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The Ethics of Cringe

photograph of upset audiency members in a movie theater

Much has already been said about the ethical morass of “cancel culture,” but very rarely is the internet phenomenon of “cringe culture” given serious intellectual attention. Cringe culture is, on the surface, very straightforward. People deliberately seek out content online that makes them cringe, that gives them a visceral reaction of discomfort and secondhand embarrassment. This content can be screenshotted and shared on the subreddit r/cringe – a gallery of humiliation that currently boasts over one million member – or slotted into a “cringe compilation” video on Youtube – videos which consistently pull in hundreds of thousands of views. While cringe content was a more visual component of online culture in the mid 2010’s, it certainly hasn’t disappeared. Google Trends shows that the frequency of searches for “cringe” has been surprisingly steady since it peaked in 2016.

Cancel culture attempts to uphold morality in online spaces; when someone says or does something racist, sexist, or otherwise problematic, they are publicly shamed and their reputation in the community is blemished. Cringing at someone, on the other hand, just feels like an evolved form of middle-school bullying. But the two practices aren’t completely worlds apart; both attract large audiences, and both involve a spectacle of public humiliation (justified or otherwise). Despite their similarities, cringe culture is cancel culture’s more vulgar twin, the trashy daytime reality show to cancel culture’s CNN.

It’s worth examining why voluntarily cringing at strangers online is so popular, and whether or not this activity can be morally justified. It’s also important to further specify what exactly is meant by “cringe,” because this genre of content is surprisingly specific; something can be deeply embarrassing without being categorized as cringey. As Melissa Dahl says in her book Cringeworthy: A Theory of Awkwardness, we cringe at ourselves whenever “we’re yanked out of our own perspective, and we can suddenly see ourselves from someone else’s point of view.” When we cringe at ourselves, the experience involves a sudden onset of self-awareness, the realization that our internal image of ourselves is different from how others perceive us.

But that isn’t exactly the kind of content you find on r/cringe. The three most popular posts of all time involve Trump blundering his way through speeches and interview questions (like his inability to name his favorite book, or an awkward attempt to plant a kiss on a clearly unwilling young woman). Another top post is a video of a group of white girls joyously singing along to a song containing the n-word. The camera pans to the only black man in the room, who looks deeply uncomfortable. (To be clear, the girls are framed as the cringey ones here, not the man.) None of these subjects, the group of girls or the former president, are visibly experiencing shame, or a sudden realization of how they are being perceived. Our nation’s perverse fascination with Trump stems, in part, from his famous inability to believe or to be embarrassed by what others think of him, apparent in the almost cartoonish bravado he displays in every speech and television appearance. While plenty of people post their own embarrassing teenage memories on r/cringe, the most popular content focuses on those who are unable to feel shame, though we feel that they should.

In his book Humiliation, Wayne Koestenbaum explains that “Humiliation involves a triangle: (1) the victim, (2) the abuser, and (3) the witness. The humiliated person may also behold her own degradation, or imagine someone else, in the future, watching it or hearing about it. The scene’s horror — its energy, its electricity — involves the presence of three.” But in these scenarios, we can’t imagine the cringeworthy subjects beholding their own flaws, because they seem oblivious to them. Their lack of self-awareness, coupled with the general immortality of their actions, almost allows us to laugh at their embarrassment without feeling cruel. They’re getting their comeuppance. Furthermore, there is no clear “abuser” or humiliator in these situations; the singing girls have humiliated themselves, not the person filming them. In the absence of a humiliator, the witnesses (or the viewer) asserts themselves more strongly in the situation, further expanding the distance between us and the humiliated subject. Most of us are repelled by humiliating moments, especially our own, but when the triangle is distorted, humiliation can exert a magnetic force.

But it’s also worth noting that what the internet considers cringey has changed wildly since it’s heyday in 2016. Back then, the targets of cringe compilation videos were clearly autistic or otherwise on-the-spectrum children, “angry feminists” (search “feminism cringe” to see many dishearteningly popular compilation videos), the poor, people of color who behaved in a “ghetto” way, and fat people. Those with social and political capital were completely absent. Anything that felt outside of white middle-class neurotypical values was considered embarrassing simply for existing.

There’s something self-indulgent, even soothing, about watching other people fail in spectacular ways. We may feel guilty about it, but we take comfort in knowing at least we aren’t the ones in the pillory. Public shaming reinforces which behaviors (racism, political chauvinism) are socially unacceptable, and reminds us (in more mundane cases) that no one is perfect, and that everyone does embarrassing things. But when it becomes a spectacle, as it often does online, cringe content can be a kind of moral junk food. It allows us to feel a burst of superiority, and demands no reflection in return. When we only focus on spectacularly tone-deaf examples of racism, we can easily lose sight of the more insidious forms of social inequality. Framing something as cringey allows us to distance ourselves from it, to disown it, which as the earliest phase of cringe content reveals, has the potential to do more harm than good.

Shockingly Funny: The Morality of Eric Andre’s Comedy

photograph of Eric Andre at an event

In a recent interview with The New York Times, comedian Eric Andre refers to himself as a “benevolent prankster.” Eric Andre is arguably the modern king of hidden camera pranks, which have racked up millions of views on YouTube. Andre got his start performing standup comedy and was scouted by Comedy Central where he debuted his interview-style prank show, “The Eric Andre Show,” in 2012. On June 23, his Netflix standup special “Legalize Everything” released, and it is anticipated that his hidden camera comedy “Bad Trip” will release sometime this year on Netflix.

Eric Andre admits that his career relies on “purposely trying to get a rise out of people.” While a large portion of modern standup incorporates elements of self-deprecation, Andre’s style of humor fundamentally depends on eliciting a reaction out of someone else – and the stronger the reaction, the more humorous the content. This style of comedy is called ‘shock humor’ and often plays on so-called “low culture” subjects such as toilet jokes, sexual themes, and dark humor. With Andre’s steady career in comedy on the rise, there has been little discussion over the morality of his, and other shock-humorists’, methods.

Is it okay to purposefully seek a strong reaction from unsuspecting others? Does the relationship between the shocker and the shock-ee matter? And do the ends of shock-humor’s comical absurdity justify the means?

Eric Andre is not oblivious to the questionable morality of his work. In his NYT interview he discloses that for the shock-humorist, “you end your day feeling like you did something wrong and it’s not until you see the footage edited together properly that you’re like, OK, I have a funny bit in here.” For Andre, it seems the end result of humorous content justifies the short-lived shock he elicits from others. But some might argue this method of achieving comedy is neither respectful toward the rights of others nor justified by the end product. By attempting to upset, disgust, or disturb others, Andre acknowledges he is using people as a means to an end. And though every person appearing in his hidden camera prank has signed a release form, how many other individuals, that Andre elicited a reaction from, have refused to be a part of his videos? This lack of information makes it hard to truly gauge how much emotional turmoil and trauma has resulted from Andre’s process in creating his comedy.

Another moral consideration when it comes to shock humor is the positionality of the person being shocked and the way in which their identity is used in the process. Some instances of Andre’s NYC hidden camera pranks could be interpreted to derive humor by playing on a subject’s identity. In one of his videos, he begins a conversation with a woman asking a lewd question. This instance is disturbing considering the frequency with which women experience sexual harassment in public spaces and could potentially be considered sexual harassment under the New York City Human Rights law. In another video, filmed outside of the Democratic Convention, he asks blatantly sexist questions about Hillary Clinton to a woman who agreed to an interview. In both of these instances, Andre plays on the gender/sex of his comedic subject to attempt to elicit a reaction at their expense.

Andre’s shock humor could also lead to especially harmful consequences if the subjects of his humor are already prone to public harassment or stress. In the official trailer for his upcoming comedy “Bad Trip” it appears that many of Andre’s prank victims are people of color. In fact, one of his more extreme pranks targeted a black barbershop and ended with a black man chasing him and his costar, Lil Rel Howery, with a knife. Even if Andre did not intentionally target communities of color, or play on race stereotypes while doing so, it is still important to consider whether or not it is especially immoral to visit shock and emotional distress upon individuals and communities who experience a higher rate for social and economic stress to begin with.

Despite the morally questionable aspects of Andre’s methods, some might argue that those who are featured in his pranks are, in a way, willing participants in the comedic exchange. While individuals cannot control Andre’s actions, they are arguably responsible for their own reactions to his attempts to shock them. Aside from during his subway hidden-camera pranks, Andre never targets individuals who are incapable of walking away from the situation, and he has stated that he carefully tries to operate within the bounds of the law. While the law is clearly not always a good guide for determining morality, Andre could certainly be considered better than those who shock in order to harass or assert their  power over others, such as in street harassment. Additionally, Andre often uses himself and his body as the “shock,” subjecting himself to public humiliation, judgment, and sometimes potential violence. It could be argued Andre is technically at greater risk for harm than any individual he shocks. This is especially true if one considers his identity as a Black man, in a culture and society where calling the police on Black people is normalized, and police brutality is a common phenomenon. When asked about his experience interrupting an Alex Jones rally outside the 2016 Republican National Convention, Andre admitted to Stephen Colbert thinking to himself, “Oh I’m gonna die…This is where my life ends.” To some, Andre’s willingness to put his life in danger makes the shock he causes others seem minuscule in comparison.

The case in favor of Andre’s comedy becomes stronger when one considers his attempts to question social norms through his comedy. Andre has been vocal about his identity as both a Jewish person and a Black man. One might also observe that unlike some forms of dark humor, Andre’s specific brand of facetiousness often raises further awareness about important issues. Both his standup comedy as well as his social media accounts are used to highlight issues concerning social justice and inequality. During “Legalize Everything” Andre shocks the audience by acting out an exaggeratedly violent imitation of police brutality while yelling, “This is a system invented by rich, white, Christian, heterosexual businessmen, and if you don’t match that description, then it is my job to subjugate and oppress you, motherfucker, for I am your judge, jury, and executioner!”

Andre has also intentionally used the shock aspect of his comedy to target and poke fun at bigoted people and their beliefs. The topics he chose to shock others with during his trip to the RNC such as transgender restrooms, cross-dressing, abortion, and Black Lives Matter were clearly meant to poke fun at the caricature of Republicans as being prejudiced and intolerant towards certain groups of people.

Shock-humor has the potential to call attention to harmful social norms and subjects considered too taboo for casual conversation. It can also, as Andre has shown, be used to force others to reexamine their own engagement with socially harmful institutions and ideologies. However, the morality of shock-humor on an individual level and the relationship between the shocker and the shock-ee are too important to ignore. As the popularity of shock-humor and comedians like Eric Andre continues to rise, it is time we asked ourselves whether the hilarity of absurdity justify the means of shock.

Moral Panics about “COVID Parties”

photograph of teenagers at corwded concert on the beach

In recent weeks, a new feature has appeared in the discourse focused on the global pandemic and its related quarantine procedures: reportedly, people have been hosting and attending parties designed to spread the coronavirus. From Alabama to Florida to Texas, the details of these so-called “COVID Parties” differ, but one element is common: attendees do not take the threat of the disease seriously. Some gatherings seem to be patterned after “chickenpox parties” intended to encourage herd immunity, others are allegedly motivated by sport or financial gain (one widely-circulated report claimed that a party in Tuscaloosa offered a cash prize to the first guest to contract COVID-19).

However, to date, the evidence for the phenomenon of “COVID parties” is surprisingly scarce: that is to say, it is not clear that any such parties have actually taken place. Consider the story of the “Texas millennial” who supposedly confessed to attending a COVID party shortly before he died in a San Antonio hospital in mid-July.

The hospital’s health director admits that she heard of the disclosure secondhand and journalists have been unable to locate the nurse who purportedly received the confession in the first place. Similarly, most of the claims about college students in Alabama holding contests to intentionally catch COVID-19 are traceable to a single member of the Tuscaloosa City Council commenting on (and seemingly embellishing) a rumor shared by the city’s fire chief about sick teenagers leaving their homes: at this point, no hard evidence (such as alleged eyewitnesses or posts on social media) have surfaced of these parties and the University of Alabama has been unsuccessful at locating any potential attendees. Nevertheless, both of these small-scale stories have been reported by national news outlets.

This suggests that the trending discussions about “COVID parties” evidence what’s called a “moral panic” concerned with discouraging lackadaisical responses to the coronavirus. Such panics result when false beliefs about a purported threat to a social group spread throughout that group, thereby leading group members to be increasingly hostile towards anyone or anything they suspect of embodying the rumored threat. Consider the overreaction of the Christian Right to the popularity of Dungeons and Dragons in the 1980s, longstanding urban legends about the risks of poisoned Halloween candy, and the relatively recent “Momo Challenge” where a YouTube video supposedly tried to convince viewers to harm themselves: each of these were rooted in false beliefs about over-exaggerated threats to children. More serious examples of moral panics can be found in the abuses suffered by patients with HIV/AIDS or members of LGBTQ communities as ignorance and fear-mongering among more dominant social groups fueled (and still fuels) official policies of abandonment and exclusion. Importantly, Oxford Reference points out that “moral panics are generally fueled by media coverage of social issues” — a feature only exacerbated by the contemporary explosion of social media.

Given the many risks posed by the coronavirus, the perceived threat of a COVID party might be understandable: if such a party were to happen, it could significantly contribute to more people contracting the disease — including, crucially, more people than just those who actually chose to attend the party. But there are at least two broad kinds of problems with moral panics, and the rumors of COVID parties seem to exhibit both.

Firstly, moral panics unavoidably pose epistemic problems insofar as they are, by definition, fueled by false beliefs and, often, mishandled evidence (or evidential requirements). For example, to date, the reports of COVID parties have ranged from hearsay to misattribution to, potentially, straightforward fabrication. Consider the tragic case of Carsyn Leigh Davis, an immunocompromised seventeen-year-old in Florida who died after contracting COVID-19 in mid-June. Shortly before she fell ill, Davis attended a party at her church where neither face masks nor social distancing practices were required; initial reports (now corrected) labeled this church gathering a “COVID party,” despite there being no clear evidence that the event was actually intended to spread the coronavirus (the church has explicitly denied these allegations). By jumping to conclusions about the nature of the church party, at least some reporters (and self-styled reporters who share information on social media sites) seem to have fallen prey to the problem of confirmation bias. In a similar way (and for a variety of additional reasons), failures to thoroughly vet second-(or third or fourth)-hand reports of COVID parties have led to what amounts to conspiracy theories being shared openly and uncritically.

Which leads me to the second — and, arguably, more problematic — issue about moral panics: what they tell us about the social groups doing the panicking. Naturally, in order for biases to be confirmable, they must first exist in the minds of biased observers: someone cannot, for example, reflexively equate homosexuals with pedophiles if they do not already falsely believe that those two groups of people are somehow logically associated. Certainly, it is no secret that plenty of skeptics doubt the severity (and even reality) of the COVID-19 pandemic, but the panic about COVID parties suggests more complicated stereotypes are at work.

Consider the commonalities amongst the COVID party reports I’ve already mentioned: each of them focus on patients (or imagined patients) who were also members of subcultures frequently treated as fair game for jokes by the culture-at-large: millennials, college students, and religious fundamentalists. Perhaps most importantly, all three stories hailed from the Deep South. For these sorts of stories to seem salient to readers in the first place, those readers must already be at least somewhat suspicious of (or, at the very least, pretentious towards) those subgroups in a manner that will be suspiciously unvirtuous.

Let’s imagine that Barry is a person who takes the threat posed by the coronavirus seriously, but has never before heard of a COVID party. When Barry reads allegations that people in Alabama have been intentionally competing to contract COVID-19 and win a pot of money, they will likely be skeptical (because it will strike Barry as a wildly unlikely thing for people to do). If, however, Barry then reads that it was a group of college students throwing this alleged COVID party and Barry thereby takes the premise of the story to be more likely, then we can reasonably infer certain unflattering things that Barry likely believes about college students. Replace “college students” with “millennials, “religious fundamentalists,” or “Southerners” and the story reads no differently.

This kind of condescending attitude is akin to what Aristotle decried as an act of “insult” (sometimes also translated as both “insolence” and “hubris”). In his Rhetoric, Aristotle explains that insult consists in shaming someone simply for the mean-spirited pleasure of doing so; as he says, people prone to such acts “think that, in committing them, they are showing their superiority.” Such behavior, Aristotle continues, is often evidence of a dishonorable character and this seems equally true of biased attitudes that do not provoke overt action (beyond tapping the “share” link). Insofar as rumors about COVID parties activate biased presuppositions about various subgroups that Barry assumes to be inferior, we can thereby reasonably suspect that Barry harbors certain immoral prejudices.

So, in addition to their other features, moral panics can function as a barometer for subgroups that prideful members of the dominant social group reflexively patronize. If real evidence of COVID parties becomes available, then critical reactions to such threats would be warranted, but in the absence of such evidence, moral panics are epistemically unjustified. Moreover, insofar as moral panics are motivated by regionalism or other kinds of snobbish stereotypes, they run the risk of actually being prideful moral hazards.

Busch Light and Carson King: The Good and the Bad of Cancel Culture

Image of "CANCELLED" stamp in red

Two weeks ago, Carson King, after soliciting money with a sign that read “Busch Light Supply Needs Replenished” and his Venmo username, received more than one million dollars, most of which was donated to the University of Iowa Stead Family Childrens’ Hospital. In response to the attention King received, Anheuser-Busch promised to match the donation as well as send a year’s supply of personalized beer with King’s face on it to him. However, after racist tweets posted by King seven years ago resurfaced, Busch rescinded the latter part of their offer, and many have decided to boycott King as a means to shame him for his past problematic behavior, a phenomenon termed ‘cancel culture.’ King did issue a public apology after his tweets were brought to the public eye, saying “I am embarrassed and stunned to reflect on what I thought was funny when I was a 16-year-old.” (In an interesting twist, the reporter who dug up King’s racist tweets was also found to have posted multiple offensive tweets in the past, and now no longer works for the paper.)

With the development of social media platforms contributing to rapid global communication, many believe that one use to which technology ought to be put is the educating of others on their seemingly problematic behaviors (i.e. actions that are racist, homophobic, transphobic, etc.). Others believe that unsolicited shaming is often unnecessarily harsh and incapable of fostering meaningful moral dialogue or even establishing clear, universal boundaries of unacceptable conduct. While the ideal of “calling someone out” intends to promote the public expression of ethical beliefs and dissuade problematic behavior, many still think that this fad is actually counterproductive to the ends it aims to achieve (for discussion see Byron Mason II’s “Cancel Culture“).

Cancel culture has many obvious advantages, namely that calling someone out and “cancelling” them for problematic behavior holds them accountable for unethical behavior. King himself claimed that he was unaware of his past racist beliefs and behavior until the seven-year old tweets resurfaced. Often times, however, victims of “cancelling” are unmoved by public backlash which seems to suggest cancel culture does not actually hold individuals accountable for their actions.

Cancel Culture is also believed to further develop the moral beliefs of people who witness the backlash against problematic behavior by promoting discussion about the underlying moral principles behind such behavior. In “cancelling” King, individuals sent the message that public figures and people in general should be held accountable for their past actions, and that tweets like King’s were morally unacceptable. Using the public shaming and “cancelling” of King as a platform to dissuade racist jokes, individuals involved in cancel culture expanded the space to discuss moral issues in general. This aim of promoting moral discussion and fostering a more morally conscious community is only achievable if the calling out does not leave the individual “cancelled” unwilling to be held accountable for his actions and does not shut down dialogue as a whole because of the self-righteous, overwhelming barrage of imposed values to the public. Perhaps cancel culture can never escape these problems.

Many still support King and continue to donate in spite of his problematic tweets. It may seem unfair to call out King in such an aggressive way as to “cancel” him largely because of lack of context of King’s background. It may be unfair to label someone as racist or morally reprehensible because of a singular action of their past. That is, it may seem wrong to judge King based solely on two tweets he posted at the age of sixteen because that single action of tweeting fails to fully capture who King was and who King is now. However, some might argue that King should still be criticized because any action no matter how minuscule or temporally distant affects his character as a whole.

Under the guise of moral discussion, however, cancel culture itself seems to be problematic. In addition to ignoring context, intent is also often irrelevant to those “cancelling.” After posting a picture of herself in a qipao – a traditional Chinese dress – at prom, eighteen-year-old Keziah Daum similarly faced the backlash of cancel culture. Daum has stated that she meant “no harm” by wearing said dress, and some would say she received unnecessarily harsh consequences for her appropriative behavior.

Additionally, it seems as though cancelling is ineffective at changing public opinion, especially if one grants that those “cancelling” usually belong to a group with niche moral intuitions that the general public has not yet caught up to. As Damon Linker of The Week explains, cancelling may not be fostering the kind of moral dialogue we might hope for. When “activists … demand that transgressors against … nascent norms be cast out,” they impose their own morality onto a culture that lacks a moral consensus and has not yet fully accepted the views of activist ethics. In such cases, those “cancelled” are more than likely to be unresponsive to such “cancelling.”

Cancel culture appears to have many advantageous consequences, and, in its ideal form, strengthens moral beliefs in general. But when applied poorly, cancel culture can have many unforeseen consequences largely because of the generalization of a single, isolated action to the humanity of an individual being “cancelled.” Perhaps cancel culture is only permissible in its ideal form, and cannot be applied practically. Whether or not one believes “cancelling” is morally permissible, it may be imprudent to say cancel culture always fosters a more morally-conscious society and always holds the person being “cancelled” accountable. Rather, cancel culture is only good when moral conversation is promoted in a civil, positive, and productive way.

Is Shaming an Important Moral Tool?

Photo of a person behind a banner that says "Shame on Mel Rogers, CEO, PBS SoCal"

Misbehaving students at Washington Middle School last month couldn’t expect their bad behavior to go unnoticed by their peers and teachers. A list titled “Today’s Detention” was projected onto the wall of the cafeteria, making the group of students to be punished public knowledge. This particular incident made local news, but it’s just one instance of a phenomenon known as an “accountability wall.” These take different forms, sometimes they involve displays of grades or other achievements, and sometimes they focus on bad behaviors. The motivation for such public displays of information is to encourage good behavior and hard work from students.  

Middle school administrators aren’t the only ones employing this strategy.  Judges around the country have participated in “creative sentencing,” using shaming to motivate the reduction or elimination of criminal behavior. For example, a district court judge in North Carolina sentenced a man convicted of domestic abuse to carry a poster around town reading, “This is the face of domestic abuse” for four hours a day, seven days in a row.  

The Internet ensures that the audience for public shaming will be wide in scope. Shaming behavior on social media ranges from photos of pugs wearing signs indicating that they “Ate Mommy’s Shoes” all the way to doxing—the sharing of names and addresses of people who participate in socially unpopular activities.

All of this is not entirely without warrant. Some emotions play a central role in morality—emotions like pride, guilt, and shame. We’re social beings, and as such, one of the ways that we protect against bad behavior in our social circles is to hold one another accountable. Imagine, for example, that Tom has a habit of not keeping his promises. He develops a bad reputation as an unreliable, untrustworthy member of the group. He may begin to feel guilt or shame for his behavior as a result, and he may then begin to actually do the things he has said that he is going to do. The recognition that his peers feel that he ought to feel badly about his behavior has the desired effect—it changes Tom’s behavior. It seems, then that shame can be a powerful tool in governing the behavior of members of a social group.

Shaming might play other important social roles as well.  First, it often makes the public aware of problematic behavior. It picks out people that some members of the population might want to avoid. For example, the revelation that Mike is a white supremacist who attended a white nationalist rally may prevent a potential employer from making the mistake of hiring Mike.

Second, public shaming may serve as a deterrent. If Sam, the regional manager of a small company, witnesses other people in his position being called out for sexual harassment against employees, perhaps Sam will stop harassing his employees out of fear of being publically treated the same way.

Third, shaming might be an important way of reinforcing our community values and making good on our commitment to speaking out against unacceptable behavior. After all, some of the most egregious human rights atrocities happened because of, or were prolonged by, the silence of people who knew better, could have spoken out, but did nothing.

On the other hand, there are some pretty compelling arguments against the practice of shaming as well. Often, shaming manifests in ways that end up humiliating another person for actions they have performed. Humiliation is, arguably, inconsistent with an attitude of respect for the dignity of persons. In response, some might argue that though humiliation may be a terrible thing to experience, many of the behaviors for which people are being shamed are comparatively much worse. For example, is it bad to humiliate someone for being a white supremacist?

In practice, shaming has real legs—stories about bad behavior travel fast. The details that provide context for the behavior are often not ready at hand and, most of the time, no one is looking at the context to begin with. Even if it’s true that shaming has an important place in moral life, this will presumably only be true when the shaming is motivated by the actual facts—after all, a person shouldn’t be shamed if they don’t deserve to be.

The question of ‘deserving’ is important to the resolution of the question of whether shaming is ever morally defensible. The practice of shaming can be seen as retributive—the assumption being made is that the person being shamed for their actions is fully morally responsible for those actions. A variety of factors including environment, socialization, and biology contribute to, and perhaps, at least in some cases, even determine what a person does. If societies are going to maintain the position that retributivism is necessary for fairness, they better be sure that they are using those retributivist tools in ways that are, themselves, fair. Similar actions don’t all have similar backstories, and being sensitive to the nuance of individual cases is important.  

The motivation for shaming behavior tends to be bringing about certain kinds of results such as behavior modification and deterrence. The question of whether shaming actually changes or deters behavior is an empirical one. Given the potential costs, for the practice to be justified, we should be exceptionally confident that it actually works.

A careful look at the real intentions behind any particular act of shaming is warranted as well. Sometimes people’s intentions aren’t transparent even to themselves. Moral reflection and assessment are, of course, very important. Sometimes, however, the real motivation for shaming behaviors is power and political influence. It’s important to know the difference.

Even if the evidence allowed us to conclude that shaming adults is a worthwhile enterprise, it would not follow that what is appropriate for adults is appropriate for children. Young people are in a very active stage of self-creation and learning. Shaming behavior might be a recipe for lifelong self-esteem issues.

Finally, given that shaming has the potential for bringing about such negative consequences, it’s useful to ask: is there a better way to achieve the same result?

Parenting in Public: Social Media and Public Shaming

We live in a digital age in which humanity has the ability to connect in ways heretofore only imagined in science fiction. Anyone over the age of 30 has surely cringed with embarrassment as our parents shared our baby pictures with household guests. Now, parenting and parental sharing is a regular part of our online experience. Unlike those photo albums, parental posts on social media never truly go away. Backups in digital archives, cached files, or mirrors ensure that our best and worst moments are forever enshrined in some form or another, accessible to anyone with Google and a bit of patience. Social shaming and parental broadcasts of punishments are a different kind of sharing.

The suicide of Isabel Laxamana followed her father shaming her on social media and prompted a backlash of people speaking out against the ills of parental shaming. When and to what extent should parents use social media to “shame” their children? In light of what is certainly a tragedy, many parenting blogs claim that parents should never shame their children on social media. The focus of media attention has been on whether this kind of punishment is unfair for the child, but what about the challenge of parenting in the age of social media?

Parents too are brought under the microscope with every parenting decision they make. Consider the recent example of Marcy’s Diner in Portland, Maine. A couple had a small child that was crying while they waited for their food, the owner hinted several times that they might want to take the child out of the restaurant while they wait for their food, when the parents declined to do so and the child continued crying, the owner snapped and screamed at the child. Whether it’s taking a crying child out of a diner or waiting for your food in the restaurant, social media allows everyone with a smart phone or a computer connection the ability to weigh in on the proper course of action. Many people defended the restaurant owner, claiming the parents should have known better and offered advice to keep the baby quiet. Further, many labeled the child as a “brat”. Being part of an ever-growing online community means parents are now held under the microscope of countless, sometimes nameless, others who have honed in on a singular action that is now defining their life as a parent. Yet, many acts of shaming on the part of parents are voluntarily posted and shared in the blogosphere—in this way, the parents themselves are inviting the feedback, ridicule, and normative assessment of their decisions.

Parenting in public, then, takes (at least) two forms. On the one hand, there are those moments such as the Marcy’s Diner example where the public takes up a singular decision made by a parent on social media platforms. On the other hand, there are the acts of public shaming instigated by the parent(s) and shared voluntarily on social media. It seems that in the latter case that is of particular concern, since the parent is sharing the content voluntarily. What makes it worrisome are the short and long-term consequences of the post.

Parental shaming is not akin to sharing embarrassing family moments (baby bathtub photos, videos where children do something embarrassing but do not realize it, e.g.). These kinds of “shares”, which may cause mild embarrassment if uncovered by a future significant other or future coworker, will not live on in infamy.

As the colloquialism goes, it may take a village to raise a child, however online communities are no villages. They are not communities in the genuine sense of the word and the online community has an eternal, perfect memory. When a child is shamed in their neighborhood, assuming the slight is not too severe, they outgrow the infamy of the shaming (i.e., they might be teased for one week or so, but the issue eventually fades as memory does). Before a parent shames a child online, they might ask themselves a series of practical questions: Am I confident that this shame should follow my child for the next year, five years, 20 years? Do I want my child’s future boss to see this? What do I want to gain by this post; could these ends be achieved by emailing family, bringing others in the community into the conversation in a direct way? These kinds of questions will help clarify the kind of permanence that online shaming carries with it.