There is no such thing as healthy public shaming
On July 15, 1742, a Boston woman named Abigail Gilpin, her husband at sea, had been found “naked in bed with one John Russell.” They were both to be “whipped at the public whipping post 20 stripes each.” Abigail was appealing the ruling, but it wasn’t the whipping itself she wished to avoid. She was begging the judge to let her be whipped early, before the town awoke. “If your honor pleases,” she wrote, “take some pity on me for my dear children who cannot help their unfortunate mother’s failings.”
This story is an excerpt from Jon Ronson’s 2015 article, How One Stupid Tweet Blew Up Justine Sacco’s Life.
(Ronson later turned the article into something of a manual on how to survive cancelation, and he has become one of our leading commenters on public shaming. I have found grim solace and recognition in many of the stories he tells.)
Ronson was never able to discover whether the court granted Gilpin’s request to be punished in private. Based on what we know of Colonial New England, it seems unlikely that the judge looked kindly on the convicted woman’s plea. For our Puritan forebears, as for ourselves, shame is an essential part of punishment – both for the extra pain it causes the accused, and for the cocktail of moral satisfaction and fear that it arouses in the witnesses.
I thought of the Abigail Gilpin story last week, as this post popped up on my Facebook feed.
I’m the one who has edited the post to make both the license plates and the name of the posting parent unreadable.
I shared this image on Facebook, again with identities obscured, and lamented a culture in which the parents of my children’s friends would think it acceptable to try to identify and shame folks who’ve made selfish driving decisions. This is a matter for the traffic police to deal with, I suggested; it might be acceptable for a parent following the rules to roll their eyes in annoyance at the scofflaw, but to attempt to embarrass them was a bridge to far.
To my considerable surprise, several folks pushed back — suggesting that this kind of mild public shaming was not only justified, but essential. My friend Karin wrote that shaming is the socially essential function of the “community coming together to agree that the conduct is bad and deserving of a public telling-off.” Her argument, in which others joined, is that we cannot wait for the law to deal with every mild infraction against the social code. Perhaps, she suggested, a cop could write one of these bad drivers a ticket — but if it happened in a queue of people standing, rather than driving, there’d be no technical violation of the law at all. If we take shame out of the arsenal, what recourse does society have against rudeness?