Is Public Shaming Justice?

by Randall Cleveland

There was a mildly amusing story in The Riverfront Times about the "Scamwich Artist," a middle-aged man who would call restaurants and claim his (non-existent) order had been messed up, then show up to collect a free sandwich or gift card or whatever. It turns out he's a nebbish 50-something accountant who can probably afford lunch out rather than steal from restaurants, but lovers of comeuppance-getting rejoice! The story culminates with the Scamwich Artist getting outed: his name, photo, and even workplace are revealed so we can all gleefully point and laugh in scornful derision.

And that's…progress?

I'm not defending the Scamwich Artist (although I can totally see myself getting busted for trying some similar scam, albeit when I was a teenager), and I enjoy reveling in the misfortune of others as much as the next guy, but is publicly shaming the guy the right way to go? It doesn't necessarily stop the guy or anyone else from trying this again; so far as I can tell the police weren't called and he wasn't arrested or anything. But he might lose his job now, and he might endure more public ridicule as the story spreads to his friends, family, and neighbors. Is that an appropriate response to the crime?

I'm not going to get into the details, because they're way too icky, but recently a reddit user was outed by the website Gawker for doing, well, gross and disgusting things. The site revealed his personal information and subsequently he lost his job. I'm definitely not defending that guy, but the story divided the reddit community into the "Yeah, screw that guy for being a creepy pervert!" camp and the "Woah, we should not encourage vigilante justice like revealing people's personal information because we hate them" camp.

There's something deeply satisfying about seeing some criminal get a good public shaming. The pettier the crime the better, in a way; after all, real criminals need to go to jail. People who do bizarre stuff like steal sandwiches or stuff that's morally-repugnant-but-technically-can't-be-proven-illegal like the reddit guy need to be scorned by all so we can bask in our moral superiority.

But the more I think about it, the more it seems like the medieval days of locking someone in a stockade or marched through town to be pelted with rotten fruit. It's kind of visceral, it's sort of cathartic, but it also feels like some vestigial holdover from our primitive origins that maybe we'd be better off dropping entirely. We're supposed to be a civilized people with laws and courts and things to handle our ne'er-do-wells and banish them to whatever hell we can all agree as a community is appropriate, be it jail or prison or whatever.

Public shaming feels like overkill. If the point of punishing criminals is to discourage future criminals and give offenders a chance to make penance, how is someone like the Scamwich Artist supposed to bounce back? He's been digitally tarred and feathered; even if he sees the light, renounces sandwich scamming forever, and becomes the most upright citizen in history there will still be an article online with his photo haunting him. And that's ignoring the very real possibility that the next guy to try and scam a sandwich might violently resist the restaurant manager who tries to detain and photograph him for public ridicule, leading to an even worse offense.

Shame's a pretty powerful weapon, and while I won't argue some people aren't deserving, it feels like a slippery slope. What do you think?