In “The Public-Shaming Pandemic,” author D.T. Max provides a telling anecdote about an influencer who is publicly shamed on social media for engaging in unsafe COVID activities in Milan. The article uses this anecdote to extrapolate a broader narrative about digital shaming in the age of this crippling pandemic. Finally, Max utilizes these particular examples to examine public shaming in general in the age of social media. I was fully enthralled by this piece, as it plays to a notion that I have strong feelings about. In this new age of hyper-”wokeness,” the bar for social acceptance and tolerance seems to be exceedingly high. There seems to be a wave of retroactively shaming people on issues they have maybe evolved on for political expediency. I believe this to be a dangerous precedent on both practical and ideological grounds, and I feel that two strains of ethical thought are deeply pertinent within this issue: aristotelian habit ethics and its conflict with Kantian Deontology.
Essentially, the issue boils down to the fundamental nature of human growth. The central notion of many spiritual pursuits is that humans are incomplete or flawed in some way, and most spiritual paths provide guidance and comfort along the journey to that sought completion. However, in this “cancel-culture” we have created, we seem to be treading into dangerous territory of retroactively shaming individuals for things they have said many years ago. We seem to be implying that human growth is not an arduous and complex process, that it should happen overnight. The ethical issue I found most pertinent here is the concept of Aristotelian habit ethics, which essentially outlines that we are defined by our character, our character is defined by our habits, and our habits are influenced by our many experiences. The crux of this philosophy is to try to pursue eudaimonia, and over time and experience, overcoming bad habits and achieving this utopic state. This is a fundamentally good idea because it allows humans to grow and love and learn and function in society. It also shifts focus away from micro-aggressions to true threats to the social fabric. By legitimizing public shaming of individuals we disagree with or that offend us, we are building a generation of individuals that will not be able to sustain the harsh realities of human life. We cannot “cancel” a difficult teacher, an impatient boss, or disobedient children. We have to learn to be firm in our convictions but tolerant and also tenacious when it comes to viewpoints that pluck at our sensitivities.
Of course, as with any rule, I believe there are exceptions. We must learn to exercise judgement as a collective in order to discern which notions are out of line with our cultural norms and must be called out, but even then, there are meaningful and more conducive ways to pursue reform than calling people out on social media. Deontologists would argue that reason plays the heavy role in this balance of judgement, but in my own personal experience, I have found this strain of action to not only be ineffective in convincing the aggressor of their mistake, but also harmful, as it may reinforce stereotypes or prejudices the aggressor already holds. Elected office, community organizing, military service, law enforcement service! These are meaningful ways to truly affect change in our most impassioned issues, in our most needing communities. Sending a tweet honestly does very little.
I became very introspective on reading this article, and it ignited a passion within me to ponder the reality of this issue. I wonder if people chose offense based on their personal feelings about an individual. In essence, would we be angered to the same degree if someone we appreciated or strongly supported also had similar skeletons in their closet?