Public Shaming Has Only Just Begun
Shame has already fostered social distancing, but the most interesting and constructive shaming is yet to come
As someone interested in how public shaming can make the world a better place, the coronavirus outbreak offers daily examples that I believe will only get more varied and powerful as time goes on. Shaming is most effective when it is addressing collective problems, meaning we are each a potential victim of that bad behavior. It’s hard to imagine a bigger and more collective problem than a global pandemic that’s killing people every day, all over the globe.
Coronavirus shaming 1.0: What has already worked and why
With such high stakes, it is no surprise that the first wave of shaming was related to individual behavior affecting the spread of the virus and our public health: personal hygiene, social distancing, nonessential travel, hoarding. During the first half of March, I found myself shooting dirty looks at people who coughed without covering their mouths. (I live in Manhattan, so… a lot of looks.) In one of the pandemic’s most infamous (and effective) shaming moments to date, the media singled out a man for hoarding hand sanitizer. The next day he donated all of it to people in need.
Shaming works better when bad behavior is easily observable — for example, smoking and public gatherings — but it is less effective when the activity is not so visible, like voting or hand-washing. After agencies like the CDC began making clear and conspicuous rules to slow coronavirus transmission, such as banning gatherings of 10 or more and interactions fewer than 6 feet apart, shaming on social media intensified. Uncanceled concerts, religious ceremonies, and defiant spring breakers were called out.
Shaming is also more successful when there is a large gap between desired and actual behavior, which is why the hordes of humans on beaches in Clearwater, Florida, deserved the heat they got. (It also explains the blowback after the Derbyshire Police in England posted drone footage attempting to shame hikers who were actually observing social distancing rules.) Overall, the stories and images online have helped establish and enforce the new norms of empty streets…