Owing largely to the rise of Internet, social media “shaming” is on the rise. Publicly shaming someone can be mean and merciless. But it can also be redemptive.
It’s no surprise that dark corners of the Internet offer digital anonymity. That can bring out the worst in people. It has also brought about the reemergence of social media “shaming.” Jon Ronson describes it in So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed. Purveyors of porn, plagiarism, or inappropriate tweets and videos are exposed for public humiliation.
Public shaming is not a recent phenomenon, however. In the Old Testament, Israel is God’s bride (Jer. 3:14). But she is not faithful. She’s an adulteress. And she didn’t blush about her adultery (6:15). So God publicly shamed the nation, saying “you have the brazen look of a prostitute; you refuse to blush with shame” (3:3).
Isaiah shamed Judah as an adulterous wife (Isa. 42). Ezekiel wanted Judah to “be ashamed of all you have done” (Ez. 16: 54, 58-63). The Apostle Paul publicly shamed the Corinthian church. It was spiritually adulterous. “I say this to put you to shame… cease to sin. I speak thus in order to move you to shame” (1 Cor. 6:5; 15:34).
Public shaming continued through colonial days. But it began to be viewed as cruel and unusual punishment in the mid-nineteenth century. Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, published in 1850, made a heroine out of Hester Prynne, an adulterous woman. Shaming became cruel. What Prynne did in her private life was her business. The Scarlet A, pinned to her breast, was a badge of autonomy. Yet she also conceded that her badge “is teaching me lessons whereof my child may be wiser, and better.”
It is only recently that we’ve begun to reconsider whether public shaming, done properly, is redemptive. A few years back, a judge sentenced a La Habra slumlord to live in his own run-down building under house arrest for two months. Another made an Ohio woman who abandoned 33 kittens spend a night alone in the woods. In a case that made the legal textbooks and withstood appeal in 2005, a San Francisco mail thief was ordered to stand on the post office steps with a sign that read: “I stole mail and this is my punishment.”
Daniel Markel, a professor of law at Florida State University and an expert on sentencing, says shaming is often more beneficial than prison sentences. Defendants often opt for prison as it’s hidden from public view. “They realize there is something publicly humiliating about being exposed in the streets.” Shaming exposes defendants. Exposing embarrasses, but recent studies indicate that it can promote virtue.
That’s the finding of economists Ernst Fehr and Simon Gächter. In a classic experiment, they asked Swiss students to play twelve rounds of a “public goods” game. It goes like this: You and three partners each get 20 tokens on each round (a token is worth ten American cents). You can keep your tokens or “invest” them in a common pot. At the end of each round, the experimenters multiply the pot by 1.6 and divide it among the players. Economic sense says hold your tokens to get more of the bigger pot. And that’s what happened over six rounds. Less trust. Declining cooperation. Selfishness.
Then the experimenters added a twist. You could use your tokens to punish those who didn’t chip in. Every token you paid to punish would take away three tokens from the player you punished. Remarkably, 84 percent of players paid to punish, at least once. And even more remarkably, cooperation skyrocketed on the very first round where punishment was allowed. By the twelfth round, the average contribution was fifteen tokens. Conclusion: Punishing bad behavior promotes virtue and benefits the group.1
It might be time for the church to recall the redemptive role of public shaming. I was a pastor for eight years. At numerous conferences, three pastoral challenges were routinely noted—porn, plagiarism, and people pleasing. Porn rose to the level of sin, so most pastors—when caught—blushed and confessed their sin.
Plagiarism and people pleasing don’t seem to make pastors blush anymore. I’ve watched plagiarism be treated as “oops.” In academic circles it’s grounds for firing. Yet pastors routinely plagiarize, pleading—when caught—that it was unintentional.
Same with people pleasing. Seeking to serve people, pastors often become slaves to others’ opinions. They cave in to congregant demands. Some pastors come to their senses, feeling shame, but as Edward Welch notes in When People are Big and God is Small, they’re more concerned about being shamed than correcting their sin. The fear of man becomes greater than the fear of God.
This makes for an adulterous church. The church is the Bride of Christ. Believers are betrothed to Jesus—married (II Cor. 11:2). Sin is adultery (James 4:4). Adultery ought to make believers blush, but that seems to require being properly and publicly shamed.
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1 Jonathan Haidt, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion (New York: Vintage, 2003), pp. 208-9.