The Public-Shaming Pandemic: a Response

Max’s article in The New Yorker illuminates the many stories of people around the world who were shamed by the public, and sometimes even the government, who contracted Covid-19 or were presumed to have contracted it. The most prevalent way that people have been shamed has evolved over time from being held in the public square, to printed in the newspaper, to broadcasted on TV, and now to being publicized on the internet for the entire world to see. This has contributed to people publicly disparaging others in countries far away from their own and can be considered a part of “cancel culture.”

Shaming is beneficial and can be an effective tool for deterring negative behaviors when it is done by someone that the person being shamed, prior to the process of shaming, respects the authority and opinion of. Thus, it is most beneficial for the shamer to be someone close to the person being shamed and in the private sphere, as in the case of a parent saying they are disappointed in a child or a friend intervening in another friend’s destructive lifestyle through shame. It is for these reasons that shame in our culture has a strong basis in deontological philosophy, for it often is employed to evoke feelings of moral regret for one’s “wrong” actions. Cancel culture, in both the context of the pandemic and elsewhere, is the prime example of this because the public withdraws their support for objectionable behavior often in an extremely cruel manner.

All of this calls into the question of whether or not extremely public shame as seen on Twitter and Facebook, centered around Covid-19 actions or otherwise, is really a beneficial activity for people to engage in. While it may deter behavior for some, it could also have no effect because people may not care what random other people comment on the internet, or it could have worse implications such as suicides that Max mentioned in his article. Should an action continue if it works in some situations but is detrimental in others?

One thought on “The Public-Shaming Pandemic: a Response

  1. Clio Hancock

    Kaeli traces the evolution of shaming in recent history, from community-based interventions to the viral instances seen in the COVID pandemic. She notes that shaming, when done correctly, can be an effective technique of correcting unacceptable behavior. This involves trusted contacts providing constructive criticism and in a way that reflects genuine concern rather than blind anger. Cancel culture, as Kaeli notes, is an example of shaming gone wrong. The combination of overwhelming sentiments of shame and guilt with a withdrawal of support makes it difficult for an individual to revise their behavior appropriately.
    I agree with Kaeli and think her articulation of the double whammy of being “cancelled” is very accurate. However, I believe that the openness and accountability that social media demands can be beneficial in certain cases. Much of cancel culture has focused on individuals who hold societal power: celebrities, musicians, politicians. In many cases, these people chose to surround themselves with others who will not oppose their actions, even if they are morally wrong. I think that in some cases, public accountability can expose individuals to opinions outside of their insular world, and having a critical volume of support or anger can prompt individuals to take action to remedy their behavior. This type of mass mobilization of people against or for a singular cause is much easier with social media, and as seen with Black Lives Matter and #MeToo, it can produce lasting change. Kaeili finishes her piece with a question of if we can justify shaming if it only works in some situations. By considering the context of the situation, it can be determined if shaming will be beneficial or counterproductive. These applications of shaming bring up the question of if one’s social status should change how they are confronted–can we shame Ellen and a “Karen” to the same extent on social media?


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