The (weak) epistemology of public shaming

I recently run across this new book on public shaming in the Internet age and today I read this fascinating article about this practice. The problem with public shaming, as I see it, is that it is epistemologically weak.

Suppose X has done something wrong. A legal trial (or its equivalent in non-legal contexts) is certainly not completely reliable but offers at least some warrants for all the parties involved: If you have blamed X of having done Y, you must be able to prove it. By contrast, public shaming allows no epistemological check: It is enough for one in a position of authority to say that X did Y to elicit reactions, as it recently happened in Afghanistan where a man accused a young woman who was blaming him for selling amulets of having burnt a copy of the Quran: the mob beat her to death). One shames and continues shaming, without ever having to encounter an epistemological control. Moreover, since shaming is a collective enterprise, the individuals participating in it hide in the crowd and forget their personal responsibility.

Should you think that shaming is the weapon of the underrepresented —who would never get a fair trial— against the established power, think again. In the article linked above, Eric Posner interestingly observes that the targets of public shaming are rather exactly the weakest groups:

[T]he truth is nearly the opposite. If you try to think of which group has been the most consistent target of social media shaming, it is surely women who dare to express their opinions or to break up with boyfriends. The major effect of social media is that it enables people to broadcast an opinion—or, more accurately, a gut reaction—to the whole world, instantly, without pausing to give it any thought. This, combined with pervasive anonymity and traditional animosity to anyone who acts or thinks unconventionally, has awoken atavistic instincts that are multiplied a hundredfold through herd mentality. And then these ill-considered reactions are stored indefinitely, while being immediately accessible to anyone, thanks to the efficiency of search engines.

It is possible to argue that the Internet has re-created small-town society, where everyone knew everything about everyone, so everyone acted virtuously in order to avoid ostracism and other sanctions. But this argument rests on a romanticization of that era. Small-town societies bred small-mindedness and conformity, and if they were ever tolerable, it was only because one could leave. One can’t leave the Internet. Once shamed, always shamed.

As an antidote for the problem of epistemological weakness, I would recommend, as usual, testing one’s sources and evaluating them as one should evalute any other piece of linguistic communication. As an antidote for the problem of lack of personal responsibility, I would recommend acting in one’s own name (no pseudonyms, no anonymous comments) and thinking of one’s action as if one were alone. Would one persist shaming X if there were no one else doing it and thus justifying the fact that what one is doing is right?

Comments and discussions are welcome. Be sure you are making a point and contributing to the discussion.

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