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Humiliation In The 21st Century: Should We Be Ashamed Of Public Shaming?

Julie Wittes Schlack: Public shaming can enforce positive social values, but is the cure worse than the disease? In this screengrab, ESPN reporter Britt McHenry is caught on video this month insulting a towing company clerk's intelligence, job and appearance. She was suspended from her job for a week and issued a public apology. (youtube) MoreCloseclosemore
Julie Wittes Schlack: Public shaming can enforce positive social values, but is the cure worse than the disease? In this screengrab, ESPN reporter Britt McHenry is caught on video this month insulting a towing company clerk's intelligence, job and appearance. She was suspended from her job for a week and issued a public apology. (youtube)

Shame — sometimes the lack of it, but more often the ostensible need for it — has infiltrated the zeitgeist in a big way.

A few weeks ago, I surrendered to some click-bait about ESPN reporter Britt McHenry, whose petulant digs at a garage cashier earned her a brief tenure atop the Shame charts. Watching the video of her tantrum, I — like other liberal-minded people — was appalled at her condescending insults. But when the site hosting this leaked video invited me to sign a petition calling for McHenry to be fired, the moral high ground shifted out from under me. Wasn’t this petition a form of piling on? Wasn’t her public humiliation punishment enough?

The phenomenon of public shaming has remarkable staying power. It began well before the Internet, with pillories and stockades, and shows no sign of abating.

Clearly not. The phenomenon of public shaming has remarkable staying power. It began well before the Internet, with pillories and stockades, and shows no sign of abating.

Jon Ronson has just written a book about it. Monica Lewinsky is giving speeches and writing articles deploring it. And though Britt McHenry is back on the job following the obligatory wrist slap and public apology, there’s no shortage of new culprits/victims to take her place.

Some psychologists differentiate between shame — a social emotion stimulated by someone else’s disapproval — and guilt, which is a more internally generated emotion, aroused by conscience. One is concerned with how we are perceived, the other with how we act. But there’s a crucial difference between feeling ashamed — which one can argue has some moral and societal benefits — and the act of shaming.

In a 2013 article for The Nation, Cole Stryker notes that, “Shame works in closed, small communities that share similar norms. As the New World opened up and expanded, public humiliation ceased to be an effective means of norm reinforcement.” Our communities — the people with whom we share values, beliefs and common purpose — are simply too diffuse and not dependent enough on physical proximity to sustain ostracism as an effective form of enforcement.

We have the Internet to thank for that generally positive development. But what’s so deeply disturbing is that the Internet also enables us to create a sense of community – however transient and illusory — through the exposure and humiliation of others. As Stryker notes, “… public shaming begins to look like a tool designed not to humanely punish the perp but rather to satisfy the crowd.” Even worse, it becomes a substitute for real, meaningful action driven by the values we condemn others for violating.

I don’t mean to suggest that there’s never a role for inducing discomfort in those who engage in hate speech or other forms of socially undesirable behavior. If explicit disapproval causes people to keep bigoted, hateful thoughts to themselves, fine … if it makes for a more civil society. But that’s a big “if,” because social desirability is so culturally specific, and the individual consequences of having to hide one’s deviation from the norm are so potentially destructive.

… public shaming begins to look like a tool designed not to humanely punish the perp but rather to satisfy the crowd.

Cole Stryker

Public disapproval can drive thoughts, even some behaviors, underground, too often leaving their wellspring untouched. Shaming generally causes us to hide ourselves from others, even from ourselves. Still, when it doesn’t, the results can be beneficial. Witness the recent Ben Affleck/Henry Louis Gate Internet scandal. Both men were roundly criticized for failing to mention on a recent episode of “Finding Your Roots” that one of Affleck’s ancestors was a slave owner. Affleck was embarrassed by a heritage that ran so counter to his values and public persona. To his credit, though, he was eventually more embarrassed by suppressing this disturbing fact, rightly noting on his Facebook page that, “We deserve neither credit nor blame for our ancestors and the degree of interest in this story suggests that we are, as a nation, still grappling with the terrible legacy of slavery. It is an examination well worth continuing.”

“Examination” — not catharsis, not punishment, not vindication — can and should be the positive consequence of shame. Writer James Parker described that productive unease as, “…The shame from within, the shame that comes stealing with a slow, cindery sensation from the back of your brain. It's the naughty step of the soul, a form of interior chastening, and when you feel it you should pay attention."

That’s the kind of self-awareness that can fuel the greater personal and societal good.

Julie Wittes Schlack Twitter Cognoscenti contributor
Julie Wittes Schlack writes essays, short stories and book reviews for various publications, including WBUR's Cognoscenti and The ARTery, and is the author of “This All-at-Onceness” (Pact Press, 2019).

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