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 in usually crowded cities and a life of self-isolation. Now that we have entered a phase when the state is taking over the enforcement of social distancing rules and formal punishments are being enacted, informal punishments like shaming become less necessary. Shaming will likely be deployed for other bad behaviors for which the threat of formal punishments are absent.

Coronavirus shaming 2.0: Treatment, PPE, and the power of honor

Shaming will continue to focus on prevention but extend also into the treatment of coronavirus as more and more people get sick. We will see more shaming related to the hospital conditions for both patients and personnel, especially related to the lack of beds, ventilators, and personal protective equipment.

Shaming will not be as easy in these cases as it is with social distancing, where the rules and their defiance are obvious. It’s less clear to most of us how many ventilators a hospital should have or the best policies about protective gear. Expert opinion will be necessary to galvanize our attention and to make problems normally invisible to us more visible. Several governors have called out the federal government for not doing enough to provide ventilators, and physicians are demanding hospitals provide more safety equipment and change their rules on wearing protective masks.

The mayor of New Haven using the goodwill of the University of New Haven to further shame Yale is also a reminder of the power of honor.

Shaming the federal government, hospitals, businesses, or universities can work just well as shaming individuals. The Mayor of New Haven recently shamed Yale University (his alma mater) for refusing to allow the city use of their dormitories for medical first responders. He was quick to point out that the University of New Haven had said yes “in the first five minutes.” Soon after, Yale reversed its decision.

The mayor of New Haven using the goodwill of the University of New Haven to further shame Yale is also a reminder of the power of honor. Research I led has shown that both shame and honor can be effective in encouraging cooperation. The swift developments of coronavirus tests, breathing aids, mask-sterilizing technology, and other medical gear deserve attention and praise. (I’ll leave naming the companies involved to the president’s coronavirus briefing.) These stories help calibrate social expectations that the private sector should be doing everything they can to support the medical system. The promise of honor may incentivize the development of a vaccine. The sounds of serenades and applause for medical workers around the world bolster morale.

However, when it comes to collective risk dilemmas where bad actors threaten to destabilize group success, like climate change (think the Trump administration’s withdrawal from the Paris climate agreement) and infectious diseases (think anti-vaxxers), it’s the bad behavior that puts us most at risk. Which is why shaming, more so than honor, can and will continue to save lives.

But it won’t save all of them. And eventually, after the bodies are counted and buried, after the lives permanently derailed by the crisis are tallied — those who burned through their savings and slipped into poverty, who were stuck inside with an abuser, who relapsed into drugs and alcohol addiction — and our grief turns to anger, we might try to look for the root of this problem and our failure to address it in a holistic way.

We might use shame to help end the wildlife trade, wet markets, habitat destruction, and factory farming that all contribute to animal microbes becoming human pathogens, including the coronavirus. We have already shamed leaders who downplayed the seriousness of coronavirus and we might look more closely at the lack of preparedness for this pandemic, which the White House knew was coming, including the full implications of the dramatic failure of testing, particularly compared to countries like South Korea. We might find room to scrutinize what the billionaires — who convinced Americans and much of the rest of the world that we could rely on the private sector to solve social problems — were doing during the spring of 2020. (David Geffen, for one, was posting photos of himself on his luxury superyacht.)

When we get off Zoom, we should take a closer look at landlords, and how they treated their renters and our beloved small businesses. We might reflect more systematically on which businesses stayed open until they were forced to close, which cut employees loose (Harvard University already tried this and, after public shaming, reversed its decision), which ones supported their workforce or converted their operations to address the pandemic. Companies that have to compete for highly skilled applicants will be asked about their policies during the coronavirus crisis. They should be scrutinized for how they spent their stimulus funding.

Our moral judgments are harsher if we believe that an individual did something intentionally, and it’s likely we will punish politicians who downplayed the harms of the coronavirus to the public while at the same time personally preparing for the virus, such as selling off their shares in the stock market. (Some call this “Burring.”) We will shame regulators who took advantage of this moment to relax pollution standards, and the companies who took advantage of those policies and fought to undo regulations, putting society even more at risk. We should single out the individuals who threatened the safety of our nation’s leading experts on infectious diseases.

Post-pandemic, we will need shame more than ever to fix our ways. But shaming is a needy tool that requires constant upkeep and our attention, so we need to save some energy for what comes next. If we use shame wisely, we might see it lead to systemic changes that prepare us better for the future. If we apply it effectively, we might see the government complement it with formal punishment, as it has with social distancing. And if we deploy shame strategically — to single out the most egregious offenses and neglect — we might even send some people to prison.

Jennifer Jacquet. Associate Professor, New York University. Author of Is Shame Necessary? New Uses for an Old Tool

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store