The Power (and Danger) of Public Shaming

Public shaming can be powerful medicine. But used in the wrong context it can kill.

Josh Ostrovsky, aka comedian The Fat Jew, amassed over 5 million Instagram followers for his meme-filled feed of celebrity potshots, animals doing humanesque things, and general sarcastic quips about society and pizza. One of the app’s trustier icons, he was recently denounced by comedians across the board for not crediting the originators of said material. 

The firestorm started when Comedy Central dropped Ostrovsky from a planned series, which, as Internet lore goes, was due to accusations of plagiarism — though in truth he'd been dropped months earlier. Still, social media can’t refuse a karma-worthy connection. A public shaming campaign was launched. His Instagram feed was filled with "how dare you" comments; plenty of sites joined in on the protests.

And then... he apologized. As he told Vulture

I’m working to add attribution to every one of my posts, and will continue to do so. My email address is up. I urge people to reach out and say, “That's my thing.” I would love to give credit. I want people to shine on social media; I always have. And I will never again post something that doesn’t have attribution, because I realize now that when the stage is large enough, and the voice is large enough, these things matter.

While comedy podcasts and blogs continue to debate the credibility of his style and approach, one thing is clear: The public shaming campaign worked. And regardless of your feelings on what he does, he acted graciously and respectfully, and now provides citations to everything he posts.

Jennifer Jacquet, NYU assistant professor and author of Is Shame Necessary? New Uses For An Old Tool, would probably argue that this is a great example of the power of public shaming. While she predominantly discusses environmental issues, her book entertains plenty of pop culture examples of why throwing a little shame in proper context is powerful cultural medicine.

Anthropological evidence Jacquet cites shows this to be true: “Two-thirds of human conversation is gossip about other people.” Criticism is much more prominent than praise. One researcher, who studied Botswana’s !Kung bushmen, recorded 90 percent critical conversation to only 10 percent praise.

While these numbers sound outlandish, it’s part of our neurological make-up. I remember one meeting years ago for Equinox instructors in which the manager asked us to imagine a class of 50 people. Forty-nine are having the fitness experience of their lives, but there’s that one woman in the corner not really into it. It’s easy to let our minds wander to that one. Our brain notices abnormalities in our environment. Those other 49 are not the aberration; she is. Our attention, to our detriment, goes there.

Jacquet argues that this attention can lead to powerful change, however. Turns out that while not paying federal taxes can land you in jail, state taxes are not as regulated. To combat this, California set up a website naming the top 500 delinquent citizens. Each taxpayer was notified of their name being published six months in advance. The state government estimated an annual collection of $1.6 million. But since the site’s launch in 2007, the state has collected more than $336 million in tax revenue thanks to this campaign.

Jacquet takes time to distinguish between shame and guilt, which are sometimes confused. Shaming is a self-regulating public tool. It doesn’t always work as planned. (She uses the example of Joseph Bruce Ismay, the disgraced owner of the Titanic who, instead of going down with his ship, let women and children drown; he never apologized and lived the rest of his life in disgrace.) But when it does, it should be effective and then forgotten when the supposed crime has been owned up to, a la Ostrovsky above. 

Guilt, she argues, is a more rampant concern in a society that champions the individual over the group. It is a private affair. Shaming might make you feel guilty, but that’s something you experience internally, on your own. If the shame is cleared up, guilt dissolves. For people like Ismay, who never apologize or explain, guilt can destroy a life.

Which leads to my only criticism of her book. In championing shaming, she doesn’t spend enough time distinguishing between successful public shaming techniques and the quick trigger fingers of bloodthirsty social justice warriors, who sometimes seek out targets to create scandals where none exist, or do not wait to find out all the evidence before pressing "tweet."

Journalist Jon Ronson, author of So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, was an advocate for public shaming on Twitter, calling it an important avenue for consumers to call out companies. But his TED talk about shaming reveals the dark side, in the case of disgraced author Jonah Lehrer:

But Jonah was on the floor then, and we were still kicking, and congratulating ourselves for punching up. And it began to feel weird and empty when there wasn’t a powerful person who had misused their privilege that we could get.

Ronson spends most of the talk discussing Justine Sacco, the disgraced IAC communications director who sent out what was perceived to be a racist tweet leaving Heathrow Airport; when reaching Cape Town 11 hours later, she had lost her job and was Twitter Enemy #1.

Ronson interviewed Sacco a few weeks after the event; turns out the tweet was actually a jab at American privilege, not Africans with AIDS. Regardless of the ironic value of the actual tweet (or its lack of humor), nuance is too challenging a mindset for a sect of public shamers. It requires research, contemplation, empathy, patience — all things the instant gratification of social media does not provide for.

Shaming will not be going anywhere anytime soon. I agree with Jacquet that that’s a good thing. It forces public accountancy or, as in the case of an organization like Sea World, a PR campaign so ridiculous and transparent that it only serves to prove the instigator’s point. I would only temper the enthusiasm of shaming with a dose of critical thinking. We live in an age in which, as Ronson suggests, a tweet can ruin a life. Shaming with knowledge and foresight is powerful medicine, but shaming without empathy can kill, as evidenced in suicides over the Ashley Madison dump. No one deserves such a fate as that.

Image: Jim Spellman

Big Think
Sponsored by Lumina Foundation

Upvote/downvote each of the videos below!

As you vote, keep in mind that we are looking for a winner with the most engaging social venture pitch - an idea you would want to invest in.

Keep reading Show less

Essential financial life skills for 21st-century Americans

Having these financial life skills can help you navigate challenging economic environments.

Photo by Jp Valery on Unsplash
Personal Growth
  • Americans are swimming in increasingly higher amounts of debt, even the upper middle class.
  • For many, this burden can be alleviated by becoming familiar with some straightforward financial concepts.
  • Here's some essential financial life skills needed to ensure your economic wellbeing.
Keep reading Show less

New study finds the egg may actually 'choose' the Sperm

Here's the first evidence to challenge the "fastest sperm" narrative.

Keep reading Show less

New fossils suggest human ancestors evolved in Europe, not Africa

Experts argue the jaws of an ancient European ape reveal a key human ancestor.

Surprising Science
  • The jaw bones of an 8-million-year-old ape were discovered at Nikiti, Greece, in the '90s.
  • Researchers speculate it could be a previously unknown species and one of humanity's earliest evolutionary ancestors.
  • These fossils may change how we view the evolution of our species.

Homo sapiens have been on earth for 200,000 years — give or take a few ten-thousand-year stretches. Much of that time is shrouded in the fog of prehistory. What we do know has been pieced together by deciphering the fossil record through the principles of evolutionary theory. Yet new discoveries contain the potential to refashion that knowledge and lead scientists to new, previously unconsidered conclusions.

A set of 8-million-year-old teeth may have done just that. Researchers recently inspected the upper and lower jaw of an ancient European ape. Their conclusions suggest that humanity's forebearers may have arisen in Europe before migrating to Africa, potentially upending a scientific consensus that has stood since Darwin's day.

Rethinking humanity's origin story

The frontispiece of Thomas Huxley's Evidence as to Man's Place in Nature (1863) sketched by natural history artist Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

As reported in New Scientist, the 8- to 9-million-year-old hominin jaw bones were found at Nikiti, northern Greece, in the '90s. Scientists originally pegged the chompers as belonging to a member of Ouranopithecus, an genus of extinct Eurasian ape.

David Begun, an anthropologist at the University of Toronto, and his team recently reexamined the jaw bones. They argue that the original identification was incorrect. Based on the fossil's hominin-like canines and premolar roots, they identify that the ape belongs to a previously unknown proto-hominin.

The researchers hypothesize that these proto-hominins were the evolutionary ancestors of another European great ape Graecopithecus, which the same team tentatively identified as an early hominin in 2017. Graecopithecus lived in south-east Europe 7.2 million years ago. If the premise is correct, these hominins would have migrated to Africa 7 million years ago, after undergoing much of their evolutionary development in Europe.

Begun points out that south-east Europe was once occupied by the ancestors of animals like the giraffe and rhino, too. "It's widely agreed that this was the found fauna of most of what we see in Africa today," he told New Scientists. "If the antelopes and giraffes could get into Africa 7 million years ago, why not the apes?"

He recently outlined this idea at a conference of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists.

It's worth noting that Begun has made similar hypotheses before. Writing for the Journal of Human Evolution in 2002, Begun and Elmar Heizmann of the Natural history Museum of Stuttgart discussed a great ape fossil found in Germany that they argued could be the ancestor (broadly speaking) of all living great apes and humans.

"Found in Germany 20 years ago, this specimen is about 16.5 million years old, some 1.5 million years older than similar species from East Africa," Begun said in a statement then. "It suggests that the great ape and human lineage first appeared in Eurasia and not Africa."

Migrating out of Africa

In the Descent of Man, Charles Darwin proposed that hominins descended out of Africa. Considering the relatively few fossils available at the time, it is a testament to Darwin's astuteness that his hypothesis remains the leading theory.

Since Darwin's time, we have unearthed many more fossils and discovered new evidence in genetics. As such, our African-origin story has undergone many updates and revisions since 1871. Today, it has splintered into two theories: the "out of Africa" theory and the "multi-regional" theory.

The out of Africa theory suggests that the cradle of all humanity was Africa. Homo sapiens evolved exclusively and recently on that continent. At some point in prehistory, our ancestors migrated from Africa to Eurasia and replaced other subspecies of the genus Homo, such as Neanderthals. This is the dominant theory among scientists, and current evidence seems to support it best — though, say that in some circles and be prepared for a late-night debate that goes well past last call.

The multi-regional theory suggests that humans evolved in parallel across various regions. According to this model, the hominins Homo erectus left Africa to settle across Eurasia and (maybe) Australia. These disparate populations eventually evolved into modern humans thanks to a helping dollop of gene flow.

Of course, there are the broad strokes of very nuanced models, and we're leaving a lot of discussion out. There is, for example, a debate as to whether African Homo erectus fossils should be considered alongside Asian ones or should be labeled as a different subspecies, Homo ergaster.

Proponents of the out-of-Africa model aren't sure whether non-African humans descended from a single migration out of Africa or at least two major waves of migration followed by a lot of interbreeding.

Did we head east or south of Eden?

Not all anthropologists agree with Begun and his team's conclusions. As noted by New Scientist, it is possible that the Nikiti ape is not related to hominins at all. It may have evolved similar features independently, developing teeth to eat similar foods or chew in a similar manner as early hominins.

Ultimately, Nikiti ape alone doesn't offer enough evidence to upend the out of Africa model, which is supported by a more robust fossil record and DNA evidence. But additional evidence may be uncovered to lend further credence to Begun's hypothesis or lead us to yet unconsidered ideas about humanity's evolution.