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?

Public-Shaming: Privacy and Paternalistic Issues

The COVID-19 pandemic has opened the doors to a diverse amount of issues the entire world was not prepared to address. D. T. Max’s article “The Public-Shaming Pandemic” in The New Yorker highlights one of these many mysterious aspects of the virus. Public-shaming has heightened and intensified due to the combination of social media and the unknowingly, rapid spread of the coronavirus. Max highlights countless different situations around the globe where the first cases of the virus were recorded and spread. Furthermore, he focuses on social media “hate” the people who were first infected received. Throughout his examples, the public has finagled their way into finding the identity of the first infected through social media platforms. This puts a great emphasis on the issue of privacy and is the practice of shaming not respecting one’s autonomy. 

The issue of privacy, in regards to the pandemic, puts into question if an individual’s medical history should be kept private when it puts the health of many at risk. Some may say that the several instances in which high-level officials, such as New York’s mayor Bill de Blasio tweet, or an average person exposing patient information to the public is a utilitarian approach to fighting off the virus. The means of releasing patient information, where they work and/or where they have been in the past week or so, is to protect the general public in the hopes that those possibly exposed to the virus get tested and choose to quarantine. The public is putting the good health and safety of society first. However, the means of releasing such information fail to meet the ends when the consequences of the public using such information to bully those initially infected have huge detriments to that individual’s health. In Max’s article, he clearly illustrates that public-shaming is tremendously detrimental to an individual’s health when they are singled out to society. This may lead to the practice of shaming being paternalistic in society. 

Shaming constructs people’s behavior to fit societal norms; in the case of the pandemic fit public health policy and attempts to encourage certain behavior to avoid. With this definition, shaming makes out to be a paternalistic practice overriding choice by nearly forcing certain behaviors on society. This is then further enhanced with social media. Overall, this puts into question if the public-shaming of these individuals is justified. The ends of making their private information public do not meet the means and it fits the requirements for a paternalistic practice. With more control and not publicly-shaming an individual, the practice could turn less paternal while also being more effective; rather than leading to ruining a person’s life. However, can public-shaming actually be regulated to that point?

Deconstructive Criticism: The Inefficiency of Guilt Shaming

In his article, “The Public Shaming Pandemic,” T.D. Max makes the point that public shaming of individuals not behaving appropriately during the pandemic is both ethically wrong and an inefficient way to combat the spread of coronavirus. 

It can undoubtedly be frustrating for people who have lost loved ones or jobs due to the pandemic, or even those who have just given up any semblance of their “normal” lives in order to protect the safety of those around them, to witness other individuals behaving in a reckless manner that puts others in danger. It’s easy to understand why people obeying the COVID guidelines are quick to write an angry post on social media, attacking those who are not, but this form of public shaming often reaches dangerous extremes for those being attacked without causing any major improvements. 

The idea of shaming is not inherently unethical. The practice originated in the idea of educating those who have made mistakes so they can behave differently in the future. However, today’s shaming has taken a vastly different approach: the goal is typically to make people feel guilty for their actions. Instead of explaining to people why the actions they took were dangerous, the aim is essentially to destroy their reputations and ruin their lives. 

This type of shaming is in no way constructive: being targeted by millions on social media does not make people any more likely to follow the guidelines. If a person was already hesitant about wearing a mask, are some internet trolls telling them that they’re a terrible person really going to convince them otherwise? In most cases, the answer is no. 

The motives of this guilt-driven shaming are no secret. People understand that the embarrassment caused by being called out on a large social media platform can ruin the lives of those in question, and that this embarrassment doesn’t typically translate to a change in peoples’ actions or opinions on the issue. Continuing on the route of public shaming while understanding that it doesn’t accomplish any large-scale change is simply wasting time that we can’t afford to lose, with COVID cases in the US still reaching record-breaking numbers. 

If shaming isn’t an effective way to convince people to follow COVID guidelines, then what is? Perhaps people would respond better to policies such as fines for not complying with social distancing guidelines or mask mandates, or monetary incentives for those that do comply. Instead of taking social media to shame people into behaving safely, we must focus on how to contain the spread of the virus going forward instead of dwelling on people’s previous actions. 

The Crippling Effects of Public Shaming during COVID-19

The article The Public-Shaming Pandemic highlights the effects of harsh online denunciation towards individuals who unintentionally spread COVID-19. While it is understandable why people may be angry at these individuals, the extent to which these individuals are shamed and the devastating effects it has on their lives makes it questionable. Under the framework of virtue ethics, the concept of shaming as a mechanism to realign people with social responsibility may be respectable, but public shaming through modern online platforms during this pandemic seems to have become more of a mechanism for punishment. Internet attacks received at a pace like rapid fire have had detrimental effects on the livelihoods and well beings of COVID-spreaders, many of whom had no intention of spreading the disease to others or didn’t fully understand what was considered proper behavior early on in the pandemic.

In the midst of this pandemic, I think it is important to remember that we are all trying to navigate this together. While it is necessary to remind people of their social responsibility during this pandemic, the motivation behind extreme attacks like death threats seems to be less about regulating personal behavior and more about harassment. When these individuals’ lives are so drastically turned upside down, there is no opportunity for them to learn from their mistakes, ultimately making this kind of public shaming not only damaging, but also counterproductive. 

That is not to say that reckless behavior should not be addressed during this pandemic, but there needs to be ways of condemning harmful societal behaviors without completely crippling an individuals’ character. One of the ways that may help to alleviate the devastation of public shaming is by keeping medical and other personal information private. Low patient profiles would decrease opportunities for impulsive attacks and mass outrage towards already vulnerable individuals like Nhung, who, because of her publicized COVID-19 diagnosis in Vietnam, received harsh criticism and had some people spreading misinformation about her whereabouts even when she was lying in a hospital bed. Another consideration that might help to find this balance is whether social media, because of its potential to spread misinformation and generate mass harassment, could ever effectively play a role in censuring behavior. And if not, what are some practical alternatives?

The Public-Shaming Pandemic

COVID-19 has caused the globe to reckon with a myriad of issues that it wasn’t prepared to address. As T.D. Max highlights in his article “The Public-Shaming Pandemic” one of these key issues is that of privacy. In particular, the right an individual has to keep their medical information private when it could impact the health of other individuals. There have been several instances were officials released some patient information to the public with the hope that exposed people could begin isolating. However, the public has often taken this information and identified the individuals who brought the disease into the community to publicly shaming them on virtual platforms. This has greatly affected these individuals as they have experienced some of the harshest bullyings while already at their most vulnerable.

With officials focusing mainly on the tangible health consequences, they haven’t focused on the abstract, ethical impacts of the pandemic. However, I feel that this is nevertheless an important debate that should take place concurrently with the pandemic – not after. While I personally feel that public shaming can be an effective tool for admonishing hurtful behavior, I agree with T.D. Max that it can be detrimental when applied to a single individual. Moreover, the effect is amplified nowadays thanks to social media. There currently exists no measured way for an individual to be socially reprimanded without it ruining their life.

Consequently, I feel that we need to enforce stricter guidelines on protecting patients’ privacy. Not only is there something to be said about one’s right to medical privacy, but it will also serve as a temporary safeguard while our global society establishes more online privacy protections. By increasing the barriers to access medical information, the public cannot dox infectious individuals, thereby increasing general online privacy for the entire community. Simultaneously, we need to keep insisting on the public health measures that guard the community against COVID (ie, masks, social distancing, etc.). In most of these cases, infectious individuals transmitted the disease incidentally; with proper safeguards, the community has little to worry about and would have no rational explanation for bullying the individual. However, these are just a few thoughts on the matter, and I would welcome discussion on tangible solutions/benefits on restricting access to medical records during the pandemic.

Sympathizing with Super-Spreaders?

I’ve never thought to sympathize with those who have been super-spreaders of the coronavirus. However, The Public-Shaming Pandemic highlights the detrimental effects that passerby and social media users can create when they attack and target those who have been infected. I believe, like most bioethical issues, there is a fine balance to be struck. The coronavirus is a mystery. Many didn’t understand how contagious it was and how to contain themselves, especially as early as February. They didn’t want the virus, and most who were infected didn’t know that they had it. But there’s a fundamental societal problem if celebrities and wealthy people are spreading the virus because they can pay the costs and utilize their status and wealth to recover. This, in itself, is a perfect reflection of the capitalist system. It doesn’t surprise me in the slightest that the 1% is exacerbating the virus for the 99%. Rather there lies a primary issue of privilege, and in many cases, ignorance. Most cannot afford to fly to a luxurious spot in Europe where they would get infected, and then stay in a deluxe hospital, and receive unlimited time off work to recover. Many people couldn’t even get tests, so why should Nga Nguyen have special priority? 

It isn’t her fault that she was born into a system that would continually favor her. It is the social and political system behind it. Privilege flows into every facet of their lives, while the opposite exists for the less privileged. I don’t blame those who have lost relatives, gotten laid off from work, and struggle to feed their families for using social media as an outlet to release their anger at the inequalities that are being brought to light. Social media has always been a frenzy. It was made so that there doesn’t need to be any identity behind offensive messages. 

I saw this “public-shaming” transpire just recently, when supermodel Kendall Jenner had a giant birthday party. She, of course, received backlash. I understand why, but I believe this anger should not be directed at her character, but rather her ability to ignore health precautions and put others at risk. This is obviously a problem. Therefore, as Max notes, “digital shaming can succeed when other forms of political action fail.” In this way, social media gives people a sense of accountability that can actually make legal change.

So, who is at fault? Is it Nga and Kendall or the global wealth gap and capitalist America?

Utilitarianism and Trust

The lens in which we Americans view China stems from anti-communist sentiments that can be traced all the way back to the 1940’s during WW2. We actively depict China as a ruthless nation that sacrifices its citizens for monetary gain just shy of slavery. A hypocritical evaluation on America’s behalf to say the very least. Communist governments are consistently grouped with Nazi Germany or North Korea – never taking into account the benefits of a system that consistently prioritizes the good of the majority, a whopping 1.4 billion people for China. And while the country does have its flaws, most notably the infamous Tiananmen Square protests and the restriction of family planning, their utilitarian attitude towards this virus was incredibly effective.

The story of Liu stood out as exceptionally utilitarian. He was forced to endure complete isolation for 65 days resulting in a clear disruption of his psychological health, but his sacrifice diminished the worries of an entire community – a community that worked incredibly hard to achieve control of the illness. The mental wellness of many exceeded the mental wellness of the individual (he was never physically sick!) and it resulted in something amazing: a near elimination of the virus in their area and a reopening within 11 weeks. This scenario absolutely would not happen in America without uproar. We don’t even keep our most lethal inmates under solitary confinement for more than 30 days. Equally so, America is likely to suffer through the new year with January marking our 11th month of quarantine. Utilitarianism simply fails to apply in America due to the divided nature of the country. There is no unified community to do good for. From the very inception of this country, communities were created out of the need to separate themselves from their oppressors – Native Americans, African Americans, and even Mexican Americans can attest to this seemingly voluntary yet necessary segregation. In America, Liu isn’t one person but instead a conglomerate of minority communities being psychologically and physically tormented at the hands of white greed and privilege. Can it be considered good for “most” if half of the country is suffering?

What struck me the most was Chinese citizens reporting a heightened trust in their government – a shocking contrast to American citizens’ current opinions on the state of our country. Racial tensions have resurfaced from viral documentation of police brutality, the BLM movement, and the rise of white nationalists. Simultaneously, an entire section of the country, unfortunately including our most powerful leaders, denies the very existence of science and insist on sickness being their American right. Our political system hasn’t been this openly polarized since the civil war and it’s become difficult to trust our neighbors let alone our government. So to see China find unity in the midst of America’s domestic crisis is jarring.

The truth is that America doesn’t trust itself. We don’t trust our government, we don’t trust each other, and we don’t trust ourselves to make the change we want to see. It feels like a lost cause but the diseased state of our country is curable with the vaccine of trust. When we dedicate ourselves to rebuilding trust in our communities we focus on creating a government and most importantly a country we can be proud of.

COVID Containment Policies: The Tradeoff Between Life and Freedom

In his article, “How China Controlled the Coronavirus,” Peter Hessler details the precautions taken by China to slow the spread of the virus. He makes an interesting point concerning the idea that Chinese value “life over freedom,” while Americans’ priorities tend to lie elsewhere.  

In China, a nationwide lockdown was issued early on to contain the spread of the virus. Any person who tested positive, regardless of their symptoms, was required to quarantine for two weeks, separated even from their families. The issue of a nationwide lockdown, similar to the issue of mask mandates, has become a topic of controversy in the US, with many Americans unwilling to give up these personal freedoms to protect the health of the general public. It’s also safe to say that most Americans would not respond well to the thought of a COVID-positive child being separated from their family for two weeks to quarantine. not respond well to the thought of COVID-positive children being separated from their families for two weeks to quarantine. 

While Americans’ value of freedom is typically justified, it cannot be prioritized over the health and safety of others. Personal freedom should not be taken away, but an issue like public health affects everyone around you, making it a community problem. In cases like these, it’s important to prioritize the safety of a large group over the freedom of any one individual. 

It’s also important to remember that the policies that would be enacted to contain COVID wouldn’t be permanent. A lockdown would need to have an end-date on it, and it’s unrealistic to expect people to continue wearing masks for the rest of their lives. People aren’t being asked to surrender their freedom forever: as seen with China, it would only take a couple of months of diligently following the implemented policies to contain the virus to a point where we could safely return to “normal.” While individual freedom is certainly a highlight of American democracy, asking people to temporarily surrender some small aspects of that freedom in order to save the lives of those around them really shouldn’t be so controversial. 

While some of the methods used in China may be viewed as extreme or paternalistic in other countries, they were clearly more effective than the route taken by the United States. While we are currently experiencing another peak of COVID cases and seeing a higher number of new daily cases than at any other point since the outbreak began, China’s numbers greatly improved as a result of their policies, allowing them to return to “normal life” much sooner than in the US. 

Many mistakes have already been made in the US handling of the coronavirus outbreak, but at this point, the real questions lie not in the past, but in the future: what comes next? With a change in our nation’s leadership approaching, how can we implement policies that will slow the spread of the virus without impeding on the personal freedoms that Americans hold so dear? Is there a way to effectively satisfy both the values of life and freedom? Or must freedom step to the side while we handle the immediate threat of the virus?

Conceptualized Freedom and the mismanagement of Covid 19

In the reading we were afforded the interesting perspective of Mr. Peter Hessler, who served as a teacher in the pandemic. Through his article, “How china controlled the coronavirus”, we got to see the management of the virus by the Chinese government. This point of view brings his American readership less biased insight to the way that the novel pandemic has been controlled in china. China’s actions in response to the spread of the pandemic was considerably stricter and more serious than that of the United States. In his article, he cites one of his students saying that the Chinese prioritize life over freedom. I found this statement intriguing, because in my mind, I do not see lock down and quarantine measures as an attack on my freedom. The concept of freedom is per individual interpretation, and is largely influenced by the society which one grows in. In America, the conceptuality of basic inalienable rights is carried by most of its constituents. We saw that in response to covid regulations, many Americans had issues with a mask mandate, business closing, and other implications of the lockdown. I believe this to be centered in a sense of individuality over unity that coincides with the spirit of free market capitalism. From my understanding, the prioritization of self over the communal health and well being of Americans is the root cause behind the conflict associated with mask wearing and quarantine advisories. Personally, I view these perspectives as a warped sense of freedom and have qualms with the mentality of self-interest over the health and wellness of the whole. We see the same trends translate over into the Governing of our nation, with many governing officials downplaying the effects, range, and legitimacy of concerns regarding the corona virus. It is the job of the governing body to enact plans to protect its citizenship, but at the same time, to preserve the livelihood of its people. In America, we see how the priority of the nation is much different from a country like china, who deployed many resources to condense and converge on the pandemic’s spread. Conceptualized freedom has much to do with the pushback associated with the arrangements made to battle the pandemic in this country. It brings into question the legitimacy of an American Paternalist government

A Vehement Critique of Authoritarianism

Peter Hessler, in his article “How China Controlled The Coronavirus,” provides an engaging personal narrative that describes his experiences in China with the thrilling subtext of the COVID-19 pandemic. Through this narrative he provides an accurate exegesis on the various methods that the Chinese government utilized to curtail the spread of the virus, and through deep personal, anecdotal evidence, he identifies the strengths and the successes of this method. He extrapolates on methods used such as strict lockdowns, health-trackers, and other severe, authoritarian measures, but Hessler goes further. He uses these strict measures and their success as a critique of liberal democracy, explaining that “those strategies could never be adopted in America.” The entire article seems to have the undertone of the ethical benefits of paternalism and beneficence, even when it curtails personal autonomy or individual freedoms. While I concede the undeniable truth that the United States and other liberal democracies could have bettered education efforts and been more stringent on public appearance and public health policy to combat the virus, I fundamentally disagree with the evident subtext of the article, which seems to be a critique of liberal democracy at large. While it may have failed us in this specific instance, liberal democracy has protected us from a plethora of evils that authoritarian regimes such as China actively use to subjugate their peoples. This virus should be considered the exception, and not the rule, to the efficacy and moral righteousness of liberal democracy.

The fundamental ethical dynamic of power largely influences my belief in this refutal. It boils down to a rather simple context: power corrupts; absolute power corrupts absolutely. Of course I am cognizant of the fact that for national security reasons, people in liberal democracies often forgo power for the greater good, but there should always be systems in place to remove and reclaim it. I also acknowledge the argument that with regards to the virus, the federal government in America should have taken a more active role in pursuing nationwide. Concurrently, I understand the notion that the author does not support all the policies put forth by China and does scrutinize them to such extent. My main issue is not with the strategies of China that the author praises but that it elevates China as a model as to pursuing those policies. If the virus is used as a model to forgo more power to the federal government, in a system like China, there is no system in place to remove that power. The only way to pursue the kinds of reforms that Hessler praises with the expediency he describes is to move closer to such a system, and I believe that to be incredibly dangerous. Processes under democracies take time and require patience by nature, but that is not a weakness, but rather a cogent strength. I am aware of our Federal Government’s failure to pursue stringent nationwide reforms for the virus, but I believe a more conducive and productive means of such reform is incentivization. For many other public health crises, we have used economic disincentivization to sway the public to the side of health. A prime example is the economic sanction imposed on cigarettes. The government could have incentivized states to push for stringent health policies through funding, but the localization of power is incredibly important. Education and leadership efforts could have been much better, but these largely revolve around rhetoric. Legislatively usurping power from peoples is the practice of aristocracies. 

Various ethical dilemmas can be used as cogent lenses to view the philosophical questions within Hessler’s argument. His main strain of ethical principle seems to be derivative of utilitarianism, because he argues that more lives can be saved through this authoritarian pursuit. That is fundamentally true. I do concede that authoritarianism breeds “results,” but in doing so, it runs the risk of viewing peoples and entities as means to an end. Quality of life, mental health, autonomy: these things matter. I know it seems like I am rashly against the intention and the truth of the article, but this is not the case. I see much merit in what Hessler puts forth. Even though I disagreed with some of the premises of the article and in my adolescent immaturity vehemently derided even the slightest praise of authoritarianism, the article did indeed provoke me to be a bit more introspective about the flaws of the American system. I began to wonder how more stringent policies and a stronger federal government initiative could have benefitted communities of color. I think it is important to find a balance between the two extremes, but I still believe that balance should be approached and achieved democratically. Slow and steady wins the race, and good things come to those who wait.