The art of public shaming

Natasha Moore on the cricket scandal, Barnaby Joyce, and the Easter story.

If we’ve become adept at anything in the internet age, it’s the art of public shaming.

There’s a process to it; a choreography, even. Twitter and other virtual town squares get wind of the newest outrage. The rumblings begin; the outrage escalates.

Whoever’s in the crosshairs activates damage control mode. An apology is issued, usually followed by a more abject one. But usually, a ritual sacrifice must be made, the public anger propitiated; heads must roll.

Final phase: the public subsides, or abruptly loses interest. We are satisfied — perhaps a little queasy. Do we believe in second chances? In redemption? Did things get slightly out of hand? Who is the monster here?

The contrast between two of our most recent national shamings is instructive: the ball tampering scandal, and the Barnaby Joyce affair. Both aroused disgust and a chorus of condemnation, calls for resignations, scrambling from the Coalition or from Cricket Australia to get ahead of the story.

But the vibe was very different. Reporting of Mr Joyce’s infidelity was accompanied by virtuous noises about privacy and professionalism — it’s no business of ours that he cheated on his wife, only if he abused his public office or the public purse — but also, if we’re honest, a certain amount of glee.


Sport vs the bloodsport of political scandal

The response to the news out of South Africa was a whole different ball game (so to speak). Commentators have expressed what seems a genuine sorrow and devastation — a righteous anger.

But there’s also been an unwillingness to totally separate “us” from “them”, a reluctance to cast the cricketers into outer darkness, to enjoy their fall from grace.

As Steve Waugh, who’s been forceful in denouncing the culprits, commented: “A focused and balanced perspective is needed in the condemnation of those involved in this, with a clear and critical consideration to the social impact and mental health of all players.”

A cynical take on this might be that, as a nation, we like our cricket (and winning) too much to disown the side, whatever their sins. A more charitable observer might put it this way: we are bitterly disappointed, but we’re invested in the wellbeing of the sport, and therefore united in wanting a way out of the mess.

The bloodsport of political scandal brings out the worst in us; we want our politicians to fail, it seems. We want to dislike them.

Sporting scandal may, strangely enough, bring out our best: a strong attachment to high standards of sportsmanship, along with the desire for restoration — of some kind, at some stage — for the fallen. It prompts soul-searching among the indignant; we feel implicated, in a way we never seem to when it’s our pollies who’ve misbehaved.


Live and let live?

It’s Easter Week, an appropriate time to revisit one or two of our culture’s foundational stories of public shaming: stories of outraged crowds baying for blood, intoxicated by their own righteousness and power; stories with unexpected twists, turned tables. Stories of Jesus.

The first is told in the Gospel of John. The religious leaders bring before Jesus a woman caught in adultery (the man involved, funnily enough, is nowhere to be seen). This is a stoning offence — the woman deserves death under the law. Jesus is known as a bit of a bleeding heart, though. The leaders are testing him. They ask what they should do.

Jesus doesn’t answer straight away, doesn’t feed the beast of public outrage. He bends down and writes something in the dust. They persist, and eventually he straightens and offers the immortal line: “Let him who is without sin cast the first stone.”

Our self-righteousness is a barrier — between us and others, and also between ourselves and God.

He stoops down again and keeps writing. It’s one of those electrifying moments that you see so often in movies and so rarely in life, where everyone holds their breath and the mood of the crowd, which way they’ll go, stands on a knife-edge.

The crowd leaves, first the older ones, then everyone else, until only Jesus and the woman are left. “Has no-one condemned you?” he asks her. “No-one,” she replies.

If the crowd channels the spirit of the Barnaby Joyce scandal — glee, the thirst for blood — Jesus’ next words capture the more tempered mood of the cricket fracas: “Neither do I condemn you. Go now and leave your life of sin.”

The wrong matters; but the individual matters too.


A culture of self-righteousness

The other moment of acute public shame comes later, as Jesus hangs on a cross — the most shameful death conceivable in the ancient world — and the crowd jeers at his pain. At his trial, the mob had piled on (“Crucify him!”), the authorities shrugged their shoulders (or washed their hands), and Jesus met their abuse with a determined silence.

Now this man who claimed to be the son of God takes up the full burden of shame and condemnation — undeserved though it is. He even prays for those who hammer the nails through his wrists: “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.”

Who is the monster here?

Social pressure can be a powerful tool for enforcing norms of acceptable behaviour, and has certainly achieved some good. But if there’s anything that characterises our culture of pouncing on the Barnaby Joyces of the world, it is surely our self-righteousness, our sense of being always on the side of justice, utterly separate from those on the receiving end of our public lashings.

A song oft-sung by Christians reimagines the singer as present among that crowd at Jesus’ cross — and not as one of the good guys: “Ashamed, I hear my mocking voice call out among the scoffers.”

The Easter story insists that our self-righteousness is a barrier — between us and others, and also between ourselves and God. It’s the story of a man who, from a position of moral righteousness, does not shame others, but instead takes shame on himself and, in doing so, releases us from both our shame and our self-righteousness.

To condemn wrongdoing, whether in our politicians or sportspeople, is right and just and probably our civic responsibility. To revel in the process, to congratulate ourselves on not being like them, is corrosive for everyone involved.

The Catholic writer G. K. Chesterton once wrote to a newspaper which had posed the question “What’s wrong with the world?” with a simple answer: “I am. Sincerely yours, G. K. Chesterton.”

Like all the best anecdotes, this one is very possibly apocryphal. But it’s a humbling reminder that every occasion for public outrage is also, for the wise, an occasion for searching our own hearts, and being silent, sorrowful, and compassionate.

This article first appeared at ABC News.

Natasha Moore is a Research Fellow at the Centre for Public Christianity. She has a PhD in English Literature from the University of Cambridge and is the editor of 10 Tips for Atheists … and other conversations in faith and culture.