Social Media, Public Shaming, and the Prospects for Prison Reform

I wonder if the Cecil story captures why prison reform (let alone abolition) is so difficult. Even among people who think that our prisons are overly punitive, there’s a deep reserve of resentment available to project at anyone who can be identified as having committed a malicious act. So even as we tell ourselves in general that we ought to be merciful, in practice and in particular instances we can always find a justification to be retributive.

One possibility is that we ought to recognize rage and revenge as illicit temptations. But there’s been a lot of work that demonstrates that there’s just as much danger in being overly detached, that even-handedness and “rationality” can serve as illicit temptations as well. So I think the balance is still tilted in favor of punitive measures.

We’re all too well aware of the racism of the system, of the economics of it; even knowing about these things won’t overcome our hair-trigger reactive attitudes. We like to see people brought low, especially when we can tell a story about how they see themselves as better than they are. But for every rich dentist we run out of business, the evidence suggests we are going to see a a lot of teenagers who think they’re above the law.

I know we can’t live without rage and shame. But I still hate this part of us; the cowardly bullying, especially from afar. Hannah Arendt claims that we make a mistake when we focus on our own sins and shortcomings when we view the wrong-doer. She defends pride– at least pride in the capacity to judge–on the grounds that only a proper judgment of the wrong-doing can make the restoration of the victim, perpetrator, and the relationship between them possible. But I’m just not satisfied with that, today: I just don’t see much ground for proper judgment from the spectators. Arendt may have thought we are better than we are.

When I think about the social psychology of rage and public shaming in the era of social networks I feel either pessimistic or worse–I hope that we’ll find ways to mobilize it well, fairly, and in the name of justice. I’m like a gun owner pretending that I’ve bought the weapon for self-defense despite ample evidence it’s more likely to kill me or those I love than protect us. It seems undeniable that our arsenal–our institutional and collective capacity for “two minutes hate“–is just getting stronger.

Everyone always learns the wrong lesson from the Stanford Prison Experiment and the Milgram Shock Study: we always think it means that other people are horrible. We ignore the possibility that we might be horrible, too, given the right circumstances.

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