Britt McHenry and Birthday Party Invites for a One-Year-Old: Internet Shaming Cautionary Tales

ChinchillapetsI’m going to make a comparison between two seemingly incongruous things, but I hope you’ll stay with me.

The first involves a very unpleasant-sounding and now somewhat infamous email a parent sent to the invitees of his or her son’s first birthday party. (I’m not going to link to it, for reasons I hope will soon become clear.) The note seems demanding and cold, and by any reasonable account is extremely off-putting. This has been circulated widely on Facebook and elsewhere for the world to see and, of course, with swiftness and glee, judged and mocked relentlessly. It has even been published in Jezebel, and by a local radio station in Maine.

I can understand decrying entitled and rude behavior – I rail against it myself – and I support 100 percent calls for improved netiquette and increased shows of consideration for my fellow man. My problem with this is while the author of the email might – might – be caustic and rude, I feel the real shame lies with the recipient who shared it with the entire internet. (I did check to see if it was fake, but nothing came up as of today.)

The first thoughts that occurred to me as I read the email were more along the lines of wondering if the author suffered from Asperger’s Syndrome, or perhaps there was family tension that precipitated the tone of the email. Then I thought, “I shouldn’t even be reading this.” It was someone’s private email made public by an annoyed recipient. The internet seems to disagree with me, since almost every sharing of this email included an invitation to share one’s thoughts about it. There were a few who expressed understanding, but most tended to be harsh and judgmental, going from zero to snarky in a fraction of a second.

In the same week this email was making the rounds, a video surfaced of ESPN reporter Britt McHenry calmly and cruelly tearing into an attendant at a towing facility. It was labeled a “tirade” and a “rant,” but those labels are inept, as they imply sputtering rage and out of control behavior. McHenry seemed to think hard about each insult before firing it off quietly, and sometimes with a sarcastic smile. She was told she was on camera, looked up at the security camera with raised eyebrows, and continued lording her education, slim figure, job in television and (I’M SURE NOT DOCTORED OR WHITENED IN ANY WAY) teeth over the attendant anyway. Princess was irritated.

Since I tend to be fair to the point of extremely annoying, I’ll consider the defenses of Ms. McHenry’s supporters. Or, as stated in this Yahoo article, “a source.”

The video was edited!  Yes. Yes, it was. But there is no question as to what McHenry says on the video.

The tow lot attendant was provoking her! Given that McHenry threatened to sue the towing company, if she was being provoked or abused, wouldn’t it make sense for her to whip out her own phone and record the behavior of the attendant? And, please note, McHenry herself is not making this assertion, nor is ESPN. Not only that, more than once there is a period of complete silence before Ms. McHenry says something nasty and cruel to the attendant. Unless she was sticking her tongue out at McHenry during those silences, there wasn’t provocation.

The towing company has an “F” rating from the Better Business Bureau!  And? How likely is it that the woman behind the counter is responsible for that?  I don’t know, maybe she’s part of the reason, but I’m guessing she doesn’t drive the trucks or make the rules.

Why am I comparing these two subjects of internet shaming? It has to do with the issue of consent. As far as I can tell, the author of the birthday list email had no idea his or her email would be held up publicly for hundreds of thousands to read and mock. You receive an email you don’t like? Take it up with the sender, or perhaps confide in a close friend or two. Dragging the sender to the internet equivalent of the stocks? Not cool.

Britt McHenry, on the other hand, gave us her consent. She was told she was being recorded, she made eye contact with the camera, and then continued to spew cruel and personal insults at the attendant. To the degree that I actually wondered if they had started towing broomsticks.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy published a piece in The New Republic outlining what constitutes internet shaming, and when, if ever, it is appropriate. It’s a very good reference, and I highly recommend reading it if you are on the fence about sharing someone else’s behavior publicly. Or even if you aren’t.

According to her standards, sharing an email is completely out of line – for a friend, and even worse, for the media to  publish. She’s a little more torn on Ms. McHenry than I would be, though:

“On the one hand, she was already (evidently) a public figure, so it’s not a violation to make news of her outburst. On the other hand, even otherwise lovely people may react badly in situations like having their car towed—particularly if other things are going on in her life that we don’t know about. Maybe this was the lowest point in that reporter’s life, or maybe she’s like this to everyone, I have no idea.

Meh. I think Ms. Bovy is very kind. Personally, having watched the video, and having read a few other things about Britt McHenry’s behavior in other situations, I’m of the opinion that she deserved to have the tape publicized and take the resulting heat. She not only gave us her consent. She gave us the finger and smiled while she was doing it.

Aliza Worthington grew up in Brooklyn, NY, and now lives in Baltimore. She began writing in 2009 at the age of 40. Sometimes her writing follows The Seinfeld Model of “no learning, no hugging.” Other times it involves lots of both. She blogs about Life, Liberty and Happiness at The Worthington Post. Her work also appears in Purple Clover, and before that, in Catonsville Patch and Kveller. She has been featured in the Community Spotlight section of Daily Kos under the username “Horque.” She won BlogHer Voice of the Year Awards in 2013 and 2015. Follow her on Twitter at @AlizaWrites.

Image via Wikimedia Commons/Melissa Wolff/CC License

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