‘I failed so badly and so publicly’
There’s been lots of really good work lately talking about the importance of failure for us as human beings in order to learn and to grow.
We’re told that we must learn how to fail. That we must: fail fast. Fail forward.
These are great buzz phrases.
But we’re used to winning and being rewarded when we get things right. And, crucially, we’re used to being punished when we fail.
So when we talk about failure, it’s abstract.
It means you make a mistake, you learn from it, and you, hopefully, do better the next time.
But at a deep personal, gut level we fight against failure. Hard. As individuals and as a society.
Because as a society we punish failure severely: now more than ever.
These days, we don’t just punish people with prison or fines or other traditional punitive measures.
We’ve started punishing people with something far harder to come back from: with shame.
And when shame is coupled with social media, the results are devastating.
I know, because that’s what happened to me. I failed so badly and so publicly that it made global headlines.
I’m the former editor-in-chief of the Mail & Guardian and HuffPost South Africa.
It was during my time at HuffPost that it happened: a fake, racially-provocative blog was submitted to my blogs’ editor by someone claiming to be a woman and a feminist.
The blog was published and it blew up.
It was not a sentiment I agreed with but I perhaps, foolishly, agreed with the underlying argument and defended the person’s right to make their argument.
It later turned out the blog was a hoax. But the fact was, I had made a mistake.
There were a dozen things I could and should have done better in the process. So I apologised, repeatedly and from the heart. I looked at processes to fix the newsroom.
But it wasn’t good enough. It seems these days that no apology is.
Which is odd because who of you have never made a mistake in your work or personal life?
I thought so.
So here’s what happened.
A small number of people ran a surprisingly powerful social media campaign demanding that I be fired.
I was called horrible names.
Our press ombudsman made a ruling that could only be described as vicious.
Other editors had made similar mistakes.
None had faced this kind of wrath or just plain wrong interpretation of the press code.
His ruling would later be overturned, but it was the final nail in the coffin.
It was a week from hell. I couldn’t sleep. I couldn’t think straight. I was under constant attack. I didn’t know where to turn or what to do.
A week after the blog was published, I stepped down. And left Twitter. And ended up being hospitalised for severe depression.
I believed my life was over before the age of 35, and that I had zero career prospects.
Because here’s the thing with this new form of shame that we’ve started practising as a society: it’s no longer about punitive measures that are meant to rehabilitate an offender, so that they can learn from their mistakes.
I learnt there is a crucial difference cyberbullies employ.
It’s never that someone has made a mistake. Instead, the message that is repeatedly driven is that they are a mistake. As a human being. And that nothing they can do will change that.
The driving narrative behind those attacks was that I was never meant to be an editor. That all the successes I had seen, the work I had done, the sacrifices I’d made meant nothing.
See this is the difference between guilt and shame.
Guilt means acknowledging you made a mistake. You can come back from that because that’s the human condition.
We make mistakes.
Shame means you are a mistake. And there’s no coming back from that.
This is the message I constantly received from people I didn’t know on social media for months and even years after the incident.
People who, as you can imagine, wouldn’t say the things they’d type to my face. Because that’s how cyberbullying works.
Shame was a potent weapon in ancient times.
But then you had to actually pick up the stone and fling it yourself at the person in question.
You had to debase yourself in that cruel action. It’s much easier to do when you don’t have to face that person or look into their eyes.
In Monica Lewinsky’s Ted Talk on online public shaming, she took a hard look at our online culture of humiliation, and asked for a different way.
I want to take up that call. Not because I got hurt personally. But because I believe this new culture of online shaming is costing us enormously as a society.
So what’s the solution?
Researcher Brene Brown says that shame can’t survive without empathy. That the two most powerful words when a person is facing a struggle is: “me too”.
I believe we need to go one step further as a society. We need to expect people to fail and clearly outline how we deal with it when they do.
I dream about a country and a world where every organisation and institution has a policy for what happens to an employee or student or child when they make a public mistake. When they say something stupid.
A policy the organisation can stick to even when the outrage brigade are howling at the door, and the mob has forgotten its individual humanity in its collective rage.
A policy that incorporates aspects of correction as well as rehabilitation, and that applies it consistently, not just based on what’s being shouted most loudly by the people with the biggest mic.
Because every Saul has the potential to be a Paul. Every sinner will be the loudest and most effective evangelists.
When we shame sexists, racists and the like, we lose the massive potential to transform those underlying ills in our society by creating a change agent from within.
Let’s not lose that opportunity.
Let’s do better.