Updated: Jun 15, 2021
Sharing my thoughts on the use of public shaming by officials and “neighbours” in bylaw compliance and enforcement. Originally published in the December edition of Municipal World magazine here.
The enforcement arm of our public institutions exist for good reason. Laws become meaningless if they can be broken without consequence.
In cities and communities where we are seeing spikes in social disorder or flagrant disregard for the comfort and well-being of neighbours, combined with limited by-law enforcement capacity and financial resources, mounting frustration from concerned citizens and political leaders is justified.
What we do about it is worthy of due consideration.
If popularity was our guide, we would follow the example of a Canadian mayor who this year secured notoriety when his social media post picturing him busting a “litter bug” (aka citizen) went viral. The news headlines were sensational: “Mayor goes viral after shaming local litter bug” and “Mayor goes viral for his savage response to a driver caught littering,” among others.
In fairness, the first three digits of the offender’s licence plate were concealed, but the car model and make, as well as the location of the incident, were included in the politician’s post, followed by the hashtags #reallyhatelitter and #fines.
Sparking and channeling public rage
Judging by the social media commentary, public opinion was universally in favour of the mayor’s “savage” act. He received further accolades that included “badass”; “priceless”; “how it should be”; “legitimately earning that mayoral salary”; “stands up for community”; and requests from residents in other jurisdictions asking for the mayor to represent them too.
Public condemnation for the shamed citizen was also universal and included “shame!”; “lock them [litter bugs] up”; “I hate litter bugs”; and “people who litter deserve no consideration.” That’s right, the general tenor was that citizens who litter should have their rights to privacy or due process revoked, be dehumanized, and even jailed – legislated by-law enforcement process be damned!
Since these are rights granted to individuals by virtue of their citizenship, then these litter bugs must also be cast out of the Community of Virtuous Non Litter Bug Citizens.
This dynamic is hauntingly similar to the Orwellian Two Minutes Hate ritual, except the ritual and its consequences last forever in our new online reality. In the book 1984, this ritual observance is a collective opportunity for citizens to channel the hate, fear, shame, and rage they may feel about their lives, their powerlessness, and their lack of control to an enemy identified by the powers that be for vilification and expulsion.
Appetite for shaming
One of the critical things we learn from this incident is that the vocal public has an appetite for public shaming to assist with by-law enforcement. But what about those who may disagree and would prefer to see other methods exercised to pursue violations?
We will never know in this case unless we conduct a confidential survey, because public shaming has the effect of silencing dissent, reflection, and debate – the very thing that we need for our local democracies to be healthy and strong. This is evidenced in both in-person mobbing situations as well as in internet pile-ons. No one wants to interrupt the frenzied attack for fear they will become the next target. And then there are the perverse who through habit and personal insecurities have learned to enjoy watching a good take-down, no matter how unjust.
Many communities are plagued by the divisive and often devastating effect of Neighbour A posting onto social media a picture of Neighbour B committing a “social crime” such as failing to sort their recyclables correctly or parking their car improperly or having an unsightly front lawn.
Neighbour A had an option to speak to their neighbour directly, to file a by-law complaint, or to start a neighbourhood awareness campaign about local by-laws; but, they chose first to publicly shame them.
Then there is the Public Shaming is a Civic Virtue Gang, who joins in to heap further scorn and condemnation on the alleged violator (yes, alleged because even a picture only tells part of the story), who is now a threat to all things good and holy and not worthy of dignity or security among a host of other constitutional rights and freedoms.
And public shaming does far more than condemn the act, it condemns the individual. In our internet age, that could possibly be for life and have negative impacts on family members including children, employment, reputation, and the very health of a community.
Justice in the public square
These destructive effects are precisely the reason why in modern democracies we moved away from feudal punishments of shaming in the public square. Our laws and courts require us instead to commit to the enforcement of by-laws in a way that is administratively fair to all citizens. After all, our natural sense of justice tells us that the punishment for littering is a fine and escalating fines if necessary – not a public stoning.
A community where people live in fear of being publicly shamed by their neighbour is a fear-based community. If allowed to fester unchallenged for too long, it becomes a community of bullies and bystanders, trapped in a cycle of mistrust, lack of empathy, blame, abuse, and trauma. These are characteristics that undermine well-being and genuine belonging, as well as stifle collaboration and innovation – the very things we need for our communities to be healthy, adaptable, and sustainable.
There have always been differing approaches to dealing with by-law infractions.
On the one end, we have the approach that focuses on voluntary compliance employing methods such as public education, informal resolution, warnings, alternatives for dispute resolution, and mediation.
On the other end, we have the enforcement-focused approach that emphasizes by-law offence notices, tickets, fines, and seeking injunctions.
It is the values, standards, history, and needs of each community that establish which approach is to be used. Both have their advantages and disadvantages.
But now, it appears, we have a third approach and that is public shaming. Be warned, the most humiliating and sometimes deadly public shaming rituals in medieval times were reserved for the slanderers and false accusers – no creature was more reviled. It’s also worthy to note that it’s pretty hard to love your neighbour when you’re busy shaming them. Seeds of shame have been known to reap a sick harvest.