When it comes to tactics by which we humans seek to manipulate and dominate one another, “name and shame” is about the oldest one in the book.
They used it at my public elementary school in the 1960s. Boys were expected to wear ties to school back then (our mothers got us the clip-on or snap-on varieties). If anyone showed up improperly accessorized, teachers would cut a necktie-shaped piece of construction paper, write “I Forgot My Tie” on it in magic marker, and tape it to the offender’s shirt. Maybe they thought this would encourage first- and second-graders to read.
Looking back, I realize that these decorations usually adorned children from underprivileged homes. Their mothers - if present - surely had many other concerns beyond little boys’ neckties. Consider what those routine humiliations did for the boys’ self-esteem and their already shaky academic prospects. It’s easy to see, now, the casual cruelty of those teachers. Yet I don’t believe most of those teachers were as consciously mean as their actions implied. I think they just didn’t think things through.
By the time we reached the fifth and sixth grades, the teachers had more elaborate ways to show our place in the pecking order. Excellent performance was rewarded with gold stars; lesser results were acknowledged with round stickers varying from green (pretty good) to black (last in line to get a Dixie Cup on ice cream days). The chart was posted for all to see.
In adult life, I have seen clubs and homeowners’ associations publicly list members who are behind on their dues. In the public sphere, prosecutors issue press releases naming johns who patronize prostitutes, suburbanites who buy drugs on city streets, and professionals who cheat on their taxes. They perp-walk Lindsey Lohan almost every time she steps outside. Journalists lap it up because their audience relishes a chance to “tsk, tsk” at the misbehavior of others.
After enough naming and shaming, most people start to assume that if you get named, you have reason to be ashamed - even if the evidence doesn’t agree. Remember, for example, how in 2009 some executives of AIG were named as having received bonuses that were due them under their contracts even though the company required a huge government bailout. Protesters targeted employees’ homes, and the company advised some executives living in affluent Fairfield County, Conn., to travel in pairs and avoid wearing items with the AIG logo. One executive, fed up with the harassment, quit in an open letter published in The New York Times. (AIG has now repaid the bailout money, and the government made a $22 billion profit on the transaction.)
Recently the Journal News, a Gannett-owned news outlet published in New York City’s northern suburbs, issued an interactive map providing the names and addresses of more than 30,000 individuals who have handgun permits in Westchester and Rockland counties. Unlike most name and shame efforts, this one provoked a huge and fully justified backlash against the news organization.
Rockland County’s public safety committee voted last week to condemn the newspaper’s action. Rockland’s sheriff reported that inmates at the county jail were taunting corrections officers with the warning, “I know where you live.” Other police agencies and union officials agreed that the publication jeopardized peace officers who legally keep weapons at home. Private citizens complained that the list made them vulnerable to abusive ex-spouses and other potential stalkers.
The publication appeared nine days after 20 children and 6 teachers were gunned down in an elementary school in Newtown, Conn., just outside the Journal News circulation area. Newtown resident Nancy Lanza was found dead at her home the same day. Her son, Adam Lanza, allegedly used his mother’s guns to commit the murders.
The story accompanying the Journal News map was headlined, “The gun owner next door: What you don’t know about the weapons in your neighborhood.” It opened with a vignette about a mentally disturbed 77-year-old man who “amassed a cache of weapons - including two unregistered handguns and a large amount of ammunition - without any neighbors knowing.” The story did not explain why this was related to a list of citizens who followed the law, submitted to background checks when required and legally obtained permission to own a handgun.
Nor did reporter Dwight Worley explain what any citizen might do with the information that a neighbor holds a handgun permit, though he did quote a member of a YMCA group that counsels youths against gun violence who said he “might not choose to live there” as a consequence. The bottom half of Worley’s story noted the objections by police and other officials to releasing the names and addresses of permit holders, while recounting the newspaper’s quest to get the information under New York’s Freedom of Information Law.
In the storm of complaints that followed the Journal News reporting, the newspaper’s publisher, Janet Hasson, issued a statement saying that her colleagues knew the database would be controversial, “but we felt sharing the information about gun permits in our area was important in the aftermath of the Newtown shooting.” She never said why it was important to share the information. After issuing the statement, Hasson and her staff retreated into silence on the topic.
Nobody has questioned the newspaper’s right, under current law, to obtain and publish the information. What Journal News readers (and many others) questioned was whether the organization had a reason to publish the data, beyond an emotional reaction to the Connecticut shootings. And the simple answer is that the journalists had no better reason to do what they did than my teachers, many years ago, had for putting those humiliating paper neckties on the chests of little children.
They picked a target that they wanted to shame, and that was reason enough.
And just like those teachers, the Journal News journalists only shamed themselves in the end. They wielded their power heedless of the hurt they might cause, because they were convinced they were right and, moreover, because nobody was in a position to stop them. They were not necessarily ill-intentioned. But they didn’t think things through.
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