Skip to Content

Public Shaming: It has to stop

This trend of shaming people for wrongdoings both perceived and actual has to stop.

Yesterday, Jezebel published an article about teenagers who used racist language on Twitter after the election.

The article listed these teenagers’ names, the cities and states where they live, their schools, even some of their accolades and college plans.

All of this information is available to anyone who searches for said information, yes. That’s true. But what this article has done is put them up on a 21st century scaffold much like Hester Prynne in the opening chapter of The Scarlet Letter so that they can serve as an “example.” An example that deters nothing.

Had the article been simply a missive to stop the use of racial slurs and demeaning language in the public sphere, I wouldn’t be writing this post right now. Or I’d be writing a very different post.

But the purpose of that article wasn’t to start a dialogue about hate speech and kids and teens online like it could have been, or should have been. It was an attempt–and perhaps a premeditated one–to jump on the shaming bandwagon.

Just so we’re clear moving forward, the use of hate speech is abhorrent and most certainly must cease. And you’ll never hear me utter otherwise. I’m not writing this to defend their use of racial slurs on the internet, to excuse away what they did and say they deserve no repercussions. They absolutely do.

But punishments must fit the crimes for which they are given, and a lifetime of embarrassment for the indiscretion of one’s youth doesn’t fit. And more importantly, a punishment should teach WHY a behavior should be avoided instead of just engendering fear.

Having worked with teens, having studied them both in textbooks and anecdotally, here are some things I know to be true:

  • all teenagers, every one of them, are sometimes idiots. They do and say stupid, hurtful things.
  • biologically, teens are hard-wired to lack impulse control. It simply isn’t finished developing yet. Some, however, arrive at this more quickly than others, but by and large, teens are motivated by instant gratification, not unlike their infant selves.
  • their desire to fit in–anywhere at all–is sometimes stronger than their will to breathe.
  • they don’t understand the terms “forever” and “public” as pertaining to the internet in the same way that we as adults understand them.

Here’s the issue I have with the way this was handled. Did these kids–and they are children with developing brains and brain chemistry–deserve to be reprimanded by their schools and their parents for their online behavior in the same way an adult would be reprimanded by his/her job for the same behavior?


If one of my cheerleaders had uttered such words and someone had run across it online and told me, that would’ve been fantastic, because then I would have had the opportunity to actually teach about the wrong of the behavior. But that’s where the online punishment stops. Once that person tells me about the behavior, there is no expectation for me to go back to the person who told me and say “here’s how I handled it.”

(I can tell you she would’ve hung up her pom-poms, at the least, that’s for sure. But I wouldn’t owe you that information as the person who reported the incident.)

But what’s happened now has moved beyond that.

What’s happened now has vilified these teens, turning them into pariahs for the sake of making them an “example” to others. What’s happened now doesn’t teach them WHY their online behavior was wrong. It teaches them that some people get a pass on bullying, and attacking, and hurling insulting words. And yes, this is bullying.

It teaches them hatred of themselves and others, embarrassment, and fear. It increases their risk for depression when that risk is already high.

Now we have adults–who, quite frankly, should know better–cheering the author on for her shaming in the comments sections of blogs and Facebook pages, saying they hope that these teens never get accepted into college, are unable to find gainful employment someday. Adults saying they hope these children hate themselves for the rest of their lives, that any depression they suffer as a result of their words is deserved.

God forbid one of these teens should take his or her life over strangers on the internet continuing their public parade of humiliation into eternity.

And truly, if there are those of you out there who believe these teens deserve depression to the point of suicide for this, I question YOUR judgment more than I question theirs. What’s sad is that I know people who believe this exist in the world.

The purpose of that article was simple: shaming not for the purpose of teaching but for the purposes of page views.

In a word, money.

The Jezebel writer, in this case, sought out these teenagers. Children. Children who do not understand the concept of “forever” and “public” in the same way that we as adults understand the online world. She sought them out, tracked them down, and reported them to their schools.  And that’s where her use of their names and identifying information should have stopped.

But it didn’t stop there which makes me wonder if her article, this public shaming, was premeditated, which drastically lessens the impact this article could have had if I thought shaming were a good idea in the first place.

But we’re to believe she wrote this because she felt that the schools weren’t punishing them? Weren’t doing enough? How could she possibly know that? And what, exactly, is “enough”?

I’m crying foul on this, y’all.

Teenagers who knowingly commit crimes are afforded more protections than this. And I’m not saying that these teens didn’t know their words were hate speech. But I am saying that shaming them into Public Enemy No. 1 isn’t teaching them to do differently next time in any sort of way that actually teaches about the hate behind those words.

It says “don’t” while hurling insulting words at them in a vicious cycle of pot and kettle.

It doesn’t teach them why they shouldn’t on a basic, human level.

Here’s my hope:

That we remember what it was like to be a stupid teenager. And we were all stupid teenagers about something. And maybe that we thank the Universe that we grew up before the internet.

That we think of our own children and instead of saying “they’ll never…” we think of how we’d want them treated if. That we teach them why. Encourage them to be kinder humans than some out there.

That we teach with love in our hearts instead of heaping hate upon hate.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.


Tuesday 13th of November 2012

Simply, Miranda, well-said.

Jill @BabyRabies

Monday 12th of November 2012

Lessons can be harsh. These teens can be reprimanded for their actions. They can learn to deal with the consequences of putting hate into the public sphere. All of that can be accomplished without Jezebel making a spectacle and a permanent Google footprint out of this whole thing. I don't agree with what the teens did. I absolutely think it's vile and should be dealt with by the people in their life who are in a place to teach such a lesson. Those people do not write for Jezebel.


Monday 12th of November 2012

I think you, in seven sentences, summed up one aspect of my entire post. This is it. This is the key. Jezebel is not in the place to be punishing children.


Sunday 11th of November 2012

It's important not to overlook that these teens inflicted pain on other people. Sometimes lessons are harsh. When you put hurtful things out in the world, sometimes the pain you cause makes others want to inflict that pain on you. The history of racism in this country shows us that children of color were not spared even death for any small reason or no reason. Ignorance of this fact is not an excuse.

The Many Thoughts of a Reader

Sunday 11th of November 2012

I find it horrifying that adults respond with hate words to them. But I think what most people are missing that disagree with you is that their BRAINS ARE NOT ADULT BRAINS. Just because of how much they are exposed to at a younger age these days does not make their brains magically mature faster too.


Saturday 10th of November 2012

It's so interesting to me that this is happening right now because a week ago, my 11th grade English class wrapped up a 9-week-long unit on whether or not using public humiliation is an effective and appropriate punishment. We read The Scarlet Letter. We read recent articles about parents shaming their kids on facebook and twitter and even out in public (sandwich boards, anyone?) and we talked about why you don't see "sinners" and criminals put in the public square for anyone and everyone to ridicule and throw hate at.

Every single student in that class agreed that there was a line in the sand where humiliation is not appropriate. And almost every student took the stance in their final projects/papers that it is never EVER a good punishment.

I didn't lead them to those opinions, by the way. I just gave them the literature.

Anyway, my students--who talked about everything from stealing to bullying to murder--decided after research and discussion that putting someone on "blast" on the internet is wrong.

One student put it this way: before there was internet, people who did or said stupid stuff were handled. People talked about them, yes, but if someone where to put up a sign with those people's names saying they were horrible, people would make them take it down. They wouldn't allow it.

They are right.

When I was 18 years old and still in high school (in a VERY small, conservative town), it was my uneducated and uninformed view that homosexuality was disgusting, wrong, and spread AIDS. I had a big mouth and if my opinion was asked, I would flap my ignorant jaw.

Anyone who knows me now would probably not even believe that about me. Those opinions could not be further from my current beliefs. What is different? I left that small town, I went to college, I experienced LIFE and PEOPLE and my heart was opened and educated.

Twitter wasn't a thing when I was in high school. Had it been I am SURE I would have said something horrible on it. I was DUMB. I was uneducated.

Would you choose to tell me I didn't deserve to go to college or live it down or have a happy life? I'll tell you I was insecure enough that if something like this happened to me and there were adults out there making comments that they hoped I would be beaten down by the comments and die? I'm not sure I would have been able to deal with it.

What they did was so wrong it makes my head spin and my heart hurt. But they need to be educated. To say that they can't change is ridiculous and just a front for someone who is trying to make themselves feel powerful by being sanctimonious.

To cast a scarlet letter on these teens for the rest of their lives for something dumb they said on the internet is ridiculous.

Should they be punished? Yes. They should be dealt with seriously and severely.

But it's not my place, nor yours, nor anyone other than their parents and their school/community's job to do so.

Their words make me sick.

But the words of adults who know better are killing me.


Sunday 11th of November 2012

All this is true. Yet in today's world everything published on the internet or tweeted is public. Articles like this will not change what happens when people make public things that are extremely controversial. Children need to be taught about the nature of the internet like they need to know to look both ways before crossing the street. Writing an article that drivers should watch out for kids will not make the street safer.


Sunday 11th of November 2012

Yes. This.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.