Monday, October 8, 2012

The Shame of It

Early yesterday morning - ok, it was 9 something, that's early for a weekend - the phone rang. It was a co-worker of my hubby's calling to tell us about someone they know who's mug shot was one of the featured photos on our local newspapers website. We looked it up and there it was. It was one of 254 mug shots on the front page. You could scroll through the pictures of the many arrests made in the last 7 days. My stomach turned a little.

Later in the day I went to visit my son and I mentioned the phone call to him. He had the same feeling I did. We were both uneasy about it. He said that he didn't like the idea of mugshots being featured in the newspaper. He felt it really wasn't an advancement in human evolution. Honestly, I hadn't thought much about it until this conversation. At first glance, I thought, well having your mugshot out there for the world to see might work as a deterrent to people. No one wants to have a photo of themselves on one of their worst days shown to everyone online. So, people screw up, break the law, do something stupid - hey, they get what they deserve. I understand that line of thinking and I do think people should pay for the crimes they commit. There should be consequences for our behavior. After thinking about the mugshots for a while and trying to figure out why they bothered me so much I finally realized it was because of the public shaming. Do I think public shaming should be part of the punishment? No.

It seems to me that putting mugshots in the local newspapers is just a modern day version of putting people in the stocks or forcing them to wear a scarlet A. I'm seeing other forms of public shaming now. I occasionally see photos of teens or even younger children being made to hold signs that their parents made telling the world about their behavior. Judges in some areas are using public shaming as part of the sentence they hand down. The person convicted of the crime must stand outside holding a sign stating the crime they committed. Even in cases of past due child support one judge is giving people the choice of jail or holding a sign that says "I do not pay child support". The judge claims that it's not to humiliate or embarrass people but what else would you call that?

So, if public shaming would act as a deterrent, why does it bother me so much aside from the fact that it is a form of humiliation? It's too much of a reminder of the shaming mothers experienced when we became pregnant without a husband. Shame is what sent pregnant women to live with strangers in other cities or states. Families hid their own daughters because of the shame a pregnant girl would bring to them. Reputations would be ruined and people would gossip. Shaming was supposedly used to protect a girl from ruining her life but it just resulted in a different type of ruin. Even now, when we talk about adoption and it's consequences, people try to publicly shame us by replying to things we write with comments telling us we should have kept our legs closed and calling us names like slut and whore. We hear that we need therapy and we're bitter, angry people.

When we were shamed into hiding we not only lost our children but for many of us, our self worth was ravaged. For some it took decades before being able to come out of the adoption closet. Wouldn't a similar type of damage be done to the people who are publicly shamed for the offense they committed? Is this kind of treatment ethical? What does it do to the psyche of a 12 year old who has to hold up a sign in front of her peers? What does it do to not only the man who is forced to stand on a street corner and hold a sign that says he doesn't pay child support, but what does it do to his children when they find out? This kind of treatment of people does more than affect the offender, it affects the families of the offenders. People love to talk. They gleefully share the latest juicy gossip. Why should the entire family be subjected to this for one person's offense? How will the shaming affect the person's work life? Will they have trouble finding or keeping a job? Could shaming actually cause more problems in the long run by creating anger and rage in the person being shamed? Could more criminal behavior be the result?

Maybe judges and others in authority are being short sighted with this form of punishment. Although it does get attention it may be the wrong kind of attention. We're a culture of voyeurism. We love to know what's going on in other people's lives - watching reality TV, rubber-necking at accidents, gossiping about others, looking at the mistakes that others make so we can feel superior and other people's pain becomes entertainment as in the Oxygen show I'm Having Their Baby. Publicly shaming people is just fodder for our egos. I guess we really haven't evolved all that much.

The shaming we dealt with was the kind that kept us hidden. This kind of shaming throws people out there  to be mocked. I can't see how that would end well. Shaming didn't save us, I doubt shaming is going to save anyone else.


  1. I just watched this the other day and it has resonated with me. Shame serves no one ever, compassion and empathy always do….

    Listening to shame

    1. I love TED talks, thanks for sharing this. I saw Brene's first talk so I'm looking forward to watching this one.