Years ago, clicking through the remote in the wee hours, I stumbled upon cable rebroadcast of a 1950s-era sitcom. Starved for vapidity, I settled my butt on the couch and watched. The show wasn’t Leave It To Beaver but, depicting the lighthearted adventures of a middle-class family, its dynamics were similar. In this particular episode, the family’s precocious son mistakenly believes a neighbor lost his job. When the neighbor sends the family television set out for repairs, the boy thinks it has been repossessed. The boy tells his family, tells other neighbors. At first, people want to help the neighbor, provide him job leads, and maybe bake a casserole so his family can enjoy a hot meal despite their diminished circumstances, but when they track him down on a Saturday morning, they become incensed: the deadbeat ne’er-do-well is golfing!
Why isn’t he out pounding the pavement looking for work? Why is he squandering his remaining cash on greens fees?
Of course, the ha-ha moment comes when it’s revealed that reports of the neighbor’s pink slip are greatly exaggerated. He remains gainfully employed! In fact, he’s thriving! And that precocious boy? He’s just so damn cute and lovable that everyone laughs off his ugly allegations of impeding penury doom and embraces him in one big warm fuzzy.
But me? I shuddered. One needn’t be cynical to imagine the confrontation had that man really lost his job. The worst aspects of Eisenhower-era conformity would be imposed on him. Harangued and shamed, he’d be made to feel like a reprobate. Should he remain jobless, he would be shunned, for ostracism was the exclusionary tool of choice that kept WASP-ish communities lilywhite, god-fearing, respectfully Republican, and free of the destabilizing threat of radical Otherness.
Increasingly, a New Ostracism is emerging that uses “virtual” medias to bring social shame and exclusion on individuals in the larger “real” world.
Un scandale recently hit the alt-lit writing community when a popular poet was accused of being a serial abuser of women. A spontaneous online campaign against the poet, aimed at disrupting his professional standing, brought success: publishers pulled his titles from their catalogs. Last month, allegations against others in the alt-lit community were made. An editor and a fairly well-known indie novelist were outed as also being serial abusers of women. The outrage seems to be taking a similar path.
Other examples of “The New Ostracism” abound. Community activists use sex offender registries to hound down and harass neighborhood offenders in hopes of driving them away. “Bad boyfriend” sites invite women to write-up abusive or cheating boyfriends so other women might be spared the agony of a relationship with them.
Whereas old-school ostracism sought to ignore or exclude their targets (as William James aptly described the phenomena, victims are made to feel as if they’ve been “cut dead”), the precipitating online acts against New Ostracism victims do the opposite: publishing addresses of sex offenders and blogs about how that person physically abuses lovers are acts of recognition. Yet the intent behind these very public acts is to deprive victims of the dignity that comes from having a sense of communal belonging and social companionship.
When the target is a poet whose social and professional circles, presumably, are filled with people who like to believe they have a social conscience, New Ostracism can be very successful.
But how about other circumstances?
Consider the case of Ray Rice. Earlier this year, a video of the All-Pro running back punching out his then-fiancée surfaced on TMZ. Football fans may not be particularly PC, yet the reaction was swift: Rice was released by the Baltimore Ravens, his club, and indefinitely suspended by the NFL. So embarrassed were the Ravens by their association with the player that they took the near-unprecedented step of offering to exchange whatever Ray Rice jerseys fans purchased for jerseys of other Ravens players; so embarrassed were Rice’s former fans by his actions that almost 8,000 took the team up on this offer.
Can ostracism, which traditionally has been employed to preserve status quo hegemonies, be used to help enforce positive social change? The answer is messy. Attempts to curb domestic violence are noble, but on the internet, a medium where hoaxes and scams are not unknown, undocumented allegations bandied by specious and/or anonymous parties quickly take on the vigilante appearance of a witch hunt. Stoking outrage and courting invective, New Ostracism rides a wild unpredictable path. The campaign against the poet? Before it snowballed into a putsch to derail his career, it began as a plea not to support a crowdfunding campaign to pay for his OCD therapy.
And yet, sometimes witch hunts lead to actual witches. Jian Ghomeshi, the wildly popular CBC talk show host was recently let go by that network following a wave of sexual assault allegations. If the allegations are true, the man is a beast whom we should all choose not to associate with.
Through New Ostracism incidents like this, society is hopefully, if gradually, being transformed. After the Ray Rice scandal broke, the former General Manager of another NFL franchise said that the league had systematically hushed “hundreds and hundreds” of domestic abuse allegations during his 30 year career. Given the Ray Rice backlash, one suspects the NFL will not be so quick to cover-up domestic violence allegations in the future.
Which brings me back to the poet. His name is Gregory Sherl. Although small independent poetry presses have largely washed their hands of him, his debut novel was published earlier this year by a larger commercial press. This month, Oprah.com features it as one of their “recommended” reads.
Oprah? Giving support to an alleged creep? It makes no sense, does it?
It’s incredibly easy to write articles bemoaning the bad behavior of others when that bad behavior has no direct connection to your life. Outrage is easy when you don’t risk anything by expressing it. This past week, we’ve all read reports about the woman who was catcalled a gazillion times while strolling through Manhattan. A story like that gets a lot of buzz because a) it’s so shocking, and, b) catcalling is indefensible. No one risks being made to feel out-of-touch if they write about what a horrible injustice that woman has been made to feel.
But to out a fellow writer?
Because the alt-lit and MFA worlds are relatively small, and because I suspect most people who frequent my blog are part of the alt-lit and MFA communities, I suspect a lot of people reading this will be at least somewhat familiar with Gregory Sherl.
As you probably guessed from the title of this blog post, people are petitioning Oprah to drop the book from her lists.
I admit it: when I first saw the petition, I was conflicted. As a would-be novelist myself who would love to be published by a larger commercial press (and would be overjoyed if Oprah fell in love with that novel), my first thought is that I should stay clear of this petition, that I shouldn’t rock the boat. Why would I, a would-be novelist, want to do anything to put me at risk of being labeled as a trouble-maker within publishing circles?
Because I have children.
I’ve done some digging. As near as I can tell, at least 5 women have come out with very troubling and very similar stories of abuse. Here are a couple of them: one and two. Please be advised that these are not for the faint of heart.
As essayist and novelist Roxane Gay (BAD FEMINIST, AN UNNAMED STATE) commented on the HTLM GIANT blog piece that first raised allegations against Sherl,
“I was taken aback by the original post, because I've known Greg Sherl for years and in fact, blurbed his novel last week, which feels quite uncomfortable now. Witch hunts serve no one's best interests but this doesn't feel like a witch hunt. I hope Sherl gets the help he clearly needs but I'm not going to doubt victims or belittle them, or get cute with cherry picking their statements to make some kind of vague point, as you have done.”
If these are true, Gregory Sherl is as a bad monster as Ray Rice and Jian Ghomeshi are alleged to be.
I swear, hearing stories like this keeps me up at night. I’ve got three children: two boys (ages 13 & 15), and a nine-year-old little girl. My daughter is incredibly bright (she scores off the charts on logic, reasoning, and problem-solving tests) but she also has a learning disability that affects her self-confidence. I worry about her. Actually, I worry about all my children: it’s part of being a parent, no?
I worry about what might happen if, some day, my daughter falls prey to a sexual predator, a spousal abuser, a creep like any of the men I’ve written about above are alleged to be. I wouldn’t be able to control my anger. I’d probably do something incredibly wrong-headed, like attempt to take-out my anger on whatever jerk was doing my daughter wrong. I can only imagine how I’d feel if that creep was allowed to thrive because people refused to sign a petition that would bring his horrible behavior to the light of others. I’d be mad at those who didn’t sign that petition. And I’d be mad at me if I didn’t sign it too.
Please consider signing the petition. We need to change the world so that domestic violence and sexual abuse are things of the past. The actions we take today have an effect on all our lives for years to come. We’ll be protecting our daughters, our sisters, our nieces, our friends, and all their grandchildren. Abuse of any kind should not be tolerated.
Addendum: I just realized that Mr. Sherl's publisher, Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, are also the publishers of the finest novel I've read so far this year: Amy Rowland's THE TRANSCRIPTIONIST (click here for my review of THE TRANSCRIPTIONIST). I feel bad for them: alleged creeps can, apparently, pop up in the best of houses.