Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Is Public Shame the Best Way to Deal with Bigotry?

One of the democratizing qualities of the internet is the ability to share our views with the world, which gives way to the other democratizing quality of the internet: shaming people whose views of the world are abhorrent.

There are a flurry of sites dedicated to doing exactly this. 

Andrew Ti answers questions at Yo Is This Racist? by strictly adhering to the belief that the only appropriate reaction to racism is a profanity-laced verbal smackdown followed by complete and utter social dismissal. 

There is also the Public Shaming tumblr which collects screen shots of people saying horrible things followed by them saying other horrible things that demonstrate their utter blindness to hypocrisy and privilege, for example:

OSU Haters is a tumblr that's dedicated to exposing the racism and bigotry among the OSU student body, ostensibly to point out the problem and promote solutions to it. 

Public shaming also played a large role in the exposure of those horribly racist tweets following The Hunger Games premiere when people were outraged that Rue was black. In that case, Jezebel compiled a list of the offending tweeters, complete with full screen names. 

Probably bolstered by the popularity of that post, Jezebel recently ran a post that went viral featuring a list of racist tweets on the night President Barack Obama was re-elected. 

The author of that post then took the online shaming into the real world when she began calling the schools of those who posted the racist tweets (most of them were teenagers) and asked their principals if they knew about them. She reasoned that this was no free speech violation because "while the First Amendment protects their freedom of speech, it doesn't protect them from the consequences that might result from expressing their opinions. "

Some drew comparisons between this public outing and the one that revealed the identity of offensive Reddit user Michael Brutsch (also Gawker's doing) and the law student who lost her cushy clerkship position after being outed as the author of a racist email

Why Do We Read These?

I'll be the first to admit to you that I read Yo, Is this Racist? on a regular basis and find the entire premise behind the Public Shaming tumblr pretty amusing. I believe whole-heartedly that words have meaning and that you should be aware of the way you are impacting the world around you through the words you use. 

More than that, though, I believe that bigotry and prejudice has to be examined. I think that we can exist in bubbles of society where our prejudicial thoughts are too easily accepted. Left unexamined, they grow from passing thoughts to firmly held beliefs, beliefs that we act on and use to shape our realities. I think it's important that we bring those ideas out into the light of day and show just how fast they fall apart. 

Does public shaming do that, though?

Is Jezebel "Doing Antiracism Wrong"?

Gene Demby of PostBourgie certainly thinks so. He writes that this type of public shaming:
bolsters the idea that racism is a terrible personal failing that can be corrected through sufficient public shaming. This notion of racists-as-evil is so pervasive that few people who readily espouse bigoted beliefs would recognize those ideas as racist; unsurprisingly, people don’t like to think themselves monsters.
And that's a problem.

If the bar for not being racist is set so low that simply not screaming the n-word at people qualifies you, we've got a problem.

If the bar for not being sexist is set so low that it means not physically assaulting women in the street, we've got a problem.

If the bar for not being _____ist is set so low that it means we won't have to examine all of the ways that we enact those prejudices on a daily basis, we've got a very big problem.

These posts are most certainly popular. The Jezebel post of the racist Obama tweets circulated around the internet quickly. Demby suggests that people liked reading it because it allowed them to pat themselves on the back over their own racial consciousness. "See! I would never call the President the n-word. Look at how enlightened I am!"

In the comments of his crosspost on Racialicious, Demby pointed out that "Schadenfreude seems to be a big part of what's motivating the put-them-on-blast contingent."

Laughing to Keep From Crying

Sometimes humor is the best defense mechanism we have. When people took to Bic's Amazon reviews to mock the sexism in their pens "For Her," they were laughing at prejudice. When people read some of these public shaming sites and find humor in them, it's often a way to deflect the pain that prejudice causes. 

What happens when we're laughing at a prejudice that we are not ourselves victims of, though? Do I--a straight, white woman--have the right to laugh at the absurdity of a homophobic or racist position? Because I do. In fact, I can provide specific examples of me doing both of those things just in the past week. 

I watched this video of gay men saying they'll marry all the straight men's girlfriends if they don't allow gay marriage:

I also watched this Key and Peele "Suburban Zombies clip: 

Both of them take up bigotry and turn it into a comical portrayal. In laughing at it, am I trying to make myself non-complicit in the perpetuation of these prejudices? Am I trying to make myself feel better about existing in a world where intolerance is so common? And how does that operate in the way that shame functions? If we pass around lists of people to be shamed for our own entertainment, are we trying to let ourselves off the hook?

Shame and Culpability

I'm probably going to keep laughing at absurd displays of bigotry. I'm definitely going to keep crying over them. Equality is an important enough goal for me that it will run the gamut of my emotions. 

But that brings us to a question: does shame have a place in meeting equality goals?

If we are going to try to rid our society of this kind of bigotry, we have to call it out when we see it. I don't think that politely nodding and trying to avoid eye contact while an acquaintance makes a racist/sexist/ableist/etc. joke is doing anyone any favors. I think that we have a responsibility, as individuals, to point out prejudice when it occurs. 

If that's true, then why shouldn't we use the tools of the internet to do it all the more effectively? If calling someone out for using a racial slur is the right thing to do, then why isn't posting someone's racist tweet for the world to see also the right thing to do? 

Maybe it is. 

Demby's real issue is that Gawker (in his view) overstepped their bounds and called the kids' schools. He points out several times that these people are minors, and that journalistic integrity would normally not even allow their names to be made public, let alone to have their principals called. 

Are these children to be held less accountable for their actions because of their age? Sure, they didn't have a lucrative clerkship waiting for them or a disturbing following of sexual deviants on Reddit, but they could have someday. Children are people, too, and children who are willing to tweet racial epithets about the President are likely to grow up into people with influence who have learned to keep their racist thoughts a little more hidden. 

So, here's where I'm at with this. I do think that shame has a role in the way we control our social norms. Shame is a powerful tool, and it's something that we use to keep our own actions in check all the time. The source of that shame varies immensely. Maybe we are shamed before God, or our parents, or our boss. 

But shame, ultimately, has to come from ourselves. We cannot be forced to feel shame. 

Consider the woman who was ordered by a judge to stand in the street hold a sign saying "Only an idiot would drive on the sidewalk to avoid a schoolbus" after she did exactly that. The judge was obviously trying to instill a sense of shame, but only the woman herself could make his attempts effective. If she didn't feel shame (and many suggest that she didn't look contrite, as she was smoking and chatting on a cell phone during most of her "punishment"), then the judge's attempts were for naught. 

So, sure, we can pass around pictures of people tweeting racist things. This will remind us that bigotry is far from over. We do not live in a post-racial world. We also do not live in a world free of sexism, abelism, homophobia, or a host of other prejudices. Reminding ourselves of that, especially when we're not the victims of those prejudices ourselves, can be a good thing. 

But we have to remember that that reminder is the starting point, not the end game. We do not fight bigotry by pointing out it exists; we just point out that there's a fight to have. 

We can't shame those people. They can only shame themselves, and until we have created a world where our discussions about prejudice are open enough to create spaces in which bigots can and will feel shame, all we're doing is patting ourselves on the back for avoiding that particular act of bigotry ourselves, likely while committing other ones that we refuse to recognize. 


  1. Great post, Michelle. I think also that, by shaming these people to such a degree, the doors to open communication, and eventually understanding, are being shut all that much more tightly. When people feel badly about themselves, they'll often "stick to their guns" and shut their mind from hearing anything other than what they want to hear. We need to figure out a way to open up communication, because that's how we learn.

  2. Hey Michelle--

    Your post makes me think of this Slate article that brings socio-economic status into the issue:

    and this shaming site (some NSFW content):

    1. That Slate article is interesting and definitely adds another layer to the discussion. I hadn't seen that tumblr, but--wow--it's sad to see so much hate (sometimes in a fairly sophisticated, all-encompassing philosophy) from such young people.

  3. Hi Michelle, I agree with Amanda. I actually got into a big twitter debate about the Gawker incident that I've been wanting to write about but haven't gotten around to yet. you hit on some important things: they are teens who are likely to grow up to be racists, and they can only shame themselves. for those reasons, i don't think shaming them was appropriate. I don't say that in the interest of leniency to minors but in the interest of educating them and hopefully changing them for the benefit of society. Education is the pathway to their feeling shame themselves. the question then, is how do we do that? and how can we use the internet to do that? i actually liked the twitter examples you provided at the beginning of the post, where the tweeters own words were used to show her the hypocrisy of her position. but generally, i don't think shame alone can be a reliable catalyst for change,since it isn't an effective educational tool.

    and as for humor, i agree that we laugh to distance or absolve ourselves, but i also think humor is useful. i suppose mindfulness is the answer here. i also laughed at the video re: gay men marrying girlfriends. i wsan't laughing at the gay men;,i was laughing at how pathetic they made heterosexual men sound. does that make it ok? don't know, but I hope mindful laughter can help us work towards mutual understanding.
    really interesting post/conversation! thanks!

    1. I think you and Amanda are both right that education should be the goal, and I think that education works really well in a lot of situations. I remember taking a cultural diversity class as a freshman in undergrad and really having my eyes opened to a lot of inequalities I hadn't seen before. Too often, though, I think that education only comes to people who are open-minded enough to seek it out (that class was an elective, after all). And I think that real educational change has to take place at a much younger age.

  4. At the end of it all, human beings are social beings. Acceptance of that person by those around them will always play a role in whether they change or not.
    Shaming is a society showing disapproval of a particular behaviour. If expressed strongly enough, it forces the individual into a sensemaking crisis. The outcome of that crisis will depend on the individual.

    It is incumbent on all of us to do what we can to fight racism. Jezebel took an extraordinary extra step that we should all be doing. They ensured that some sensemaking was started by the individuals concerned.Shaming sites with no follow-up actions are a waste of time.

    And yes it is all so complex, so just take the strongest possible action. The hand wringing over racism shaming reminds of Malaysian courts who pardon men from rape charges because it will have a negative effect on their future. Prosecuting a rapist will of its own neither end rape or patriarchy but we do it anyway.

    1. That's a really interesting analogy, and I hadn't thought of it that way. In the case of prosecuting rapists, though, we have a legal system in which to act. These kids broke no laws with their tweets, so the system of punishment is definitely different.

      I agree with you, though, that prosecuting rape really doesn't do much to stop the pervasive rape culture. And I think that for both racism and rape culture, doling out harsh punishment (legal or social) to the offenders without actively examining the culture that allows those things to begin with isn't preventing future acts and sometimes allows us to ignore those underlying causes. That's why I think public shaming (and criminal prosecution, for that matter) should only be a starting point, not an end game.

  5. I think your comments here really sum up the problem with shaming as a tactic to me:
    "Children are people, too, and children who are willing to tweet racial epithets about the President are likely to grow up into people with influence who have learned to keep their racist thoughts a little more hidden. "

    Is shaming people going to teach them to be less racist (or homophobic, sexist, etc) or is it just going to encourage them to be more subtle about it, to use and create new code words, to act only when they can get away with it?

    My other issue is the misuse of shaming that I have seen. In one case I have seen a blogger with a large following threatening to dox an underage black girl for being racist (the girl in question, iirc, believed such things as that POC were capable of racism as well, and things along that line). Not necessarily statements we agree with, but are such statements so bad that they deserve a young girl's real name, address and high school to be put online?

    Most people might use shaming and doxing for people who are doing real harm. But there will always be a small group of people who will have the online clout and maliciousness to use shaming as a tool to harass and stalk people who disagree with them. And so long as we condone shaming, we tacitly condone their actions, because they are doing the same as we would be doing. The line for who deserves to be one the receiving end of such actions will always be subjective, and for some people that will always be "whoever disagrees with me/cheats on their boyfriend/is privileged/" or whatever makes someone believe another person deserves it. And how do we argue that our reasons are better than theirs? When they may honestly believe that the person they are shaming is really contributing to racism?

  6. One way to see if this idea of "public shaming" works is to look at cultures where shame is traditionally used as the ultimate form of punishment. I have actually thought about this before because I live in China where "shame" and "saving face" are the lifeblood of society. To do something that causes a person to "loose face" (basically, to make one look bad) is the worst thing that can happen to a person in China. However, throughout history, the Chinese have also been known as liars and untrustworthy. This isn't just a "western" viewpoint either. If you read anything from Chinese history, the viewpoint is the same. Lying, backstabbing, cheating are all part of how to get ahead in Chinese culture. The idea of loosing face and being ashamed is public, not personal. As long as you can lie and cheat and steal and get ahead, then it's fine. But if you get caught, that is the sin. This hasn't created a more enlightened society, only a more secretive one.

    Publicly shaming one's racism won't change their mind about being racist, only make sure they don't share it on Twitter anymore.

  7. It's hard to argue against shaming, to some degree, reinforcing social norms.I would argue, however, that using it in that way is a form of consequentialism.

    I searched for the word "slut" in this article, after reading it I couldn't believe that slut shaming wasn't mentioned, and somehow I still feel like I must have missed it. I'm not sure what side of slut shaming you come down on, but without knowing much about you outside of this article I'd guess you're against it, like I am.

    The problem with all kinds of consequentialism is that the people justifying their behavior on that premise assume apriori that their point of view is correct, morally superior, etc. Any person or group can attempt to use shaming, othering, social isolation, alienation, etc to make a target feel very bad about themselves. In some percentage of cases that will change their target's behavior in desired ways, although it's probably less likely they will change their target's minds (as you pointed out).

    What gets lost in this process is, in my experience, dispassionate discussion of whether or not the social norms being advocated are actually beneficial for society. Sometimes they will be, sometimes they won't be. Part of the importance of freedom of speech, not only in a legal sense but also in a ethical sense, is that it allows plenty of room for the bad ideas to be defeated based on their merits (or lack their of).

    I know it seems like, as a society, we shouldn't need to discuss why something like racism is wrong anymore. But there still are some people who engage in racist behavior, consciously or unconsciously. Even if a large group of people say in response to someone behaving in a racist way, "stop doing that or we're going to be very mean to you" without them understanding why what they did was wrong, they may end up doing something similar again. At best shaming only works on the symptoms.

    At worse shaming as a tactic puts us in an nearly indefensible position and makes it difficult for us to maintain moral high ground against opposition. If we attempt to shame racists, and other groups shame members of, say, the LGBTQ community then we respond "that's mean, you shouldn't treat anyone like that" they'll say "really? you did very similar things to someone just for posting a racist tweet."

    When you stare into the abyss the abyss stares back in to you. :-/

    1. You are making a lot of excellent points.

      You're right that I am completely against slut-shaming, though I didn't talk about it here because I was more focused specifically on these examples that deal with racial bigotry. I am also against fat shaming. Both of those (slut shaming and fat shaming) are done from a place of moral superiority that pretends to be in the shamed person's best interest, but is really just about securing the place of privilege for the person doing the shaming.

      I completely agree with you that shaming shuts down discussion and makes it less likely that the person doing the "shameable" offense is likely to think about the reason behind his/her actions. While it personally baffles me that we would still need to explain why racist behavior is wrong, it's obvious that there's a large segment of the population who needs to have that conversation.

      This is where it gets tough for me, though. Shaming intersects with positions of privilege. In the case of fat shaming or slut shaming, the person in the position of privilege is the one doing the shaming. In the case of shaming racists, the people in positions of privilege are the ones being shamed. I think that this changes the power dynamic in a way that creates an important distinction.

      I don't think that people in positions of less privilege should have to become "educators" in order to merely exist without harassment. Yes, a person who is fat shaming probably needs to be educated about the issues surrounding that decision, but a fat person should not have to have that conversation to merely exist without being tormented. Can you imagine how many times a day they would have to have that talk? It would consume their lives. The same is true of people who are victims of racial prejudice. They should not have to justify their rights to be treated without racism in order to exist on a day-to-day basis. That would be exhausting and time-consuming in a way that would prevent them from accomplishing other work.

      Ultimately, I see a difference between something like slut shaming and something like shaming racists because of that power differential. When the people in power are the ones doing the shaming, they're merely reinforcing a position they already hold, and I don't see much redeemable in that. When the people in power are the ones being shamed, I think that the shaming has more potential to operate as a defense. In both cases, though, I don't think that there's much learning taking place, and I think that learning is where real change happens.