Amanda Hess has written a brilliant piece about the re-emergence of public shaming using the tragic example of a father's punishment of his daughter. For disobeying a house rule, he filmed his cutting off her hair, chastising her all the while, and posted it online. She was only 13, unable to deal with the humiliation, and she killed herself.
Hess then takes us back to the days when public shaming was the norm, into more modern times when it fell into disfavor and disuse, and forward into our electronic age, where it has emerged wild of eye and fierce of tooth.
I was struck by some of her phraseology. "Online, your shame can move instantly from your father’s cellphone to every important person from every stage and aspect of your life. And if you try to move on, your offense can be dialed up on Google and replayed for future acquaintances to see."
"...social media has found a way to integrate total strangers in the shaming process. Digital villagers are no longer relegated to the sidelines; online, everybody gets a gavel."
"...the only thing that some Internet gawkers know about you now is this one jerky thing you did."
Substitute the registered sex offender for the disgraced teen, the sex offender laws for the father, and the world for...the world, and we have in a nutshell the destructive power of the public registry.
Approximately 95% of those on the registry will never commit another offense. An unknown but significant percentage have families, are raising children, and are doing so with the entire world looking on and condemning them for what was, for a great many, that "one jerky thing" they did. Even when the offense went beyond the jerky category, years of living a law-abiding life and doing everything possible to fit into a society all too ready to reject them counts for nothing as long as their names on a public registry shout to the world that they are dangerous and have to be watched and tracked and monitored, often for the rest of their lives.
Public hangings and pillorings faded from public usage as the reality of community changed and as the public lost their taste for such barbaric acts.
Those who use the Internet today to shame and disgrace a child who is in disfavor themselves risk the tide of public opinion--and even the law when they have gone too far--turning against them and condemning them for their actions.
But those on the registry remain. Against all facts, against all evidence, the public registry remains. The ultimate public shaming tool remains.