Saturday, April 4, 2015

Public shamings

Christie Thompson's article for The Marshall Project lists incidences where judges have required offenders to hold signs in public identifying their crimes, ranging from illegal whitewater rafting to killing someone while driving drunk. Sexual crimes have also been punished by public shaming: men have had to wear chicken suits as punishment for soliciting sex, or put their photos in the newspaper identifying them as child molesters.

“Only an idiot drives on the sidewalk to avoid a school bus.” She used the same tactic for a man who called 911 and threatened to kill police officers. His sign read: “I apologize to officer Simone & all police officers for being an idiot calling 911 threatening to kill you. I'm sorry and it will never happen again." What Everyone Gets WrongPublic shamings are not just for petty crimes: In 2012, a Texas man on probation for drunk driving was ordered to return to the scene of the crash for four Saturdays from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. with a sign reading, “I killed Aaron Coy Pennywell while driving drunk.”

Extrajudicial public shamings are another matter. These occur when someone is angry and decides to embarrass or humiliate another person. This can happen en masse on social media, especially when someone is perceived as being socially privileged and being snotty at, dismissive of, or cruel to less privileged people or otherwise abusing their own privilege.

"Doxxing" is a term that refers to exposing people online. Some people have described "ethical doxxing" or "doxxing for good," meaning that cruel or unjust people should be exposed as punishment. One problem is that playing whack-a-mole with an individual – or two – who happens to express a bigoted opinion – or three – may not be the most effective way to change what ails society. Another problem is that collective bashing can easily target a person who happens to be actually innocent of what the mob accuses them. Furthermore, “when we look at language used around doxxing for ‘good,’ it’s very similar to the language used by those trying to silence us.” After all, “in social justice, the ends don’t justify the means: The means are everything. There is nothing more than what we are actually doing right now. If our pursuit of justice means that a few innocent people are subjected to injustice due to our actions, can we actually say that it’s justice we are fighting for?”

Jon Ronson (@jonronson), author of So You've Been Publicly Shamed, explained that the instant virtual mob is not always rational in its evaluation and selection of a target, and that it is rarely merciful. It often occurs when someone makes a joke that is meant to be contrarian or sarcastic and misfires because it is taken out of its full context or is otherwise simply not skillfully done or very funny at all.

Ronson referenced the incident where a young woman made a comment on Twitter implying that only black people, not white people, get AIDS in Africa, and while she was sleeping on a long flight from the US to South Africa, her comment became the top trending tweet worldwide and she was subject of comments that amounted to aggressive public shaming – in addition to, and probably also as a result of which, she was fired from her job. Ronson said on the On Point radio show on April 2, 2015:

"One person wrote [on Twitter] while she was asleep [on the plane to South Africa]: Somebody HIV-positive should rape her and then we'll see if her skin color protects her from AIDS. Nobody went after that person because we were all so excited about going after Justine Sacco. It's like we can only – it's like we're so primitive – like our shaming on Twitter is so primitive, we've only got enough space in our brains to destroy one person a night. We couldn't handle destroying someone who was inappropriately destroying Justine. So in fact while she slept obliviously on her plane, she united the world in condemnation from nice people like us who were saying 'I am going to donate to aid to Africa in the light of this disgusting tweet,' through to 'rape her.' She united the world in condemnation."

Another example occurred when two young women had a running joke with each other in which they would pose in front of randomly selected posted signs appearing to engage in behavior that contradicted the sign's instructions. The problem occurred when they found a sign in Arlington National Cemetery that commanded "Silence and respect," and they posed for a picture demonstrating disrespect. The context was that they were simply contradicting whatever the sign said. Collective outrage was sparked because the background was Arlington National Cemetery. They were intending only to make fun of signs in general, but because of the inelegant selection of national sacred ground, they were subjected to intense public shaming.

He also acknowledged that people who participate in the social-media shaming of someone else may be drawing attention to themselves, and may themselves suffer consequences, including losing their jobs.

"See, everybody thinks they're punching up, right? Everybody thinks they're fighting the good fight, they're being like Rosa Parks. Of course, they're not like Rosa Parks, because Rosa Parks was courageous. And it's just carnage."

He said that this kind of "surveillance" is an "unfair" and "damaging way to create a society" because it attempts to characterize people based on only one or two comments, which may have occurred long ago and may not be representative of what they currently think or of what they ever thought. The risk of backlash is "chilling ideas" and pushes people toward conformism.

He also spoke about judicial shaming. He found that people who were forced to hold placards on street corners often received empathy from passersby and offers of help to turn their lives around. Social media shaming, he found, is rarely informed by that kind of empathy.

Ronson: "On the Internet, nobody is saying to the shamed person: Everything's going to be OK. In real life, we are lovely; on the Internet, we are drone strike operators."
Ashbrook: "Why is that? What's unleashed here?"
Ronson: "I think it's partly because social media is set up as a kind of mutual approval machine. We surround ourselves with people who feel the same way we do, and we approve each other."

This somewhat contrasts what Christie Thompson found, at least in the 2012 case of a Texas man whose punishment for a drunk-driving fatality was cut short after he claimed to have received death threats while holding up a sign admitting to his offense. Those labeled sex offenders, in particular, rarely meet with empathy.

In Monica Lewinsky's March 2015 Ted Talk, "The price of shame," she acknowledges that her name is in "almost 40 rap songs." She says that most people do things at 22 that they later regret, including falling in love with the wrong person or even one's boss. The boss she fell in love with happened to be the President of the United States, and therefore, she muses: "I'm probably the only person over 40 who does not want to be 22 again." What was unique about her story was that it broke online. Even though, in the late 1990s, social media hadn't been invented yet, they did transmit information online, and it was "a click that reverberated around the world." She says: "I was Patient Zero of losing a personal reputation on the global scale almost instantaneously." People began to have images of their private lives made "public without consent, public without context, and public without compassion." In 2010, she empathized with an 18-year-old college freshman whose sexual interaction with another male was videotaped and distributed; he immediately committed suicide. Learning of his death was her personal "turning point" that made her want to get involved in understanding and fighting against "technologically enhanced shaming" for the sake of others who are enduring it. She acknowledges the cycle of "the more shame, the more clicks; the more clicks, the more advertising dollars." Readers are being used: "The more numb we get, the more we click." She acknowledges that she was personally "saved" from the consequences of her ordeal by compassion from others, and she quotes Brené Brown: "Shame can't survive empathy."

Lewinsky asks: Are we speaking up with intention or for attention? Too often, it's the latter: "The Internet is the superhighway for the id."

Leora Tanenbaum wrote in I Am Not a Slut: Slut-Shaming in the Age of the Internet that, given our society's understanding of femininity and sexuality, it is "rational behavior" for girls to deliberately project a sexual image and simultaneously claim that this is not their intent. The double standard for boys and girls has always existed, but today, "there's always someone nearby with a smart phone, ready to snap a photo, upload, and tag," Beth Schwartzapfel explained in an article about Tanenbaum. One of the responses is a focus and a centering in human dignity. Tanenbaum wrote: "Remember, you are not a slut. And neither is anyone else."


"Public shamings: Why judges sometimes opt for sandwich boards, chicken suits, and other embarrassing punishments." Christie Thompson. The Marshall Project. March 31, 2015.

"Taking Down Bigots With Their Own Weapons Is Sweet, Satisfying – And Very, Very Wrong," Ijeoma Oluo,, April 6, 2015.

"Shame: What Is It Good For? (Probably Nothing)." Jon Ronson, interviewed by Tom Ashbrook. On Point. April 2, 2015.

"The price of shame," a Ted Talk by Monica Lewinsky, March 2015.

"Who's a slut?: How to grow up under the scrutiny of smart phones and social media sites." Beth Schwartzapfel. Brown Alumni Magazine, March/April 2015. pp. 42-43.

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