Monday, January 15, 2007

Name and Shame: Part of Broader Societal Game?

(h/t: The Kway Teow Man: Is it public shaming? Isn't it Citizen Journalism? and

Mocking Andy Ho shouldn't be this much fun but dang he doesn't disappoint with every single article he writes. Although to be fair, his articles against woo were pretty good, but being a medical doctor, he should be ashamed by his misleading article on the Terri Shiavo case, especially after the entire premise of his article (that she could actually feel "pain" i.e. suffer as opposed to simply reacting to external stimuli was thoroughly debunked by the subsequent autopsy).

But apologies for poisoning the well, here's what he has to say on this subject.

The Straits Times, Jan 11, 2007

For shame, stop this indignity

By Andy Ho, Senior Writer

SOME Singaporeans have taken it upon themselves to shame their fellow citizens when they do not like what they see.

A recent example: Someone posted on the Internet a video of a woman carrying a six-month-old child and boarding a train, whereupon some young, already seated, commuters seemed to fall asleep instantly.

Bloody hell! Why didn't I think of this earlier? As a general rule, I give my seat to anyone whom I think deserves it more than I do. Admittedly, I've stopped giving my seats automatically to females unless they're carrying more stuff than I am (or are carrying particularly unwieldy stuff) but as a general rule of thumb, anyone who looks older, or pregnant women or even kids with those ridiculously large school bags "get a free pass" from me.

As an aside, there was a spirited discussion from a group of elderly (rather elderly in my opinion) after I gave up my seat to one of them. According to my mother (who understands more dialects than I do and was closer to them anyway), they were split into two camps as to whether there was an obligation on my part to give up my seat to any of them. But it generally boiled down eventually to, it's nice but not an obligation.

While I certainly don't expect others to do it to me i.e. not a general obligation, I personally believe that I ought on the simple basis that it's a minuscule sacrifice on my part i.e. small disutility in contrast not only to the potential harm for someone who really needs that seat but also the much large utility accrued. And quite sometimes, I've manage to "persuade" others to do the same. I only bring this up because lately I've been coming across the canard that atheist are amoral since they lack the fear of a big sky fairy punishing them after they die and it's really annoying me no ends.

This act of public shaming drew a lot of online support. But it also evoked much criticism.

By inflicting disgrace on someone for many others to see, such cyber-pillories remove any ambiguity about what some in society expect from others. Friends and families might chide the perps (perpetrators) while neighbours may snicker.

Those who support the action say that not only are offenders chastened, but such shaming could also deter others from misbehaving. It might even rehabilitate the offender, if he is persuaded that his actions were wrong.

Shaming is democratic, they say, in the sense that it reflects a community's values rather than some norm that the authorities may choose to impose willy-nilly. For example, while the Nazis marked the Jews with a yellow star to shame them, the same symbol is now worn proudly in Israel. Same for the pink triangle worn by homosexuals.

Almost Godwin but the point is taken that public adopting of a mark of derision transforms it into a form of cohesive unity and pride. It's a toss-up, Dan Savage used to call on his readers to start any letter to him with "Hey Fag" to diffuse the negative connotations associated with him but there was a huge debate over this particular technique used.

Is cyber-shaming par for the course then?

No, I find something disconcerting about it.

In a sense, shaming is an attempt to coerce conformity. Notice that to make the claim that shaming can be morally reforming requires those who dispense it to do so in the spirit of a parent punishing a child. It also requires the perp to repent and make amends.

But getting offenders to repent sounds like a cleric's job. It may also be how punishment functions in the intimate setting of one's family. If that is the case, we should not be shaming our fellow citizens. After all, who appointed us to guide their moral development?

The "perp"? What the hell? It's one of those times where you really wonder whether he keeps any distinctions straight or it's just one huge mess to him.

Well first off, could we please draw a distinction between criminal law (perp), Positive Morality (the morality, values, norms and mores of a paritcular institution or society) and Critical Morality (think of it as morality with a big M i.e. the values we use to critique positive morality) and a distinction between secularism and theocracy.

Positive Morality (much less Critical morality) is not the sole purview of religion. Society inevitably exerts certain forms of positive morality. Here all these people are doing to to highlight (without criminal sanction mind you) examples of flouting of societal norms.

It's remarkably strange to see Dr. Ho write, "who appointed us to guide their moral development?" considering his rather paternalistic view of the State (societal rights over human rights). Perhaps he believes that only the State ought to have the ability to lay out moral rules, but this runs inconsistently with his disavowal in the previous block quote of the democratic pressure to rein in those who do not conform to societal norms.

Anyway, for the whole thing to work, the offender must first care about what others think of him. The broader and deeper one's communal attachments, and the wider similar views about morality are held, the greater will be one's shame if shown up.

Thus while shaming sanctions are widely and effectively employed in homogeneous Japan, the diversity in Singapore means that their efficacy may be less than obvious.

I think our communities do not have the Japanese level of interdependence or strong norm cohesion, so shaming would be largely retributive - an eye for an eye - in effect.

A better argument but a very strange cultural relativistic one. Considering the uproar which he claims occur, it would be reasonable to say that we believe that people ought to be giving up their seats to obviously pregnant women and that on the whole we frown upon faking sleep to get around it.

And it's also a bit of a non-sequitor because we can draw upon a broader claim that there are certain values, norms and rules that can get a consensus even amongst diverse cultures. And even if we could not, respect for another's culture must end in a line somewhere e.g. the Picairn Island incident and the whole notion of honour killing. At his point, I can't think of any culture on where public transport there isn't a sense that we ought to be giving up our seats to those who need it more than us.

But let's just say, for the sake of argument, that shaming sanctions do turn out to be very effective. This may cause the shunned offenders to form a deviant sub-community where people are numb to shaming: After all, people can adapt quickly to the emotion.

Some economists have even modelled shaming penalties and found that the more people are shamed, the less effective such shaming penalties become. Also, the stigma attached to such penalties decreases as more people are subjected to them.

Maybe, I really wouldn't know about it. The extent of my knowledge is that shaming is much more effective than a monetary penalty system, see Steve Levitt's Freakonomics.

But considering the failure of status quo, we should be doing something about it. And furthermore his argument seems to be premised that too much shaming is a problem i.e. it's not a problem inherent in the policy but one which requires that the policy mechanism be tweaked.

In The Scarlet Letter, Nathaniel Hawthorne's classic about 17th-century Boston, Hester Prynne, who bears an illegitimate child, is forced to wear a scarlet 'A' on her chest. Embracing the contumelies heaped upon her, she even embroiders the scarlet letter herself. And with Pearl, her daughter, she establishes a defiant mini-community on the margins of the town that shamed them.

Likewise, some criminals develop new 'families' made up of fellow criminals who share a perverse pride in their immorality. When this happens, shame no longer deters bad behaviour.

Of course, in reality, there are few completely 'shameless' people, but the risk that deviant sub-communities may form is one instance of a more generic problem: How to achieve the optimum amount of deterrence or retribution? How can we know if the amount of suffering we inflict is proportional to the perp's blameworthiness? Moreover, shame can spill over to the non-guilty family members and close friends of the person shamed.

That's seriously stretching. And brought to its logical conclusion we ought not to shame anyone for any reason whatsoever.

That might well work because I tend to believe that reason is much more effective than shame and in fact reason can counteract shame e.g. if through Reason I establish that my actions were not contrary to it and therefore is no stain on my conscience. But nevertheless, shame appears to a integral part of any culture for wrongdoing and I think that it can be harnessed for good if it is not shaming for shaming's sake but there is also good reason to explain why that particular action is wrong in that regard.

Here is another problem: Shaming invokes the crowd's help, so it may quickly become a form of lynch justice. Publishing the names of sex offenders to shame them, as in some United States jurisdictions, has led to instances of rioting. Even if this does not happen, shaming leaves too much power in the hands of a fickle public.

Alright. Fair enough, I buy the point about Megan's Law (publication of sex offenders details etc.) and there was that ludicrious case of a paediatrician who nearly got lynched because the stupid mob mistaken though it mean pedophile. As it was her property got destroyed.

But the most basic problem with this assertion is that it is a massive non-sequitor. I mean to go from shaming to lynch mob justice is the worst sort of slippery slope argument I've seen in sometime. It's one thing to say that our baser instincts to protect our youth can manifest itself in lynch mob justice. But over spitting in the streets or not giving up a seat? This begins to feel like a descent into Alice's rabbithole

Then again, shaming is too easy a task to do, so private enforcers may use it indiscriminately while alleged offenders could have little opportunity to defend themselves. Eyewitness accounts can be faulty and even video captures could be misinterpreted since the context may not be obvious.

Not a new problem, we already have PIs doing it for unfaithful spouses. And again, it's a problem with the policy mechanism rather than anything intrinsically wrong with policy justification itself. Would it become a big problem? Maybe and if that happens, we shut it down.

While the shamed may suffer disproportionately, those who do the shaming might not themselves be left unscathed either. In many respects it is like any practice that 'in' groups use to make 'out' groups feel inferior, unwanted and rejected - as any teenager can tell you.

I am not saying that all instances of shaming are irrevocably bad.

*Giggle snort* ye gods, it feels like a bad secondary school essay. In and out groups are an intrinsic part of any society. Outside of criminal laws (the most obvious example of in and out groups) society also creates norms which are essentially just part of the social contract. And they are not stagnant either. Some may be good, and some others bad, stupid, ridiculous, foolish and just plain wrong, but society and its norms are not stagnant.

But while it may be a good thing for one to feel guilty and ashamed when one does something wrong, eliciting shame in another person is quite different. The former reflects a conflict between the kind of person I am and whom I had hoped I was or want to be. But the latter - condemning a wrongdoer in the guise of shaming him - involves the desire to see him squirm or suffer: Its goal really is to degrade and dehumanise someone - publicly.

Degrade and dehumanize? Alright, seriously, what was the editor doing when reading through this article? This runs almost contradictory to his premise that the goal of shaming is to ensure conformity. Conformity i.e. a desire to bring someone back into the fold i.e. rehabilitation (of a sort) is based on a desire to bring back someone into the fold of "civilized society". So unless the society is degrading and dehumanizing e.g. totalitarian and theocratic states, this argument simply holds no water whatsoever.

While shaming others publicly may seem impartial - we like to believe we are doing so on the basis of some higher moral principle - what it actually permits is for us to feel justified in expressing raw anger and moral superiority, negative emotions that are usually nicely kept under wraps.

Thus shaming is like very public gossip, whose shock value is what entertains. Its shock value, in turn, comes from the fact that it allows our strongest negative emotions such as hate and vindictiveness to be ventilated. This is why shaming others not only coarsens our own sensitivity to the dignity of others but also fosters the wrong dispositions in those of us who dole it out.

Shaming: It is undignified. Let's not do it.

What?! Can anyone parse this for me? It's just reads like a lot of handwaving and really brings to mind that "it's not even wrong". All I see is a whole bunch of non-sequitor assertions ("Thus shaming is like very public gossip, whose shock value is what entertains") or that it "comes form the fact that it allows our strongest negative emotions such as hate and vindictiveness to be ventilated". These are not arguments, it's rhetoric!

Well, putting all those aside, just one last final point about what I believe is the difference between these and CCTV. I believe the line is very fine and for now (until we descend into the dystopia of Dr. Ho's totalitarian state where citizens are an extension of state secret police apparatus) there are the following two distinctions.
1. Power. I have an innate distrust for any concentration of power in the believe borne out by history that Power tends to Corrupts, and Absolute Power tends to Corrupt Absolutely. CCTV may have very benign intentions are first, but the temptation to use those captured footage in a bid to embarrass political opponents or simply to keep tab on the state's "subjects" is a very real and present danger especially when there isn't transparency.

In contrast, individual citizens occasionally shooting what they feel as unsocietal behavior is nowhere near the threat to privacy that the state through its and resources can bring to bear on this issue.

2. Transparency. Does anyone know what's on those tapes, who has access to it etc.?

3. The law. The state can always change the law to suit its purposes (whether benign or malign) subject to constitutional restrictions and judicial review. The individual citizen is always constrained by the law. And I submit that there is a notion of "reasonable expectation of privacy" which can be used against someone who infringes upon your privacy. The most immediate and obvious example would be those upskirting or spying on changing rooms.

It's not as comprehensive or cohesive as I would have liked it but that's pretty much all the time I have so....


Addendum: CL points out that it also involved a video of a couple making out at the back of the bus and the discussion of the justification of making the video. And it's true that I do not explicitly state the justification for why I think that the video making was not wrong.

1. It's not legally wrong. There is no right of privacy in Singapore so your likeness can be used subject to copyright. The best that can be said is the "reasonable expectation of privacy" which I point out above is simply not present in these two cases.

2. It's not morally wrong. While a general distinction should be made between law and morality, in this case, I really don't see a moral claim for not publishing the video in light of the fact that given it was a very public place and that our culture (legal or otherwise) does not impute this notion of privacy in public places, there really cannot be any sustaining of a reliance claim on that of privacy.

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