I was a pretty good kid growing up. Sure, I had the occasional tantrum, or did something like bite my sister. But I was nothing compared to some of those monster children out there. Those kids who have to wear leashes because their parents don’t know how else to control them. Those kids that destroy things, like cars, or take markers to the wallpaper. Those kids who light things on fire, forcing their mothers to start popping Xanex. I’ve always thought that children are a reflection of their parents. Pretty cool parents = pretty awesome children. Needless to say, I have pretty cool parents.
I do remember an unintended act of public shaming, though. My mother would never do anything to try to embarrass her kid in public. However, regardless of the intent, the whole thing definitely stuck with me to this day.
In case you don’t know, shame is defined as “a painful emotion, caused by a strong sense of guilt, embarrassment, unworthiness, or disgrace.”
I don’t really remember all of the details of the story. I only really remember feeling absolutely and completely mortified. I was probably about six years old, and my mother and I were out shopping somewhere like Macy’s. I thought it would be hilarious to run off and hide in the circular clothing racks. I loved the sense of freedom and power, knowing I was spying on unsuspecting shoppers from my hidden vantage point.
And then I heard,
“Paging Elizabeth Coleman. Elizabeth Coleman, your mother is looking for you. Please report immediately to the check out.”
I wanted to die. I slowly slinked out of my hiding spot, afraid to make eye contact with anyone, my face burning red. I was sure that every single person knew I was Elizabeth Coleman, that bad child whose mother just had to go to extremes to find her. It didn’t even occur to me that my mom was probably scared that she had lost me, or thought I had been kidnapped or something. I was completely preoccupied with the embarrassment I felt at being publicly humiliated over the loudspeaker.
I never strayed from her side out shopping again.
Apparently kids hiding from their mothers in clothing racks is a common thing. There is even a Facebook page devoted to this. There are actually several Facebook pages devoted to this. (The latter has 63,000 “likes.”) Numerous Yahoo! parenting groups have threads devoted to this topic, and how much of a headache their toddlers were giving them for running off into the racks.
Another time, my mother and I were shopping at Beverly’s Fabrics. I might have been even younger, maybe five or so. Outside of the store was a huge display of fake flowers, the colors like a rainbow box of Crayola crayons shining in the sun. I wanted one. Bad. As we were shopping, I tried to figure out a way to get one. And then, I saw my chance! On the way out, I saw a bright pink fake rose lying on the ground next to the display. When mom wasn’t looking, I picked it up. Even though I knew I was doing something naughty, I tried to rationalize that no one cared because it was on the ground anyways.
I skipped back to the car, clutching my flower, happy as could be. When we got back to the car, my mom noticed the flower. She demanded where I had gotten it. I lied, and told her I found it in the gutter, and that someone had thrown it away.
Moms have a sixth sense for bullshit. She marched me back in to the store and made me give the flower back and apologize to one of the cashiers, in front of all the other cashiers and customers, for taking it.
Needless to say, I never stole anything again.
In high school, I played field hockey. Even though I’m not very good at team sports – I’m more of a solo dance type of gal – all of my friends were trying out, so I thought I should too. I was pretty bad at field hockey. And I hated the whole “team mentality” thing. I couldn’t wrap my head around why you would be punished for someone else’s mistake. One time, I kept messing up on a play. The coach stopped the whole scrimmage and started yelling at me.
“Coleman! What on earth are you doing? Do you see the ball? You must not see the ball! It’s about 3 inches in diameter, and orange. Why aren’t you focusing on the ball?! I want you to take this ball, and run around the track, holding it above your head and looking at it until I tell you to stop. Now get your ass off my field.”
I ran around the track, holding the field hockey ball above my head for about an hour, the entire team watching out of the corner of their eyes, before he told me to stop.
I made sure to not miss the ball while Coach was watching, and my anxiety about playing in a game rose about 200%.
My examples are clearly not as extreme as some of the other examples of public shaming that society has used through the years, and weren’t even necessarily intended as public shaming. However, public shaming is something that has been around for ages, used to enforce cultural norms. Everyone is familiar with the whole “go stand in the corner” thing, often with dunce caps, that teachers would use on students when they were bad, knowing that the rest of the class was watching them. Historically, a form of punishment was being locked into the stocks in the public square. And we are all familiar with Nathanial Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, where Hester Prynne is made to wear the scarlet “A” on her chest.
I did a quick search of public shaming on Google. I was actually surprised at the results.
Apparently public shaming is a punishment still handed down by our legal system (despite supposedly having been outlawed by the restrictions on “cruel and unusual punishment”). There are numerous accounts of judges ordering people to wear signs outlining their wrongdoings, making perps post their names to public bulletin boards, or wearing T-shirts that say they are criminals.
Clearly, shaming has a place in our society. However, with the internet, and social media, the boundaries of what is considered “local” have completely disappeared. We live in an age where there is no local public shaming; there is only global public shaming. And everything that is on the internet is there for eternity. It has taken vigilante justice to a whole new level. Now, any seeming wrongdoing can be paraded on the internet, with an infinite amount of places that people can post public backlash.
I recently discovered www.dogshaming.com. On this site, owners post pics of their dogs with signs telling the world what the dogs did, like chewed the remote, or went through the garbage. Obviously, this doesn’t have same impact of real shaming, but is humorous nonetheless.
Maybe we, as a society, are attempting to move on from the whole shaming thing by transforming it into something humorous.
Or maybe we are merely trying to cope with the fact that with the internet, there are infinite and boundless ways of shaming people that you have probably never thought of. Shaming your dog, something you master, is a way of exerting control over a chaotic world. Is that what we’ve come to, shaming your dog to put distance between you and your feelings on shame?
Hey, if it works, it works.