Social norms can change astonishingly quickly. Within a matter of days, and in response to the ongoing pandemic, we’ve witnessed the emergence of strong social norms against going out for all but a handful of reasons. All of a sudden, each of us is expected to stay at home, at least for the overwhelming majority of our days. And, when we do venture out, we must be careful to maintain appropriate distance from others.
This turnaround in social norms has been hastened and enforced by the public shaming, often on social media, of those who breach their demands. This involves posting, sharing, commenting on, and liking photos and videos of those who seem to be violating these norms, for example, by taking leisurely strolls in a busy park, sunbathing at the beach, or boarding a packed train. Twitter is currently awash with examples, from all around the world, using the hashtag #COVIDIOTS. Even the authorities have got in on the action, with Derbyshire Police releasing drone footage of people walking in the Peak District. And Italian mayors have been real trailblazers.
Defenders of this practice emphasize that it can play an effective role in deterring individuals from acting in ways that put their own and others’ lives in danger. And it is certainly true that external sanctions can be an important way in which to uphold and reinforce vital social norms. But since the case for public shaming is strongest when the conduct in question clearly violates a prevailing social norm, things aren’t so simple in the case at hand.
In the first instance, it’s significant that the precise content of these new social norms is far from obvious. No doubt, many things are out of the question, including a picnic with friends, for example. But what about resting on a bench or playing a game of football with your kids? What about going to sit in your parents’ front garden? What if it’s your father’s birthday? The issues matter because, if we’re to shame those who ignore social distancing guidelines, then it’s important to have a clear sense of what exactly those guidelines permit and forbid. However, the problem is that, since these social norms are young and their subject matter is complex, their content isn’t fully determinate. Even well-meaning individuals sincerely disagree about where to draw the line. It is easy to end up shaming those who are doing their best to comply with social distancing rules, as they reasonably understand them.
Furthermore, even where the precise content of the norms is widely-known, the justifiability of public shaming in these cases is complicated by the fact that it can be tricky to know if others have violated its demands. This is because what we can know about others’ lives via a momentary observation is highly limited. Those who pack themselves onto public transport might be healthcare workers on their way to the hospital; a group of youngsters having fun in a park could be a household getting their daily exercise. The concern here isn’t that the content of the social norms is indeterminate. The problem is that it can be difficult to verify others’ compliance with norms, even when its content is not in doubt. It is easy to end up shaming those who are in fact complying.
Of course, in emergency situations like the one we’re in, these costs might be fairly minor in comparison with the significant benefits that public shaming promises, namely saving lives. Perhaps, therefore, the risk of public shaming that misses the target is a price we should be willing to pay. Whether this is the case turns not only on the number of lives that public shaming might save, but also on a much larger number of factors. As we argue elsewhere,* it makes a moral difference whether the harms of public shaming are necessary and proportionate to its beneficial consequences, as well as whether it’s carried out in ways that respect privacy, are non-abusive, and do not permanently stigmatise their target.
These latter three requirements also raise concerns about shaming in the current context, especially when that shaming is done online, and thus potentially seen by an audience of thousands. Indeed, the conditions of online interaction make it difficult for public shaming to be justifiable. Social distancing shaming is more likely to meet this standard when it is not targeted at specific identifiable individuals, but instead involves images of groups of unidentifiable norm-violators. While Derbyshire police force faced criticism for their video footage – and the concerns we raised earlier certainly apply here – they did at least maintain their targets’ anonymity, including by blurring faces where necessary. This better respects privacy, protects individuals from targeted abuse, and is less stigmatising. Such shaming can alert viewers to the norm and might deter violations, without directly shaming specific individuals. Although, whether it is justifiable overall will also depend on the other factors we have mentioned.
The current case provides a vivid and urgent illustration of why questions about the justifiability of public shaming can be so tricky. But the factors in play here are not unique to the current context. Instead, these are general features of cases of public shaming that warrant sustained philosophical scrutiny.
* See Paul Billingham and Tom Parr, ‘Enforcing Social Norms: The Morality of Public Shaming’, European Journal of Philosophy (forthcoming); and Paul Billingham and Tom Parr, ‘Online Public Shaming: Virtues and Vices’, Journal of Social Philosophy (Online First).