June 12, 2016

Word: The danger of public shaming

Tiffany D. Vann Sprecher is a professor of medieval history at Kingsborough Community College
Tiffany D. Vann Sprecher  Outraged by the verdict and attendant abuses in [Brock] Turner’s case, people have taken to the internet to extra-legally vindicate justice where they perceive the law to have failed. ... Such online vigilantism evokes medieval justice, which relied heavily on public shaming. Legal punishments included mutilation and penitential walks (like that shown in Game of Thrones) as ways of marking criminals and subjecting them to ridicule. Perhaps the medieval punishment that comes closest to current internet shaming practices was the pillory. Convicted criminals were displayed in the center of town in wood apparatuses that held them by neck and wrists in a bowing, humiliating position. Usually the criminal would be displayed with a description or a symbol of his or her crime. The butcher who sold rotten meat, for example, would be pilloried and arrayed with the spoiled meat as both an explanation of and punishment for his crime.

Then and now, public shaming serves an important purpose, allowing the public to participate in its own vindication and to give vent to its rage. In the case of extra-legal public shaming it also makes up for inadequacies in the legal system. Memes labeling Turner a rapist correct the improper naming of his crimes by the media and augment his inadequate punishment.

Public shaming has a dark side, however, in that it has no checks and balances and is often susceptible to excess. Medieval and early modern sources describe people being subjected to pillorying without due process and, once there, being subject to unconscionable treatment, such as being urinated upon. The same applies to the Turner case. Turner’s family and friends, Judge Persky and his family, have all been threatened. When news outlets published a letter written in Turner’s defense by his childhood friend, Leslie Rasmussen, a professor unfortunate enough to have the same name also became the object of internet shaming. Much of this shaming includes wishes, threats, and predictions that the object of scorn be raped. In this application of public shaming, the modern has not deviated far from medieval abuses we imagine ourselves to have transcended.....

The pillorying of Brock Turner represents the best and the worst of public outcries for justice. At best it acts as a corrective to the failings of our formal legal system. At worst, what starts as a movement to express sympathy and solidarity with victims can spiral into expressions of rage that create further injustice and more victims.

No comments: