The Indelible Brand of Shame | A Society of Scarlet Letters

The Indelible Brand of Shame | A Society of Scarlet Letters

By Don Hall

To my long-lasting shame, I voted for Ronald Reagan in 1984 for my first non-high school voting experience.

It became obvious as his presidency unfolded that I had made a mistake. I hadn't really been paying attention and, let's be fair, I was an 18-year old straight, white kid in the middle of NoWhere, Kansas. I was surrounded by Republican Christians. My teachers were mostly rightwing, the community was rightwing, and not a few of my close friends' families were card carrying members of the legendary anti-abortion mob known as Operation Rescue.

There was no FaceBorg. No Twitter. No callout culture designed to label me a Republican for life. No digital Scarlet Letter to let any future employers know that I was an early Reaganite. I was allowed by a society almost completely ignorant of my existence to grow and evolve. 

Not long ago, a woman reached out to Literate Ape about a picture of her on our site. She claimed she had been abused by a boyfriend and had been coerced into going to Neo-Nazi rally. There was a photo. After a short ethics wrestle, we took the photo down.

The Daily Banter, on the other, hand, not only left it up but exposed the woman's name, uploaded a provided recent photo (we were sent a few of these selfies but refused to run them) and ran a story about it entitled Dressing Up Like a Nazi is Forever. 

According to writer Justin Rosario:

"Ben Cohen, the owner of The Daily Banter, is unconvinced. As a Jew, he justifiably takes an extremely dim view of people who dress up as Nazis and throw Nazi salutes. This particular rally took place several years ago according to Ashley so it predates the alt-right and the rise of Trump but that hardly matters. A Nazi is a Nazi is a Nazi. Even if they don't really mean it, the damage is done by advancing the hate white nationalism represents.

As a Jew myself, I take an equally dim view but I'm inclined to believe Ashley's story of abuse. Two close friends of mine escaped long term abusive relationships, one physical and the other emotional. The stories they told me sounded very much like what Ashley says she went through. It's possible she's faking it but from her writing, frankly, she doesn't seem capable of that kind of subtlety. I believe she was abused and I believe she is in a nasty child custody battle and I believe that the picture of her dressed as a Nazi will hurt her case." 

The dilemma I faced when communicating with Ashley was twofold: I believe her story of abuse and coercion but she's a Nazi. Does my alliance with the feminist ideal of believing the victim of abuse trump my disgust of American Nazis or do I discard the belief in her statement and just go with the disgust?

For Cohen and Rosario, despite believing her story of coercion, the answer was to go with the punishment. Continue to proliferate her digital shame with little regard for the possibility that her moment in time in a red shirt, swastika and Nazi salute was to appease an abuser.

Unlike Literate Ape, The Daily Banter has a far larger following (the article in question has been shared over 10,000 times) so the damage of their stance takes on far more severe consequences.

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In June of 2016, Aimee Levitt (with Christopher Piatt) broke the story of serial abuser Darrell Cox and his reign at Profiles Theatre. The online pile-on was almost immediate. Hell, for a moment, I joined in on the cyber-stoning until, after hurling a few comments and nasty asides, it suddenly felt off to enjoy shaming him so much. It was an ugly impulse to publicly humiliate someone I'd never met, whose context of life was unknown to me, based entirely on an article sourced solely by his accusers.

I'm not entirely certain which approach is the ethical one. The impulse to use bullying tactics and jump on the bandwagon to haphazardly destroy lives with the internet feels wrong.

Is it better to live in a society where the internet is used as a weapon against those who defy the judgment of popular opinion or better to show restraint in doling out the shoulder shrug response that "dressing up as a Nazi is going to fuck you for life."

Is Ashley a Nazi? Is her story that she dressed in a swastika t-shirt and saluted the Third Reich ArmWave to appease an abusive boyfriend credible? Does demonstrating in Nazi gear make one a Nazi? If I found a photo of your mom’s Hummel figurine collection and this was among the adorable sculptures of angels and dogs: 

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...is your mom now a Nazi? Is it all really that cut and dry?

The statement she made on the voicemail she left me still gives me pause: 

”I don’t regret my past but I do regret there is proof of it.” 

Cohen and Rosario look at Ashley and, by virtue of that photo, determine she is a Nazi. I look at her and see a kid with kids in Tennessee, living below the poverty level and making pretty shitty choices in men. Who also might be a fucking believer in the principles of Nazism. 

For me, whether she is or is not a Nazi is beside the point. She’s likely going to have her kids taken away from her and her life is following a downward spiral that didn’t start at a particularly high point to begin with. The question is how do we, those who despise Nazism (or White Supremacy or Toxic Patriarchy), respond to those we see going down those paths? 

Was her appearance at the rally, dressed as she was, a mistake? I certainly hope she sees it as one in hindsight. My voting for Reagan was a mistake. Not one that made much of a difference in the world but a mistake nonetheless.  

Are we societally fine with these digital Hester Prynnes we constantly expose and brand for life? Are we prepared to be held accountable for every mistake we've ever made? If so, better hope no one is taking your picture.

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