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Bad Tweets and the Ethics of Shaming

By Kenneth Boyd
7 Aug 2018
Black and white photograph of baseball player Area Turner walking off of the baseball field, glove in hand

Here’s a news story that you’ve probably come across recently: someone’s tweets from a number of years ago have resurfaced, and they’re not good. Tweets that express racist, sexist, homophobic, or whatever other kinds of reprehensible sentiments are brought to light, and the original tweeter is publicly shamed, in one form or another. Making the biggest headlines recently is undoubtedly James Gunn, director of the first two Guardians of the Galaxy movies: Gunn was fired from directing the next installment of the blockbuster franchise due to the discovery of old tweets in which he made a series of tasteless jokes about rape and pedophilia. Or consider two recent examples from the world of professional baseball: the cases of Atlanta Braves pitcher Sean Newcomb and Washington Nationals shortstop Trea Turner, whose Twitter histories were rife with posts using homophobic slurs. The punishments that the Tweeters received upon discovery of their tweets has varied significantly: in Gunn’s case, losing his job, while in Newcomb’s and Turner’s cases, having to issue statements expressing their remorse.

It is clear that making these kinds of remarks is unacceptable. As many of those who have had their tweets uncovered remark, however, they made their offensive remarks when they were younger and less mature. Others have claimed that while people tend to be much more conscientious of their behavior online today, this was not always the case: societal standards change quickly, and what one may have thought acceptable to express in the past is not necessarily something they would express today. At the very least, these individuals claim that they have grown, learned, and changed. We might wonder, then: what is the value of shaming someone for their bad tweeting history? Should these people be shamed in the way they have been?

There have been a number of different responses in the media. On the one hand, there are arguments that the punishment of public shaming is too severe given the transgression. For instance, many of the cast and crew involved in the Guardians of the Galaxy movies expressed publicly their support for Gunn. Amelia Tait, writing for the New Statesman, addresses the phenomenon more generally, and while by no means condoning the content of egregious tweets, she summarizes the worry of public shaming in the following way:

“These individuals become scapegoats for society’s wrongs. This makes it even more dystopian and strange that everything we’ve ever posted can be recorded for all time, as the people who will be punished aren’t the worst transgressors, but are simply the less digitally savvy.” 

Tait’s concern is again that individuals who are the target of what she calls “search and shame” have had tweets brought to light that were written in a time in which societal standards were different. Furthermore, it is not as though many others weren’t also using the same kind of problematic terminology, or expressing similar thoughts at the time: it is just that many others paid enough attention to their online presence to delete those tweets. We might think, then, that singling out an individual and shaming them for what was really a societal problem is unfair.

Philosophers have taken different stances on the ethical value of shaming. There are, of course, harms that shaming can produce: in addition to the negative emotions involved in feeling shame, shaming can clearly be damaging to reputation of the individual being shamed. This is indeed often the point, as shaming is generally intended as a form of punishment. However, public shaming has also been employed in countless incidents as direct affronts to an individual’s dignity: incidents in which racial minorities and members of the LGBTQ community have been publicly shamed are revoltingly commonplace. It is no doubt the case that shaming can be used as a tool for significant harm, and in such cases it is unambiguous that shaming is morally unacceptable. In general, philosophers have expressed worries that in many cases shaming is an expression of whether one has only met a particular set of standards, ones that might not always be good, rather than meeting the standards of morality itself.

As others have recognized, however, shaming, when used correctly, can indeed be a force for moral good. For example, in reaction to the instances of bad tweeting behavior from the baseball players mentioned above, Barry Petchesky writes that “Public shaming has value…it’s just another term for what we might otherwise call norms or standards of decency”, and cites fellow writer David Roth who refers to shame as “a broader and more compelling force that, when suitably brought to bear, would keep people from behaving in ways they ought not.” A number of philosophers have argued for the same sort of view: the general idea is that when shame is used in the right way it can serve as not only a punishment for a wrongdoing, but as a way to uphold positive social norms. The threat of public shaming, then, can serve as a motivator for better actions not only from the individual themselves, but for everyone else. Shame can thus serve as a force of moral guidance: as the philosopher Virgil Aldrich argued all the way back in 1939, “Never do anything which you would feel ashamed to do and always do what you would feel ashamed not to do.” (Aldritch, “An Ethics of Shame”, Ethics 50 (1939), 57-77)

That shame can have moral value is not to condone every instance of shaming; on the contrary, as we have seen it can be and is used as a force for significant harm. It is also not to say that the person who is shamed should be totally outcast from society: there ought to be at least the possibility of forgiveness. For instance, consider again how Turner responded to the discovery of his bad tweeting history:

“There are no excuses for my insensitive and offensive language on Twitter…I am sincerely sorry for those tweets and apologize wholeheartedly. I believe people who know me understand those regrettable actions do not reflect my values or who I am. But I understand the hurtful nature of such language and am sorry to have brought any negative light to the Nationals organization, myself or the game I love.”

Assuming that Turner’s sentiments are sincere, and that his actions reflect his words, we might again wonder what the value of publicly shaming him for his past behavior is, given that he his values have since changed. However, his response to being shamed has value in the following ways. First, by expressing regret and apologizing for his bad tweets, he is helping uphold the positive social norms involved in not using offensive language. Second, as a professional baseball player, many young people no doubt see him as a role model, and so for him to recognize the harms that his past actions may have caused could encourage those who look up to him to reflect upon the ways in which they use their words, as well. Many of those who would stand to benefit from such reflection would be the kind of young men that Turner himself once was, namely as someone who was likely not the target of uses of offensive language like slurs that were meant to cause harm. It is easy for someone to employ offensive language online when there are few immediate repercussions for doing so, and even easier when one witnesses the same behavior going unpunished by others, especially people that one idolizes. Even though we might think that those like Turner should ultimately be forgiven, and even though he may have grown and changed since making his original offensive tweets, there is still reason to think that there is value in his having been publicly shamed.


Ken Boyd holds a PhD in philosophy from the University of Toronto. His philosophical work concerns the ways that we can best make sure that we learn from one another, and what goes wrong when we don’t. You can read more about his work at kennethboyd.wordpress.com
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