Public Shaming Is Out Of Control, And It’s Hurting All Of Us

by Christine Organ
Originally Published: 
public shaming
Credit: GUNDAM_Ai/Shutterstock

I’ve done a lot of stupid and regretful things in my life. Lots of things I would like to erase from history or forget. Like that time I chopped off all my hair and nearly every fashion decision in the ’90s. Talk about embarrassing. Or that time when I was parallel parking and mixed up the gas pedal and the brake, and smashed into the car behind me before ending up on the curb on the other side of the street. Yeah, I’d definitely take a mulligan on that. Pretty much everything about my freshman year of college. So many mistakes and regretful decisions.

There isn’t a day that goes by when I don’t thank the technology gods and all the interweb angels for waiting until I was an adult before working their magic. Growing up is hard enough. I’m not sure my fragile ego could have handled all my mistakes living on in perpetuity or playing out for all the world to see. Believe me, the VHS videotapes of a couple of college parties, the bad perm photos, and regretful memories are more than shameful enough.

Let’s face it, we all do stupid things. Kids do stupid things. Teens do stupid things. Adults do stupid things. We make mistakes, and we fuck things up.

There are and should be consequences for those mistakes, stupid decisions, and fuck-ups. But in our social media-heavy, attention-hungry, smartphone-dependent world, the stakes are infinitely higher. Apologies, regrets, proportional punishments, and contained embarrassment aren’t enough these days. Now there is the court of public opinion and the worldwide web of shame to deal with as well.

All it takes is a smartphone and social media account to turn mistakes, stupid decisions, and fuck-ups into something available for public consumption and eternal preservation. Every faux pas and shenanigan is fair game to be dissected by the entire world. We no longer have the luxury of screwing up, making amends, and moving on.

Someone parks over the yellow line? Take a picture of their license plate and share it with your Facebook friends so that everyone can mock them. Don’t like an email you got from your kid’s teacher? Post it to Reddit. See someone with questionable taste in fashion? Snap a photo and write a blog post about it.

Public shaming is out of control, y’all. And the ones who suffer the most are the kids. Remember the story about the 13-year-old girl who committed suicide after her father recorded a video of him cutting off her hair as a punishment? Or what about the mom from South Carolina who made her son walk around Walmart wearing a tutu and a women’s undergarment with the word “bad” written on his shaved head? A few weeks ago I heard about a mom who not only made her kids give away all their toys but took a photo of their sad little faces next to piles discarded toys and posted it to Facebook asking for likes and shares. And recently a video went viral after some guy decided to publicly shame two parents for leaving their baby in their restaurant booth while they went to the buffet.

Part of me wonders what the hell these public shamers are thinking. The head-shaving video or the photos of kids holding signs listing the details of their various “sins” are over the line and cruel. And part of me tries to understand why people are driven to share private mistakes in very public ways. I suspect the parents are desperate, confused, and willing to try anything to keep their kids in line. I don’t agree with this kind of discipline, but I don’t necessarily think they intend to harm their children either.

I think a lot of people resort to public shaming out of anger and frustration, the desire to call out bad behavior, and the need to feel validated for their emotions. We feel justified in sharing that photo or video, entitled to call out the rude, crass, or inappropriate behavior. They’re the asshole, after all. We’re just calling them on their bullshit. We’re doing the world a favor, thankyouverymuch.

We live in an attention-seeking, social media-driven world where people thrive on getting their “15 minutes” or going viral. We crave the validation, approval, and attention in order to feel seen, heard, and understood. We want to be noticed and liked. But where does it end? And what is the price of all this public shaming, especially when children are involved?

Honestly, the internet feels a lot like high school sometimes, with its groups and likes and popularity contests. But like the impulsive teenager who makes fun of the easy target in an attempt to make people laugh and earn a spot in the “in crowd,” we don’t always think of the consequences of sharing that photo or posting that video. We forget that there is a person, a family, a child impacted by converting a private mistake into a public flogging. There are lives at stake. These are actual people. Yes, sometimes these people are assholes, plain and simple. Sometimes these people are should-know-better adults who make mistakes, do stupid things, and fuck up. And sometimes these people are vulnerable children who also make mistakes, do stupid things, and fuck up.

Whatever the case, the damage of public shaming can be severe. Trust can be broken. Lives can be destroyed or permanently altered. In fact, experts say that public humiliation and shame teach nothing but fear, and that they may even be worse forms of discipline than hitting.

While some parents may resort to these desperate measures, fortunately, most do not. Most parents understand that kids make mistakes. Most parents teach by example and believe in second chances. Most of us give our kids the benefit of the doubt and let some shit go. As rampant as public shaming is, most people don’t share their kids’ stupid mistakes and fuck-ups with the entire world.

Now what if we treated everyone like the halcyon pre-internet days when our mistakes and fuck-ups were juicy stories we were teased about at family parties or something we cringed at while looking through a worn-out photo album? Wouldn’t that be great?

It almost makes me wish it were 1995 again, bad haircut and all.

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