Tuesday, June 26, 2018

Public Shaming of Officials is a Dubious Idea

Omar Encarnación has a thought provoking article in Foreign Policy about the escrache, an Argentine term that is a form of Latin American political theater intended to shame public officials. It tends to happen when people feel those officials are not being held accountable. He uses examples from Latin America to show how it can prompt positive political change.

Still, there ought to be a place, in the repertoire of strategies to defend liberal democracy, for shaming and shunning those who implement illiberal policies. This is the point being made by those on the left, such as Democratic Rep. Maxine Waters of California, when defending the right of ordinary Americans to shame their public officials, especially when the policies being implemented are egregiously immoral and when the person atop of the government has so little concern for human rights. After all, the Trump administration’s retreat from the policy on separating immigrant families late last week came only after broad disapproval from the public, condemnation by the media of the policy as cruel and inhumane, and comparisons by historians with some of the ugliest episodes in U.S. history, such as the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II. For an administration that hates to lose, this retreat was a rare concession to decency and human rights, and it’s the loudest protesters who deserve the greatest credit.
There are several things to untangle here.

First, we cannot be certain about the causality of the actions. In the most prominent case, it was used in Argentina in the 1990s to protest immunity for the dictatorship. That didn't get changed for many years and it's hard to make a case that the shaming played a significant role (others will know more about this and so feel free to point out any error here).

I don't think Sarah Sanders' treatment at a restaurant is going to move the needle. (BTW, for an interesting take on public shaming of controversial administration officials, see this story about the decision not to shame H.R. Haldeman when in 1974 he took his daughter to Chez Panisse, a famous restaurant in Berkeley). There are other, and in fact more effective, ways to fight back against human rights abuses rather than being abusive yourself.

Second, I wonder about the coarsening of public discourse more generally. My gut reaction is always against the "they do it, so should we" argument. Donald Trump uses disgusting and hateful language, but that doesn't mean I should. I am not at all sure it pushes us closer to our goals, one of which now is to protect the rights of immigrants. There's a little too much schadenfreude here for my taste as well--we may not be achieving our goals, but it sure feels good just to go off on someone. As Michelle Obama said, those who disagree with Trump should go high: "when someone is cruel or acts like a bully, you don't stoop to their level."


shah8 2:58 AM  

I disagree with the sentiment very strongly. There have been some threads on Twitter about this in recent months to a year.

Boils down to: shame isn't about coercion. Shame is about solidarity.

Greg Weeks 6:25 AM  

Well, solidarity is a different goal. But I would be interested to see cases where public shaming generated it, since I could easily see it having the opposite effect.

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