We Can’t Stop Watching Karen

Poor Karen. She’s a star on social media, whether she likes it or not, and is perhaps the most reviled person on the planet these days.

Karen’s popularity has skyrocketed as mask mandates swept from shore to shore and all the nation’s Karens decided they we’re going to wear masks. Nor were Chads or Beckys.

Karen is the name that’s been settled on to pejoratively describe middle class, middle aged, white entitled women, often wearing Capri pants, usually having a melt-down and screaming at someone, generally laced with expletives, who often want to speak to a manager, sometimes for bad haircuts, or call police on black people, or Asians, or refuse to wear a mask, videotaped and shared on social media platforms. Kate Gosselin, mother of eight, has become the poster child, though her name isn’t Karen and her designation seems to be more related to her haircut.

Social psychologists are finding the Karen phenomenon to be a wealth of insight into modern American life, such as how the name Karen became a “thing” without any formal social agreement or identifiable point of origin, but also why they rack up hundreds of thousands if not millions of hits, meaning how many times the video has been viewed. Why do people watch these videos?

The intent is to shame someone’s behavior, and for some people there is a vicarious satisfaction to watching someone with a competing perspective be shamed. Dr. David Abrams, a professor of social and behavioral sciences at the NYU School of Global Public Health, tells Vox in an interview that people are acting out their stress, heightened to extreme levels by a novel coronavirus that no one understands completely but is presented as an existential threat to almost everyone. It’s scary, triggering a fight or flight response that is intrinsically and essentially human. Abrams says 9-11 had a similar effect on people.

Political affiliation has proven to be a key indicator, a Pew Research poll on masks during Covid finds Democrats say they are inclined to wear a mask in public more often than Republicans by a 76% to 53% margin, Conservative Republicans less likely than Moderate Republicans by a 49% to 69% margin. President Trump’s general disdain for masks has given his supporters license to copy his behavior.

The fact that the videos are being filmed and shared on social media isn’t exclusive though to the mask issue. Much of the current racial tension has been fueled by the advent of everyone always having a camera available in their smartphone, and the ease of transporting those videos to a platform where potentially millions of people are available for comment.

Swirling around all of this is a professional assumption, by social psychologists, that shaming doesn’t usually lead to a change in behavior. Everyone wasn’t carrying cameras in their purse or pocket when smoking regulations began going into effect in the mid 80’s, but the public health aspect is not unlike the mask concept. Though increasingly frowned upon, smoking shame wasn’t as much a factor in behavior as having convenience increasingly limited, and what started in 1964 with a Surgeon General’s report didn’t take root for decades. Seat belts were the same thing. It took decades and fines to make wearing seat belts commonplace. Masks, conversely, were sprung on people suddenly, requiring immediate adaptation, with conflicting advice of their efficacy in stopping the transmission of a virus. There has been a lot of confusion.

So why do we watch? Seeing the public shaming of someone validates our tribal identity. Public shaming, through things like tarring and feathering, or shackling someone in a wooden stock in a public square, played a big role in American history. Dr. Peter Stearns, a history professor at George Mason University, looked at the use of the word “shame” in writings, and found in America it began losing popularity round 1800 and continued to slide until 1980 when the use of “shame” started rising again as conservative judges increasingly made public shame a part of a sentence for misdemeanor crime. We watch because we’ve always watched. Pleasure in shaming another is found to be more common in America than other English-speaking nations. The introduction of another way of sharing someone’s shameful behavior can be expected to continue.

So Karen, and Chad and Becky can expect continued celebrity on social media. Doxxing, the revelation of the name of personal information of the individual in videos, has heightening the satisfaction people get from participating in the behavior as they post of condemning comment. It’s the reason people attended beheadings in the days of kings and knights: the supremacy of people’s world views are validated publicly.

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