A Journal of Rhetoric, Writing, and Culture

Disgust, Distributed: Virtual Public Shaming as Epideictic Assemblage

Jodie Nicotra, University of Idaho

(Published July 6, 2016)

Timeline of an Internet shaming:

10:48 a.m., October 31, 2013: Alicia Ann Lynch, a Twitter user with the handle @someSKANKinMI tweets a photo of herself clad in running shorts and a T-shirt with a race number pinned to it, fake blood streaked on her forehead and leg. In the photo, she is grinning, hand posed saucily on hip. Accompanying the photo is a series of hashtags that spell out the visual joke: “#ssim #boss #halloween #boston #marathon #runner.”

1:48 p.m: The site RTDouchebags retweets the photo with the caption “And the #DouchebagCostumeOfTheDay goes to @SomeSKANKinMI Alicia from Detroit” (RT Douchebags). 

4:22 p.m.: Twitter user JMac sends an email to Barstool Sports in Boston with a screenshot of Lynch’s original tweet and photo. The accompanying commentary from the site’s administrators read “Anyway, what do the Stoolies think of this costume? You can let Alicia know on Twitter or Instagram”, including links directing the site’s readers to her accounts (JMac). 

Thereafter, the picture spreads on Twitter like wildfire, accompanied by obscenity-laced messages expressing disbelief (“what the fuck is this who the fuck is this person” (Chandler Bing) , disgust (“you are an absolutely disgusting human being” (kimberlyxo); “@SomeSKANKinMI you’re the most disgusting person in America, I’m ashamed to live in the same country as you” [Lindsay K. Houle]), threats of rape (e.g. Rob), wishes that Lynch would die in a fire (e.g. D., Nick), and recommendations that she take her own life immediately (e.g. Stone Cold Fox). Several users include accusatory photos (some graphic) of actual Boston Marathon victims in their tweets (e.g. Bishop). Others include Twitter addresses for media outlets in their retweets: @BostonGlobe, @TheEllenShow (e.g. Haugh), etc., ostensibly in the hopes that mainstream media would pick up the story.

November 1: An enterprising Twitter user finds a photo of Lynch’s driver’s license, including her full name and what turned out to be her parents’ address, after which Lynch and her parents begin receiving death threats (Haugh). Multiple Twitter users find and repost nude photos from Lynch’s Tumblr site (e.g. I Get So Mad). 

November 2: Buzzfeed picks up the story, including the death threats, with the title “What Happens When You Dress Like a Boston Marathon Victim and Post It on Twitter” (Zarrell). More Twitter users tweet and retweet the Buzzfeed story. Expressions of outrage start to be mixed with sympathy for Lynch and condemnations of the death threats and “cyberbullying” (e.g. Hannah). Other news sites pick up and rebroadcast the story. 

November 3: Everyjoe.com collects the nude photos of Lynch and posts them under the title “Alicia Ann Lynch and Her Terrible Halloween Costume Ignites Backlash.” The accompanying text scolds Lynch for her “horribly insensitive Halloween costume,” and explains that she was fired from her job and is receiving death threats. It says, “The 22-year-old is an extremely beautiful girl but this was such a bad move that I can’t feel sorry for her” (everyjoe.com). As of March 2014, the top result on Google for “Alicia Ann Lynch” was a link to this story.

Spontaneous public Internet shamings occur so regularly now that they’ve acquired near-subgenre status (and, indeed, are the subject of Jon Ronson’s 2015 book So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed). Several weeks before the Lynch kerfuffle, Buzzfeed had published a satirical post called “The 29 Stages of a Twitterstorm,” which, though fictional, presciently laid out the series of rhetorical moves that define such events. Salon.com dubbed 2013 “The Year in High-Profile Firings,” many of which were the direct result of such shamings. Along with Lynch, the article mentions Justine Sacco, a former PR executive for the media company IAC. Sacco, known better by the Twitter hashtag inspired by her situation, #HasJustineLandedYet, sent an offensive tweet right before she got on an international flight without Internet access. In the duration of her flight, the tweet went viral, and thousands of Twitter users publicly attacked Sacco for thoughtlessness and racism. The attention forced the hand of IAC, who fired Sacco before her flight even landed. Similar high-profile cases included former social-services worker Lindsey Stone, ultimately fired over a photo that showed her mockingly violating the “Silence and Respect” sign at Arlington National Cemetery, and Adria Richards, who tweeted a photo of two men who had been making slightly ribald jokes behind her at a tech conference – one of the men was fired as a result of the negative attention from the event, which came to be known as “Donglegate,” and Richards herself was ultimately fired amidst a hailstorm of abuse from mostly male members of the tech industry in a sort of refracted shaming.

The impulse to publicly castigate those who have deviated from perceived social norms and values is hardly new. Public shaming has been a phenomenon for as long as humans have lived in communities. Though it may have temporarily dropped from view as economic shifts created disruptions to traditional, geographically based communities, the newly available forms of virtual community and the capacity for acts of shaming to persist via the technologies of search engines has brought back an especially virulent form of public shaming. 

Shaming serves now, as it did then, a significant public function by crystallizing and policing community norms, values, and identifications. As such, it can be defined as a form of epideictic rhetoric. Epideictic, first defined by Aristotle as the rhetoric of praise and blame, has been valued by contemporary scholars as the most fundamental form of rhetoric. But even in an era of digital networked environments and the recognition by scholars like Catherine Chaput and Eric Jenkins of rhetoric’s fluid nature, scholarship on epideictic has tended to cast it as the province of discrete rhetors communicating to and for a wider community in single – or, at best, serial – stylistically notable rhetorical acts. Aided by recent scholarship in digital rhetoric that highlights what Sid Dobrin calls the “hyper-circulatory condition of writing systems of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries” (4), I demonstrate in this essay that virtual public shamings can be conceived as epideictic, the architecture of Twitter helping to performatively enact not just norms and values, but a community, one 140-character message at a time.  These acts of public shaming, which emerge in massive parallel across a wide range of differing platforms, technologies, and users, serve to reveal the nature of all epideictic (and, indeed, all rhetoric) as dunamis or dynamic potential, intrinsically technological. Virtual public shamings demonstrate how not just epideictic, but all rhetorical acts are more productively conceived less as a discrete series of transactions than as “unfolding event[s] – distributed, material process of becomings” (Gries 7) emerging from a technological assemblage.

Alicia Ann Lynch’s infamous Halloween costume photo

Figure 1. Alicia Ann Lynch’s infamous Halloween costume photo (Zarrell).

Adrian Richards's tweet from PyCon

Figure 2. Adrian Richards's tweet from PyCon.

Lindsey Stone Fired Over Facebook Photo

Figure 3. Lindsey Stone was fired after being shamed for this image (Zimmerman).

The Technological Nature of Epideictic

Epideictic rhetoric, once considered the merest of “mere rhetoric” (Oravec 162), has since been revalued as “the central and indeed fundamental mode of rhetoric in human culture” (Walker 9-10) for its hidden didactic nature and instruction on “the golden mean,” as well as its ability to cement community values and norms and to increase a community’s “disposition toward action” (Perelman and Olbrechts-Tyteca 50).1. Most of the scholarship on epideictic has tended to highlight certain generic qualities: typically (almost always) a discrete rhetor who articulates, often in a stylistically distinct way, a given community’s pre-existing values.  In such depictions, epideictic “is ultimately about conduct and values within communities addressed or invoked” (Sheard 771) and involves an “affirmation of ethical standards of judgment and behavior” (Duffy 90-91).  

Bernard Duffy has argued that such characterizations of epideictic rely on a Platonic framework. Arguably, there might be an etymological component to this: as Lawrence Rosenfield points out, epideixis means “to show or shine forth”; epideictic acts “unshroud men’s notable deeds in order to let us gaze at the aura glowing from within” (135, qtd in Rollins 10). Such portrayals suggest that the deeds, and the values attached to them, were already there, waiting to be revealed; the function of epideictic acts so understood is “to represent, however imperfectly, timeless values distilled from past experiences” and to “effectively express the philosophical wisdom necessary to the maintenance of the ideal state” (Duffy 86). Similarly Platonic understandings echo through most of the scholarship on epideictic: from Perelman and Olbrechts-Tyteca, who argue that epideictic strengthens “the intensity of adherence to the values it lauds” (50, qtd in Beale 222), to Brian Vickers, who describes Plato and Isocrates’ epideictic discourse as “reinforcing the norms of public morality” (771). 

The most distinctive feature of epideictic traditionally has been its characteristic style, the source of its suasive power. Quite simply, as Walker argues, epideictic in antiquity was more “memorable and repeatable at significant, recurring occasions in a culture’s pattern of experience” (11), which made such rhetorical acts feel more permanent and important than ordinary business talk. Traditional epideictic speech relies on rhythmic, poetic language that created a hypnotic, incantatory effect (described famously by Gorgias as being akin to witchcraft or drugs); this, along with the ethos of the phronimos, combines to imprint the content of the speech deeply upon the audience: “We thus have, in sum, a discourse that joins the subliminal and aesthetic suasion of its rhythmic ‘witchcraft’ to the felt ‘timelessness/permanence’ and ancestral/archival authority of ‘ancient wisdom’ to generate, in the mind of its audience, a mood of numinous ‘truth’ surrounding whatever is being said” (Walker 12).

Indeed, almost all contemporary depictions of epideictic still characterize it as coherent, stylistically notable rhetorical acts issuing from a single, identifiable source. Hauser’s examples of epideictic, for instance, include Bill Clinton’s eulogy of the Americans who died in a 1996 Croatian plane crash, the Earl of Spencer’s eulogy for his sister, lady Diana, and Phillip Jennings’ address on the fiftieth anniversary of Kristallnacht.  Carter includes “Fourth of July speeches, wedding toasts, eulogies, celebrations of national heroes, acceptance speeches at awards banquets, recitations at religious events” as typical examples of public epideictic, arguing that these serve “not to alter reality by modifying beliefs or directing actions, as one expects of rhetoric, but to express who we are and who we can be” (307). All of these would be recognizable to Aristotle himself as epideictic: speeches of display, given by an individual rhetorical agent on a specific occasion and topic.

Traditional acts of epideictic still serve important functions in allowing the values of a gathered community to “shine forth” and be reaffirmed: obviously, there continue to be eulogies and toasts, State of the Union speeches, commemorations, and roasts.  Even the rhetorical gestures that prompted the various Twitter-based shamings discussed here arguably served as acts of traditional epideictic: singular rhetorical acts meant to gesture to or solidify a community. Alicia Ann Lynch posted her Boston Marathon Halloween photo (as the hashtags that accompanied it suggest) with a winky air of bravado, assuming that her Instagram followers would find it (and her) hilarious. Justine Sacco thought she was being witty in her infamous tweet (“Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding, I’m white!”): as Jon Ronson characterized her, “a social media Sally Bowles, decadent and flighty and unaware that serious politics were looming” (67). In an email to Ronson, Sacco wrote “It [the tweet] was a joke about a dire situation that does exist in post-apartheid South Africa that we don’t pay attention to” (72), a comment on white privilege, or, as she puts it, the “bubble” of life in America. She told Ronson, “To me, it was so insane a comment for an American to make I thought there was no way that anyone could possibly think it was a literal statement” (72). Adria Richards defended her PyCon tweet the next day on her blog as a feminist act, explaining she found the jokes about dongles and forking made by the men in her tweetpic especially offensive since at the same time, the presenter had been talking about attempts to get more women into the tech industry: “Yesterday the future of programming was on the line and I made myself heard” (qtd in Ronson 115). And similarly, Halloween revelers sharing pictures of themselves in blackface and professors posting anti-Semitic comments clearly operate with the assumption that they are reaffirming shared values with like-minded followers. Given this, the torrent of outrage that poured out from the Internet in response to each of these rhetorical acts must have seemed exponentially more shocking. 

Ultimately, though, what I want to argue is that the accounts of traditional epideictic described above are not so much defining characteristics of epideictic as they are the result of an enmeshment in specific types of (technological) assemblages: complex, dynamic entanglements of material and discursive factors that produce specific kinds of relations and effects. While an instrumentalist framework of rhetoric emphasizes persuasion as the human-controlled product of a static rhetorical situation, an assemblage framework posits rhetoric, as Gries sums it up, as “an emergent process distributed across a complex web of physical, social, psychological, spatial, and temporal dimensions” (15). Such assemblages would include local occasions in which an individual speaks to a gathering reachable by an individual (possibly miked) voice; or, relevant specifically to twentieth-century media, a one-way broadcast through radio or television. Enmeshment in such one-way, centrally broadcast technological assemblages makes it somewhat inevitable that descriptions of epideictic would be cast as discrete rhetors affirming pre-existing values for pre-existing communities. However, even in an era defined by radically different sorts of technological assemblages (i.e., social, participatory media), characterizations of epideictic as an individual rhetorical agent performing a coherent rhetorical act have persisted.2. In other words, our scholarly characterizations of epideictic are persistent habits of thought, conditioned by an enmeshment in old media assemblages.

In rhetorical studies more generally, the shift to digital, networked, participatory environments has prompted a more deliberate attunement to how the material means of production shapes discourse.3 This in turn makes it possible to revise our understanding of epideictic, as some already have begun to do. For instance, while many of her examples of epideictic focus on traditional forms of display, Sheard posits epideictic as less a designated genre (a noun) than a kind of rhetorical gesture (a verb), a description that accords with Schiappa and Timmerman’s point (via Cole) that prior to Aristotle, epideixis “was used to designate a quality or characteristic of discourse rather than a genre of discourse” (198).  In such a view, epideictic refers not so much to an already-formed rhetorical action, but to a potential, a “moment” - “one of dis-ease to which discourse may respond therapeutically…or critically” (789-90). Likewise, it’s possible to see the audience or community of epideictic as not simply pre-existent or given (i.e., revealed), but as something that must be gathered or called into existence through acts of epideictic. The “rhetorical performative” as Beale, drawing on J.L. Austin’s theory of performativity, defines it, is “the composed and more or less unified act of rhetorical discourse which does not merely say, argue, or allege something about the world of social action, but which constitutes (in some special way defined by the conventions or customs of a community) a significant social action in itself” (225). In other words, viewed through the lens of performativity, epideictic does not issue from and to an already-constituted community; rather, by virtue of a process, it enacts a community.

Epideictic in this understanding is more like dunamis or potential than a fixed category, a reading ironically supported by Aristotle’s own definition. In her close examination of Aristotle’s language, Megan Foley explains that epideictic inhabits a rather strange time, an “opening between the perfect and progressive tenses,” best characterized by the line from the hymn: “Joy to the world, the Lord is come” (Foley, “Time” 210). The use of “is come” instead of “is coming” or “has come” denotes, according to Foley, “an incipient arrival, a forthcoming becoming” (210).  Epideictic thus “points toward a moment of movement…the promise of change” (211). Unlike Platonic notions, which conceive epideictic’s function as a “showing forth,” representing “timeless values distilled from past experience” (Duffy 86), the conception of epideictic as dunamis or dynamic potential suggests that neither the community nor the values themselves are necessarily already formed, but rather performatively emerge in an act of judgment. This conception of epideictic, I argue, is compellingly demonstrated in communal, public acts of shaming: historical, geographical versions no less than the more recent, virtual shamings of Alicia Ann Lynch, Justine Sacco, Adria Richards, Lindsey Stone, and many others.

Public Shaming as Epideictic

Historically as now, shaming serves a significant epideictic function by enacting, enforcing, and cementing the norms, values, and identifications of a community. Historically, the community that served as both witness and impetus for shaming was indeed present, geographically bound; the geographical presence of the community made it possible for shaming punishments to be formally codified in law. Such was the case with early Puritan administration, which frequently employed stocks, pillories, and “badges of infamy” like the central emblem of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter to punish transgressions. Historical evidence affirms the importance of community in the Puritan era, a value that expressed itself there, as elsewhere, in the need for constant visibility. As historian Michael Wells suggests, “In a context of covenant responsibilities and sense of community, neighbors spied on each other; magistrates and deacons pried into private affairs” (598). Likewise, in his analysis of Puritan lawsuits, Demos notes the prevalence of imagery of watching and being watched: “Seeing and being seen, watching and hiding: thus a vital nexus of Puritan thought and feeling” (80), a focus on visibility that ultimately derives from religious values: they powerfully felt upon them the eye of the deity, who was continually watching and waiting for offenses. In such a context, having one’s transgressions paraded out for all to see was an especially powerful form of punishment. 

The need to make visible real or perceived transgressions as a means of reasserting or establishing community values can also be seen in the “ugly carnivals” of post-Liberation WWII France, for instance, where at least 20,000 French women suspected of “la collaboration horizontale” with German soldiers endured public head shavings and other humiliations. The brutality of these spontaneous public shamings perhaps reflects the stressful conditions (i.e., neighbors brought together forcibly by siege) under which community was created; but also it is certain, as historian Cynthia Krieser argues, that the women served as easy scapegoats, whose public humiliation served to solidify another type of post-war community, that of the bons Français, French patriots who, though they may not have actively resisted the Germans, at least had never directly interacted with them, and had never doubted France’s eventual victory. The femmes tendues, on the other hand, had become “embochi(e),” or “krautified,” and hence had to be publicly shamed in order to reaffirm French national values (Krieser 27). Shaming here, as Sara Ahmed would put it, was the “affective cost of not following the scripts of normative existence” (107) as defined by these communities.

As the examples of the Puritans and the “ugly carnivals” suggest, shaming works by dislocating individuals from their social context through hyper-attention, the very opposite of deindividuation. This function is apparent in the word’s very etymology: the Indo-European root of “shame” is skam or skem, meaning “to hide” or “to cover.” Donald Nathanson explains that the double meaning of these terms helps us understand how shaming works: the skin (or hide) both covers and individuates: it designates an individual by literally covering the body.  The blush, shame’s distinctive feature, spreads as pink evidence of the recognition of wrongdoing over the surface of the skin, thus making the blusher more visible.4 These acts interestingly reverse the typical conception of epideictic, of individual rhetors speaking to and for the community. In public shamings, rather, the community scapegoats the individual to promote certain values to the community.5

Shame and disgust are affectively twinned, and the curious inverse of each other, since they both play at the borders of the body (as discussed above in the skam/skem root of “shame”): whereas shame works as a “precarious hyper-reflexivity of the surface of the body,” disgust recognizes what should or shouldn’t be let into the body (520). It does so, Miller argues, by creating borders: “Disgust and indignation unite the world of impartial spectators into a moral community, as cosharers of the same sentiments, as guardians of propriety and purity. These sentiments supply the motivation for punishing certain kinds of offenses” (195).  In essence, disgust is a powerful tool for discernment; while, as Haidt et al argue, disgust may have originated from the need to keep physically repulsive foods out of the body’s interior (disgust literally means “bad taste”), it may have been “preadapted” as a rejection system more generally, allowing a culturally specific means of deciding not only what can be safely incorporated into the body, but also what is threatening to the borders of individuality or self, too. What a culture finds disgusting varies according to its larger value systems: Americans, for instance, are disgusted by anything that violates the “fragile dignity of the individual,” including people who strip others of their dignity, including “racists, rapists, and child abusers (Haidt et al 125).  

The nature of disgust so defined provides insight into the shamings described at the beginning of this essay. In the Alicia Ann Lynch case, for instance, terrorism, like the Boston marathon bombings, is seen as a particularly egregious example of individual rights violation: the right to conduct business in public places without being hurt or killed. The people who were killed and injured in the bombings were considered by Americans to be innocents (at least, they weren’t at war) – especially, as several anti-Lynch tweets made clear, since a child was among the victims. So for Lynch to be seen as mocking this event amounts to a violation of these rights by proxy. Hence the disgust reactions: variants of the word “disgust” are mentioned in a great many of the tweets flagging @someSKANKinMI: “You’re disgusting” (Angelica); “did y’all hear about this story yet? So disgusting, it makes my stomach hurt” (Matthew C); “Shoutout to a disgusting human being @someSKANKinmi for dressing up as a victim of the Boston bombings” (Dominique); “& the most ignorant, distasteful costume of the decade goes to this pathetic piece of work” (Elizabeth); and many others.  Several tweets actually mention human waste in their tweets, corroborating Haidt et al.’s theory that “core disgust” is harnessed to moral disgust: one says, “@someSKANKinMI I forgot you can anonymously send shit (literally, shit) through the mail. Expect a delivery.” Another says, “you can follow me. At diarrhea.”

The language of disgust likewise fueled the Twitter shaming of Justine Sacco, whose tweet was seen as “disgusting” because it made fun of two vulnerable groups: black people and those dying of AIDS. Lindsey Stone’s irreverent photo was seen as mocking those who had given their lives fighting for their country; and Adria Richards bore a complexly gendered form of shaming because her tweetpic caused an “innocent” family man to lose his job.

Acts of public shaming, driven by a community enacted through mutual disgust, are an especially virulent and effective form of epideictic. They are virulent because they scapegoat individuals, who are forced to stand alone for (by negative example) the values of the community; and they are effective because the shamed individual, and the public memory of the act of shaming (in virtual communities, visible through accretion in search engines), thus continues to serve as a powerful reminder of the non-negotiability of those values. 

Enacting Values and Community in the Twitterverse

Social media, particularly Twitter, have ushered in what Ronson has called “a great renaissance of public shaming” (10), as some became aware of the power to share judgments about people, powerful public entities, or events with a great many others via blogs (and Facebook posts and tweets); others realized they could get away with deliberate taunting, harassment, and abuse (i.e. “trolling”) under cover of anonymity or pseudonymity, and still others (the hacker collective Anonymous, for instance), found ways to “doxx” or reveal the real-life identity of these trolls in order to subject them to harassment and shaming by others. But one of the most striking and virulent forms is the collective, spontaneous public shaming of individuals, the sort that characterized the Lynch, Richards, Stone, and Sacco cases, in which a crowd suddenly and spontaneously forms in response to a discursive act performed by one of these individuals. While other acts of shaming are also epideictic, these collective spontaneous shamings are particularly notable because they don’t fit the characteristic form of epideictic described above – i.e., a single rhetor speaking to and for the community in a stylistically noteworthy fashion. In the cases of these collective, spontaneous shamings, the community itself is enacted along with a specific set of beliefs. 

Certainly the millions of strangers who share the virtual space of Twitter don’t constitute the same kind of geographical, place-based “community” as New England Puritans or post-WWII France bons français. As behavioral scientists Gruzd et al acknowledge, until the 1970s most social scientists conflated spatially and geographically compact sets of people with “community”; and even when the definition was expanded to include other networks like family and friends, “community” still referred to people who have regular interactions, or at least initial contact, in the physical world. By these definitions, as an “an asymmetric microblogging service” (i.e., “if you follow me, I do not have to follow you”), especially one that does not allow for the creation of formal groups (like Facebook, Usenet usegroups, SecondLife, etc.), Twitter would not be considered a community; it has a “low reciprocity of messages between users” (meaning that users don’t use it primarily for conversations) (Gruzd et al 1295). Unlike Facebook and other social media sites, Twitter is defined not primarily as a social network, but as a way to spread news and other information (Thelwall et al 407). Thus, as a 2015 study of Twitter states, “It must not be argued that the followers-followees are a community as observations of users are mainly inactive with outbursts of retweets around certain viral news” (Ch’ng 613).6

Considered as a whole, then, the architecture of Twitter is distinguished primarily by what sociologist Mark Granovetter calls “weak ties” (1360), or “at most a network of equal ties” (Ch’ng 613). Communities made up of weak (or equal) ties are actually more conducive to the spreading of rumor and negative emotion than communities made up of “strong ties” (1366). Granovetter argues that in a community characterized by “strong ties,” in which people are connected to other users two or three times over, novel information tends to die out quickly, because users encounter the same thing several times, from different users; but in a community that’s less strongly linked, information that is novel (especially if it’s negative, as I explain below) spreads much more quickly. On Twitter, half of all retweeting happens within an hour, and 75% within a day, indicating how quickly information can spread. Thus, on average, a retweet reaches 1000 users, no matter how many users followed the original poster (Kwak et al 591). This helps to explain why public shaming events happen more frequently (and more virulently) on Twitter rather than on Facebook, where users are much more densely connected. 

Aiding in the hyper-circulatory nature of Twitter is the fact that users take up circulating tweets for their own purposes; as one recent study pointed out, “an event reported in the media may be perceived by some Twitter users as affording an opportunity to satisfy unrelated goals, such as to create humor, show analytical skill, or declare a moral perspective” (Thelwall et al 408). Once a hashtag is created or a URL linking to an event begins to circulate, increasing numbers of users will leap at the opportunity to play with it, thus exponentially hastening the spread of the event. Simply existing together as a “virtual settlement” does not make a community: rather, a sense of community arises when community members feel like they belong, can make a difference, provide support and are supported by other members, and have a shared connection, as, for instance, the shared Twitterspeak language of hashtags, retweets, tiny URLs, and Twitter handles (Gruzd et al 1298).”7

Twitter’s fitness as a medium for shaming arises from not only its material architecture and the culture of use that has grown from those affordances, but from the inherent ability of negative emotions to spread more quickly than positive ones. Indeed, in an analysis of sentiment in trending events on Twitter, the authors concluded that “negative sentiment is often the key to popular events in Twitter,” even when, unlike cases of public shaming, the event was a generally positive one, like the Oscars (Thelwall et al 415). Public shaming events activate or enact community values catalyzed by emotions like disgust, outrage, and contempt, which, as William Ian Miller argues in The Anatomy of Disgust, are more definable and hence more easily transmitted: “The feelings of love and regret are not as easily definable as the feelings of disgust….Disgust thus communicates rather better than most emotions” (194). Thus, the characteristic shaming emotion of disgust with its high level of transmissibility on its own, combined with the ease with which Twitter’s architecture makes it possible for information to spread and the ways in which information aggregates in search engines, makes a perfect environment for public shaming.

Conclusion: Rhetorical Assemblages 

In Aristotle’s definition (as articulated by Megan Foley), rhetoric is not the predetermined domain circumscribed by Plato, but hyparchonta pithana, a dynamic potential or becoming, “caught between the already and the not-yet,” the “probabilities, plausibilities, or persuadabilities that exist before the work of persuasion begins” (Foley 242). Foley’s definition highlights the need to conceptualize rhetoric as intrinsically technological; as I have demonstrated in the case of virtual public shamings as a form of epideictic, rhetorical acts emerge through technological assemblages, of which communication technologies are a critical part. While instrumentalist conceptions of technology posit a relation where technological objects remain under subjective control, an assemblage view of technologies considers the range of actions and attitudes opened up by a given technology. For example, the speeches of traditional epideictic rely heavily on the verbal technology of tropes and schemes, designed to create a hypnotic, enchanting effect on listeners that makes the content take hold as memory.8 However, the temporally and spatially bounded nature of these same oral technologies obviate the ability to widely broadcast these stylistic effects; instead, they needed to rely on repetition and circulation through human networks of poets and listeners. By contrast, the hyper-circulatory architecture of Twitter enables tiny (140-character) distributed acts of negative sentiment to gain rapid momentum and force: simultaneously, in massive parallel, these tiny acts crystallize judgments, attitudes, and communities.

This essay has aimed to highlight how rhetorical acts are “embedded in complex social, material, and linguistic ecologies” (Seas 51) and to contribute to the work by scholars in digital rhetorics and new media that rethinks classical rhetorical formations and concepts in the light of digital, networked communication technologies. I want to conclude by reiterating three points: first, that virtual public shaming events demonstrate how in fact all acts of epideictic performatively enact communities, however weak the ties; second, that the act of gathering a community through such events simultaneously enacts the latent values of that community; and finally, that these epideictic acts of public shaming demonstrate the inexorably technological nature of all rhetorical acts – that the technologies are not separate or supplemental to the rhetorical acts, but are rather co-constitutive. That, in fact, more clearly than ever these public shaming events, conducted in massive parallel and with little more than reactive thought, reveal rhetoric to be an assemblage, a virtual entity that necessarily includes the forces and potentialities of all of its elements, not pre-existent but actualized in one way or another, crystallizing along virtual lines of forces and potentials. 

  • 1. See, for example, Beale; Duffy; Hauser; Kennedy; Loraux; OMalley; Oravec; Perelman and Olbrechts-Tyteca; Rosenfield; Schiappa; Schiappa and Timmerman; Sharer; Sheard; Sullivan; Vickers; Walker. Multiple commentators on Aristotles discussion of epideictic have made clear that attempts to dismiss it as mere display" are misguided, or at least not based on Aristotles discussion (Oravec; Foley). Oravec, for instance, notes that associations of epideictic with theatrical display are based on a poor translation of theoros, the audience for epideictic, and that there is no term comparable to the English pejorative mere in Aristotles text(165)
  • 2. Its true that lately the definition of coherent rhetorical acthas been expanded: for instance, Shawn Ramsey examines how Noah Websters dictionaries serve an epideictic function, with storehouses of prescriptive definitions that were an attempt to shore up cultural values with praise or blame(65). And in their article on Citational Epideixis,Johanna Hartelius and Jennifer Asenas use the whole of anti-immigrant Minuteman leader Jim Gilchrists communications to taxonomize what he (as the voice of the group) characterizes as virtuous and what he characterizes as blameworthy
  • 3. This topic has fostered a robust thread of digital rhetorics scholarship that attends to the materiality of media and its effects on traditional conceptions of rhetoric; while it would be impossible to list all of the scholarship that addresses this issue, consider, for instance, Brooke; Chun; Dobrin (ed); Galloway; Gitelman; Gries; Porter; Rice; Ridolfo and Hart-Davidson (eds); Sheridan, Ridolfo, and Michel; Wysocki.
  • 4. As Darwin noted, blushing is the only truly intersubjective emotional reaction because it requires others, and our awareness of how those others might see us: It is not the simple act of reflecting on our appearance, but the thinking of what others think of us, which excites a blush(325, qtd in Wilson 75, my emphasis). Being called out in public involves sudden exposure; a new visibility that prompts a characteristic desire to hide. The punishment comes from the visibility. The “ugly carnivals” mentioned above, for instance, echo Biblical shearing punishments, the forcible removal of the hair serving to physically uncover the victim, the vulnerable naked head visible proof of the symbolic expiation of the individual from the community. And even when the shaming is conducted virtually, the feeling of exposure is likewise unbearable; thus, a common thread of “hiding” is woven through narratives of shaming, whether the shaming happened analogically or digitally.The popular science writer Jonah Lehrer, disgraced by the discovery that he had fabricated multiple Bob Dylan quotes in one of his books, described the feeling of alienation that results from public humiliation and its concomitant desire to hide (he is described by Ronson as shuffle[ing] [alone] along the canyons of Los Angeles in a never-ending sweat of guilt and shame[44]): What I mostly feel is intensely radioactive. So even people who come to me with good intentions, I end up transferring my isotopes onto them(Ronson 40). Likewise, when Justine Sacco realized once the plane landed that her tweet had gone viral, a photo gleefully tweeted by someone in the airport shows her in sunglasses, attempting to shield herself behind a friend. And Adria Richards described hiding for six months at different friendshouses as shelter from the fallout of the Donglegate incident.
  • 5. Kenneth Burke describes the literal act of scapegoating as a formal ritual whereby [the sins of a people] could be transferred to the back of an animal, the animal was then ferociously beaten or slainand the feeling of relief was apparent to all(16). Burke argues that the scapegoating mechanism is an interpretive error, in which an immediately present disturbing agencyis mistaken for a cause: as rats in an experiment will consider the electric shock itself the cause of their distress, not the shocks administrator. For a human example, Burke cites the poor whites of the Depression era who saw people of color, rather than the capitalist system that forced intense competition for jobs, as the disturbing agency; so rather than attacking the system, they turned to lynching as a means to address their misperception of the problem. In other words, the electric shock and black men in these cases serve as scapegoats to expiate a communitys sinseven if they were the wrong targets. Burkes example clearly highlights the ethical issues that apply to all cases of shaming, both analog and digital, which heap inordinate, terrible abuse on one individual in the process of articulating community values.
  • 6. However, this is not to say that communities cant form within Twitter. In fact, Eugene Chngs 2015 study, which used Big Data methodology to analyze the use of a specific hashtag, argued that by a different definition, communities on Twitter do exist. The four attributes of a Sense of Community” that the study used to define community include membership (a feeling that one has invested part of oneself to become a member, which includes a boundary from non-members; influence (a sense of mattering, of making a difference to a group); reinforcement (the feeling that members’ needs will be met” by the group); and shared emotional connection (Chng 614). By this definition, the activity around the #FreeJahar hashtag was computationally shown to exhibit the qualities of community. (#FreeJahar refers to a group, mainly composed of young women, who insisted that Dzhokar Tsarnev, the man convicted in the Boston Marathon bombings case, couldnt be guilty because he was too good-looking.) The data analysis showed that by the Sense of Community definition, the #FreeJahar group was indeed a community. For instance, internal interactions formed a protective boundary around the #FreeJahar group (the boundaries were created via arguments, criticisms, and ridicule” from outsiders ([621). More generally, the author concludes, Twitter communities are relational, formed via a common ideology and justified by the validation of the ideology and the commonality of symbols” (622). However, as I point out above, the study still acknowledges that the overall follower-followee architecture of Twitter makes it at most a network of equal ties” (613).
  • 7. For instance, in the June 2015 public shaming of Rachel Dolezal (the former Spokane NAACP president who identifies as black, but was outed by her parents as white), the so-called black Twitter” community was enacted once again with the hashtag #AskRachel; riffing on a notorious television interview in which Dolezal refused to answer the question Are you black?, participants alternately posed mock questions to Dolezal to aid in her process of discernment (@I_HATE_VA, I got two black eyes_____ A) I need sunglasses B) You should see the other guy C) Where dey at tho?), bemoaned the fact that they couldnt answer the questions even though they were black, connected it to other racially charged systems currently in the news (@CHAOS13, #everybodywannabeblack until ur kids get beat by the cops for swimming. #RachelDolezal #AskRachel) and celebrated black Twitter” for its creativity and hilarity (@muyiwa, This whole #AskRachel thing is a perfect example of you guys egregious lack of chill. Im dying over here.). This instance makes it clear how hashtags(i.e., #AskRachel) can be used to both create and track a temporal emergence of community.
  • 8. As Eric Havelock has argued, The only possible verbal technology available to guarantee the preservation and fixity of transmission was that of the rhythmic word organized cunningly in verbal and metric patterns which were unique enough to retain their shape” (42-3).
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