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November 29, 2006

More shame, shame on you

Shame_for_thief Both the theory and the reality of shaming punishments have made news lately.  On the theory side, as noted at CrimProf Blog and Corrections Sentencing, the Washington Post earlier this week had this nice article on the topic.  The article is titled "Abandoned O.J. Project Shows Shame Still Packs a Punishing Punch," and it goes on to note that "in the past decade or two, a number of scholars have become interested in the uses of shame, especially in the criminal justice system."  The prior posts I have linked below suggest I am one of those "number of scholars."

On the reality side, check out this article (and video) with an account of a Georgia shaming punishment.  Here are the basic details from a story that reveals that this was a victim-initiated shaming sanction:

Cherokee County convenience store is taking crime-fighting to the street.  The Sixes Road Chevron wants everybody to get the message: Don't steal from us.  Walking a small patch of grass at the corner of Highway 5 and Sixes Road, 22-year-old Brandon Huff carries his scarlet letter in the form of a neon pink 2x3 sign.  The sign reads, "I stole gas and this is my punishment."...

Huff did not want to talk about his public display of punishment.  And his sign does not say this — but this is not the first time Huff has done this. "Since he had two cases, he was looking at a license suspension on the second offense, therefore we made it a condition that if he did this, we would dismiss the second count which allowed him to save his license," says Cherokee County Solicitor General, David Cannon.

Cannon used out of the ordinary punishments — like the sign holding — to send a message to the community.  "Jail time in a case like this is no feasible, and it would cost more for the county to do that. We think this will get the message across to him and to other people," says Cannon.

Morning traffic sped by as motorists blew their horns in displeasure with Huff's crime — but approval of his 21st century scarlet letter.  "He deserves it, he's a thief," says Jason Ingle....  The store asked for this to be part of Huff's punishment and the judge agreed.  They hope to deter others from driving off without paying.

Some recent posts on shaming sentences:

November 29, 2006 at 05:31 PM | Permalink


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There are many problems the Washington Post argument.

One program sent men found guilty of soliciting prostitutes to a "School for Johns," where they received lectures from former prostitutes. Neo-Nazis were made to watch the film "Schindler's List," listen to stories of Holocaust survivors and meet with a preacher they planned to kill.

Is this really shame? Or is it an effort to elicit empathy through education? Is that what shame is? Do we usually think of shaming punishment as empathy builders? Does shame ever do the opposite and repress empathy?

University of Chicago law professor Eric Posner pointed out that Murdoch owns tabloids that publish "grotesque" stories such as what meals people on death row are eating, meaning that his retraction of the Simpson book may be less about remorse than damage control.

Indeed. And what of the shaming of Michael Richards? A ruined career, "demands" of a six-million dollar fine, and even threats of violence. It's akin to a spiritual lynching and what options are left to Richards? Maybe his options are so limited now that if he wants to keep doing comedy, he would have to spend that 6 mil on a new KKKomedy club instead. Richards would not feel at home with the KKK, however. There seems to be a bit of confusion between "shaming" and "ostracism," which was the ultimate goal in both cases. Shaming is intended to bring the shamed back into the fold as a new a complete spiritual being. Ostracism is the opposite of that.

When a 3-year-old hits his brother and his parents make him apologize, the apology may be utterly insincere, but repeated apologies teach the child to internalize the idea that hitting other people is wrong.

Or maybe it teaches children that lying after doing wrong is expected. Again, this shaming has nothing to do with empathy. For shaming to work as it did in the Puritan days, the shamed would...

1) Have to care about who is shaming them and respect their reasons.
2) Would have to want to return to the fold.
3) Would have to understand that shaming is not an attempt to repress the spirit, but is an attempt to build it into something more social.
4) Would have to know they are more than welcome back into the community once the shaming punishment is complete.

Intentional or not, public sex offender registries shame, but the purpose is not to bring the offenders back into the fold. No, it is now obvious the intent is banishment. That is the logical conclusion of unchecked shame. Shame punishment without the moralistic coloring is well depicted in Shirley Jackson's "The Lottery." Our Founders were well aware of the dangers of the tyranny of the majority. Well regulated shaming, at least, might be less tyranny of the majority than what rules today. And at least the public might realize it is a person they are shaming. That is unlikely however given the impersonal nature of blogs and forums and the media.

In short, shaming is a very personal and intimate punishment. Is that possible now? Lowrence Friedman suggests shaming went out of fashion when cities grew and it was possible to be more anonymous and less intimate. Maybe "interventions" are closer to what shaming used to be.

Posted by: George | Nov 30, 2006 7:36:18 PM

My apologies for misspelling Lawrence Friedman.

Posted by: George | Nov 30, 2006 7:50:53 PM

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