Firefighters, addicts and the cult of public shaming

Our rush to public shaming might reveal our own fear of occasional shocking indifference towards the people we are entrusted to treat

Firefighter Mark Carron first appeared in my Facebook stream a few days after his deplorable comment about opioid abuse went viral. Carron posted that Narcan was the worst drug ever because it was used to save people who should be allowed to die.

As the public outcry grew steadily and the story appeared in my Facebook stream again and again, I began to feel uneasy. Not about Carron's comment, but about us, the social media public.

I thought about how quickly social media commentary can turn to social media justice and mob mentality. And I thought about Justine Sacco.

On Dec. 20, 2013, Justine Sacco became the number one trending topic on Twitter. Ordinarily this would be wonderful news for the head of a company’s PR firm, but Sacco's case was different.

Prior to boarding a plane to South Africa to see her parents, she had sent a tweet joking about how she didn’t need to worry about getting AIDS because, after all, she was white.

Sacco later explained she was experimenting with inflammatory tweets and their popularity on Twitter. She was attempting to poke fun at white privilege and our sometimes sheltered bubbles of security.

Her tweet didn’t come across as funny.

Torches and pitchforks
Instead, it was globally interpreted as the worst kind of racism. By the time her plane had landed, she was out of a job and the subject of one of the most vicious episodes of public shaming since Monika Lewinski.

Sprinkled among the thousands of tweets calling for her job and defiling her as an awful human being were a few comments that called for her to be victimized. These horrific comments received a free pass.

Apparently, when shaming another human being for a deplorable comment, no comment or suggestion is too deplorable. Once the mob of public shame has gathered, there is no stone too large or hurtful to be thrown with glee.

My first response to Carron's comments about naloxone and addicts, like many of us, was anger mixed with a little frustrated head shaking. As one who writes and speaks frequently on the topic of bringing compassion to our work, Carron's comments seemed another example of the callous attitudes that pervade our industry.

Public shaming is not justice
As I watched the story shared over and over, my attitude slowly changed from anger to discomfort as the social media mob began to gather for another public shaming.

These events seem to be growing in popularity when we find an individual who has exposed some horrible secret about their human nature and the mob begins to call for our modern, distorted version of social justice.

But there is no justice in the way a comment stream mob handles these cases. There is only the, me-too mentality of the mob. And sometimes, it seems irresistible to step in and take a swing. In tort law they refer to the doctrine of Res Ipsa Loquiter, Latin for, "The thing speaks for itself."

The idea is that, some acts don’t need to be argued. They are, by their very nature, self-explanatory.

In the cult of public shaming, nothing is allowed to speak for itself. Even after the comments have run into the hundreds or thousands, with every possible self-righteous angle explored, there always seems to be one more person willing to kick the body where it lays in their own unique way.

Our own fear of indifference
I’ve begun to wonder if our desire to cast one more angry stone has little to do with our anger or disappointment and more to do with a vague fear that lies within each of us — our fear of our own occasional shocking indifference.

When we rally against this kind of public behavior, perhaps we actually rally against our own callous, uncaring nature.

I genuinely believe it is our own desire to be seen as compassionate and caring that drives us to jump in to the zealous fervor that surrounds these social media spectacles. In our thirst to publicly display our own moral high-ground, we allow ourselves to take part in some remarkably uncaring behavior.

All the while, we never stop to imagine the horrible desperation that must accompany being on the opposite end of one of the shaming — pinned in a corner and feeling as if every single person is not only against you, but enthusiastically so.

One comment posted on the original news article that the firefighter was "a sickening inhumane individual" and "a disgrace to the town of Weymouth."

It's interesting how many commenters seek to dehumanize individuals like this firefighter in the same breath that they denounce his behavior. It's easier to imagine him as an inhuman villainous figure when we want to totally destroy his character and not feel bad about it later.

A complex world
It is so much easier to think of the world of fire and EMS as populated only by heroes and villains. In that world, we are either all good or all bad.

Instead of seeing Carron as a flawed individual expressing a weak moment of thoughtless cruelty, it’s simpler to imagine him an effigy of something we despise in ourselves and others.

The unfortunate truth is far more complex. The truth is that we are all a little bit like Carron. We all have our moments of brilliant selfless service and our moments of frustrated petulant ranting.

We all have the ability to embody the very best of our profession as well as the very worst of it. We are all whole and we are all broken.

It’s uncomfortable to imagine each of us existing this way, fighting our own personal battle against burn-out and indifference. Maybe this public shaming should have begun with the decree, "Let he who has never thought ill of his patient post the first insult."

I imagine it would have been over much sooner.

Forgotten aftermath
The Weymouth Fire Department gave Carron a 90-day suspension and ordered him to undergo special training.

Although his record before this was apparently spotless, he received a significant punishment. The internet demanded it. I imagine his shame and his embarrassment will go on long after the punishment has been served.

The internet has a long memory, but in our rush for the next spectacle we are typically uninterested in the details of the aftermath or the tarnished lives left behind.

For Carron, the most likely outcome for his current situation is to wait for another individual to come along and publicly expose something unsavory about their character, opening themselves up for the ridicule and scorn from the mob.

Social media is exceptional at catching these moments in time and the mob always seems hungry.

I’d like to imagine a small army of thoughtful individuals brave enough to feel compassion for the drug abusers who need lifesaving help and the burned out rescuers who daily come to their aid as well. Sometimes, much like Carron, we seem to reserve our harshest incitements for the most fragile among us and I’d like to think more of us all.

About the author

Steve Whitehead, NREMT-P, is a firefighter/paramedic with the South Metro Fire Rescue Authority in Colo. and the creator of blog The EMT Spot. He is a primary instructor for South Metro's EMT program and a lifelong student of emergency medicine. Reach him through his blog at or at

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