If there’s a single, overarching, hot button topic that will get everyone talking these days, it’s probably cancel culture. The moment any person has a misstep — minor or major — the Twitter mob is after them, pitchforks in hand. As someone who is on Twitter way too much, it can be exhausting to see who everyone will be piling on on any given day, and sometimes I need to take a break for my own mental health. Well, this is nothing close to what it’s like to be the person who is being piled on, as the new HBO Max documentary, 15 Minutes of Shame shows.
I was a bit wary coming into this documentary produced by Monica Lewinsky and Max Joseph of Catfish. I didn’t really want to watch something that was just Dave Chappelle and Ellen DeGeneres talking about how things aren’t how they used to be and you can’t say anything anymore. But fortunately, that’s not at all what it’s attempting to explore. Instead, it’s looking at the people who cancel culture actually effects, and that’s the people who don’t have millions of dollars and a mansion to fall back on if they get fired from a job.
The film interviews a few different people who have been “cancelled” in the last year or so. There’s the guy who bought all the hand sanitizer at the beginning of the pandemic, a man who seemingly made a white power hand gesture at a Black protest, and a woman who made a controversial Facebook post regarding former President Trump. All three people lost their jobs or income thanks to social media getting a hold of pictures or screenshots and spreading them far and wide across the internet. And it could be argued that none of the three of them deserved to be out of a job.
See, the thing is, there was immense missing context. The hand sanitizer guy made his living as an Amazon seller and the numbers being reported that he was selling for were largely inaccurate. The man supposedly making the hand gesture subconsciously rubs his fingers together and the photo taken by a random person at a stoplight just happened to snap the shot at the exact worst time. And the woman posting on Facebook just meant to be posting her opinion on current events to her limited Facebook friends, but it got amplified by someone who screenshotted and shared far and wide. In each one of these situations, everything was just blown way out of proportion.
The documentary does a great job at highlighting the science behind why this kind of public shaming is satisfying for us as humans. Experts from many different fields are brought in to discuss how all of this can be way overblown, largely thanks to people’s own sense of insecurity and inadequacy. The thought of, “at least I’m better than that person” helps drive a lot of how people react online, when in reality, one picture or a short video clip usually don’t tell nearly the whole story of a given situation. The internet can be great in that it provides a voice for the voiceless and organizes rallies for justice for the downtrodden and unheard, but in certain situations, it can get way out of hand.
I liked this documentary because it doesn’t come across as whiny. There’s no woe-is-me attitude that’ll make you roll your eyes or scoff. Rather, there’s a plea for opening our minds and hearts. It’s not banging the “due process” gavel the way people are in support of MLB pitcher Trevor Bauer (he was placed on administrative leave after two sexual assault allegations, including one criminal investigation). Instead it’s reminding its viewers of the inherent humanity and value of every person.
There’s a quote from one of the experts towards the end of the film that says, “Anger is such powerful fuel. And when you are bereft of that you have to land somewhere else and really embrace what I call a concept of radical love, starting with love for self and calling on myself to be the best human being I can be.” 15 Minutes of Shame works hard to remind you that you’re human. You have value. Look inward and think of everyone as a person who is as complex as you are, instead of as the one thing you saw them do on your social media feed.
In a time when the overwhelming majority of conversations regarding anything remotely controversial seem to devolve into us-versus-them yelling matches, 15 Minutes of Shame is a welcome breath of fresh air. It takes a look at the nuanced gray of the anger mobs. It doesn’t hold its subjects up as shining beacons of perfection, but it doesn’t vilify them either. It tells you to look deeper at every issue because next to nothing that we see online is what it seems at face value. Apart from its sometimes meandering narrative, and mostly thanks to its careful, refined view, it is close to a must-watch.