Last week there was an almighty row about people taking pictures of women eating on the Tube and posting them on Facebook. Going by the media and Twitter commentary, everybody seemed to agree that this was a Bad Thing. Even the BBC Breakfast presenters looked suitably grave when they announced the story.
Eventually, the man behind the Facebook page was tracked down. When he appeared on the Today programme yesterday, there was another outbreak of harrumphing. The general consensus seemed to be that this sort of thing really shouldn’t be allowed. By the end of the week, the outrage was still in full flow, the police were being called in and a group of women were planning to stage a mass eat-in on the Underground.
I find all this a bit odd. We are a society that revels in public humiliation. Tabloids have whole pages devoted to celebrities seen walking out in bad outfits or carrying a bit too much weight. Social media is full of pictures of people unwittingly photographed for ‘fashion crimes’, falling asleep or simply looking a bit odd. And there are lots of pictures of people eating on trains. You’ll find the same sort of stuff on YouTube. Videos of people falling over in the street, wearing funny clothes or just being fat are, apparently, very funny.
Two years ago, a video of a man trying to catch his dog in Richmond Park made headlines. The YouTube clip of Fenton and his clearly distressed owner was seen around the world. Just about everybody agreed that it was hilarious. BBC Breakfast, its moral compass spinning wildly, invited the man who posted the video onto the programme, with his son, to discuss how people might make money out of this sort of prank. Not once during the interview did anyone suggest that there might be something just a little bit wrong with this. A few commentators raised concerns, Simon Kelner and Paul Merton for example, but the overwhelming consensus was that the whole thing was just a great laugh. Few people spared a thought for the dog’s owner who was, inevitably, tracked down and outed by the press.
What seems to have got people riled up about the pictures of women eating on the tube is the element of misogyny. At least, that seems like a reasonable assumption, given that the Facebook page specifically targets women. Already, the revenge campaign has started, with pictures of men looking silly on the Tube being posted on Twitter and Facebook.
So is that it? We only get outraged at the online humiliation of total strangers if it is misogynistic or (presumably) racist or homophobic. Otherwise it’s OK. Given the reaction to this and the total indifference to other forms of public ridicule, it certainly looks that way.
One of the best pieces about this is the one that started the row, written by Sophie Wilkinson, the journalist who discovered her photo on the Facebook page. She admits that she used to indulge in stranger-shaming:
I’ve perused blogs such as “Look At My F**king Red Trousers” and properly laughed at “Jeans and Sheuxs” (anonymous photos of the fashion crime of wide-legged denim with smart pointy shoes). I admit that I’ve taken photos of people without their permission and uploaded them to social networks or texted them to friends – although it’s never been broadcast to thousands of people and it’s never for something so basic as eating food on public transport.
It’s not illegal, but it is a bit odd when you think about it. When we’re in environments such as the Tube or on the web, we feel anonymised, and looking through the periscope of our cameras, we’re disconnected from the situation. Obviously, since my experience, I’ve decided that I’m never going to stranger-shame again.
She also says that the ‘women’s revenge’ backlash is missing the point:
Since I appeared on the Facebook group, dozens of people have been in touch, including creators of a women-eating-on-the-Tube flashmob set up with the intention of getting lots of women to eat on the Underground to overwhelm and defy any would-be photographer. There is also now a group setting out to shame men taking photos of women eating on the Tube.
But I do question whether e-vigilantism is the way of getting things done. Instead, I hope that by identifying the phenomenon of stranger- shaming, people will think twice before doing it. I don’t want anyone – female, male, old, young, wearing a diamante belt buckle reading “porn star” – to be shamed like this.
To really stop this from happening, we need to police ourselves. Next time you see someone wearing or doing something weird, don’t get a phone out. Do your friends really want to see that picture of the guy in socks and sandals? Are you really going to be the equivalent of that old family friend who would come round to show you a slideshow of their holidays? Shame on you if so.
The desire to humiliate strangers is one of the uglier aspects of our culture. The Facebook page about women eating on the Tube will probably be taken down but those ridiculing people for all sorts of other things will multiply. It is curious that we only decide this sort of behaviour is a Bad Thing when it crosses the line into sexism.