December 13, 2020

What are the Best Arguments For Public Shaming on Social Media?

Outrage mode activate
Photo by Nikhil Verma

I've written quite a bit about my opposition to the online public shaming of individuals who do or say things we don't like. I have described it as a form of mob justice or Internet vigilantism. I have pointed out the hypocrisy associated with much of it, noted that we all pay a price for participating in it, and suggested that it harms many of the goals we claim to value. Finally, I have argued that there are better ways of dealing with the bad ideas we all encounter besides those that aim to suppress their expression.

Now I'd like to flip the script and see if we can't come up with the best possible defense of online public shaming. That is, what are the strongest arguments we can muster for using the Internet to publicly shame others who do or say things we don't like?

Why would I do this when I am clearly opposed to public shaming? As a freethinker, I believe it is important to make an effort to understand multiple sides of contentious issues. And to be honest, I have been surprised by how few people I've encountered putting forth arguments for public shaming even though I see many of them doing it. I don't want to unfairly assume that this is because they haven't thought about what they are doing. Instead, I'll assume they have a justification for what they are doing and try to understand it.

What is Public Shaming?

Publicly shaming others online is a core component of what has been referred to as call-out culture or outrage culture. It is distinct from public criticism in many important ways. It has become extremely popular, especially among the political left (although it is by no means unique to the political left). It is now common enough that I see people doing it every time I use Twitter without going out of my way to look for it. One of the more common examples involves explicitly calling on other users to punish the perceived offender by revealing their identity, pressuring their employer to fire them, and taking similar punitive measures (e.g., posting a photo of the perceived offender with the admonition "Twitter, do your thing").

There are many forms of public shaming, but it seems like the most common centers around efforts to cost the offender their job and ruin their reputation. The person is "outed" or "doxxed" so that their identity is revealed to the world. Their name, employer, address, and other information is disseminated. But making sure the world knows what they said rarely seems to be enough. Those participating in the shaming appear to want to see evidence of harm coming to them too. Thus, the public shaming is often accompanied by a campaign to get them fired and or prevent any employer from hiring them in the future. Old Testament fans might recognize some elements of scorched Earth warfare here, as the desired punishment tends to be both harsh and permanent.

Why Do People Participate in Public Shaming?

There are bound to be many different reasons, and it seems likely that different people will participate in public shaming for different reasons. I recognize that this isn't satisfying, and so I will offer some speculation here about what I think it going on for many. Best I can tell, the overarching mindset that appears to drive most online public shaming seems to be something along these lines:

When I encounter someone saying something I find offensive, stupid, or with which I strongly disagree, I must publicly call this person out. Merely correcting the person is not enough; this person deserves to be harmed. His or her reputation, status, living situation, or job must be assailed by as many people as possible. In short, this person deserves to be punished in the most severe ways I can help to bring about, and I feel a moral obligation to play a part in this punishment.
I'm not claiming everyone who participates in public shaming does so with this intent; what drives this behavior is what I am trying to understand. I have had a few people express that this was their intent quite clearly when I asked about it, but I suspect there are others who are operating reflexively without putting that much thought into their actions. And yes, there may be other factors involved of which I am unaware.

Trying to Understand What Drives Public Shaming

These are some of the specific things I'd like to understand about online public shaming and what drives it:

  1. When we publicly shame someone online, what are we usually hoping to accomplish (i.e., what outcome are we after)?
  2. How do we go from seeing someone say something we consider sexist, racist, or otherwise objectionable to the point of deciding to participate in their punishment?
  3. What is the source of our perceived authority to punish those who do or say things we do not like?
  4. Why are we so quick to join others in punishing someone without due process, and does it ever occur to us that one of the big problems with mob justice of any sort is that people can be unfairly harmed when the perceived transgressions turn out to be incorrect?
  5. If we were to refrain from publicly calling out someone who said something we didn't like, would this somehow make us "part of the problem" we are trying to solve?
What do you think? What are the best arguments you have heard in favor of online public shaming? Do you imagine that most of those who participate in public shaming have arguments to support what they are doing, or do you suspect they are mostly acting without thinking?