The Shame of Public Shaming

You can’t spend 10 seconds on social media without coming across a post along the lines of, “So-and-so did such-and-such, and I am so outraged!” Public shaming occurs with similar frequency on our so-called news outlets, where the most popular type of story has become the display of someone’s outrageous tweet followed by scores of equally outrageous emotional reactions.


Is public shaming helpful? Is it constructive? Is it making the world more harmonious?  No, instead it is driving wedge upon wedge between relationships, driving people further and further into their own corners. I suppose people have many reasons for taking their emotions to the streets of social media.

  • Some public shaming is what is called  “virtue signaling” — a way people can feel good about themselves by trying to make somebody else feel bad about having a particular point of view or taking a particular action. There is an element of manipulation and insincerity in this, which makes it all the more distasteful.
  • Some public shaming is even more manipulative and completely insincere — an attempt to curry favor with customers, attract adherents to a political agenda, or get people to tune into a so-called news program.
  • Some public shaming is motivated by genuine dislike, mild or vehement.

There are a multitude of problems associated with public shaming, and thankfully there are critics in all quarters who speak out against it. One such critic is Jesus Christ, who even most non-believers would agree is a pretty good teacher. What does Jesus have to say about this? Two passages come to mind, both from Matthew.

  • “By what right wilt thou say to thy brother, Wait, let me rid thy eye of that speck, when there is a beam all the while in thy own?  Thou hypocrite, take the beam out of thy own eye first, and so thou shalt have clear sight to rid thy brother’s of the speck.” (MT 7:4-5)
  • “If thy brother does thee wrong, go at once and tax him with it, as a private matter between thee and him; and so, if he will listen to thee, thou hast won thy brother.  If he will not listen to thee, take with thee one or two more, that the whole matter may be certified by the voice of two or three witnesses.  If he will not listen to them, then speak of it to the church; and if he will not even listen to the church, then count him all one with the heathen and the publican.” (MT 18:15-17)

Much wisdom here. For those who believe the teachings of Christ are out of date, this issue is a prime example of how His teachings have never been more timely. The rise of social media, where everyone has a public voice, makes it more important than ever for us to consider with great care how we use our voices.

The first passage encourages us to deal with our own shortcomings before taking shots at others. As a practical matter, public shaming isn’t likely to accomplish much. It’s not likely to change the other person’s point of view; it’s only going to motivate the other person to dig in his heels all the more. And this digging in of heels is possibly justified. Perhaps the person leveling the charge is wrong to do so. Perhaps the accuser has a character flaw or incorrect perspective that invalidates the accusation. Do we ask ourselves that question before leveling a charge? Do we ask ourselves that question before believing such a charge? Jesus certainly encourages us to do so. If we are able to build our own character and come closer to a true perspective, we are then accomplishing a great deal. As a practical matter we are much better off.

In the second passage, Jesus gives us an excellent model for reconciling differences. The first step is to confront the other person and try to settle the matter privately. It’s very difficult to do this, but very wise. Public shaming, even if the accuser is right or partially right, causes the target to suffer humiliation, and damages his personal and professional relationships.  It could derail a career or destroy a marriage. Given the potential for harm, is public shaming a good course of action as a first step? If a matter is grave and cannot be settled privately, then it can be escalated. These days our distrust of public institutions is quite an obstacle to handling disputes in this manner. Scandals plague institutions throughout the world, from Hollywood to the Holy See. Taking down a public figure has become the international pastime.  Do we feel that we can rely on our church or our government to judge fairly and honestly? It may be that public shaming has exploded because people don’t see any other way to resolve issues that in a more virtuous society would be handled routinely by religious or secular institutions. Unfortunately, the injustice of the mob is as bad or worse than the injustice of institutions.

As is usually the case, the teachings of Jesus are hard teachings. Handling disputes privately takes courage. Remaining silent on social media takes restraint and control of one’s emotions. Determining whether an accusation is reasonable requires study and introspection. None of these things is easy, comfortable, or even satisfying, at least on the surface. However, with courage and restraint and study and introspection, we build character. We advance in our ability to make judgements, to discern which wrongs truly need to be righted, and to understand how we can most effectively set things right.

(Image Credit – Wikimedia Commons)

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