Archive for September 26th, 2013

Regardless of the rights or wrongs in a case, I have always found public shaming something to avoid. People acting in a mob are rarely at their best, and they can end up harming themselves as much as their target.

My objections have nothing to do with a belief in due process. I have a lifelong cynicism about the law and its representatives. In many cases, I see nothing wrong with non-violent responses to unjust statutes. But much of the time, public shaming has nothing to do with civil disobedience or a sense of justice. Far more often, it is about imposing a small group’s interpretation of events on everyone else.

Yet, even when public shaming seems justified, I dislike what it does to the people who participate in it. They cease to be individuals, and become part of a mob. They shut down discussion because, convinced that their perspectives are correct, they see no value in discussion. For the same reason, they become disinterested in facts or nuance, and cannot wait even a day or an hour for more information.

In this mood, not even the mildest opposition is accepted. Question their rashness or the venom of their comments or suggest that they might be hasty, and the members of the mob responds as though you physically assaulted them. Almost certainly, they will conclude that you side with their target, even if you emphasize your own misgivings or suspension of judgment.

What makes this form of socially-sanctioned bullying particularly objectionable to me is that most of what I value in human beings is discarded by members of the mob in a cathartic fury of self-righteousness. From being people of reason, the members of the mob become prejudiced rednecks. In their rush to stone a supposed monster, they become another type of monster themselves.

But the consequences can be far worse. Acting rashly and on too little information, the members of the mob, just like the advocates of capital punishment, can just as easily choose an innocent target as a guilty one, or at least an unproved one – not that they are likely ever to admit the fact. Having taken an extreme position, they have an interest in maintaining it long past the point when it becomes indefensible or a half-truth at best.

In the process, they can leave an innocent target dragging a ponderous chain of innuendo and mistaken assumptions, or even a guilty one with less chance of eventual forgiveness or reform. Public shaming can destroy lives, and for me that makes it a metaphorical form of murder – a deliberate infliction of trauma.

Nor do those doing the shaming always escape the consequences. Adria Richards, for example, tried to shame a couple of men at a conference for having a private conversation laced with sexual innuendo by posting their picture without permission on Twitter. She succeeded in getting one of them fired – but she was also deluged with hate mail and lost her own job as a consequence. Historical revisionism is now in the process of making her a feminist martyr because of the hate mail, but her self-glorifying attempts at public shaming are likely to be remembered long after her targets’ names. All of which goes to show that you shouldn’t risk messing with karma.

For most of those who publicly shame, the consequences are likely to be less extreme. Probably, most former members of a mob will never receive their own public shaming, the way that Richards did. But if nothing else, I hope that some day, if only in the back of their minds, they may receive their own moment of private shaming.

Personally, I prefer the luxury of looking at myself in the mirror first thing in the morning without flinching.

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