January 3, 2011
If You Can't Beat Them, Shame ThemBy Jeffrey Folks
In the good old days of Puritan New England, lesser offenders -- those who were spared pressing or hanging -- were treated to a few days in the stocks. The offender's feet would be secured in a heavy wooden frame. In this way, he would be made to lie on the bare earth, night and day, exposed to the rigors of the New England climate, and to the taunts of his neighbors.
As New England society became more refined, the practice of pinioning an offender and pasting him with rotten vegetables, rocks, and other items gradually petered out, as did the hanging of those accused of witchcraft. The last New England execution on a charge of witchcraft occurred in 1792. Even the use of stocks, which continued into the 19th century, came to seem a bit de trop.
For nearly two centuries, in fact, the idea of employing public humiliation as a means of moral instruction fell more or less out of favor. It may just be that among civilized folk, having to stroll past one's neighbor lying in the mud, partially nude and besmirched with filth, grew a bit unsettling -- particularly since, as must have been true, the neighbor in question was often guilty of no more than flirting with the strolling townsman. (Check out Nathaniel Hawthorne for more details.)
It's one thing to incarcerate or even execute an offender for crimes deserving of such punishments -- it's another to humiliate him by parading him in front of his neighbors or branding a big fat A on his chest. The whole idea of public humiliation as a means of regulating behavior seems to violate a fundamental law of human dignity. Shoot the cattle-rustlers on sight or whatever, but don't haul them around town for public amusement before doing so.
Unfortunately, since the rise of social networking, public shaming has come back into vogue in a big way. Cattle-rustlers get off pretty light these days, but not company CEOs.
WikiLeaks offers a good example. Its purpose, as Julian Assange so modestly informs us, is to bring down governments and publicly humiliate corporate offenders by releasing compromising documents that have been leaked to or hacked by Wikileaks contributors.
There are laws governing corporate malfeasance, just as there are democratic means of correcting political abuses. But activists like Assange apparently believe that they constitute a higher moral authority. By posting damaging material, they are short-circuiting the legal process. Like the Puritans of yore, their intention is to humiliate those whose only crime, often enough, is disagreeing with the left. Just imagine how much fun Cotton Mather could have had running WikiLeaks.
For a long time now, even before WikiLeaks, animal rights groups have been posting personal information of "enemies" online so that supporters can harass or assail corporate officers. Environmental websites have long maintained lists of eco-friendly and unfriendly companies and urged supporters to boycott the offenders and pressure others (such as investors, pension funds, state and private contracting agencies, convention planners) to do so.
With the institutionalization of the environmentalist movement, it is astounding how wide a net has been thrown to catch eco-offenders. Predictably, just about every electric utility in the country makes the list, as do the coal producers and oil companies. But florists, handbag designers, Nintendo? Who would have thought?
Overseas labor abuses, especially child labor abuses, have also been the target of activists. Recently, activists campaigning against so-called conflict metals have joined the list, and the SEC has proposed rules requiring companies to disclose -- to the SEC and to their shareholders -- any use of conflict metals on their part or by their suppliers. Note that the SEC does not ban the use of such metals -- it merely requires public corporations to open themselves up for public humiliation if they can't track down every ounce of recycled tin to its conflict-ridden origin.
As the list of potential offenses grows, corporations are hardly able to operate without running afoul of some interest group and having their reputation pilloried unless they accede to onerous conditions limiting their operations. For many companies, the result is lower profits and potential bankruptcy. For consumers, it is less supply and higher prices.
Democratic leaders have caught on to the benefits of public shaming. Politics has always been a rough-and-tumble sport, but there used to be limits. Every columnist in America knew that John F. Kennedy was a promiscuous libertine, but that information was not generally made available to the public.
No such gentlemen's agreement today. Now liberal activists believe that they must transform America into a socialist utopia by any means necessary. Those means include public shaming, and that shaming may involve collusion in criminal activity.
How else can one see the campaign donor proposal pushed by Democrats ahead of the 2010 election that would have forced public disclosure of corporate (but not union) donors? The intent of the DISCLOSE Act seemed to be to intimidate corporate donors who wished to support conservative candidates or ballot initiatives. And this intimidation was more than just publishing lists of donors and letting it go at that.
Once this information had been made public, it would have enabled left-wing activists to go after donors and their companies by boycotting, picketing, harassing, and intimidating them. This was the case especially in California, where a number of brave individuals had the audacity to support Proposition 8, a referendum banning gay marriage.
In another variation of shaming, Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius has issued preliminary guidelines that require health care insurers to post "justifications" for certain rate increases, even when these increases are clearly justified by rising costs. Like Oliver in the classic Dickens novel, they would be forced to stand there in front of the class and, with Secretary Sebelius glaring down at them, ask if they could have "some more," even as they are slowly starved of profits.
Sebelius's strong-arm tactics are hardly an anomaly. In her own little way, Secretary Sebelius is just following the lead of her boss. From the start, the president has set the tone with his own frequent attacks on Big Oil, Big Pharma, Big Banks, and every other "big" target he can think of. The president's witch-hunting might have earned him praise in good old Salem. Today, it just makes him look like the autocratic prig that he is.
Jeffrey Folks is author of many books and articles on American culture and politics.