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 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.
(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:
—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.