The Art of Public Humiliation

We’ve all seen them. The people holding the signs somewhere in public. “I stole from J.C. Penney. This is my punishment.” Things like that. There are cat memes and dog memes along this same line, but the controversy only comes when dealing with people.

Louis D. Brandeis said, “Publicity is justly commended as a remedy for social and industrial diseases. Sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants; electric light the most efficient policeman.” He also said, “The most important political office is that of the private citizen.”

Thanks to social media, the private citizen is far less private. The private citizen has become a ray of sunshine, sometimes unwelcome, into the shadowy world of clandestine behavior. I’m not even talking about the Wikileaks level of sunshine. I’m talking about a single citizen with a cell phone. Once a video or a picture goes viral, there is no stopping it. Businesses can be forced to change policy or close doors. Charges can be filed. Sometimes, the picture doesn’t tell the whole story. Many times, it says more than enough.

“With great power comes great responsibility.” (a quick Google search attributes that one to an NYC mayor and Ben Parker from Spiderman) Regardless of who said it, the quote is true. We have a lot of power as citizens that we don’t always use. And sometimes, when we do use it, we don’t use it responsibly. But speaking for myself, public humiliation is a great power.

Typically, there are two schools of thought when it comes to the power of public humiliation. I find that people are all for it unless it happens to them or someone they like. Ah, the old double standard. There are arguments that say the kid or adult who wears the sign confessing to theft will only get better at concealing his or her crimes in the future. I chuckle a bit when a punishment for wrongdoing gets blamed for more wrongdoing.

I grew up in a small town where there were no secrets. Everything was public. Even people who weren’t trying to get me in trouble, inadvertently did so by striking up an innocent conversation with my mother. “Hey, I saw Susan the other day riding in so-and-so’s car.” This would have been no issue except for the fact that I was not allowed to ride in cars that belonged to people outside of my family. I thought my mom had spies set up all over town. Nope. Just people trying to make conversation. And that was long before smart phones and viral videos.

Today, I saw a post on social media about a teen who was texting and driving. (allegedly, right?) The picture shows a girl in the driver’s seat of a car holding her phone. She is stopped for the moment. The poster claims this teen driver was texting and speeding and nearly ran the poster’s family off the road. That’s where the allegedly part comes in, I suppose. However, the controversy came, not from the wording, but from the poster putting this picture up on social media. Something widely called “putting someone on blast.” Pretty early into the comments under the picture, a female starts complaining about the fact that her friend was put on blast by “two old women.” Eventually, the female admitted she was only sixteen and the girl in the picture is a friend. Instead of being concerned for her friend’s unsafe behavior, she was concerned that her friend was being embarrassed on social media. We have laws named for people who have been killed by inattentative drivers, but the concern was for the public humiliation rather than safety.

I’m all for public humiliation. And if someone is doing something unsafe, perhaps a little embarrassment will keep them from suffering a worse fate. You know, like being imprisoned or embalmed. And if one of my kids was out there doing something unsafe, I would want to know about it so I could address it. Luckily, this story didn’t include pictures of the teen in a ditch somewhere after crashing out from inattentative driving. She was still in one piece. I hope she stays that way. But I also hope that pride and that sense of entitlement displayed by her friend on social media isn’t something that gets in the way of a lesson learned.

And just so we’re clear here. I’ve been in this girl’s position. I learned about public humiliation when I was twelve. We had just moved to a new town and some girls at my new church were saying someone was saying bad things about me. Now…it didn’t occur to my twelve-year-old brain that this someone wouldn’t have had anything to say since she didn’t know me. Instead, I went all pathos over the deal and called her up. I ranted over the phone line at her (this was long before cordless versions) until her mother came to the phone. As soon as I heard her mother’s voice, I hung up. Her mom called right back. I’d been stupid enough to leave my full name. Naturally, her mother and my mother had a conversation. The end result? I was taken to this girl’s house and made to apologize to her and her parents. That, my friends, is how my mom rolls. She is all about personal responsibility and ownership of one’s mistakes. And frankly, I’m a better person because of it.

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