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Western Societies Should Encourage Public Shaming
Our first honourable mention from the ISF Essay Competition...
We announced our first essay competition in October, asking readers to submit a 1,000-word essay arguing for and against their most controversial opinion. This week we publish two honourable mentions.
Publishing ≠ endorsement. What’s more, the opinion of the writer isn’t necessarily their own. In several cases, they explicitly told us that they didn’t actually hold the controversial opinion but thought a good argument could be made.
Written by Elizabeth Johnson.
Western culture is in decline, mired in a web of nihilism, as evidenced by Western discourse, upticks in rudeness, and a general lack of innovation. This dearth of decency has resulted in a culture devoid of respect for individuals, even among ordinary people. A form of public shaming would socially pressure individuals to act with respect and decency in public, at minimum, if not help cultivate respect for people. This version of shaming specifically does not include social media blasts, “doxing”, or “cancel culture,” as these actions are not about encouraging better behavior, but intimidating people or trolling opportunities. They are not aimed at improving public discourse, and are not what I’m advocating. I propose a shared set of principles and facts enforced by social cohesion, to encourage responsible behavior and strongly discourage bad public behavior. Those who breach the boundaries would be denied service or access to businesses or socially ostracized. Understandably, shaming is a highly disputed concept.
In recent centuries, lawmakers and historians have referred to public shaming as “cruel and unusual.” Shaming, they argue, snuffs out hope in the heart of the shamed. In 1787, United States founding father Benjamin Rush wrote, “Ignominy is universally acknowledged to be a worse punishment than death...,” and the practice was phased out in the following decades, first in England, then the U.S. This happened for two reasons. First, most incidents of public shaming involved violent public punishments for acts which were illegal, but not particularly egregious, such as being whipped before a crowd over rumors of cheating on a spouse. Worse, many of those punishments were for actions which could not be confirmed. Second, public shaming was considered less persuasive than physical labor. In the same piece, Rush proposes manual labor to be both less cruel and more effective than public shaming by pillory, whipping post, or lot.
Since then, the general direction of Western culture has moved toward a more democratic and open society. Public sensibilities about how all people should be treated have, rightly, evolved towards more just laws and conventions. From severing limbs, to public whippings, to being shut out from society, public shaming can be draconian and dangerous, particularly under religious rule. We know shame can trigger depression and other detrimental mental health events. Low self-esteem and depression have long shared a link, though we still don’t know whether low self-esteem is a precursor to depression or a component of it. Self-esteem is critical to an individual’s sense of agency, and shaming tends to diminish self-esteem. Wouldn’t advocating public shaming take society backwards, to a more cruel time?
On a social level, is public delinquency not the price of free expression? Should democratic societies not simply endure nonsensical tirades, occasional outbursts, and arguments made in bad faith? What of the possibility of people taking shaming too far? While society must remain receptive to new, novel, and counterintuitive ideas, the burden lies on those advancing new ideas to provide proof or evidence of those novel claims. Social shaming is not dependent on the government prohibiting speech, but on peers holding peers to social standards. Finally, most importantly, wouldn’t any form of shaming be the majority tyrannizing social minorities, as Tocqueville warned?
While the majority could tyrannize the minority, we know the minority, even to an individual, holds a vested power. As we know from Gustave Le Bon’s Psychology of the Crowd, once a single person in a group starts into noxious or dangerous behavior, a psychological line is crossed, typically resulting in more people shedding their inhibitions and joining in. The opposite is also true; when a group acts in one manner, there is great social friction to overcome in going against the crowd. A healthy society rejects noxious behavior swiftly and consistently. Actions taken in public, especially involving strangers, must be respectful and responsible. Society must simply demand greater respect for and from the individual. Those unwilling to behave should be denied the opportunity to participate in public privileges.
We already see this happening. It is as simple as turning away someone not dressed appropriately for the context, as United Airlines did by kicking off guests of the airline for wearing clothing United considered too casual. A spokesperson for United said the guests were travelling “using a United employee pass and ‘were not in compliance with our dress code policy for company benefit travel’. When flying as a pass traveler,” he continued, “we require this [sic] pass travellers to follow rules, and that is one of those rules.” The company has a standard for the appearance of people representing them, and they enforce that standard. Likewise, hospitals and care units are posting signs with a patient and visitor code of conduct, which “spells out unacceptable behavior such as yelling, swearing, spitting, and making offensive remarks about race, ethnicity, or religion." Violators are warned and may be removed from the premises. These are the sorts of standards our businesses and public spaces should continue to enforce. Those called out publicly for violating these norms should be uncomfortable, as the purpose is to discourage such behavior.
At the turn of the century, G.K. Chesterton wrote, “It is not so much that we are too bold to endure rules; it is rather that we are too timid to endure responsibilities.” Regardless of the century, shaming reminds us of the social responsibilities we all share in maintaining a respectable collective discourse. Social shaming maintains a social code and cohesion without involving the legal system. These are “rules” informing daily life, but not rising to the level of illegal activity. Shaming is a method useful in preventing further decline of the Western world, perhaps even reversing the decline.
While shaming sounds harsh, it remains a valuable cultural custom. We have laws prohibiting violence and lewd acts. We need to widely encourage conventions preventing public delinquency and rudeness. Used like this, shaming acts as a guardrail, helping to keep society on the asphalt moving forward.