Bianca Schoombee and social media mistakes

If you haven’t heard her name yet, a 21-year-old model by the name of Bianca Schoombee has been trending on Twitter for all the wrong reasons.

The would-be beauty queen posted a video of herself as part of a new application process to enter the Miss SA pageant.

Shortly afterwards, tweets posted when she was between 13 and 14 were reshared. I don’t know why a parent would allow a teen to tweet at that age, but anyway, some of tweets were wildly offensive, including the N-word and mocking a black pupil’s skin colour.

The backlash has seen Schoombee withdraw from the competition. She, and her agency, put out an apology. And as is the case with these things, the apology generated even more dismay and outrage. Schoombee said she was not proud of who she was, and through prayer (she appears to now be a committed Christian) has worked to transform herself. But she added a line about “forgiving herself” and moving on that didn’t sit well with many people.
I’m less interested in the rights and wrongs of the situation – the obvious faults with what she said, or what you may be thinking of the people who have criticised her.

What I want to discuss with this incident, as with so many like it: is there a path of redemption for Schoombee and her ilk, and if so, what does it look like?

Predictably, the trending hashtags on Twitter all involved some variation of #BiancaSchoombeeMustFall. This references a particular trend called “cancel culture” where someone is deemed “cancelled” when they have said or done something wrong. If you watch the video below, you’ll understand why it’s not something I agree with.

Social media activism is powerful when used for the right ends. One needs only look at the #MeToo movement and how long it took to bring down a powerful figure like Harvey Weinstein to appreciate the new power social media has put into ordinary citizens and consumers’ hands. We can finally demand accountability from powerful brands and figures who, pre-social media, could safely ignore criticisms by the little guys. No more. But of course all power has responsibility, and I’ve certainly seen the negative side of that.

It’s the topic of my TedX talk, The Cost of Shame, regarding my own experience of social media storms and what it did to my life. I then look at others who have made mistakes, offensive ones like Schoombee’s or even worse.

You can watch it below.

My particular interest is the way we deal with those who make mistakes.

So I ask again, not excusing what Schoombee did… but is redemption possible, and if so how?

And secondly, how do we as a society deal with these incidents? Because we can be sure of one thing: they will keep happening.

I put this question out on Twitter, and here are some of the interesting responses I received:

One of the most liked responses said it in a word: remorse.

The person behind the the response, Thabiso Masimula, offered a range of other interesting insight, particularly on the nature of cause and effect.

But I’m sure Schoombee thought she was being remorseful… even if her apology didn’t hit the right notes with many people.

Then there was one view that failure is immutable and change impossible.

My view? As I said in the talk:

I believe that as a society, we need to expect people to fail and clearly outline how we deal with it when they do.

I dream about a world where every organisation has a policy for what happens to an employee, student or child when they make a public mistake.

A policy the organisation can stick to even when the outrage brigade are howling at the door, and the mob has forgotten its individual humanity in its collective rage.

A policy that incorporates aspects of correction as well as rehabilitation, and that applies it consistently – not just based on what’s being shouted most loudly by the people with the biggest mic.

Because every Saul has the potential to be a Paul. Every sinner will be the loudest and most effective evangelists. When we shame sexists, racists, and the like, we lose the massive potential to transform those underlying ills in our society by creating a change agent from within.

Verashni Pillay, TedX Pretoria 2018

So now I ask you: is such a policy possible? Not just for particular organisations, but as a shared agreement as citizens and human beings?