Public Shaming Of Britt McHenry Overlooks Bigger Issue: How We Treat Service Workers

Britt McHenry is not an anomaly; we all participate in the hazing of the “service class.”

Yesterday, a video of ESPN broadcaster Britt McHenry verbally abusing a towing employee surfaced. Choice cuts of the exchange include:

“So I could be a college dropout and do the same thing?”

“I’m on television and you’re in a fucking trailer, honey.”

“Maybe if I was missing some teeth they would hire me, huh?”

“Lose some weight, baby girl.”

Swift came a ubiquitous retribution. Her Instagram photos were marred in nasty comments. Her Wikipedia page was vandalized. Redditors openly waxed the analytical on how much longer her youth and beauty were going to let her float by in the world. She was served a one-week suspension from ESPN.

Yet there lingers a sentiment: this was not enough. Britt McHenry is the new patient zero of everything wrong with female entitlement in media. She’s rich, she’s pretty, and she thinks she’s better than common people like you and me.

People like you and me, who make vines of ourselves knocking over store displays, who shame unhelpful employees by name in Yelp reviews, and who chortle on cue at jokes of comedians calling their waitress “bitch.”

And this is only the behavior we can prove. Blogs were not so readily available when my father would crawl the family truck over country roads, telling me to take a good hard look at the migrant workers in the field. You don’t want to end up like them, he’d say. It wasn’t the work that was shameful, but the social strata in which that work implicated you.

Even with a college degree, I was “barely qualified” to do customer support at a Silicon Valley startup. I was called names. I was threatened with bad reviews. They would complain about me, by name, on our social media accounts. I have gazed into the visage of indignity—it is to have your manager print out a screenshot of a Facebook comment exchange and underline passages relevant to your job performance.

The customers who heckled me at my job were not rich television personalities with a degree in journalism. They were other “common people,” like you and like me.

I’ve made crank calls on store phones. I’ve changed all the radios at a Best Buy to play the most annoying song. We celebrated a friend’s 21st by going to an Applebee’s and switching seats whenever the waiter had his back turned to us.

I too have had my vehicle withheld by a tow company, whose creativity in finding pretexts to charge me more money was nothing short of magnanimous (every time they hotwired my car to move it across the lot, they billed me $75). I told them that I’d rather let them keep it than have to hear them talk anymore.

I’m being compassionate and benign in  my confessions—I’ve done far worse. And so have you. I know this. I have seen it. You’ve been short with wait staff. You’ve subtweeted helicopter store employees who are convinced beyond a shadow of a doubt that you do need something.

We rely on the service industry and we detest it—likely out of fear. For every tweet shitting on minimum wage workers asking for more pay to make your food, there are three or more lamentations of your own financial misfortunes buried in that same timeline.

Britt McHenry is not a scapegoat. This implies an intentional shuffle of blame.

Her notability, and womanhood, give any bad behavior of hers a higher yield of social media exposure, and therefore profit. The Reddit threads where people rain down the slurs on her have ads on them. Writers, staff, and freelancers get pageviews—which are then used to help negotiate for better fees in the future—for having the fastest, sharpest takedown of her behavior.

But we all participate in the hazing of the “service class.”

The firing squads of royal army regiments have been replaced by social media. In those dying days of empires writhing under war, they’d put a few blank rounds amongst the guns so that no one knew for sure if they shot the killing round.

This diffusion is mirrored in our surveillance state—we are ever beset by cameras and tools that record our actions in realtime. Most of these are blank, or so we think. You and I don’t think our roughhousing in the 7-11 at 2 in the morning will make the front page of Reddit.

But a stray punch, a fall through the donut case--every blind eye on us is a single spark of spectacle away from gaining sight.

It’s an inverted endgame; by exposing one person’s shame and deftly managing the conversation to the aim of her entitlement and internal hideousness, we obfuscate the daily abuses inflicted onto the service industry.

I worry the Old Man Jenkins in the abandoned coal mine of this whole situation is the idea that only the working class have the right to harass the working class.

Would you or I expect to be disciplined at our jobs, or have our Instagrams crushed by a wave of public shaming, for sassing the barista?

Why is Britt McHenry deserving of punishment for her (frankly disgusting) outburst, but not the people who harass GameStop employees with inquiries of the new Battletoads game? Is it because she has wealth and status, and is therefore prohibited from the lateral violence we inflict on each other, policing one another’s respectability and place in society without ever casting our eye upwards?

There is a whole crust of society made up of people like Britt McHenry, and a good portion of them are, like some of us down here, thinking thank god it wasn’t me this time.

An aside: we condition women to value and cultivate their attractiveness and immediately set to taking them down once they become beyond self-aware of their beauty but now wield it. This isn't news to you. At least, not a take hot enough to make the front page of Reddit.

Britt McHenry might really be an ugly person on the inside, and this public shaming won’t change that. Heaving consequence onto her will likely only change how she behaves on the surface. It’s not likely to be transformative.

You know who likely won’t profit, in any way, from this run of Britt McHenry Superstar? The attendant who she abused.

We all retweet and comment on a video of her being called fat and having her teeth mocked—if our outrage is genuine, then it should be applied to shifting discourse on how we treat service staff. Or sending her some flowers. If she likes flowers. She might be more of an art supply store gift card person. I don’t know. All we know of her is in a passive context—she receives abuse. Sometimes from Britt McHenry. Sometimes from other working class people. Her bully spends a week at home, and all the while, people like you and me place countless people we interact with on a daily basis in that same passive context.

Contend to kill that context. No one deserves harassment as part of their job. Not from Britt McHenry. Not from you or me.


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