The Best Shaming Happens in Private

Internet mobs go after those who break social-distancing rules, but society has a better way to enforce norms.

Anton Novoderezhkin / TASS via Getty

The economies and social worlds of America and Europe are thawing, and like Austin Powers, many people who are being reanimated along with them are finding that shouting is a side effect of the unfreezing process. The most famous such incident involved Dominic Cummings, a senior adviser to British Prime Minister Boris Johnson. Cummings left his home and drove hundreds of miles to visit family—a flagrant violation of the distancing measures his government has urged on the rest of the country. When neighbors spotted him walking home, they yelled at him, recounting the privations they had suffered for the public good. The American examples of public vituperation include this video of a woman at a Staten Island grocery store, humiliated by a screaming crowd for failing to wear a mask. “Dirty-ass pig!” one man shouts. Then a chorus of “GET OUT!”

The mobs are doing God’s work, but badly. Members of such mobs (online or in real life) are cowards. When a lone creep refuses to wear a mask or stay home, being the tenth person to join a chant against the offender takes no courage; being the 10,000th to retweet a denunciation takes even less courage. (Somehow the temptation to join a mob feels a little easier when you yourself have your face covered, either with a physical mask or by internet anonymity.) I share the disdain for Cummings, who urged hardship on others while accepting none for himself, and the shopper, who didn’t bother to show even the minimal courtesy of keeping her face covered in a city laboring mightily to beat back a plague. Staten Island is a small community and has seen hundreds of deaths. But disdain is not a virtue that grows when expressed more loudly, or in mob form.

What these scenes suggest to me is that our shaming skills need sharpening. If you are conducting your shaming in the frozen-food aisle, you’re already too late. Effective shaming precedes any confrontation—and would have kept a woman without a face covering from showing up to the grocery store in the first place. The one who is shamed is shamed by her own conscience and never needs to be screamed at. The mob lives in her head. This is why you never see NAMBLA or ISIS shirts at the supermarket, even though child molesters and supporters of jihad may very well live near you. In these circumstances, the mob knows its work is already done, and anyone breaking the mob’s rule has already committed social suicide. In other contexts, we can imagine this kind of calm scorn. If someone wore a Confederate-flag shirt at my local grocery store—an outrageous act anywhere, but especially in my majority-black neighborhood in New England—I suspect that the reaction of fellow shoppers would be silent, pitying disgust, rather than to hurl insults or frozen chicken at the person until she left.

Internet-based outrage nearly always gives way, like most mob action, to what the sociologist Randall Collins calls “forward panic”—a mad dash in which individual shamers efface their own identity in the rush to attack a single individual. Last night, the object of this rush was a white woman who, in a short video clip, appeared to be threatening an innocent black bird-watcher while inadvertently strangling her own cocker spaniel. If the goal was to make her pay for her misdeeds with her reputation, her guardianship of the cocker spaniel, and perhaps her job, it was accomplished within the first 60,000 retweets; for her detractors, the subsequent 100,000 (and counting) have been pure gravy. But other tools are available—precision tools that save us from the indignity of the pile-on and allow us to spread the outrage more effectively.

Silent disgust: Have you tried it recently? The effect is potent. In his 2010 book, The Honor Code: How Moral Revolutions Happen, the philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah describes a two-step process by which historic moral changes swept over societies. The first is to decide that some practice (dueling, say, or foot-binding) is wrong. But that is not enough. Practices that are wrong can be honorable. Dueling, for example, was widely considered murder—but an honorable form of murder—until the real moral revolution happened and English gentlemen decided that it was wrong but also dishonorable, and the practice ended in the 18th century.

Feeling silent disgust marks the turn toward viewing a practice as a dishonor. It is a much more visceral reaction than merely to recognize that something is wrong, and to say so loudly. To be dishonorable is to provoke an almost frantic reaction, not fear of the offender but fear of being seen with the offender—in other words, fear of one’s social peers. If your daughter planned to marry someone who sauntered proudly around the supermarket, spraying micro-droplets of saliva all over other shoppers, would you share the good news of the betrothal, or hope that none of your friends found out and that she found a more suitable partner? If your neighbor, fresh from his holiday to a packed swim-up bar in the Ozarks, invited you over for dinner, would you decline out of fear of the virus, or fear that someone might find out you were hanging out with him?

Those are personal manifestations of dishonor. Institutional ones exist as well. Most of us have social attachments: to the Red Sox, to the Marine Corps, to a mosque, to a country. Honor mobilizes those attachments. To feel dishonor is to wince when you see that person wearing your colors or your tattoo, or sidling up next to you to pray. Whatever you love about these groups becomes a motivation to treat the offender differently. A hard-enough wince is as perceptible to its object as a scream, and much more effective.

The nature of silent disgust is that you don’t hear about it. There are no viral videos of people not accepting invitations to a cookout. The lack of public shaming may seem like a disadvantage, but it is in fact an advantage—and more so now, in the era of trolling, than before. A troll is someone who gets a thrill from provoking a mob, and who prefers to provoke a mob by violating a rule that the mob holds dear. In fact, the dearer the better: that is the diseased psychology of much of public life now. Private shaming removes the transgressive joy that the troll seeks. All the confrontation happens in muttered comments, in invitations that never come, in expulsion from society without the courtesy of a notice.

And the troll, having failed, has a chance to repent, if the shaming is private. Eventually the offender notices the embarrassment of former friends—and because the disgust is silent, she can hold out hope for an equally silent restoration of social status. One day she shows up at the grocery store with a tasteful homemade mask. Or the neighbor who went to the Ozarks announces casually that he is quarantining for a couple of weeks, just to be on the safe side.

This flexibility can favor both parties. In the past month, we have learned, with near certainty, that outdoor transmission is far, far less likely than indoor, and that sitting away from others in a park without a mask is safe. If before this revelation you screeched at someone for doing that, you should probably regret your screeching. If you privately shamed someone for the same behavior, it’s easier to slink away from your error (assuming you lack the grace to apologize directly).

Moral change and persuasion happen on many fronts. Public displays of outrage are one of those fronts. Members of outrage mobs (and those who retweet them) act as if they are John Brown at Harpers Ferry, when in fact they are neither as courageous nor as effective. The effective alternative, robust private shaming, is a small-scale change that anyone can practice. Start today.