Monday, August 13, 2007
Is the Hello Kitty Sanction Public Shaming or Semi-Private Guilting?
I'm grateful to the five professors (including Paul Secunda) who in the last few days emailed me with a link to the story in Thailand regarding the Hello Kitty armbands. You can read the story here in the NYT and here on Yahoo. I shouldn't be surprised it caught so much attention among my friends: the story is the second most emailed on the NYT from the last week, and it appears on the heels of some stories about Walmart's experience with shaming shoplifters, such as this recent one in BusinessWeek/MSNBC.
In short, the Thai police force recently announced that officers responsible for relatively minor infractions--littering, parking illegally, arriving late to meetings--will have to don a pink armband adorned by the famous Hello Kitty doll image, in addition to any other applicable sanctions. This may look like, on the surface, to be a vogue adaptation of the famous scarlet letters of yore. But, according to the Yahoo story, the officers won't be publicly shamed and held out to ridicule; instead affected officers will have to "stay in the division office and wear the armband all day." (No word yet on whether the Sanrio Company behind Hello Kitty will be worried about its potential intellectual property claims.)
Before sharing my reaction to this story, let me state my normal caveat, which is that these kinds of issues are far less worthy of media attention than the typical pathologies affecting criminal justice systems both domestically and abroad such as inadequate representation for indigents, poor prison conditions and over-incarceration. That said, the Thai police force's innovative tool for regulating police misconduct is considerably more innocuous than the public shaming sanctions which spawn the debates I sometimes get involved with.
Essentially, without the general public being involved and invited to leer and jeer at the officers, the Thai sanction raises none of the concerns associated with a menacing crowd hot for revenge that James Whitman and I raised in our separate critiques of shaming punishments. From what I can tell, an officer can sit in his office all day without too much interaction with others, but be required to see that his armband is intended to remind him of his misconduct. This makes it seem far closer to what I call "guilt" punishments, not "shaming" punishments, because it is intended to induce moral awareness on the part of the person penalized, without subjecting the person to the excesses of shaming.
To be sure, it's likely that an officer's colleagues will rib one another for the armband and that definitely creates some degree of shaming among peers, which I could certainly do without. But one could probably fix that simply by threatening to punish those who ridicule other officers with having to wear the armband also. Another possible solution: one might be required to wear the armband only in a private office, where one does one's paperwork.
One troubling aspect of the Hello Kitty armband penalty not developed in the accounts I've seen so far is the gender assumptions accompanying it. The acting chief of police who supports this penalty explains its rationale by saying that "'(Hello) Kitty is a cute icon for young girls. It's not something macho police officers want covering their biceps,' Pongpat said." Does this rationale only apply if the officers are "macho"? My guess is that few police officials in the US would articulate this rationale, but then again, I remember Sheriff Joe Arpaio of Maricopa County (near Phoenix), who became famous over the last couple decades for, among other things, requiring those in his county jails to wear pink underwear. I'd be curious to hear reader reactions to this aspect of the Thai development or others.
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It's interesting that the accounts you've seen don't focus on the gender aspects; the accounts I've seen put that at the center. See, e.g., http://giandujakiss.livejournal.com/216703.html and http://feministing.com/archives/007512.html -- perhaps another example of the "news for storage jars" phenomenon.
Posted by: Rebecca Tushnet | Aug 13, 2007 7:35:10 PM
I don't know much about the "shaming" issue in general, but it seems pretty clear to me that this particular type of shaming is troubling on the gender/sexuality front.
Posted by: Joseph Slater | Aug 14, 2007 10:22:12 AM
If this approach were used in the U.S., the gender issues would be pretty transparent. I don't know enough about how this plays in Thailand to be nearly as clear about the message this sends: is it an effort to feminize or infantilize the cops? Or both? More interesting to me is the fact that this story gets traction in America - precisely because it's situated on a cultural fault line. Effective shaming requires a sanction that the offender actually finds shameful. This story suggests that the punishment needn't be grand or abusive. But it may be most effective if it capitalizes on the offender's own anxieties - even if those anxieties aren't viewed as socially legitimate.
Posted by: Dan Filler | Aug 14, 2007 11:29:46 AM
You have to understand Thai culture to realize that this is pretty tongue in cheek. The social concerns in this country are pretty alien over there. Of course, America probably has an absolutist view on this.
Posted by: Sanuk | Aug 14, 2007 10:39:39 PM
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