Ain’t That a Shame?

Last year, seniors at Dartmouth and Cornell found themselves getting strong-armed to contribute to their parting “class gifts.” The student fund raisers were given lists of those who had donated—and of those who had yet to. As the Chronicle of Higher Education recently reported, the eager young rainmakers then set about using the obligatory social-networking tools to shame their peers into ponying up.

It soon got ugly. At Dartmouth, when one holdout remained, a columnist for the student newspaper denounced her—though not by name. That happened the next day on a student blog, where a writer called her a “parasite,” posted her name and picture, and sneered, “You’re not even worth the one measly dollar that you wouldn’t give.”

Tommaso Masaccio’s ‘The Expulsion of Adam and Eve From Eden.’

Welcome to the new world of shaming, in which the ancient fear of public humiliation and ostracism (once a homely, low-tech business of the stocks and pillories) has become a high-tech tool to motivate and incentivize. Where once such tactics were used to enforce a traditional moral code, today they have found new life in nudging us to conform to “prosocial” behavior, be it philanthropy or strict adherence to the expansive pieties of our reigning civic religion, environmentalism.

America has a long (and many have argued, shameful) history of shaming. Things got going in earnest in 1639 when Plymouth colonist Mary Mendame was found to have committed “the act of uncleannesse” with an Indian named Tinsin. The judge sentenced her “to be whipt at a carte tayle through the townes streete, and to weare a badge upon her left sleeve.” And if the proto-Prynne failed to wear her scarlet letter, she was “to be burned in the face with a hott iron.”

Today, the tradition lives on. Several northeastern states “name and shame”—usually by means of online lists—citizens behind on their taxes. For some officials, though, even that approach is too discreet. Last Sunday, the city of Holyoke, Mass., publicized the names of delinquent taxpayers in the local newspaper. The goal, explained City Treasurer Jon D. Lumbra, was to shame those people into paying what they owed. (Mr. Lumbra did not say whether the city will seek to have the scofflaws wear a scarlet “T.”)

Such efforts are ham-fisted. The advocates of bringing social pressure to bear on modern ne’er-do-wells generally push for more subtle forms of public pressure. Earlier this year, the District of Columbia instituted a tax on disposable shopping bags. Supermarkets in Washington now charge five cents for every plastic bag, and you have to specifically request one. But the expected revenues have not materialized because the number of bags used by shoppers has plummeted. Environmental advocates are delighted, but note that the the tax alone can’t account for the dramatic drop in revenues. It’s unlikely that the average Washingtonian is deterred by the small tax incurred on a dozen bags when paying a $300 grocery bill. They argue that shaming gets the credit. Shoppers are hesitant to expose their lack of eco-virtue to the withering stares of the good citizens behind them in the checkout line. As Councilman Tommy Wells, the District’s prime bag-tax cheerleader, recently told the Journal, “It’s more important to get in their heads than in their pocketbooks.”

When it comes to the criminal code, shaming can be a lot cheaper than incarceration. The last decade saw something of a fad for shame-based punishments, among them fitting “humility tags” to the the cars of convicted drunk drivers, and making petty thieves wear signs proclaiming their offenses. The “communitarian” thinkers behind shaming argue that the practice not only encourages public decency but allows society to make unambiguous moral statements about what behaviors are beyond the pale. In practice, the behaviors that warrant such a response seem to be such things as insufficient effort to reduce one’s carbon footprint.

The Internet has done much to promote our peculiarly modern sort of shaming. Annoy the wrong person, behave in a way some blogger disdains, and you will soon find yourself locked in the digital pillory, exposed to snark and ridicule. These are supposed to be salubrious incentives to civil public behavior, but I haven’t seen much evidence that a Web-armed society is a polite one.

The most odious aspect of these online humiliations is that they don’t go away. As law professor Daniel J. Solove notes in his book “The Future of Reputation,” the Internet saddles us with permanent digital baggage: “Internet shaming creates an indelible blemish on a person’s identity. Being shamed in cyberspace is akin to being marked for life.”

The old colonists eventually thought better of the practice. Even as hanging remained a common punishment, shaming was deemed inhumane and eventually abandoned.

As efforts to prod us with the threat of shame grow, it’s worth keeping in mind that the tactic only works if we go along. The Dartmouth student who chose not to donate to the school didn’t back down, publicly stating “I resent the pressure that was applied to me.” Soon it was the college that was backtracking: A Dartmouth fund-raising official said they “deeply regret” the violation of the student’s privacy and that changes would be made to the way class gifts are solicited. Cornell is also re-emphasizing respect for privacy in asking for donations.

The British philosopher-politician Edmund Burke urged “adherence to principle,” and warned against succumbing to threats of humiliation: “It is a power of resisting false shame and frivolous fear, that assert our good faith and honor, and assure to us the confidence of mankind.”

Then again, he never had to ask for a disposable plastic grocery bag.

Eric Felten, Wall Street Journal


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