The Ethics of Public Shaming

I came across an article today about an instance of public shaming and its backlash in the tech industry.  There is something about this story that bothers me, so I’m going to try to spell out exactly what.  It’s connected to my experience of  conversations about public shaming within philosophy as a profession.  I’m hoping people who have thought longer and harder about this than I have will chime in.

Here’s the story of Donglegate from the annual Python developer conference.  Here’s a follow up piece about the reactions to this incident.

The Crowd at PyCon with the two jokers. Photo taken by Adria Richards.

Here are my (underdeveloped) thoughts on public shaming and the ethics of using it to combat hostile environments:

When it comes to holding people accountable for their actions in a community, our uncertain knowledge of others’ action is a big morass–one that I want to leave to the side for right now.  In the articles I’ve linked to, there is a big issue that goes beyond uncertainty as to whether something inappropriate did occur.  PyCon was relatively certain the men in the audience did something inappropriate, since it reprimanded them.  The men in the audience pretty much admitted they did something inappropriate, since they apologized and promised to alter their future behavior.  But given that relative certainty, PyCon and others have still said that Richard’s use of public shaming was an inappropriate response to overhearing inappropriate jokes.  (I believe, regardless of whether such shaming had led to anyone getting fired or not.)

In short, PyCon and Ars Technica seem to be making the following argument: While there is indeed a hostile atmosphere for women in the programming field, publicly shaming two men on twitter for making sexually offensive jokes at a programming conference was uncalled for, overkill, and a violation of their privacy.

I disagree.

(more after the jump)

Public shaming has been discussed as a potential tool to help address hostile environments in philosophy, as well.  I *think* the general consensus is something like: public shaming is a very large, powerful weapon, so we should only use only against egregious, extraordinary evils.  The punishment should fit the crime, and all that. Furthermore, as academics, our names and our reputations are our livelihoods, to some degree.  Therefore, a tool that can destroy our status as a credible, trustworthy member of our academic community, is a professionally lethal one.  Potentially lethal sanctions should be handled carefully, conservatively, and should not be normalized as a go-to response for minor (even if certain) instances of offense.  Publicly shaming everyone and anyone who makes any misstep in regards to fostering a flourishing community would set a dangerous precedent that could lead to paranoia and the suppression the free flow of ideas.  It would trade one kind of hostile community for another.

I would argue though (and I think many would agree) that the worry above needs to be balanced with the worry that by branding public shaming as a WMD or ‘nuclear option’ of dealing with -isms (sexism, racism, etc), oppressive environments, and injustice in general within our community and work spaces, we might be overly protective of the status-quo when it already has numerous protections in place (both fair and unfair.)  The people negatively affected the most by the behavior we want to curb, however, do not have the same degree of protection in place.  So in that sense, restricting the use of public shaming to only circumstances that by themselves, in isolation, seem to merit such shaming, could be unfairly ignoring how individual events contribute to a large-scale problem.

In regards to PyCon, if there were no ‘Boy’s Club’ in the tech industry, and the men cracking sex jokes in the audience was a completely isolated incident and part of no pattern, then yes, posting a picture of them on twitter would be overkill bordering on rudeness itself.  In that case, if Richards merely wanted someone at the conference to point out to the men that their jokes were impolite and against the conduct code of the conference, there seems no need to publicly shout about it on the internet instead of approaching someone in charge at the conference.  But the jokes were not an isolated incident.  Their offense and their harm extends beyond themselves.  As a commenter at Ars Technica noted, “Richards has also been threatened with death and rape. THAT is the absolute worst overreaction to all of this.”

Bad analogy time:

If I’m in a boat with another person, and they are bored and carelessly poke a single hole in the boat’s hull, I might be justified in getting mad, but throwing that person overboard (which could possibly do real harm to them) would not be warranted.  But if we are in a boat where there are already lots of holes in the hull, and we are in serious danger of sinking, and they poke another hole in the boat (also: they don’t think we will actually sink, and even if I yell at them they will probably do it again), I think I am warranted in throwing them overboard in order to safeguard myself (Let’s say they won’t necessarily drown).  Same action: poking a single hole in a boat, but context affects whether throwing them overboard is reasonable.

This haphazard analogy is only trying to say: Context can matter as to whether an isolated incident is indeed harmless and not a big deal or in fact is a big friggin deal and should be dealt with immediately, possibly harshly.  Context that extends beyond the incident at hand matters in whether a punishment or reaction is warranted or not or counts as an “overreaction” or “escalation”.

It’s not about whether the stupid, minor jokes the men made warranted public shaming. It’s whether the atmosphere those jokes contributed to warrants public shaming.

And so in academia, it’s not about whether an individual incident of sexism, racism, or harassment warrants public shaming. It’s about whether the atmosphere those actions are contributing to warrants public shaming.  Sometimes I get the sense that discussions of public shaming restrict us to consider only about whether an incident, by itself, in a vacuum, warrants a public calling out, shaming, or shunning.  That seems deeply unfair and biased towards those that are contributing to a hostile atmosphere at the expense of those suffering the most from it.

Randomly generalizing conclusion: I get the sense that we should react to sexism, racism, and hostile environments more in the way we react to littering and polluting (Also in the way we react to plaque!), and less in the way we react to things like theft or assault (that are person v. person crimes.)  We are willing to accept harsh punishments for littering and polluting (and hate crimes!) because they are crimes that affect the whole community.  Likewise, it’s not about whether most people right then and there in the audience were offended by the jokes.  (Richards pointed out that when just thinking about herself, she was ready to let the jokes slide)  It was about, as Richards said, the girl in the young coders workshop, who will hear jokes like that, and a hundred other microagressions, which will coalesce into a pervasive, hostile atmosphere….unless we dismantle it, piece by piece.

I want to end on a personal note, and acknowledge there is a bullet here I need to bite.  I am planning on having some of my work be in philosophy of race.  Since I am white, there will be more than a few instances where I will make mistakes that are racist, racially insensitive, oblivious to my privilege, and just plain careless. (Actually, this will happen even if I don’t work in phil. of race)   If I really believe what I have said above, then I must be willing to have some of those stupid mistakes warrant reactions that will probably feel feel deeply unfair to me (Because I didn’t mean to! Because I’m normally a good ally! Because I’m not personally responsible for the whole institution of racism!)  But it’s also not fair that others–my colleagues–will bear the brunt of the damage my mistakes will cause, whereas those mistakes will have little effect on me.  So I  should be willing to accept a reaction that is harsh (beyond what my offense by itself deserves or merits)–not because I am indeed individually responsible for all of racism–but because accepting such a reaction as fitting may help dismantle a hostile atmosphere that I have contributed to but do not primarily suffer from.  (Of course a lot rides on the strength of that “may.”) But that seems only fair if we take seriously our status as a community of scholars earning a livelihood . 
Other places philosophers have talked about public shaming:

Fem Phil on The GCC Campaign

New APPS on Sexual Harassment

Inside Higher Ed on A Call to Shun

Jenny Saul’s Paper on Sexual Harassment (download)

As I alluded to before the jump, I just glossed over a LOT of considerations.  (How to implement public shaming fairly, who gets to have the power to use it, how do we avoid misusing it, what is the difference between shaming and shunning, how does public shaming interact with academic freedom, does it matter if we engage in shaming for the purpose of fostering the emotion of shame or promoting a change in behavior, whether there should be different reactions for people who do or do not suffer from the hostile environments they contribute to, whether we should discuss formal punishments and sanctions separately from informal responses, whether there are more effective tools at our disposal, etc.)  If someone is itching to rip apart my analogy or lay down some actual philosophical ethics (since I’m sure some people out there have even, you know, written professionally about that sort of thing), please feel free to do so.

29 thoughts on “The Ethics of Public Shaming

  1. Great thoughts, and I do like how you seriously considered both sides of the argument. May I ask you to develop further how to handle the “public shaming as WMD” argument, especially per claiming that we should still consider it? I am speaking only within an academic context.

    It is in fact a WMD, and I would only accept its use under the tightest controls, which do not appear to have been considered by Ms. Richards. No warning or personal contact. Immediate escalation without warning. And the jokes–at least the versions I’ve read–were not extreme or targetted.

    I have seen public shaming used an an WMD on individuals in academia, and those individuals were innocent. The problem of public shaming is that once the weapon is used, in practice it doesn’t matter whether the person was guilty or innocent, since the shaming destroys the distinction. I have seen too many innocents destroyed because someone had the power to initiate a public shaming event, which requires little power in academia. Given your analysis, I’m confident you’ve seriously considered this, and I would like to hear your response to this problem.

    All that said, the ratio of sexism to erroneous public shaming is grossly disproportionate. I still think that public shaming should be a primary tool, but its use in an academic context, especially because of its culture, is particularly fraught with problems.

    Need I say that academic is perhaps the most political correct environment in the US, and thus its standards and sensitives are usually FAR higher than most people can grasp until they are thoroughly initiated? I had to explain why I used the words “my partner” in class to a student yesterday, and quietly absorbed a series of unintended slurs and insults, as the student had no notion of the proper way to respond to that term. I took it because I knew that he (average young white male from Texas) didn’t intend anything by it, and likely didn’t have anything more than the ambient prejudices of the area, though I did explain the term and the PC motivation for using it. I mention this to remind us of how … special and sometime insular the academic context is, and thus using the WMD of public shaming against those who are not academics is challenging. (But necessary).

  2. Re: “I want to end on a personal note, and acknowledge there is a bullet here I need to bite. I am planning on having some of my work be in philosophy of race. Since I am white, there will be more than a few instances where I will make mistakes that are racist, racially insensitive, oblivious to my privilege, and just plain careless. (Actually, this will happen even if I don’t work in phil. of race) .” Yes, I thinks that’s right. The bullet is a real one, but worth biting. Yes, those of us who work in fields that involve race, or feminism, or social justice more generally, will sometimes make mistakes (and not only if we are, as in my case, relatively privileged white men, though we probably make them more often, but even if one is speaking from within oppressed communities, one will likely, *sometimes* at least, make a mistake that can be seen as perpetuating the very harms we try so hard to work against!). And when that happens, we have to be willing to accept responsibility for those mistakes and to learn from them, even when those mistakes are brought up in public situations, where we wish they weren’t, and bigger deals are made of them, then we think they warrant, considered strictly on their own. I think all we can do is admit our error, apologize, and use our mistake as an opportunity to learn more about how what we perhaps *thought* was harmless, or perhaps even thought was respectful!, was really no such thing. (Sometimes there will be legitimate disagreements within a community about what the best response to a particular injustice is; there, perhaps, the best we can do is note the dissent, and note the reasons given for the various responses, while stressing our sincere desire to be respectful… It doesn’t always work.)

    Also — and this is in some ways more painful – I don’t think there is any way of working in these fields without sometimes writing / saying something that can be taken out of context or misunderstood. And, I think it is fair to say that if it can be, it will be. No matter how carefully you write or speak, someone will misuse something, either deliberately, or, and this is in some ways worse, through understandable, and in some ways legitimate, but still knee-jerk misreadings. (On different blogs, I’ve had the same article used as evidence that I’m just another fuzzy-headed, unthinking, politically-correct liberal apologist, and that I’m obviously a not-so-cleverly disguised racist scum, probably with right-wing Nazi leanings… The former is closer to the truth, but still a bit annoying; that the latter misreading of my work, by people I would hope to have as political allies, is even possible, is more than a little painful…)

    The question of what constitutes an “over-reaction” in these kinds of cases is an important one, but what I think you remind us of very clearly, and importantly, is that what might appear to be an “over” reaction to someone living a life of relative privilege, shielded from the daily harms of e.g. racism (or sexism, or able-ism, or homophobia, or combinations of these etc.), might in fact be a reasonable reaction to one’s participation in a system that does real harm, even if that harm was not in fact one’s “intent.”

    Thanks for the thoughtful and interesting post!

  3. Given the evidence on shame that is emerging from social psychology and social work (see, for example, June Price Tangney and Brené Brown or Heidi Maibom for a philosophical integration of that work), I would be very hesitant to argue for the usefulness of shaming as a method to change behavior (I assume that is what we ultimately want). Shame turns us inward, pushes us into hiding, and creates defensiveness, not willingness to change. If there is outward expression of shame, it tends to be hostile and violent (see James Gilligan’s book “Violence”).

    To me public shaming creates exactly the kind of environment I don’t want to live in: It’s an environment of distrust and repressed thoughts and emotions at best, and hostile and violent at worst. As Maibom points out, shaming is very much related to hierarchy and it’s unlikely that we can shame up the ladder effectively, thus attempts to do so are again more likely to trigger hostile reactions rather than change.

    Of course, that leaves me at least with the question of how to counter the rampant sexism. Maybe Tangney’s work can help here, too. She differentiates shame and guilt. Shame is directed at a person (“you are bad because you said/did something sexist”). Guilt is directed at an act (“what you did is sexist”). Although it might seem frustratingly tedious, pointing out sexist acts might in the long-run be more productive than public shaming.

    I gotta admit, though, in some ways this seems like the “nice girl” approach… There is something rather emotionally gratifying in saying “shame on you.” And, yet, given the evidence of the toxicity of shame as an emotion, maybe there’s something else we can use that ultimately is more effective…

  4. Here are the works I have in mind (I just realized that including the actual cites might be helpful ;-) ):

    Brown, Brené (2006). Shame Resilience Theory: A Grounded Theory Study on Women and Shame. Families in Society: The Journal of Contemporary Social Services, 87(1), 43-52.
    Gilligan, James (1996). Violence: Our Deadly Epidemic and Its Causes. New York: Putnam Books.
    Maibom, Heidi L. (2010). The Descent of Shame. Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, 80(3), 566-94.
    Tangney, June Price & Dearing, Ronda L. (2002). Shame and Guilt. New York: The Guilford Press.
    Tangney, June Price; Stuewig, Jeff; & Mashek, Debra J. (2007). Moral Emotions and Moral Behavior. Annual Review of Psychology, 58, 345-372.

  5. I agree wholeheartedly with Rachel AB. I would add further that the problem with so much sexist and racist and classist language/thought is that it shames the person of the Other race, class, gender, etc. I.e., to use shame in response seems a questionable move, since shame clearly wreaks social and psychological havoc. And we can probably all relate to this — we have all been called names or been labeled in a way that evokes a hot flush of shame and rage (if a woman, it might be being called a c**t or being reduced to another body part by a leer; if a poor person, it might be having someone argue in favor of austerity programs because the poor are just lazy; if a grad student in philosophy it might be a bunch of life scientists crow about how useless philosophy is and how the student will end up flipping burgers, etc.)

  6. I meant to add that there has been a lot of work done in the field of nonviolent communication that demonstrates far more effective and ethical ways of handling such situations. (And it goes along very much with the work of Brené Brown and other psychologists.)

  7. In Ms. Gouen’s defense, and implicitly mine, I do not recall anyone giving a precise definition of “shame.” Hence, while I welcome the discussion of scholarship, it is informative but does not provide a counter-argument. That would require defining what “shame” is, and I would never use the term in a hierarchical manner. There should be a moment of inwardness after shaming, but it should not be done in a way that closes one off. And so forth. This is why I am absolutely against Ms. Richard’s approach, which was asymmetric, retributive, and most certainly not ameliorative. I suspect our differing cultural expectations of shaming are at odds; e.g., I conceive of shaming as an oblique social pressure and not a individuated social spectacle, which in part comes from a communal orientation to norming.

    Personally, I would agree with much of what Rachael writes, which is why I offered so much caution about the use of shaming. I liked the idea of shame being targeted at an environment, as it chastises but does not singularize those involved.

  8. I think it is important to note the rather large differences between academia and the tech world. In particular, those at the PyCon conference do not enjoy the same levels of protected speech as academics. The sad result of the shaming is that one of the offenders as well as Richards herself lost their jobs. Obviously Richards being fired is deeply unjust; arguably the same is true for the offender. Consider: Stacey, you indicated it’s alright if people shamed you for inadvertently offensive statements in phil of race (or other) discussions. But would you be willing to accept losing your job over it?

    This just indicates that, whether or not shaming should be used in academia, it’s apparent that the tech world doesn’t react appropriately to it at this time. Maybe this incident will help change that, but until it does change it may be best for those in the tech world to use different strategies.

  9. Jason: One of Tangney’s biggest concerns is precisely the absence of a clear definition of shame in much of the research. It muddles the water – and results in bizarre findings. The most crucial differentiation is between shame and guilt: Shame is directed at the whole person; guilt at an act. Maibom defines shame as “a painful emotion concerned with failure to live up to certain standards, norms, or ideals.”

    Maibom argues that shame reflects hierarchy because “shaming” is used in the rest of the animal kingdom to enforce hierarchies. That is an alpha male “shames” a lesser male into respecting his authority, which the lesser male shows by a display of behaviors that are very similar to what we human animals do when we feel ashamed (basically trying to disappear). Because of this similarity, Maibom thinks that shaming within the human environment also serves to maintain/enforce hierarchies.

  10. I agree with Rachel AB (and really like her own blog post on this) that the main benefit of public shaming might actually be catharsis or solidarity in the face of such pervasive hostile environments. And that might end up meaning that while the desire to shame in understandable, there are better tools at our disposable.

    Also I agree that nailing down the definition of shame is eventually imperative. For instance, I think the the way I think about the guilt v. shame distinction is opposite of what other people take it to be. (Guilt seems to me a more useless, negative emotion than shame.)

    At the end of the day, I do think that public shaming is a coercive technique, even if it is for a good cause. I am okay with some forms of social coercion, but if there are non-coercive, non-violent alternatives to get the same thing done, those approaches are superior, all else being equal.

    And lastly, ya, I have been thinking about whether I’d be willing to lose my job at the conclusion of a public shaming session. I don’t think I would. I want to say it’s because I would want public shaming to be rehabilitative, not retributive (and if you sack someone you’re not giving them the chance to be a better member of that specific community.) But I might also just be drawing an arbitrary (from the pov of justice) line between minor penalties that I don’t think hurt me too much at the end of the day, and actually significant penalties.

  11. As I see it, it’s not (or not merely) that public shaming is a “nuclear option” rarely commensurate with an individual’s culpability. It’s that public shaming has a tendency to take on a life of its own, beyond the control or anticipation of the person or group that presumes to take it upon him-, her-, or itself to unleash. Some offenses or patterns of offenses call for a significant punishment to be meted out, to be sure. But public shaming is something that by its nature is not particularly susceptible to meting (i.e., being doled out in measure), and thus arguably ought not to be used – especially as initiated by private interests – regardless of whether the appropriate measure is small or large. This is particularly true in the age of the Interwebs, where the natural boundaries of space, time, memory and personal knowledge that previously tended to set some rough upper limits to a sentence of public shaming in a community no longer operate in the same way.

    Also, while I take Stacey’s point that the “status quo” (an abstraction) has numerous protections in place, that does not mean that an individual person has in place adequate safeguards that are apt to protect them, individually, and ensure fairness in a public shaming situation. To balance one against the other, it seems to me, is to compare apples and oranges.

    Stacey also mentions “We are willing to accept harsh punishments for littering and polluting (and hate crimes!) because they are crimes that affect the whole community”, and contrasts this with “things like theft or assault (that are person v. person crimes.)” But, at least as we have societally come to conceive of them, all crimes are essentially crimes against the community. That is why the “plaintiff” in all criminal trials is “the people” or “the state” and not any individual. This also ties into (without being the sole reason) why for the benefit of all we entrust the investigation, weighing, punishment and general resolution of crimes exclusively to people who are not, in their individual capacities, witnesses or victims (or even connected to witnesses and victims) of crimes, and indeed are not acting in any individual, private, or specially-interested capacity.

  12. I agree with Stacey that guilt tends to be a more destructive, negative emotion than shame and if shame has been used to enforce hierarchies, as Rachel AB points out, so has guilt, as in the case of the whole puritan tradition.

    I see nothing wrong with pubic shaming. After all, we want to change people’s behaviors: we don’t want them to “do it again”. Shame seems to be a very effective tool for that.

    In my own case, if I feel ashamed to do something, I don’t do it again since what others think of me is very important to me, while if I feel guilty about doing something, I may continue doing it, since no one except my self, is watching.

  13. Rachel,

    Thank you for the thought and consideration. I would add a caveat to shame–and perhaps this indicates my orientation to it that I do not intend to be exclusive–that the pain of the emotion to not living up to certain standards requires the sense that one accepts those standards for their own sake. I understand this might not be a universal definition. The sense of shame that you give, which I also acknowledge, is not one I would recommend. IF a person does not already feel the pull of the ideal, then shaming only has a negative and counter-productive effect most of the time. In that case, I would turn to our fellows here who have contributed many citations (as you have) to nonviolent communication. I’m familiar with the field–I once worked for a peace and reconciliation journal–but know little more and thus welcome any insight.

  14. Nemo:

    I agree with you that public shaming is very strong medicine and that Chinese cultural revolution style public shaming in an internet age could almost become a crime against humanity.

    Still, shame is an incredibly important factor in making us obedient citizens, workers and consumers.

    I buy new shoes because I’m ashamed that “they” will see my old ones, not because I want or need new shoes.

    He lies to his old school friends about the low income, low status job he has because he is ashamed what they will say if they learn that he is not a high-status professional.

    She lies to her family about the neighborhood she lives in because they, being status conscious, would be ashamed of her if they were to learn that she lived in a run-down low-income district. And their being ashamed of her would make her feel ashamed of her self.

    Now, the shaming done in the above instances does not need to be public or in internet because what is shameful has completely internalized by everyone, even though in many cases, the person who would feel ashamed does not believe that he or she has done anything wrong or bad. He or she simply knows that “they”, their gaze, will make him or her feel ashamed.

    Given that shaming is so wide spread and done in the name of so many stupid or wrong-headed causes, why not use it in some good causes, like combating sexism?

    Yes, it would be better to convince people to become less sexist through rational arguments, but over 40 years has gone by since 2nd wave feminism hit us and the pervasiveness of sexist attitudes, even among the intellectual elite where I would have imagined that rational arguments would be most effective, never fails to surprise me.

  15. Re “guilt” vs. “shame”, I’ve heard some describe the former as a sense of wickedness and the latter as a sense of worthlessness. For my part, though I may be a couple of centuries too late to do anything about it, I tend to regard the use of “guilt” to refer to an emotional state rather than an ontological state as incorrect. But when people first started to (mis)use “guilt” to describe an emotional state, I think it was more closely tied to the true sense of the term, and they were talking about something more closely synonymous with feelings of contrition or remorse.

    Anyway, when it comes to defining and characterizing shame in a philosophically rigorous way, we could – as is so often the case – do worse than go back to our Aquinas and the treatment of verecundia there.

  16. Nemo:

    I lead an orderly (but not unpleasant) existence and I haven’t felt wicked in about 527 years, but I do often feel guilty, not for having been wicked, but for not having done enough to help others when I could have done more (and I always could have done more) and for doing or saying stupid things.

    I agree with you that shame is a sense of worthlessness, but always in the eyes of others, from whom I derive much of my own sense of self worth.

  17. Jason wrote “the pain of the emotion to not living up to certain standards requires the sense that one accepts those standards for their own sake.” YES! Exactly! Jill Locke suggests therefore that we can use shame as a signal that we might need to investigate a standard. In her example, Rahel Varnhagen had internalized antisemitic standards/stereotypes and her shame was caused by them, clearly she could have tried to refuse to accept these standards as her own and thus avoided the shame. Thus, we could use shame as a signal that we might have some investigating to do… This can be very challenging because shame is an emotion that involves the amygdala, which can make it difficult to think rationally, literally because the blood-flow to the neocortex is reduced. This, too, is why we might “lash out” when shamed – it triggers the flight/fight/freeze response and if we tend to go into fight that’s where we end up.

    Sarah Peyton has developed an approach to healing shame (or at least counteracting it, not sure if it can be healed because it might be a natural response) that combines Nonviolent Communication with neurobiology. I have combined all of this in my masters thesis to outline how we might counteract stereotypes, which become shame when internalized.

    Locke, Jill (2007). Shame and the Future of Feminism. Hypatia, 22(4), 146-62.

  18. Nemo: Yes, let’s not go back to Aquinas! One of the things I found when I was researching shame from a philosophical perspective for my masters thesis is that many feminist philosophers (Manion, Maibom, and Locke) are approaching this topic rigorously and informed by the research from psychology, sociology, and social work. One philosopher I read who was basing his approach to shame on older philosophical accounts muddled the shame/guilt distinction, which led him to recommend shame as an educational tool. This is completely contradicted by the evidence from other fields, especially Tangney’s work… I felt kinda proud that the feminist philosophers were using much more rigor showing clearly what we can contribute to philosophy (at least in my opinion :-).

  19. Rachel, I don’t think you’ll find that Aquinas muddles the distinctions. Interestingly, I perceive (though this is not my area of specialty) that in the last 5 or 10 years there’s been something of a renewed or rediscovered scholarly sense of the relevance of Aquinas at the intersection of modern psychology and philosophy (cf. Titus, Garcia-Valdecasas, DeRobertis).

  20. Just a comment on your analogy and the idea that this is the nuclear option. It is more like you are on the boat with someone and you throw a device at them but you have no idea if it is going to explode and no idea who it will take with it when it does. You might throw it at them, hit them in the head and have it fall to the floor. Now they are just annoyed at you and you haven’t solved anything. It might make a small bang and knock them off the boat, saving you. It might also detonate into a huge explosion taking out both you and him along with a couple boats next to yours that were not involved.

    I don’t think this is a good way to deal with any sort of situation. It is in no way reliable and may have tons of unintended consequences.

  21. Yes, I would agree that its the “collateral damage” and “unintended consequences” aspects of public shaming that make it difficult for *institutional* use. Too often I’ve seen false or one-sided applications of public shaming destroy lives and poison communities. This last point has already been mentioned per theory; I’ve seen the practice.

  22. I’m kind of late to the party here (at least in Internet time), but I just arrived at this site via a link from over the weekend, and I found the discussion to be one of the better ones I’ve seen on the topic. Anyway, here’s my two cents, in case anyone’s still engaged:

    OP Wrote: “It’s not about whether the stupid, minor jokes the men made warranted public shaming. It’s whether the atmosphere those jokes contributed to warrants public shaming.”

    I find that line of reasoning morally troubling because (to put the point as succinctly as possible) it seems to violate Kant’s categorical imperative – it argues for using the individuals involved in a particular incident as a means to an end by punishing them to a greater extent than their individual actions warrant in order to achieve a broader goal of societal modification. I believe that runs contrary to the modern consensus (at least in Western moral thought). For instance, in criminal punishment, “just desserts”, retributive justice models provide the upper bound of a just and proportional sentence, irrespective of whether a harsher sentence would be more effective for the purposes of general deterrence of the population as a whole (i.e. it’s generally not considered ok to punish someone more harshly than their own actions warrant in order to “make an example of someone” and “send a message” to the public at large).

    On the other hand, I do agree with the OP’s point that “restricting the use of public shaming to only circumstances that by themselves, in isolation, seem to merit such shaming, could be unfairly ignoring how individual events contribute to a large-scale problem.” I think one possible way to balance that concern against the categorical imperative limitation is to encourage *anonymous* call-outs. Particularly given the rise of social media, it’s relatively easy and effective to call out inappropriate incidents without naming the individuals involved. In this case, for example, Ms. Richards could have publicly tweeted about the offending comments without identifying the individuals who made them. Sure, such tweet would not have generated the same amount of attention, but just as numerous microaggressions can “coalesce into a pervasive, hostile atmosphere”, numerous anonymous call-outs of those microaggressions can likewise coalesce into an effective force for changing that atmosphere without disproportionately, and thus unjustly, punishing minor transgressors.

  23. Anonymous call outs, though, can cause other problems. A person listening to/reading an anonymous call out who was involved in the incident as a perpetrator of sexist, ablist, racist etc slurring could be much more negatively affected by an anonymous call out than a personal honest face to face call out that respectfully tries to make constructive criticism. The reason for this is that an anonymous call out can very easily be deciphered so that the person the call out is about can very easily and intuitively understand that they are being shamed (rather than criticized within a dialogue on equal terms). This could spiral out badly; especially if the person being shamed tries to vent about it elsewhere and they are told that they just imagined it, it wasn’t about them and thus gaslit out of it. Which is why an anonymous call out can create more unnecessary conflict rather than resolve the existing conflict and reconcile the community by attending to its harmful dynamics ….

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