The Ethics of Public Shaming

Credit: The Guilty, from 'Costume of Great Britain', published by William Miller, 1805

Credit: The Guilty, from ‘Costume of Great Britain’, published by William Miller, 1805

Consider this thought experiment. Melissa, a 43-year-old mother of two, lives in Cedar Rapids, IA.  Melissa works as an assistant manager at Hobby Lobby, and is both a competent employee and an enthusiastic crafter. She is also a frequent supporter of NARAL Pro-Choice America, and participates in counter-protests at a local Planned Parenthood facility to support the right of women to make their own reproductive choices. At a recent counter-protest, Melissa gets into a nasty argument with a pro-life protester, and blows are exchanged. The incident is recorded on a cellphone camera, and the police are called. After the officers calm the situation, Melissa is allowed to go home with a warning.

Two days later, the footage of Melissa fighting the pro-life protester goes viral and is picked up by national media. Some conservative Fox News pundits say she should lose her job at Hobby Lobby because of her violent behavior and debased moral values. Christian Right groups demand that Melissa be terminated, and start gathering signatures and calling for a boycott of Hobby Lobby. After an intense three-day maelstrom, Melissa is fired.

What do you think? Should Melissa have lost her job for her behavior at the counter-protest? Should Hobby Lobby have bowed to public pressure? Should members of the public have pushed for Melissa’s ouster?

Your views depend, likely, on your politics. The practice of public shaming has become as partisan as our public discourse. The recent firings in the wake of the McKinney incident show vividly how shame and punishment have become central to the way we interact with each other.

Let me first say that Officer Eric Casebolt, the policeman seen assaulting a teenage girl in the viral footage, should have been fired. His actions, in addition to being racially problematic, were reckless and dangerous police work – and were a continuation, not a break from, past bad behavior. Any police department that kept such an officer on their payroll would be doing a tremendous disservice to their community.

But what of Tracey Carver-Allbritton, a woman who was caught fighting with some of the teens on camera and is alleged to have cursed and yelled racial slurs? Allbritton was fired from her job with a financial services firm after local activists posted her Facebook profile on Twitter. Public pressure led to her employer, already dealing with bad press from racial discrimination lawsuit, to axe her and issue a statement condemning her actions.

And what of Alberto Iber, the former principal of North Miami Senior High School, who was fired after posting comments supportive of Officer Casebolt’s actions on Facebook? His post garned media attention and outcry from local politicians, and the school district elected to place him on administrative duty.

You could argue that Allbritton and Iber’s employers were justified in issuing pink slips due to the damage done to their public images by their erstwhile employees. You could even argue that Allbritton and Iber deserved to be fired for their poor judgment, lack of sensitivity, racial bias or any other moral failing of your choice. But has the deliberate push by some for vengeance against individuals who behave badly served a greater cause? Is public shame an effective means of securing social justice?

Before you answer, consider the case of Rochelle Robinson, who was also fired yesterday due to a Facebook post. Robinson, who used to work for Chicago’s Brookfield Zoo, posted a picture with the caption “Wassup y’all? At work serving these rude ass white people.” After the usual outcry, the zoo was forced to part ways with Robinson, who adamantly insists that she is no racist.

Public shaming is not a new phenomenon – the first scapegoats were, after all, real live goats. But whereas the function of shame in our politics was once to regulate or punish the behavior of public officials, increasingly we shame and punish private citizens for their real or imagined transgressions. Furthermore, we now have ability to shame those we’ve never even met through a simple click of a button — a far cry from the intimate public stockades and town squares of yesteryear.  As Jon Ronson, author of So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, said in an interview, “This desire we have to be like amateur detectives, (looking for) clues into people’s inherent evil by finding the worst tweet they ever wrote, is not only wrong; it’s damaging.” While the act of meting out punishment to the deserving can offer a moment of brief catharsis, the ramifications for the individual involved can be dire and prolonged – ruined careers, social ostracism, upended lives, and worse.

Progressives, who are most likely cheering in the wake of the McKinney firings, should take pause. At the same time that some called for Allbritton and Iber to be sacked, others condemned Jeb Bush for a 1995 essay in which he calls for more public shaming to regulate the behavior of “unwed mothers, misbehaving teenagers and welfare recipients.” Still others were debating whether a father’s shaming of his teenage daughter led to the girl’s suicide. Can one ethically defend shaming and punishment in some instances and not others? And if the morality of public shaming is contingent on context, what rubric should we apply so that context is not merely a synonym for caprice?

Worse, the rush to public shaming and outrage undermines one of the most effective arguments progressives have made against racism and white supremacy – that these evils are embedded in unjust systems, not individual hearts. By going after individuals perceived as racist and giving the institutions themselves easy scapegoats, progressives can play into the very counter-narrative they seek to dismantle.

Ultimately, it would be naïve to expect public shaming to simply go away. But we can do a better job of questioning our own behaviors and participation in what is often a vicious cycle. We can struggle to choose empathy rather than condemnation, especially in those cases when compassion is hardest to summon. And we can come to understand public shaming for what it really is – a moral failure on par with other ethically dubious thoughts or actions.