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Hi Elisa,

I've been reading the book you linked to above. I'm a big fan of Jon Ronson's work, although this one hasn't been quite as entertaining as his other stuff (e.g., Them or The Psychopath Test). I think there are legitimate worries about the epistemic dimension to publish shaming, but there are two further aspects that deserve consideration. One worry has to do with proportionality. It's hard to see what mechanisms could be put in place to see to it that those who deserve to be shamed suffer a harm that's proportional to the wrong that they did. In the book (hope I'm not spoiling anything), Ronson conjectured that the reason that public shaming went away was that it wouldn't be efficacious in cities because it would be too easy for an offender to disappear in the crowd. In fact, it turned out that the main reason public shaming disappeared in America was that it was regarded as too cruel a punishment. (It's interesting to note that one critic of public shaming who argued vehemently that it was too cruel thought that torture might be a more reasonable form of punishment.)

Another worry has to do with something more epistemic and that is the relationship between the descriptive and normative aspects of the relevant deed. Even if someone has perfect knowledge of the descriptive properties of an agent's actions, they might have imperfect knowledge of the normative significance of those properties. Think about the relationship between the descriptive non-moral properties of someone telling a joke on twitter and the property of being a racist joke,say. Or think about the issue of self-plagiarism, something that doesn't seem to elicit much disapproval in some countries but is taken to be a very serious offense in others. Even if we have perfect knowledge of someone's publications, we might have an imperfect grasp of the moral significance of recycling content.

Elisa Freschi

Thank you, Clayton, you raise very interesting issues.

1) Proportionality is surely a major issue in the case of public shaming, since this automatically escalates so that proportionality is by definition impossible (even if an adequate punishment were achieved at point t, the continuation of the escalation would not cease).

2) The difference between normative and descriptive aspect is also crucial. We do not want to punish something which is not a crime (plagiarism is a good example: Would we want to publicly shame authors of the past or of countries or social milieus in which copying was or is not conceived as a crime?), although at the same time we also do not want to forgive people who should have known that X is illegal or immoral and still consciously or unconsciously decided to ignore it (racism and sexism come easily to one's mind and Eric Schwitzgebel recently wrote an interesting post about one's blameworthiness for what one cannot help: It all leads back to the problem mentioned above, or the paradox of the unattainable proportionality in public shaming, I think.

Phil H

Internet shaming is a very fashionable topic right now, and I'm afraid I've found all the discourse on it a bit deficient. I include Elisa's post above in that. What's missing is recognition of what this "shame" is: it seems to me that it is overwhelming linked to gender and sexuality. I cannot think off the top of a single example of "internet shaming" (personally, I'm not sure the phenomenon even exists as a separate, definable entity, but then I'm not on Twitter, so I'll accept for the moment the greater knowledge of those who are) which does not involve gender or sex. And it's not like there aren't examples of other shameful behaviour which could attract blame. We never saw "internet mob shaming" for corrupt bankers. For gang murderers. For thieves.

In China a few years ago there was a related phenomenon call the "human flesh search engine" - when someone spotted something shameful online, they would post it, and millions would hunt for clues until the real world identity of the "villain" was uncovered. This happened primarily to two groups of people: sex cheats/gender inappropriate people (mostly loud women) and corrupt officials.

In the American version, it seems to be all about sex, gender and discrimination. So I think any discussion of the phenomenon should start from that perspective, and recognise shaming as simply a new tactic deployed by both sides of the progressive/conservative argument on gender/sexuality issues. In particular, I'd like to know what distinguishes the abuse against women which seems so distressingly common (Cheryl Abbate is an example) from internet shaming?

And finally: "One can’t leave the Internet." You really can. And should. On a regular basis.

Elisa Freschi

Thanks, Phil, interesting remark. Allow me a further question: Do you count as gender-related *all* cases of internet shaming which involve women? Or only the ones in which women are attacked insofar as they are women? I would clearly count the latter cases (say, Monika Lewinsky's one) as (sex- or) gender-related, whereas I am not sure I would count the former (e.g., Justine Sacco's one) as such, too. The distinction is of key importance for your thesis, because this holds only if you count both types of cases mentioned above as gender- or sex-related.
However, although it is true that many (or most?) cases of internet shaming involve women, I wonder whether this has not rather to do with the fact that women are typically not part of the dominant group (don't we have public shaming of other minoritarian groups?*), so that the problem is that shaming is not a new weapon of the basis against the top (as it is presented in cases such as "Boycott XY for its anti-Y choices"), but rather a further weapon of the top against the people at the bottom of the pyramid.

*At least in Italy, public shaming has been used also against politicians or in fact any public figure attacked for various reasons, like going shopping with the policemen constituting one's body guard, receiving more than one retirement fund or signing a pardon law.


Hi Elisa,

Thanks for the article. 3 quarks daily has an article not on shaming, but on epistemological "weakness" in modern political debate.

"What could explain the odd combination noted above of the enhanced appeal to the rhetoric of reason and argument in political communication, with the deterioration of skill and willingness to actually argue?" -

See more at:


"In the American version, it seems to be all about sex, gender and discrimination."

Fwiw, you can read about very different sorts of examples in Ronson's latest book.

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