Controversy: The Virtues of Humiliation

Continuing the debate from "The Shaming Sham," by Carl F. Horowitz (March-April 1997).

Dear Dr. Horowitz:

After reading your commentary on public shaming ["The Shaming Sham," TAP, March-April 1997], I realized that to engage in an intelligent debate on this topic, we first need to distinguish shaming from honorable forms of argumentation. I hope that you'd agree that it is shameful to point to one attribute shared by two parties, and then blame the second party for the various failings of the first. Thus, it is wrongheaded to accuse liberals of being commies just because both shared a concern for the downtrodden. Likewise, it is quite unacceptable for Stephen Holmes to taint communitarians with the sins of authoritarians just because both groups are critical of liberals, as he does in his book Anatomy of Antiliberalism.

Of course, if you agree with me on the above two examples, then surely you will see the ironic flaw of your essay: You have written a tirade against shaming in which you avoid making an honorable argument by instead relying on shaming tactics of your own. Rather than treat shaming, which can be an educational and pro-social device, on its own terms, you repeatedly conflate it with: physical violence, including public hangings and the beheading of convicted drug dealers; "godly fumigation" of the termites that Pat Robertson claims are running our institutions; blacklisting and boycotts; and—the least of the charges—turning "cultural enemies into feckless mush."

To separate fact from allegation, let's start at the beginning. Shaming entails symbolic acts that communicate disapproval, ranging from relatively gentle acts such as according a student a C+ or sending a disruptive kid to stand in the classroom's corner, to a more severe measure such as marking the cars of people convicted of repeat drunk driving with a glow-in-the-dark bumper sticker that reads, "Convicted DUI—Restricted License." Shaming thus differs sharply from many other modes of punishment—public spanking for instance—in that the latter inflict bodily harm, rather than being limited to psychic discomfort, which has untoward consequences of its own. True, violent punishments also inflict shame, but this is a side effect of the main abuse. To equate shaming with public hangings is like conflating the lowering of flags with funerals, and Radio Marti with the Bay of Pigs.

The first step in determining whether shaming is morally appropriate is to recognize that shaming is only justified when those being shamed are acting out of free will. When people act inappropriately but cannot help themselves, such as when those with mental illnesses talk to themselves loudly, chiding them is highly inappropriate. Many progressives argue that it is wrongheaded to shame the poor, the disadvantaged, and the unemployed for antisocial behavior, because society is to blame for their condition. Social conservatives, by contrast, depict most everything from homosexuality to being on welfare as reflecting one's free choices, and hence blameworthy if the choices made do not suit social conservative beliefs. In either case, when there is no free will, shaming is highly inappropriate.

But while you see any attempt to censure people as a form of intimidation used by political tyrants, the true test of the merit of shaming is faced when the people the community seeks to deal with are those who command a significant measure of free choice. Think about Michael Milken, who made $550 million a year and then cheated and clawed his way to another $100 million.

How are we to deal with those whose antisocial behavior cannot be ignored, and who can behave differently? The answer depends greatly on your assumptions about human nature. The sanguine crowd tends to assume that people can be convinced to conduct themselves in a socially constructive manner solely by means of praise and other forms of encouragement, or by nondirective and nonjudgmental treatment, allowing the goodness of people to unfold. For those who share this view, shaming is indeed cruel and unusual and unnecessary punishment.

Once we realize, however, that a world of only positive reinforcements is wondrous but not within human reach, we must reluctantly turn to disincentives, sanctions, and other forms of punishment. True, we should first determine if the social demands are fair and reasonable, and to what extent we can rely on positive inducements. But, at the end of the day, some form of disincentive—hopefully sparing and mostly of the gentle kind—cannot be avoided.

When it comes to punishment, the less you are inclined to shame, the more you end up relying on much harsher means of control, such as jailing and caning (two examples of punishment you mistakenly conflate with shaming). Many of my progressive friends are horrified at the hypothetical suggestion that a youngster convicted for the first time for dealing hard drugs on a playground should be sent home without his pants and with his head shaved clean. The widely used alternative is to send the same youngster to a place in which he will typically be subject to gang rape and deeply inducted into the culture of crime—a vastly inferior option.

Finally, shaming has one feature that even you cannot dispute: Shaming reflects the community's values, and hence cannot be imposed by the authorities per se against the people. Thus, if being sent to the principal's office is a badge of honor in a person's peer culture, then no shaming will occur. A yellow star, imposed to mark and shame Jews in Nazi Germany, is now worn as a matter of pride in Israel.

In short, unlike all other forms of punishment, shaming is deeply democratic. It can be said with only the slightest of exaggeration that if punish we must, shaming should be at the top of the list.


Amitai Etzioni

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Dear Dr. Etzioni:

I must say that after reading your commentary, you have proved more insightful as a student of complex organizations than as an evangelist for community reinvigoration. Not only do you misrepresent any number of my points, but you also shoot yourself in the foot more than once.

From what I gather, the gravamen of your complaint is that I lump together disreputable proponents of shaming with reputable ones, thereby committing the cardinal sin of confusing the content of an idea with its source. My taking to task fevered extremists who call for, say, public floggings of adulterers, you argue, only will undermine efforts by wonderfully civic-minded folks who deal with wrongdoing more humanely and effectively. I reiterate my position: Using shame as public policy attracts extremists, and the "good cops" of the shaming patrol differ from the "bad" ones far more in strategy than in substance. And the goal of both camps is stringent control over individual expression, lest the immoral among us lead us further down some cultural slippery slope. Inasmuch as it's necessary to distinguish between extremists and moderates, let us also remember "moderate" versions of bad ideas have a way of getting out of hand, and becoming witch-hunts. It is poetic justice that those who start revolutions often get swallowed by them.

Extreme or not, supporters of shaming make two spurious claims: first, shaming precludes, rather than precedes, government censorship; and second, shaming is humane and benign in and of itself. Since you've chosen not to force my hand on the first point, I'll stick to the second.

Shaming, even to the supposedly prudent extent you favor, is not likely to be humane or effective. I chose This Will Hurt as the point of reference because it exemplifies the seductive power of a bad idea. It may not seem right to harp on Singapore's caning of an American vandal, but consider this: A prominent mainstream conservative, National Review senior editor Jeffrey Hart, in giving This Will Hurt advance publicity, not only praised Singapore's action, but called for similar measures here.

Let us hope that you are blessed with a milder disposition. Still, with few reservations, you think shaming a decent, stabilizing, and "deeply democratic" process. You delight in shocking your progressive friends in describing how you would humiliate a drug-dealing school kid. Leaving aside what type of drug was dealt, and in what quantity, I should like to know where such a strategy has worked.

In your zeal to shame, you propose a dragnet that would not only snag drug-dealing school kids, but would also nail financier Michael Milken. That poor dead horse, Mr. Milken, spearheaded the construction of the information superhighway, enabling companies such as Turner Broadcasting, McCaw Cellular, MCI, and TCI to bypass banks to acquire needed project capital. For his efforts, Milken did earn $1.1 billion during 1984-87 (as opposed to the more virtuous Sam Walton, who earned $4 billion in 1987 alone). But Milken during this period also paid an estimated $500 million in federal and state taxes, and donated $300 million to schools and charities. That's not including the $600 million he paid the federal government years later to settle his case, or, of course, his stretch in federal prison.

Nowhere do I imply we should avoid speaking difficult truths to egregious wrongdoers, or to those accommodating them. Personally, I wouldn't want to belong to any country club that would have O.J. Simpson as a member. What I object to in today's manifold calls for moral censorship is the reflexively punitive tone, and the refusal to consider the consequences of institutionalizing fear. Individualism is not a four-letter word, and America is better off for that fact. In the long run, to challenge shaming as public policy, it is crucial to debunk the notion of America as in a state of cultural collapse, and thus in need of a "culture war" to restore it to good graces. But then again, without such a war most advocates of shaming would be out of a job.


Carl F. Horowitz

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