accountable for his actions. However, I strongly disagree with people issuing death threats, destroying property, or doxxing the Pentlands. I also feel sorry for Pentland’s neighbors, who didn’t sign up to have masses of people coming into their neighborhood, starting riots, vandalizing property, and creating trouble. While I don’t know what it feels like to be a person of color, I do think that if anything is ever going to change, people have to work together for peaceful conflict resolution. Destroying property and disturbing the peace are not the ways to make those changes.

I liked living in Columbia. I met some great folks there, and had a really good experience studying at the University of South Carolina. And while I’m not a big fan of videoing people and making them go viral, I do think that if there is an obvious crime going on, video is a good thing to hand over to the police. Video shows what exactly happened and what was said. However, I don’t think it’s a good thing for private citizens to take it upon themselves to be judge, jury, and executioner, trying to make a name for themselves by sharing stuff and promoting unproven theories or half truths based entirely on assumptions.

Having watched Pentland’s video a few times, I wonder what in the world led up to this confrontation. Based on the energy in that video, it doesn’t look like Pentland saw the guy and simply decided to come out and yell at him. That could have happened, but I find it unlikely. Does Pentland make it a habit to just confront random people walking around in his neighborhood, or was there some kind of history between these two people before the video started?

I also wonder if this encounter was entirely based on racism. I didn’t hear Pentland using overtly racist language toward the young man. Yes, Pentland was threatening him, bullying him, and shoving him, but I can’t come to the conclusion that he did so solely because the young man is a person of color. That could have been the case, but I don’t know that for sure. I can only assume, as I think a lot of people have, probably because of the many racist encounters that have been in the news recently. According to the Washington Post, Pentland said that he feared for his and his wife’s safety because the young man had been accused of earlier assaults.

From the Washington Post:

Two reports of alleged assault were also made against the young man after deputies responded Monday, according to the sheriff’s department, and they are being investigated. The young man has “an underlying medical condition that may explain the behavior exhibited in the alleged incidents,” the agency said.

On April 8, one incident report says, the man allegedly put his arm around a woman’s waist, put his hand down the right side of her shorts and then put his arm back around her waist as her pants were partly down. On April 10, another report alleges the man repeatedly picked up a baby without permission and tried to walk away.

Pentland told officers who had responded to a “physical dispute” Monday that he pushed the man “in fear for his safety and the safety of his wife,” according to the incident report.

Deputies were told that the man approached “several neighbors in a threatening manner” and that someone had asked Pentland to “intervene,” the agency said in a statement.

Based on these statements, I would think it would have been better for the Pentlands to simply call the police and report the guy, especially given that there had supposedly been prior incidents leading up to the assault last week. But nowadays, calling the police when a person of color is involved is also discouraged, thanks to the fact that so many Black people have been injured or killed by the police. It is also notable that these alleged incidents involving the young man were apparently made after Pentland confronted him, rather than before. Was that because some people are making up stories trying to defend Pentland’s actions and discredit the young man? Or did the folks involved in the groping and “baby stealing” incidents decide they needed to report the guy.

Either way, I wish the public would stop spinning narratives based on videos that get posted by bystanders. While the videos show what happened in an objective sense, the people who see them have a tendency to insert their own subjective narratives. The vast majority of the time, the people who see this stuff on social media don’t have all the facts.

I, for one, would like to know more about what led up to this attack. I agree that Pentland behaved terribly, and he should certainly be held accountable. But I’m not quite ready to see his and his family’s lives destroyed over this incident. If there is any truth to the reports that the young man in the video was harassing women and tried to walk away with someone’s baby, there could be more of an explanation regarding Pentland’s conduct. And regardless of what happened, I don’t think people should be descending on private property, committing vandalism, issuing death threats, or disturbing the peace. A planned, peaceful, orderly protest is acceptable. Issuing death threats and driving people from their homes shouldn’t be… and all people– regardless of race– should have the right to a fair trial before being “convicted” by the public.

I’ll be keeping my eyes peeled to see what comes next in this case.

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book reviews

Repost: A review of Jon Ronson’s So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed…

Here’s a repost of my review of Jon Ronson’s book, So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed. I wrote this for my original blog in September 2018. I am sharing it again as/is.

The summer of 2018 is just about over now.  It will go down in my personal history as a summer of equal parts fun and angst.  I had a lot of fun over the summer; there’s no doubt about that.  Bill and I visited some beautiful places, ate good food, and really dove into some excellent concerts. 

But it was also a summer of uncertainty and anxiety.  I’ve watched a lot of people I’ve gotten to know over the past few years move on to new places.  I’ve worried incessantly about my dogs as I’ve noticed them aging (although at this point, they’re evidently fine).  I’ve seen Bill have to find a new job and now we’re going to be moving.  I’ve also watched in horror as several middle aged white women were publicly shamed on the Internet as people cheered.

If you’ve been reading this blog for any amount of time, you might know that I tend to lean fairly liberal these days.  I am not a Trump supporter.  I like social justice and often support liberal causes, particularly when it comes to social policies.  I don’t like racism, ageism, or sexism.  I’m also not a fan of shaming people.

However, over the summer of 2018, there’s been a trend of people capturing people, usually middle aged white women, on their cellphones “behaving badly”.  They put their videos online, often with a caption along the lines of “Let’s make this bitch go viral!”  Sure enough, the videos wind up on YouTube, Twitter, and Facebook and the person being shamed does, indeed, go viral.  They go on to suffer the wrath of thousands of people they don’t know, who weren’t involved in whatever incident occurred to put them in a viral situation, and who actively cheer for bad things to happen to them.

I have seen a lot of the videos that have been posted online.  I will agree that in many of the videos, the people being filmed were, for the most part, behaving in a way that seemed wrong.  However, it disturbs me that people feel so free to call for the destruction of other people’s lives.  Allow me to go on record to say that I really don’t like this trend of publicly shaming people and actively trying to ruin their lives.  I think it’s very shortsighted and, in the long run, harms more people than it helps.

Because I was so disturbed by all of the videos trending on social media, I decided to read more about this phenomenon.  That’s when I discovered Jon Ronson’s book, So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed.  This book, published in 2015, highlights several notorious cases of people who slipped up on social media and ended up going viral.  Ronson has a tongue in cheek way of describing how in this age of instant communication, a person can wind up being immediately punished for making an ill advised quip, sharing a racist joke, or not being reverent enough at a sacred place.

Ronson points out how, thanks to the Internet, the whole world can find out about something a person did and make a judgment, without knowing the context of what happened.  These shaming episodes can have real and devastating effects, and not just for the person being shamed.  I’ve written a lot about this over the past few months, so I won’t rehash my points too exhaustively.  Suffice to say that you might feel great about Permit Patty or BBQ Becky being humiliated online for being “racist”, but there are innocent people in their lives who are negatively affected by these public shaming episodes.  Moreover, 99.9% of the people sharing and opining about these videos have absolutely no idea about the context of what they’re seeing.  They don’t know the people being shamed, nor do they know what will happen to them once they’ve gone viral.  People’s lives have been ruined and even ended over these episodes.

Since this book is three years old, you won’t read about the most recent victims of viral shaming.  Instead, you might be reminded of people like Justine Sacco, who was a public relations executive who made some unfortunate tweets on a trip to Africa.  Sacco, who apparently has a politically incorrect sense of humor, famously tweeted back in 2013,  “Going to Africa!  Hope I don’t get AIDS.  Just kidding.  I’m white!”       

Granted, this was a tasteless, racist joke.  I’m not surprised that many people were offended by it.  However, what happened after Sacco posted this Tweet was nothing less than phenomenal.  There was an incredible backlash lobbed at Sacco, who was soon the recipient of death and rape threats.  She lost her job.  However, in Sacco’s case, there were a few positives.  Some people were moved to donate money to charities and Sacco did, apparently, manage to recover from the public shaming.

In another case, Ronson writes about a couple of guys who were at an IT conference.  They were talking among themselves and a woman named Adria Richards overheard and misunderstood a comment one of them made, wrongly assuming they were making sexist jokes.  She took a picture of them, placed it online, and set the wheels in motion to ruin their careers.  The sad thing is, she hadn’t even gotten the context of their private joke, which had absolutely nothing to do with sexism and everything to do with IT. 

And yet, thanks to Richards’ decision to “out” them for being sexist, these guys went through the viral Internet wringer.  One of them, a guy calling himself Hank, lost his job and posted about it on a Web site called Hacker.com.  Hank was justifiably upset because he’d liked the job and had three children to support.  Adria Richards, who had taken his picture was then outed and started getting hate mail and death threats herself.  Hank condemned the death threats against Richards, yet amazingly, she still thinks he deserved to be fired for his “joke” that was part of a private conservation and that she completely misunderstood, anyway. 

Ronson later spoke to Richards and she maintained that Hank was to blame for complaining about being fired, since “his actions led to his being fired.”  In the aftermath, men’s rights groups decided to make her go viral and she suffered backlash for trying to shame Hank for his joke.  Both Hank and Adria suffered the consequences of Internet vigilanteism.  I certainly don’t condone the death threats or rape wishes directed at Richards, but I do think she could stand to learn something from this ordeal.  If she had minded her own damned business, neither she nor Hank would have ever been in this mess.

Although I had already been thinking about the horrifying ramifications of Internet shaming, Ronson does a good job of pointing out what can happen to people who wind up in an Internet shitstorm.  I would venture to guess that the vast majority never consider beyond that moment of Schadenfreude that this kind of vigilantism has real and devastating effects for others.  They simply focus on that delicious moment of riding a moral high horse and watching someone’s life fall apart and never think beyond that.  That’s one thing I do think Ronson’s book is good for– reminding people that a successful Internet shaming session doesn’t just last for a day, nor does it have an off switch. 

Ronson writes of Lindsey Stone, a charity worker who, in 2012, took an ill advised picture of herself showing disrespect at Arlington Cemetery.  The photo went viral and pretty soon, Stone was being publicly flayed.  Stone, who had been working as a caregiver to people with learning disabilities, had a running joke with a friend.  They took “joke” pictures of themselves doing things like smoking in front of “no smoking” signs.  This time, there was a picture of Stone flipping off a sign at Arlington Cemetery that requested silence.  The photo went viral and soon Stone was being called a “cunt” and a “psychopath” by perfect strangers. 

Stone had previously been a happy go lucky kind of person who enjoyed going out, dancing, and doing karaoke.  But for over a year, she stayed home.  People were calling for her to be fired and, indeed, she was.  Then, after she lost her job, no one responded to her applications for a new one.  After a long time, she finally did find a new job, but lived in terror that someone at her position would find out about what she did.  She gave up on dating, worrying that a new love interest would find out that she had flipped off a sign at Arlington Cemetery. 

Long after people had forgotten about that incident, Stone was still dealing with the traumatic aftereffects.  I wonder, how many people who felt Stone is a “cunt” for posting that photo even know her?  Can a person’s character really be accurately summed up in a single photo or two minute video showing them “behaving badly”?  Do the people who called her names like “cunt”, “bitch”, and “whore” think her life should be ruined or even ended for posting that photo?  Do they really think she deserves depression, anxiety, and post traumatic stress disorder over that one moment of bad behavior that wound up online?

Stone ended up working with someone to rehabilitate her online image.  The professional, who was an expert at social media and Google searches, found ways to make Lindsey Stone appear to be a perfectly bland person.  Sadly, this was what it came down to– she had to be rebranded from the spunky, politically incorrect, fun loving firebrand she is to someone who likes Top 40 music and cats. How sad that is.

You see, this is why I get really upset about these kinds of Internet shaming trends.  It’s not just because I worry that someone is going to try it with the wrong person and wind up being shot.  It’s also because sometimes people say and do things without thinking.  Everybody has a cellphone with a camera these days.  I think it’s chilling that a person’s life can be ruined in an instant of carelessness.  It’s also chilling that sometimes people get things wrong and ruin people who truly don’t deserve to be harassed. 

To be honest, I would love to see the object of some of this kind of shaming turn the tables on their aggressors.  Personally, I think they should start suing, especially when the person gets it wrong.  Not long ago, I wrote about a woman whose life was upturned after she got involved in a heated thread on Facebook.  Monika Glennon had opined about a smiling teenager’s photo at Auschwitz and offended someone who decided to make up a vicious lie about her and submit it to a Web site called “She’s a Homewrecker”.  Although the story went unnoticed for awhile, another user took it upon herself to share the story with Glennon’s friends and family.  It took a lot of time and money for Glennon to clear up the lie and salvage her reputation.  She did sue the women involved and won, but Glennon will likely never see any of the settlement she was awarded because neither of the women have any money.  Glennon recently left me a very nice comment on my post.  I was glad to see she was able to recover from the public humiliation and be an example of why this kind of trend is potentially very harmful and wrong.

One criticism I have of Ronson’s book is that three years post publication, it’s already dated.  So many more cases are out there now that should be written about.  I also felt that Ronson treated this topic a bit more glibly that maybe he should have.  A little humor is good, but I really think people should understand that this kind of “justice” can really mess up people’s lives.  In the long run, it doesn’t serve society for people to lose their livelihoods over something like a viral video, tasteless Tweet, or tacky photograph.  People should have the right to be forgotten so they can recover from their mistakes and move on.  Otherwise, why would they bother living out the rest of their lives?

Anyway… I think I’d give this book four out of five stars.  Here’s a link for those who want to read it themselves. 

As an Amazon Associate, I get a small commission from Amazon from sales made through my site.

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viral

Heroes and villains

This morning, I read about Dr. Katie Bouman, a scientist who is about to start teaching at California Institute of Technology and was instrumental in providing the world the first photograph of a black hole. Although I know the story broke yesterday, I haven’t been following it. I’ve had other things on my mind. Still, when I saw a picture of a delighted Dr. Bouman, looking so radiant in the wake of her success, I couldn’t help but stop and read about her. She’s just 29 years old and still adorable in her youth, and yet she’s done something extraordinary. But she did have help…

America loves its heroes. When someone does something extraordinary, or even if it just sounds like they did, that person will soon find themselves on the fast track to fame. Dr. Bouman, to her credit, was quick to point out that she was not the only one responsible for this amazing achievement. Indeed, there was a whole team of scientists from around the world involved in creating the algorithm that made the photograph of the black hole possible. Bouman is certainly worth looking up to, but she’s one of many people who made this happen– and many of the others involved are young women in science (STEM). For example, in the New York Times article I linked, 24 year old graduate student Sara Issaoun, who studies at Radboud University in The Netherlands, is quoted as also having worked on the project.

Yesterday, as the picture of the black hole circulated on social media, I noticed Occupy Democrats made a meme about Dr. Bouman, which was already being circulated. Have a look.

First off, it’s not true that people aren’t “sharing stuff” about Dr. Bouman. This story just broke, and besides, she was not “single-handedly” responsible for it. Secondly, she’s a 29 year old woman, not a “young lady”. As such, she’s worthy of more respect and her academic title.

I did see a “corrected” version of this meme, but it still doesn’t address that this discovery was the result of a lot of work by many people, not just one person. I like heroes and heroines as much as anybody does, but let’s not get it twisted. Dr. Bouman, to her credit, isn’t getting it twisted.

I remember back in 2003, when 19 year old Private Jessica Lynch was a prisoner of war in Iraq. The media turned her into a sensation, with wild tales about how she went down fighting the Iraqis before she was finally overcome by her injuries. For months, that was the narrative about Jessica Lynch. They’d turned her into a heroine. Later, the truth came out. Jessica Lynch had never fired a shot. Her weapon had jammed and she was badly hurt in a vehicle accident. To her credit, Lynch tried to set the record straight. I remember seeing her being interviewed on television and she very plainly stated that people were giving her credit where it wasn’t due. She was a young, pretty blonde who had signed up for Army duty. What wasn’t to love about her? She made a great heroine. But when these stories come out and a person becomes “celebrated”, the legend eventually gets debunked, and the fall from grace can be devastating.

Meanwhile, there were seven others from her unit that were captured. One of the captured was 30 year old Shoshana Johnson, who had worked as a cook. She was not as young and photogenic as Lynch was. She is also black. Johnson and the other soldiers, all of whom were male, got a lot less attention than Lynch did at the time. Although critics probably rightfully accused the media and the public of racial bias, in the long run, it might not have been so bad being overlooked. The American public is quick to turn on people. When a person does something that seems great, they may find themselves rocketing to fame. But the minute that person does anything that tarnishes that glow, the pedestal is liable to fall and the person may find themselves falling back to to Earth in a jiffy.

On my old blog, I wrote a number of posts about people who went viral after being caught on camera saying or doing “bad” things. Generally speaking, I’m not a fan of this kind of thing. For one thing, everyone has good days and bad days. I don’t like to see people being permanently vilified for having a bad day. Maybe someone gets caught saying or doing something horrible in a one or two minute video, but that video hasn’t captured what led up to the incident, nor does it take into account that those two minutes are just a fraction of a person’s lifetime. Even though news travels fast and notoriety waxes and wanes, thanks to the Internet, stuff stays out there forever. Those kinds of viral posts can affect a person for years. Or, they can make it seem like they’ll affect a person for that long, which can cause them to give up on living.

I do think people are right to congratulate Dr. Katie Bouman for her success in a challenging career, for being a wonderful role model, and for her part in a significant scientific discovery. I don’t condone implying that she was the only one who made that discovery happen, she’s some kind of patron saint of science, or that she came by her success alone. Let’s keep it real.

People are imperfect, and almost no one is 100% good or 100% bad. I mean, as much as I despise people like Donald Trump and Bill’s ex wife, I still recognize that even they aren’t 100% horrible. In Bill’s ex’s case, she kind of saved my place for me and made it so that anything bad I do kind of pales in comparison to her antics. Ditto to whomever takes Donald Trump’s place once he’s finally drop kicked out of the White House.

On a completely unrelated note, every time I think of “black holes”, I’m reminded of assholes. I have my former Peace Corps colleague, Jan, to thank for that.

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