Public shaming can only teach part of the lesson on wider issues of prejudice
The age of technology and rise of social media has allowed us to share and interact with others immediately and globally, connecting people and communities all over the world. The immediacy of sharing stories and posts affords many things — keeping up with friends and family, expressing solidarity with others in trying times and even calling attention to issues and practices that have no place in our society. That immediacy also allows for reactionary responses to be shared swiftly and snowball even faster.
Videos, images and scandals go viral all the time — which, without context, can be dangerous. Ridicule is often misdirected, made evident by the mischaracterized incident between a group of students from Covington Catholic High School and a Native American elder. Images of the elder playing a ceremonial drum and the smirking teen in a MAGA hat spread rapidly, but the viral image and partial video of the event failed to capture the incident as it really occurred. Consequently, the teen was subjected to unjustified and borderline immoral ridicule — likened to a school shooter and a symbol for white supremacy. If guilty of anything, it’s disrespect; but disrespect doesn’t warrant this kind of response and, more importantly, this kind of response does little to change that behavior. On the contrary, the amount of ridicule he received from the left more likely solidified the very beliefs that allow him to support a president who many feel is racist himself.
Shaming is a large part of the culture of viral media and can be productive when appropriate, such as in the case of serial sexter and convicted child predator Anthony Weiner or former Missouri Governor Eric Greitens, accused of blackmail and misusing his charity’s donor list for political ends. But shaming doesn’t always work — not everyone is willing to resign and, more to the point, shaming doesn’t necessarily target the culture that cultivates those beliefs and behaviors we find reprehensible.
After spewing abhorrent racism in the House of Representatives for over a decade, Republican Congressman Steve King was finally ostracized by congressional leaders in January, removing him from all committee assignments. While GOP leaders deserve commendation for taking appropriate action, overlooked is the culture that has yielded nine straight election victories for an essentially open white supremacist.
All too often, shaming accomplishes little beyond simple ridicule. Steve King remains the representative of Iowa’s 5th congressional district to the U.S. Congress. Ralph Northam remains the governor of Virginia despite the discovery of him wearing blackface in his medical school yearbook.
Beyond simply thinking twice before sharing a misleading story or partaking in premature condemnation, as a society, we have to ask what our objective is in shaming: is the goal to get people, for example, to just resign or to eradicate condemnable practices at the root? If we want people to simply go away, shaming is great — it got Roseanne Barr off the air. But if we want to target deplorable behavior, making people go away simply won’t do it.
Shaming has effectually become shunning. With technology and media, the face of a scandal becomes instantly recognizable and more easily ridiculed, the inescapability of it all forcing those at the center into hiding. Shaming doesn’t encourage an honest conversation, and honesty is necessary to target issues of belief at their roots. How do we know what we’re fighting, or how to fight it, unless people fess up, say how they’ve contributed to the problem?
In an incredible piece on the culture of shaming done by John Oliver, Monica Lewinsky — unfortunately a public shaming icon — discusses the aftermath of her scandal with former President Bill Clinton. She recalls the inability to escape the scandal as it followed and affected almost every aspect of her life, from dating and familial relationships to employment and mental health. That’s not to say the actions of Northam and Lewinsky are comparable. But there’s something to be said about the practically rampant and inconsequential incidents of politicians in blackface — there are far too many racists to make them all go away. And even if we can force some into hiding, it’ll only encourage others to pretend they don’t partake in a culture of oppressing others.
If we can’t shame people out of behaviors, perhaps it’s time for a new tactic.
Combatting behaviors rooted in deeply flawed beliefs is futile unless those fallen prey to such misguidance are part of the conversation — and that inherently involves a degree of forgiveness and toleration. In forgiving, we also respect the capacity of those at fault to change, and ultimately, isn’t change what we want to achieve? In order for people to change, they have to believe they can.
Written by: Hanadi Jordan — email@example.com
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