The morality of public shaming

Given the popularity of social media, and the sleuthing expertise of Singapore's online community, you have been served notice that if you offend enough people, expect to be exposed and shamed. -- PHOTO: BLOOMBERG
Given the popularity of social media, and the sleuthing expertise of Singapore's online community, you have been served notice that if you offend enough people, expect to be exposed and shamed. -- PHOTO: BLOOMBERG

A RUDE taxi passenger who verbally abused his cabby was tracked down and shamed by netizens last month though only his voice was caught on a video.

Uploaded by the cabby's daughter to Facebook on March 14, the video went viral. Viewed more than 600,000 times in the first two days alone, thousands posted comments to lambast the abuser.

Apparently some posters who had heard the man on other occasions were able to guess his identity and track him down merely from the way he spoke. They went on to reveal his alleged personal details online, including his name, phone number, address, occupation and even the schools he had attended.

Eventually, his father was tracked down, and he admitted that the culprit was indeed his son. The father apologised profusely when reporters showed up at his door.

That was not the first case of its kind.

Others similarly shamed and hounded in recent memory were Mr Jover Chew, the Sim Lim Square shop owner who made a foreign customer weep; British expatriate Anton Casey, who lost his job after being attacked for denigrating public transport users here; and Ms Amy Cheong, who was sacked by the National Trades Union Congress and left Singapore after an online furore over her offensive remarks about Malay weddings.

Given the popularity of social media, and the sleuthing expertise of Singapore's online community, you have been served notice that if you offend enough people, expect to be exposed and shamed.

The idea that private parties can have such surveillance capabilities with today's Internet technologies is worrying to some because it enables something that smacks of vigilantism.

However, there is no bodily violence involved. Instead, it is just shaming the perpetrator and, in the most recent case, his family as well.

So the only question is whether it is right to shame. Unlike fines or community service imposed by the courts, shaming allows members of the public to condemn what they view as anti-social behaviour.

Shaming depends on people participating in the excoriation of the perceived offender. Those who support such shaming argue that, with so much lived out loudly and publicly today, why should punishment not also be loud and public?

Shaming hurts the perpetrator where it matters: The offender turns into an instant pariah, people who didn't know him last week suddenly detest him, and just about everyone knows what he did.

It may not even matter very much if the offender does not care about losing face and feels no shame.

In such a case, this only goes to show how degenerate he is, reinforcing the reasons why he deserves to be denounced.

But it is also possible that public shaming can quickly become "lynch justice" if it turns degrading and disproportionate.

Moreover, the people who participate in humiliating or heaping scorn on the offender may be doing less of righting a wrong and more of indulging their bloodthirsty instincts in a psychological manner.

It could whip up the appetite to degrade others since it is not applied even-handedly as neutral law enforcement officers would (or should).

In a sense, then, the state is complicit in that it turns a blind eye to these instances when people take it upon themselves to dole out justice indiscriminately, excessively, and in a manner injurious to the victim.

But the question is whether public shaming deters others from behaving badly.

It might have worked in the past when we lived in close-knit kampung or village communities, opponents may say.

But today's society is individualistic and anonymous.

If I hardly know my neighbours and rarely interact with them, I am not likely to feel any shame even when they know about my bad behaviour.

While Ms Cheong and Mr Casey lost their jobs, Mr Chew closed his shop, but social media accounts suggest he may have since opened a new business fronted by his wife.

In the more recent case of the abused cabby, newspaper reporters found that the neighbours did know the offender and his family. They expressed shock at his behaviour for he had always appeared to be a polite young man, they said.

The culprit's father said both he and his son had been afraid to step out of their home after all his son's details were revealed online. So maybe we are not that anonymous a society yet.

The issue goes a little deeper than it appears.

When we become aware of some wrongdoing but do nothing to correct it, we disrespect not just the victim - "the cabby's dignity is not that important to me" - but also the perpetrator - "I don't take his abusive actions seriously because I see him as less than human anyway".

But if I do take some action, like joining in to shame the culprit, I am not just expressing my moral outrage at the abuser or solidarity with the cabby. I am also telling both the victim and the perpetrator that I take seriously their human worth as moral agents.

To the cabby, I am saying that his humanity deserves to be affirmed. And to the abuser, I am saying that I hope he recognises the error of his ways and avoids doing the same again.

Public shaming may well be a social institution emerging from the ground up in response to the social problem of bad behaviour that may not necessarily require police action.

The Internet, so much a part of our lives today, offers a platform for those who are upset or offended to impose some discipline.

So it looks like public shaming is here to stay.

andyho@sph.com.sg