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Henderson: Leaving the world of the online tarring and feathering

Social media shaming as justice democratized is destroying lives and improving nothing

After Rebecca Escobar killed a woman in a drunk-driving incident 20 years ago in Wilkesboro, North Carolina, she was sentenced to 90 days jail and three years of probation.

Judge Todd Burke also ordered the 27-year-old mother to, once a month during her probation, make an hour-long walk around the county courthouse with a hand-written sign that said, according to a 2000 Chicago Tribune article: “I am a convicted drunk driver. And as a result I took a life.”

Shame as punishment is as old as punishment itself.

Documents attributed to Richard I in England in the 13th century are the first record of tarring and feathering, a practice that continued on to the colonies particularly in the United States.

Offenders of many types over the centuries have suffered in stocks or pillories.

The last recorded use in England of the pillory dates back to 1830, and of the stocks to 1872, according to Neel Burton, MD, in a 2014 Psychology Today article.

“Pillories and stocks immobilized victims in an uncomfortable and degrading position while people gathered to taunt and torment them. Tarring and feathering, used in feudal Europe and its colonies in the early modern period, involved covering victims with hot tar and feathers before parading them on a cart or wooden rail.”

Game of Thrones fans will remember Cersei Lannister being paraded nude through the streets to the calls of “Shame! Shame! Shame!”

Then there’s the dunce cap. Security camera screenshots in liquor stores. As I say, the issue of public shaming is as old as justice itself.

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All of this serves as an introduction to talk about a dangerous and pervasive, somewhat new type of shame, not aimed to correct criminal behaviour or even to inflict pain on those involved in criminal behaviour, but to shame and mock and criticize those who say the “wrong” thing.

I’m talking about social media, and I preface everything else that comes after with a confession: I have been as guilty of this as anybody.

It’s easy to feel righteous and smug by shaming a person for their racist or homophobic or otherwise ignorant comments online. But this online shaming – even if it seems justified, even if aimed at a person who “deserves it” to most reasonable people – does nothing to make the world a better place. It does nothing to correct the error of the ways of the racist or the homophobe or the person who has erred with some incivility. It does nothing to put forth a better idea – it only spreads disdain and anger and depression, and potentially deepens divides.

It’s also just intellectually lazy, while being oddly cathartic.

“Shame didn’t work in the past. I don’t know why it would work now,” said Gershen Kaufman, a professor in the counselling centre and psychology department at Michigan State University and author of six books on shame. “It breeds profound rage and a profound wound to the person who is shamed and those associated with it, particularly family members. Whether it’s a bumper sticker on a car or a sign, it becomes humiliation for everyone.”

Real world shaming is less and less common, while social media tarring and feathering is ubiquitous and has led many people to leave platforms like Twitter, Facebook and others, digital spaces that could and should be positive places for public debate.

But too quickly too many of us call out bad behaviour in such loud and broad public ways that collective outrage can literally ruin lives.

This democratization of justice, as Jon Ronson, the author of So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed puts it, is part of a renaissance of public shaming circling the globe.

And it’s not a good democratization, nor a good renaissance.

I, for one, am consciously moving away from online shaming as best as I can.

One person can’t change what is wrong with social media single-handedly, but many people can – if so inclined.

Paul Henderson writes for the Chilliwack Progress. For more news from Vancouver Island and beyond delivered daily into your inbox, please click here.

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