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Saturday, March 08, 2008

Shaming a child and the wisdom(?) of parental punishment

Photo_servlet As detailed in this local Florida story, headlined "Teen Forced To Carry 'I Am Stupid' Sign After Speeding Ticket," a mother recently made headlines by imposing a shaming punishment on her reckless son.  Here are the basic details:

Adam Clark was pulled over going 107 mph in a 55-mph zone; neither the police nor his mother were pleased.  Adam's mother, Heidi Wisniewski, not only took his car away, but also made him a sign to show outside of his school every morning and every afternoon.

He was forced to hold a sign reading, "I was stupid. I drove over 100 mph and got caught. Thank God!  I could have killed me and my friends."  Adam said he got some strange looks and laughs from classmates at Orlando's Merritt Island High School, but said he accepts his punishment.  Despite the humiliation, he said he isn't mad at his mother....

Wisniewski said her son would be in front of the school before and after school for a month, and added that she didn't think the punishment is over the line.  "I love my son very much," she said.  "I think more parents need to be tougher on their children."...

Adam said the punishment worked.  "I've learned my lesson," Adam said.

As a fan of shaming punishments, I am quite pleased to hear about a mother willing to impose a (quite effective) type of punishment that the criminal justice system is often unwilling to impose.

Of course, I know that many (like Dan Markel) are adamantly opposed to shaming punishments.  I wonder if Dan or others consider the mother in this story to be unfit because she imposed a severe shaming punishment.  Or do those who oppose state-sponsored shaming punishments believe that parents can justifiably use these punishment even though the state should not?  If this is the view of anti-shaming advocates, are they fundamentally asserting that the state should never consider taking on a parental-type role in the operation of a criminal justice system?

Cross-posted at SL&P

Posted by Douglas A. Berman on March 8, 2008 at 09:48 AM in Criminal Law | Permalink


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Though I have a healthy respect for all the arguments against shaming punishments used by the state, I fear that these arguments are even more potent if/when deployed against the (more costly) alternative of imprisonment.

Consider all this in the context of the mom's choice in this case to go with a shaming approach as opposed to, say, keeping her son locked in his room for a week with no outside contact whatsoever. I understand that many may fear that shaming will be an add-on and not a replacement for imprisonment, but I think history and modern economic realities suggest otherwise.

This provides, of course, an answer to the license plate suggestion. I bet many sex offenders being run through the CJ system right now would readily avoid 1 extra year imprisonment by agreeing to 2-3 years driving around with a sex offender license plate. Indeed, perhaps this is how shaming sanctions can/should be operationalized: as a case-specific alternative that prosecutors and judges can offer (but not require) certain offenders to take over more traditional sanctions.

Posted by: Doug B. | Mar 9, 2008 3:22:29 PM


As an avowed "fan of shaming punishments," I'm curious as to what you think of proposed legislation by California State Senator (15th Dist.) Abel Maldonado to "require sex offenders to be identified on their vehicle license plates, like modern-day scarlet letters, pointing to statistics that show such criminals frequently use their cars to commit crimes" (SanLuisObispo.com). For more on the proposal, see the story here http://www.sanluisobispo.com/news/local/story/298516.html

I am adamantly opposed to "shaming punishments," for a number of reasons, some of which I share with Dan M. (one reason: those who are already 'shameless,' for instance, capable of routinely violating both laws and social norms, are not likely to be shamed into good behavior; its power to effect conformity in such cases is otiose). I think its putative effectiveness is no more likely than the persuasiveness of Adam Smith's argument that in a market society in which envy poses a real threat to moral sympathy, shame will serve to counteract such envy. As we now know, Smith's argument was wrong, as envy remains one of the passionate emotions that continues to stoke the fires of conspicuous consumption characteristic of affluent capitalist societies (his argument may have some force in the case of peasant societies wherein envy is more conspicuously a transgressive emotion, or in Asian societies in which shame often plays a role analogous if not identical to 'guilt' in our society, but in a society which revels in routine mass media displays of 'shamelessness'?).

Another reason why recourse to shaming punishments does (or may) not work in our society:

"The fragmentary, reflexively created self impacts on the experience of shame in a number of ways. With the freedom, insecurity, and isolation of the late-modern self, one's view of oneself--even from the standpoint of others--is likely to be less focused than it would have been when the social formation of self gave rise to a more solid and unitary product. Alas, in the fragmentation of the self, experiences of shame may arise through the standpoint of another which is a disarticulated aspect of self. In this latter case the shame is narcissistic, and does not necessarily contribute to social conformity but is symptomatic of individual pathology [A compelling and disturbing illustration of the kinds of pathology that might arise from the experience of shame is provided by James Gilligan in his book, Violence: Our Deadly Epidemic and Its Causes, 1996]. The clinical condition of narcissism arises when the self fails to form social relationships with others but treats them as objects which can be used to satisfy unconnected desires of the self. Narcissistic shame, then, is more a short-circuit and less a social sanction." (J.M. Barbalet, Emotion, Social Theory, and Social Structure: A Macrosociological Account, [Cambridge, UK: CUP, 1998]: 119) Indeed, Barbalet discusses the research of other such as Thomas Scheff and Helen Block Lewis which detail the deleterious consequences of "shame gone wrong/bad," i.e., those cases in which "bypassed" or "denied" shame (i.e., the shame affect is unavailable to the subject) leads to hostility and rage, or when the shame of the "other" is experienced as a source of hostility: "In the case of overt and bypassed shame...the feeling of shame cannot be discharged. A consequence of this is that neurotic symptoms form, the expression of which include humiliated fury and shame-rage" (Barbalet: 121).

I think it's not implausible to argue that many of those who commit crimes are lacking a healthy sense of self-respect and self-love: "When self-love is sufficiently diminished, one feels shame," according to James Gilligan (see reference above), and continued or constant shaming "leads to a deadening of feeling, an absence of feeling." In such cases at least, it is clear that shaming mechanisms only exacerbate exisitng problems of criminal justice.

Posted by: Patrick S. O'Donnell | Mar 9, 2008 10:45:25 AM

"If this is the view of anti-shaming advocates, are they fundamentally asserting that the state should never consider taking on a parental-type role in the operation of a criminal justice system?"

What are parens patriae powers about? Aren't they relevant to the (especially juvenile) criminal justice system? That is to say, both shaming and anti-shaming advocates can readily acknowledge that the state, in part through the criminal justice system, already takes on a "parental type role" as guardian of persons under legal disability (e.g., minors, comatose or incompetent patients, the mentally ill).

Posted by: Patrick S. O'Donnell | Mar 9, 2008 9:27:48 AM

I'm not a particular anti-shaming advocate, but were I one, I'd have no trouble saying parental shaming is OK and state shaming isn't. Presumably, parents, who are responsible for and care about the overall moral, psychological, and social development of their children, are in a much better position to decide whether not shaming is appropriate than is the state. Indeed, shaming might be more appropriate for children in general than for adults, just because one function of shaming might be to inculcate -- yes -- shame! -- in response to wrongful acts, i.e. just that moral educative function.

Posted by: Paul Gowder | Mar 8, 2008 7:08:56 PM

Fair points, Matt, though it seems those involved have concluded that "the punishment worked." In addition, other kids at Orlando's Merritt Island High School have now surely given a lot more thought to the risk of speeding than if Adam Clark had simply paid a fine. Also, valuably, the state did not have spend money on incarceration (though, of course, a fine would be a money-maker). Further, if/whenever an offender is rich, the real financial/deterrent impact of a large fine is dimished greatly.

Though the long-term efficacy of shaming punishments can and should be debated (and be the subject of systematic research), I sense that Markel et al. are not asserting that inefficacy is the reason to be against these punishments. Indeed, if inefficacy alone is a reason to be against certain types of punishment, we all ought to be attacking traditional incarceration first and foremost.

Posted by: Doug B. | Mar 8, 2008 11:05:42 AM

I'm curious why you think this is, in this case, at least, a "quite effective" punishment. Surely we don't know that yet (will he speed in the future? We don't know.) Would it be a better detourant than a large fine? (I know that when I got my first speeding ticket and had to pay the fine myself and worry about my insurance rates going up it really did make me slow down.) Maybe it is effective, but that seems to be assumed more than shown in a lot of cases like this.

Posted by: Matt | Mar 8, 2008 10:38:47 AM

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