How Social Media Challenges Conceptions of Respect
and Jeopardizes Human Dignity
It is nearly impossible to speak of the concept of dignity without also using the term “respect.” Indeed, dignity is a noun, and grammatical rules insist that in order to use dignity in a sentence, it must have a verb attached to it. Very frequently that verb is respect, as when in the discourse surrounding dignity we commonly find the phrase that we must “respect the dignity of…” The eminent Harvard Professor of Ethics in Politics and Government, Michael Rosen, even makes reference to this in the first chapter of his book Dignity: Its History and Meaning: “To treat someone with dignity is (it seems natural to say) to respect their dignity… To respect someone’s dignity by treating them with dignity requires that one shows them respect, either positively, by acting toward them in a way that gives expression to one’s respect, or, at least, negatively, by refraining from behavior that would show disrespect” (2012, 58).
Two types of respect often appear in discussions of dignity: respect from others (or what I will refer to as social respect), and self-respect. Much as some of us may have tried to distance ourselves from conferring dignity based on one’s status in favor of a more egalitarian outlook on dignity, in today’s world we see that both are present. Perhaps nowhere is the blending of these two versions of dignity more on display than within the realm of social media. At its core, social media is designed to be a respect-garnering mechanism, enticing its users to create glossy versions of themselves that often come at the expense of their self-respect, and then to quantify the amount of social respect they receive to determine which rank they might fall into.
On its own, this would be enough to condemn social media as a threat to dignity, but social media also serves as a pernicious breeding ground for hate speech and humiliation, regularly targeted at the most vulnerable in our society. Thus, not only is social media a mechanism challenging users’ ability to cultivate authentic self-respect and to develop a healthy reverence for social respect, social media is also an instrument that enables users to attack one another’s dignity on both fronts.
Because of social media’s prominent presence in our lives, it must be considered in the discourse on dignity. For example, consider that just as an in-person interaction could either contribute to or be an affront to someone’s dignity, social media now has the capacity to do the same, and arguably with far greater ease than previous modes of communication. Regrettably, it is often easier to strip someone of their dignity in the virtual space than it is to confer it. Social media is inherently a self-serving entity, designed so that users must create a presence on any site just to participate. The virtual world draws a veil, enabling users to edit and potentially improve the image of themselves that will be viewed online. This image is curated to garner respect and to accumulate social capital that draws such users away from developing a more genuine self-respect. Often this curated image of ourselves within the virtual world is misaligned with our authentic selves. More and more, “…individuals’ experiences of themselves come in part from the standpoints of others, shaping our understanding of our self and our action: how our habitus is perceived can be as important as how it actually is… with a tendency for actions to be motivated partly by others’ perceptions” (Dean 2020, 54).
Numbers become very important on social media: The number of followers we have, the number of likes we get, the number of times something is shared, etc., and those with the highest numbers are seen as having greatest status. For some (whom we call “influencers”) this process has even become a full-time job. Users are no longer being valued for who they are or even their basic existence as human beings, but rather for the numbers on their profile: those who have the highest numbers amass the highest respect. In this way, social media becomes a bastardization of the relationship between self-respect and social respect. Users jeopardize their self-respect by comparing themselves to other users by way of measuring the amount of social respect they have.
Sadly, this is a fool’s game. Social media can successfully and simultaneously impede both self and social respect through hate speech and through public humiliation. It is easy to target both individuals and entire groups of people, as well as to gather support from other like-minded users. The Anti-Defamation League (ADL) reported that more than half of Americans say they were subjected to hateful speech or harassment during 2019, and a third of Americans reported experiencing abuse in response to their sexual orientation, religion, race, ethnicity, gender identity, or disability status (Guynn 2019). The ADL survey captured “…a growing wave of toxic rage that’s traumatizing internet users and normalizing deeply offensive points of view that would otherwise be relegated to the darkest corners of the internet. Swarms of attacks, often anonymous, feed off a tense and polarized political climate in which inflammatory social media posts can draw attention and spread quickly” (Guynn 2022).
In the realm of social respect, hate speech and humiliation thrive from demeaning and disgracing the intended victims, which by necessity requires an audience to witness the humiliation. When we speak of public humiliation, we refer to the rise of sharing (with or without express consent) private photos and videos that has become commonplace and expected within the social media sphere. “[A]n intimate connection exists between the notion of human dignity and the notion of humiliation…. Humiliation is seen as first and foremost an injury to the dignity of its victims, an injury usually described in figurative language: in humiliation, one ‘is stripped of one’s dignity,’ one is ‘robbed of’ dignity, or simply ‘loses’ it” (Statman 2000, 523). Essentially, humans’ sense of personal worth is shaped by what others think about them and the treatment they receive. This is what makes humiliation effective and morally wrong – it takes advantage of individuals’ subjective self-respect and sends painful messages of subordination, rejection, and exclusion (Statman 2000, 535).
Attempting to police the ways in which social media encourages users to curate their personal profiles and aim to get the greatest number of likes and follows would be contrary to the core of social media’s commercial rationale and detrimental to its business model. With that in mind, public policy must focus on addressing the rampant hate speech and public humiliation that has become all too synonymous with much of social media. While attempting to regulate the way social media undermines individuals’ self and social respect is a slippery issue, hate speech is just as hard to pin down. Hate speech seen online is not a crime in many regions, largely because there is an ongoing debate surrounding the topic of hate speech versus freedom of speech, combined with underreporting and the lack of transparency from online platforms and law enforcement agencies. These realities make it difficult for researchers to obtain an accurate picture of how bad hate speech really is (O’Driscoll 2022).
Many citizens would like to see the government respond to this issue. According to the ADL survey, “…the overwhelming majority of respondents… regardless of political affiliation and whether they have personally been harassed, said they want lawmakers and technology companies to take more aggressive steps to counter online hate and harassment and keep users safe,” and some 80% surveyed believed the government should strengthen laws against online hate and harassment (Guynn 2019). Moreover, three quarters of respondents want tech companies to make it easier to report hateful content, and most say tech companies should label comments and posts that appear to come from “bots” (i.e., automated accounts) (Guynn 2019).
Social media fosters an environment that allows for regular and repeated disrespect to occur, often targeted at the most vulnerable. Such forms of disrespect and assaults on dignity have been on the rise following the vitriol that has been prevalent in the political sphere over the last few years. When such a large part of people’s lives plays out in a space where affronts to people’s dignity have now become commonplace, it is the government’s responsibility to take effective action to protect human dignity.
Any responsible policymaker’s goal is to ensure that all citizens of the nation and under its protection have their civil and human rights respected, and by extension, their dignity. More pressure on policymakers is needed to draft legislation that punishes disrespectful behavior and protects the dignity of all people (regardless of how many followers they have on social media). Perhaps the next step is to go further into the belly of the beast to determine how to reconfigure social media, or to reimagine our use of it. What if our online experiences centered instead on curating self-respect, rather than a “perfect” self-image; on cultivating deep relationships, rather than comparing ourselves based on the size of our social network; on lifting others’ up, rather than allowing hate speech and public humiliation to damage our and others’ dignity?
Master of Public Policy candidate
School of Public Policy, University of Maryland
Photo credit: iStock-1129638586
Dean, Jon. “#humblebrags and the Good Giving Self on Social Media.” In The Good Glow. Bristol University Press, 2020.
Guynn, Jessica. “If You’ve Been Harassed Online, You’re Not Alone. More than Half of Americans Say They’ve Experienced Hate.” USA TODAY, February 13, 2019. https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/2019/02/13/study-most-americans-have-been-targeted-hateful-speech-online/2846987002/.
O’Driscoll, Aimee. “20+ Online Hate Crime Statistics and Facts for 2021.” Comparitech (blog), February 18, 2021. https://www.comparitech.com/blog/information-security/online-hate-crime-statistics/.
Rosen, Michael. “The Shibboleth of All Empty-Headed Moralists.” In Dignity: Its History and Meaning. Harvard University Press, 2012.